Experiencing Climate Boot Camp

Mount Rainier

Climate Boot Camp Fellows gather to hear National Park Service geomorphologist, Paul Kennard, and geologist, Scott Beason, discuss the impacts of climate change on Mt. Rainier glaciers. (Photo by Lisa Hayward Watts.)

Standing near the Nisqually glacier while listening to National Park Service geomorphologist Paul Kennard and geologist Scott Beason discuss the impacts of climate change on Mt. Rainier glaciers, I felt the effects of climate change in a deeply profound and different way. I had known glaciers were retreating but hadn’t realized that this process had been underway since before the 1970s. Nor did I know just how much glaciers had suffered in the
Pacific Northwest just this past year alone from the unusually warm temperatures.

This deeply profound feeling occurred throughout my time at the Climate Boot Camp, an annual weeklong event sponsored and organized by the Northwest Climate Science Center. Each summer, Climate Boot Camp brings together graduate students and early career professionals working in federal and state agencies, tribes, and non-profits for a week of interdisciplinary learning about climate change.

Last year, sessions ranged from producing videos to learning about salt marshes at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. In essence, as Climate Boot Camp coordinator Arwen Bird put it, we were “following the water” from source to sink—from observing glacier retreat to seeing low water levels at the salt marshes to understanding drought impacts on Oregonians. Kathie Dello, Deputy Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI), discussed how dire the recent drought has been in Oregon. But what really hit home for me were my conversations with other Climate Boot Camp fellows who were thinking about management and experiencing climate impacts in an immediate sense.

In my research, I work on modeling the impacts of climate change on snowpack and fire risk in the western US. It is rare that I think about the management implications of my work in anything beyond a superficial way. As a modeler, my research is largely removed from the management side of things. Just before boot camp, I had performed a new analysis showing how much moisture loss soil is projected to experience in Northwest forests and had been thinking about fire risk changes in the coming years. On the first day of Boot Camp, several fellows from across the Pacific Northwest talked about how fires were approaching their families’ land. I felt my work—and my understanding of it—shift from looking at plots on a screen to thinking about people unable to pursue the livelihoods that their predecessors had practiced for generations.

A session led by Julie Vano, a postdoc at OCCRI, and Meade Krosby, a research scientist at University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, focused on scientist/stakeholder interactions. Boot camp fellows were assigned either “scientist” or “stakeholder” roles and asked to prepare for a research grant call. Role playing exercises can seem cheesy, but this one was meaningful. It made me realize the extent to which research grants are framed in terms of science questions driven by scientists, rather than in consultation with stakeholders and driven by the immediate and/or long-term science needs of resource
managers attempting to adapt to climate change.

Social scientists often use the word “problematize” to describe the process of calling into question one’s own assumptions and others’ conceptions, about an issue or ostensible fact. I came away from boot camp having problematized my work within a broader framework of climate change impacts and adaptation, with a far more holistic understanding of intersections between my work and other aspects of climate research. More importantly, perhaps, I came away with an injunction of sorts to communicate my science more effectively and make sure that my work reaches more than just a purely scientific audience.

Participants of the Northwest Climate Science Center’s fifth annual 2015 Climate Boot Camp assembled at University’s Pack Forest in Eatonville, Washington. (Photo by Ryan McClymont, U.S. Geological Survey.)


Diana Gergel, author and Northwest Climate Science Center Graduate Fellow at the University of Washington. She attended the Climate Boot Camp for the first time last year. (Photo courtesy of Diana Gergel.