In Alaska, we are experiencing the dramatic and unpredictable effects of climate change more rapidly and more significantly than in most other places in the country. Almost daily, we hear about a new study or observation showing that the effects are more immediate and more significant than we thought, and we are working to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to adapt to changes to our communities, economies and everyday lives.
I never really considered that one of the effects of climate change might be to make it harder for the next generation of scientists and advocates to be inspired to get started in those fields. Then, I saw this article about how sea level rise and other climate change effects are threatening marine labs across the country. In addition to research facilities, these labs often have educational programs for kids.
As someone who grew up in Maryland, the following paragraphs from the article really struck home for me:
Fox Island Environmental Education Center, a Virginia institution that has opened up the wonders of the natural world to young people for more than 40 years, shut down in November. Between erosion and sea level rise, so much of the island’s salt marsh had disappeared that “it made it unsafe to run the program,” said Tom Ackerman, vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which owns the island center.
And what is lost is not just a building and its bunks, but inspiration: a number of the young people who stayed on Fox Island and gained a love of nature and the environment have gone on to be scientists. One, Kenneth M. Halanych, a professor of biological sciences at Auburn University, now researches topics including climate change and shifts in the ranges of marine organisms. “If I hadn’t had those formative experiences in the Bay, I might have ended up doing something totally different,” he said.
Like Professor Halanych, I was one of those young people. During the summer between 7th and 8th grades, I participated in a two-week summer program organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. We spent a week canoeing down the Patuxent River and a week at that same facility on Fox Island. I can’t say for certain that the program led me to the work I do now, but it was, without question, one of the defining experiences of my young life.
I had spent time playing in the woods across from my childhood home and done some hiking with my parents, but this was my first prolonged exposure to wild places. It was my first time away from family, and it was the first immersive, concentrated learning experience I can remember.
Nearly 40 years later, I still feel inspired by memories of the time on Fox Island. We learned about estuarine ecology and biology by stripping to our bathing suits and digging into the detritus in the marshes on the island. We sat up late at night to watch a thunderstorm roll in. As it did, we could see the electricity grids go out as power lines went down. And when it was fully dark before the rain started, the whole bay lit up with bioluminescent algae. It was a magical experience for a 12-year-old.
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In addition to the activities, I remember the sense of wonder and the encouragement to take risks. I loved being outside, learning and being able to explore. Looking back, those lessons are probably the most important to my life and to the career path I chose. And I know I was fortunate—I had parents, teachers and other adults who fostered that spark, and I had all the advantages of a suburban kid.I now live close to 4000 miles away from Fox Island. It was sad to learn that the facility has closed, and it was a strange way to be affected from afar by climate change. It has also reminded me that I carry the lessons I learned all that time ago. Just a few weeks ago, my son and I caught a dolly varden trout from a spot in front of our house. While cleaning the fish, we opened its stomach and found a nearly complete and partially digested salmon fry that had been its last meal. When not fishing, we poke under rocks and in tidepools at the low tides. We talk about the trees and plants around us and about how they might be changing.
Even though Fox Island is closed, I think about my trip there while we do those things, and I hope that my son grows up with the same wonder and desire to learn about the world as I did. Meaningful action to address the causes and impacts of climate change probably won’t bring Fox Island back, but, maybe, it will help make sure that the legacy of exploration and learning about the natural environment can be carried by my son to his children and to future generations. Carrying on the legacy of exploration and stewardship will be key to addressing climate change and other future challenges.