XR SF Scientists Spotlight: Taking Flight with Dr. Jennifer Krauel

Photo courtesy Unsplash

Dr. Jennifer Krauel flies kites at work. Not for fun, though it sure looks like fun. She flies kites for science. They’re really more like helium-filled balloon airfoils, actually. But it’s easier to call them kites. Why does she fly them? To study what bats and migrating flying animals eat up in the sky. Apparently it’s the best tool around for that (https://www.krauel.com/whats-going-on-up-there/).

Dr. Krauel is an old friend (I call her Jennifer). Jennifer is just the scientist interviewee to get this series of interviews and blog posts about how climate is affecting scientists, um, airborne. Since a lot has already been said and written by scientists about the climate and biodiversity crises, we want to instead provide a way for scientists to share their own experiences and struggles with these crises. We also want to create a space where scientists can speak from a more personal place. By telling their stories, we hope to help the broader science community take action.

Is a changing climate directly causing trouble with Jennifer’s research projects? She says not yet. Flying kites at the Texas field sites where some of her research is carried out might get difficult if stormy weather events increase in frequency or intensity since the kites can’t be flown in big winds. However, climate change is affecting the systems she studies, complicating the science and making studies of flying migratory animals more challenging to understand. While Jennifer doesn’t work directly on climate change, she says these animals and their migrations are already showing effects of climate change:

“…these animals rely on continent-scale weather patterns for high-altitude winds that carry them north in the spring and south in autumn. Insects are also affected by temperature extremes, and bats rely on those insects seasonally. So climate change has transformed my research into a moving target, and I’m trying to not only understand a complicated system but now also to figure out how it might shift. While my research seems kind of obscure, it also matters because many of these insects are agricultural pests, or pollinators, and how they move across the landscape can have big effects on food security and public health.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Krauel

What about her daily work as a scientist? Is the climate crisis making her daily work more difficult? As the effects of the climate crisis become clearer and more obvious, her personal sense of dread about the direction that Earth’s climate system and biosphere are heading is deepening. Combine that with the feeling that as an individual she doesn’t have the power to take effective action, and it all adds up to a substantial drag on her daily productivity.

But beyond the loss of day-to-day productivity, the climate and biodiversity crisis has Jennifer questioning whether her research is even what she should be doing with her time. Pretty much every day she questions whether or not she should even continue being a researcher. She says a frequent calculus runs in her mind: Is this what I should be doing? And what action could make a difference?

“I try to compare the effectiveness or usefulness of what I am working on to the potential effectiveness or usefulness of other things I could do. The problem is that I still haven’t found anything I could personally do that feels like it would make enough of a difference. I recognize the irony here; if all of us who felt this way, quit our work and started marching, things might change.”

Jennifer tells me that maybe we need some kind of “scientist Greta.” A unifying science figure who will take some kind of simple and public action that would stand as an invitation for other scientists to join in. Some action besides the kind of activity this blog represents — talk, writing, posting, publishing, etc. What is that thing? She doesn’t know.

She says her colleagues do talk and communicate about the climate crisis; they’re ecologists and the warming climate is in every paper they author. But they don’t talk much about taking action to stop climate change. They do talk about mitigating effects and anticipating effects.

What about in her civic life, the people in town, acquaintances, neighbors? Outside of the science community, Jennifer doesn’t really have people to talk with about it — nobody talks about it in her South Dakota college town. But Jennifer has put energy into trying to reach the public with her personal experiences and emotional response to the climate and biodiversity crises. She has blogged about the scientist’s version of “Cassandra’s curse,” in which scientists like her can clearly see a calamitous future, but remain unable to convince humanity to act. She’s also blogged about her experience with what some are calling solastalgia, a new term that refers to emotional distress caused by the direct experience of environmental degradation in daily life. (There’s also some cool stuff in her blog about bats and her research experiences.)

We at XR SF Bay Science think how scientists like Jennifer Krauel talk about their personal experiences of the climate crisis could make a difference in whether scientists or other people decide to speak out themselves or take action. We also want to understand who in the science community is reticent to speak, who is outspoken, and who wants to talk but for some reason can’t.

Are you a scientist who wants to talk about climate and what to do about it? Drop us a line or run through our survey here. We’re interested in hearing from you, anonymously or publicly.

XR SF Bay Area Science is part of the Extinction Rebellion movement. We’re also scientists. And we want other scientists to join us and commit to non-violent direct actions to stem the climate and biodiversity crises. If you’d like to learn more or join us, head here.

Greg Spooner,
For Extinction Rebellion SF Bay Area Scientists

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Extinction Rebellion San Francisco Bay Area

#XRSFBay is the Bay Area Chapter of Extinction Rebellion, a global, non-violent direct action movement demanding climate action NOW! www.xrsfbay.org