WEEK 38: TEXAS
From Dinosaurs to Data Networks: Texas and the Arctic in the Anthropocene
By Amelia Jaycen, science journalist, media theorist, and master’s degree student in journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas
“Report from the Top of the World!”
The flier caught my attention immediately. The U.S. Embassy in Oslo and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, DC wanted to send graduate journalism students to the Norwegian Arctic as part of a new internship program.
I applied because I wanted to gain a global perspective on my research and reporting. Less than a year later, I found myself standing on an empty beach near Bugøynes on the northern coast of Norway, silent except for the call of a distant bird and the lapping of cold water against the shore. Towering overhead were the sharp black rocks and dark islands of the fjords, silhouetted by midnight sun that glowed a soft, radiant white behind a sheet of fog. For a sun-loving Texas girl, the freezing Arctic wind was awakening.
I had come to Norway to write about science, but in the Arctic I would also learn about issues that affect the region such as indigenous rights, border control, fishing and food technology, space weather, threatened species, tourism, ocean bed methane, regional cooperation, television production, pollution, incubation, and interdisciplinary activity.
I interviewed Arctic mayors, fished with the Norwegian Minister of Fisheries, met with the indigenous people’s Sami leaders, learned about war through the eyes of a forensic historian, visited the sites of great battles, prayed in a new border-land monastery, and visited a new center for sub-sea studies. I hiked to the top of a local iron-ore mine, crossed the long, fenced border zone to Russia, and dined with a group of cross-border researchers passing on the torch to the next generation of international epidemiologists and doctors.
Reporting in the Arctic opened my eyes to the rich history of this diverse, complex region where cross-border neighbors are in the habit of cooperation. I learned first-hand that international research networks are vastly important to Arctic science, which needs long-term studies to show patterns over lifetimes and across millennia.
As I uncovered all the ways that border lands factor into cooperative development and research, I began to view my own state of Texas, nestled at the intersection of the U.S., Mexico and the Gulf Coast, within this context too. In searching for the connection between polar and mid-latitutude states like Texas, I also found artists and researchers working on projects from documenting tiny specimens in remote seed banks to digging up giant ancient lifeforms in the Arctic and studying the impact of great rivers on carbon and erosion cycles.
For example, Dr. Jim McClleland, now an Associate Professor in the Department of Marine Science at the University of Texas at Austin, and fellow scientist Max Holmes at Woods Hole Research Center, spent the summer of 2003 zig-zagging from base camps to remote locations in Alaska and Russia to form relationships with locals and researchers and create a network of data-collection on the six largest rivers in the Arctic. Gathering information was critical, because, as McClelland points out, the Arctic has “rivers as big as the Mississippi that we had no numbers for, or numbers with no bounds.” He explains that seasonal variations have huge effects on the rivers, erosion cycles, and the movement of carbon and nutrients into the ocean.
Today, working as part of the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Observing Network, McClelland studies the fate of carbon released by permafrost thaw, comparing how much is buried at sea and how much is decomposed to become atmospheric gas. His team wants to know how this added carbon affects ocean ecosystems, food chains, and the climate system. Understanding these processes is essential to helping establish new baseline data about today’s Arctic so that scientists can accurately model the future. Combining data gathered by researchers on opposite sides of the globe, data gathered over the course of the century, and sharing data between locals and experts (and between scientists and non-scientists) helps the next generation tackle tough questions.
In addition to Texas’ contribution to international scientific research, we have much in common in terms of energy. The Arctic waters of Norway and the Texas Gulf Coast are both considered rich with natural resources including oil, natural gas, natural liquids, and petroleum.
In the Arctic, interest in drilling exploration has grown as retreating ice lessens the difficulty of drilling in remote locations.Energy development in Arctic waters requires a network of interlinked, cooperative resources. But it is not without problems, including concerns that it could have serious consequences for climate change, Arctic flora and fauna and the people who depend on them for food, especially in the event of an Arctic oil spill disaster.
Dr. Arthur Mason is an anthropologist at Rice University in Houston who studies on-the-ground effects of projected oil and gas development. When I reached out to Mason to discuss Arctic energy development, he educated me with an example of how not every oil and gas experiment goes as planned, and the promise of a small town scheduled to boom with an influx of industry can become a pipedream with failed or abandoned operations. The Russian town of Teriberka to the east of Murmansk, for example, experienced the promise of a prosperous future as a hub for Arctic drilling, but Teriberka was left at the altar when Stohkman gas drilling didn’t pan out.
Mason’s work examines how information is constructed, curated, and legitimized in places where decisions are made about Arctic operations. As an anthropologist, he is interested in how ritual behavior shapes knowledge creation whether in a town hall, the conference hall, or the halls of Congress. He discovered that in times of market uncertainty or massive restructuring of markets, a new breed of experts is born. These intermediaries or consultants become autonomous figures, often stepping out from behind the curtain to become centers of attention as they make links and draw connections among elements of supply and demand.
Mason also notes that language efficiency plays a role in the transportation of oil and gas resources across borders, where regulatory phrases shared between nations can facilitate ease of movement of resources country-to-country. But regulations that cover everyone might not reflect the local values of anyone, and they can serve to impede local identities and plans.
The same happens globally. As the Northwest Passage opens up due to increasingly ice-free waters, bordering countries around the Arctic Circle have a great interest in delineating maritime borders. On the opposite side of the North Pole where a climate of interest in Arctic gas development has grown, Norway and Russia needed to establish borders to separate the waters between them in the Barents Sea. After 40 years of discussion, the borders were set in 2010, and now those waters are divided into drilling leases.
The general rule is the right to waters within 200 nautical miles of the coastline, but nations are claiming waters further into the Arctic Ocean based on Pangaea, the supercontinent that once contained all of Earth’s landmasses. Continental extensions via the 1800km underwater Lomonosov Ridge have launched territorial disputes where claims overlap.
Ancient Data and Future-Modeling
The continental connection between North America and Russia once formed by the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering Strait, is today a strategic location both for Atlantic-Pacific transportation, but it once played a crucial role in ancient dinosaur migration. Paleontologists like Anthony Fiorillo, who is Vice President of Research & Collections and Chief Curator at the Perot Museum of Nature & Science, are connecting the pieces that reveal that ancient species of dinosaurs were resourceful enough not only to move continents, but survive the harsh conditions, long periods of light and dark, and low temperatures of the Arctic. The Perot Museum of Nature & Science opened in Dallas in 2012 and features a large dinosaur exhibit hall with bones from across Texas and Alaska.
Much of the Perot Museum’s current research is based upon material collected during expeditions in Alaska, from north of the Arctic Circle on the Colville River, to areas further south in Denali National Park. This work is part of joint programs among the National Park Service, the University of Alaska, the University of Kansas and Hokkaido University in Japan. It has already resulted in the discovery of two new species of dinosaur, the horned Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, discovered in 2006 and named in recognition of Texas’ Perot family, and a brand new Tyrannosaur named Nanuqsaurus hoglundi. — Perot Museum of Nature and Science
It happened to be an oil geologist working for Shell Oil named Robert L. Liscomb who in 1961 discovered the first dinosaur bones found in Alaska. He uncovered the bones in an area about 300 miles Northwest of Fairbanks in a place that how bears his name: the Liscomb Bone Bed. Paleontologists from Texas and elsewhere still return to the Alaskan site to re-trace Liscomb’s steps and see if there are more dinosaurs to be found. Indeed, there are.
“The cretaceous of Alaska is a great big paleontological candy store,” says Fiorillo. He has been to Alaska every summer for 19 years hunting for bones all over the state, and he is arguably the country’s foremost expert on the ancient dinosaurs once found in today’s U.S. Arctic.
Climate is an issue on the agenda for Arctic paleontologists as much as it is for other Arctic-focused scientists. Fiorillo examines how the intricacies of polar climates are evidenced in fossil records to discover clues about ancient environments.
Then, as now, climate shows the effects of changes in the carbon cycle and natural processes in the air, water and soil, while other kinds of feedback exists in plants, animals and food chains. To hedge against future food concerns, seed banks around the globe are working to archive genetic material of plants and animals so they can still germinate several hundred years from now, and there are more than 1,400 seed banks in the world.
Texas State 2D artist Dornith Doherty, University Distinguished Research Professor and Photography Program Coordinator at the University of North Texas’ College of Visual Arts and Design, is looking at these future climate issues. Her Archiving Eden series ongoing since 2008 examines close-up the idea of preservation and survival through photographs, collages, and x-ray images of seeds at global seed banks, including one located on the Arctic island of Svalbard. She has been to almost 20 seed banks on four continents. In 2017 she will travel to the Bering Strait for a new project focused on landscape, climate change, and migratory patterns.
“The simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic aspects of a global seed vault built to save the world’s botanical life from catastrophic events made a profound impression on me,” says Doherty. “When confronted by large problem such as climate change and extinction of species we face today,” it’s easy to start to wonder how individual action can affect change.
Today the effects of climate changes are so clear that a discussion has risen over whether to draw the line labeling this epoch of human history a new era — the Anthropocene, so named for an epoch in which human impacts on air, water, land, plants and animals are most evident.
Finding ourselves at the borders between epochs where nations and peoples will work together to build knowledge and action networks means those doing the border work to bring global citizens together are valuable. This border work is not only about places, or about time, space, land, or water. It is also where one metaphor network meets another. In this conceptual border zone, our understanding of the world around us changes to reflect new relationships and the latest data.
Writing in the language of context, of fitting pieces together, can fit local narratives into global ones and the global into the local. Today’s discussion needs a scalable language that retains accuracy and addresses problems on multiple levels, in political, social, industrial, logistical, scientific, local, global, and natural systems. One that crosses borders, supersedes separation by geography or discipline, and brings to light a map of interconnected people working together, who are sharing tools, knowledge, ideas, and energy.
Part of that language is about defining connections.
About the Author: Amelia Jaycen is a science journalist and media theorist currently completing her master’s degree in journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton. She has worked at the UNT Office of Research & Economic Development covering a variety of sciences in the lab and in the field. In 2014 she traveled to Kirkenes, Norway for the Arctic Journalism Internship, reporting on science and energy in the Barents Region. Jaycen is currently writer and ethnographer at xREZ Art + Science Lab at UNT where she writes about interdisciplinary practice at the intersection of arts and sciences. Jaycen is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers, and she is interested in writing about ocean expedition science, data, technology, astronomy, climate change and energy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AJaycen.