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To document Arctic climate change, Susana Hancock ’07 joins an expedition across Svalbard, an archipelago that is part of Norway and is located north of the Arctic Circle.
By Tom Kertscher
limate researcher Susana Hancock ’07 can identify turning points on her career path that occurred long before she became a Winthrop Scholar at Connecticut College.
“I was 4 when I decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist, and that was a falling in love with the world around me and wanting to study what I couldn’t see, what was beyond the Earth,” she said.
The focus turned less cosmic when Hancock, at age 14, began taking astrophysics and astronomy classes at the University of Southern Maine.
“At that point, I became really bothered by the fact that I was working with amazing people who were looking for extraterrestrial life and Earthlike planets when we’re actively destroying the Earth that we have,” she recalled.
“I started becoming more interested in environmental science on Earth.”
Hancock went on to get a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Slavic studies at Conn, where she once took 10 classes during one semester, and then master’s degrees in anthropology and linguistics and a doctorate in anthropology, all from Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
Juggling various roles, including director of Climate Action Now, a nonprofit she founded, Hancock is among a half dozen people taking part in a monthlong climate change research project. She is participating in the Swedish Jubilee Expedition Svalbard 2022 to document the changing climate in the Arctic. The expedition is retracing the journey made by polar explorer A.E. Nordenskiöld in 1872-1873. Svalbard, an archipelago, is part of Norway, located in the Arctic Ocean north of the Arctic Circle.
The group departed to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, for final logistics on April 26. The expedition began May 1 with a journey by snowmobile to reach the starting point at Mossel Bay. From there, the expedition was to embark on skis and be unsupported for up to 35 days. The tentative date to end the expedition is June 5. Sometime in the fall, a premiere will be held in Stockholm, Sweden, for a documentary film on the expedition.
Hancock is working on numerous projects, primarily conducting experiments aimed at gauging the climate effects of plastic—she notes that plastics and other trash build up even without people living in the area—and the effects of emissions from shipping.
“The Arctic has been warming four times faster than the rest of the world, on average. It is changing circulation patterns in oceans around the world. You get the ice that’s melting; obviously that causes sea-level rise around the world. It is also changing the salinity of the oceans and is strengthening and weakening different currents,” she said.
“The changes are seen universally and we’re getting changes in the Arctic that are becoming runaway feedback loops. So, even if we were to stop all emissions now, we’re locked in for the next several decades of a continually warming climate.
“And what are the implications of that around the world—the increased storms, the thunder hurricanes, the wildfires, the heat domes? That’s all directly related to changing temperatures and changing climate in the Arctic.”
Hancock has served as an expert reviewer for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is vice president of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists. She said Americans, relative to Europeans and people in other parts of the world, are difficult to motivate when it comes to combating climate change.
“We definitely have fewer Americans interested than citizens elsewhere in the world, and fewer Americans who feel that there’s a problem or that there’s a problem that needs addressing,” she said.
“It’s hard to keep saying that something’s an emergency when we’re not getting the direct action. We’ve been using the same rhetoric and it’s been 40 years and we haven’t yet responded. So, how do you keep saying that there’s a crisis and keep people’s interests and energies when we’re not getting a response? That’s definitely a challenge.”
On the policy side, Hancock would like to see more steps to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, ending not only the burning of fossil fuels but oil drilling and fracking as well.
“We have energy alternatives, but right now the oil companies are spending more money on denying climate change than they are investing in renewable energies,” she said.
Hancock has advocated for steps to reduce environmental damage, such as carbon pricing—charging fees to polluters based on their emissions—to make it more expensive to use fossil fuels, and ending government subsidies for fuels such as gasoline.
“We do have the big fires and we do have some big storms that are becoming increasingly nonseasonal,” she said. “But we’re relatively sheltered compared with other parts of the world.
“Many people here can afford to ignore what’s going on around the world as long as fossil fuels stay cheap.”