Saturday, February 4, 2023

Glaciologist Dr. Alison Criscitiello: We Cannot Fight Climate Change Without Social Justice

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National Geographic and Rolex explorer Dr. Alison Criscitiello is committed to breaking barriers and bringing more women into science.

In 2021, glaciologist Dr. Alison Criscitiello and a team of women summitted Canada’s highest peak — Mount Logan — located in the northwestern Yukon Territory, to install North America’s highest weather station.

Named the leader of the 2022 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Mount Logan Expedition, Criscitiello returned to the summit earlier this year along with a team and an ice core drill in order to retrieve a 327-meter-long ice core that scientists hope contain 28,000 to 30,000 years of climate records. Mount Logan is home to some of the oldest ice on the planet, according to National Geographic.

“I kept the drill running 14 hours a day, which was a lot for people,” Criscitiello told National Geographic. “It was a physical max for what is possible at that kind of altitude.”

Criscitiello, who was awarded the first Ph.D. in glaciology ever by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and now runs the University of Alberta’s Canadian Ice Core Lab, says despite her achievements, she’s struggled a lot being surrounded only by men. “My confidence and strength, everything [was] questioned, just simply based on me showing up and seeing that I’m a petite female.”

Dr. Seth Campbell and National Geographic Explorer Dr. Alison Criscitiello measure the depth of Mt. Logan's ic e cap using radar. Kluane National Park and Reserve
Dr. Seth Campbell and National Geographic Explorer Dr. Alison Criscitiello measure the depth of Mt. Logan’s ic e cap using radar. Kluane National Park and Reserve. Credit: Leo Hoorn/National Geographic Rolex Perpetual Planet Expedition

Women play a crucial role in mountain protection, environmental protection, and social and economic development, according to the United Nations. But they are often left out when it comes to decision-making in key research and other scientific projects.

It’s part of the reason Criscitiello is a co-founder of the Girls On Ice organization that supports young women in mountain climbing and exploring nature.

Criscitiello’s achievements align with the theme for 2022’s International Mountain Day (December 11th) — Women Move Mountains.

Ethos caught up with Dr. Criscitiello ahead of International Mountain Day via email to learn more about her recent summits, Girls On Ice, and what the future of science and glaciology could look like.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

Ethos: Most people will never make tricky mountain ascents. Can you share a bit about what goes through your mind during these ventures? 

AC: What doesn’t go through my mind!? It tends to be a bit of a rollercoaster. I think in the very critical moments where my body and my risk tolerance are pushed to the limit, I’m not actually thinking of my objective nor am I thinking about the true “why” of being there. I’m often just telling myself — you can do this. Over and over and over: one step at a time, you can do this.

Ethos: How did your ascents from 2021 to 2022 change for you? Was it harder going up the first time, or a second time knowing what was in store?

AC: The 2022 ascent was harder than the 2021 ascent for me in a number of ways. I had a larger team in 2022, and I climb more naturally in very small, fast and light teams (preferably just with one climbing partner). So the dynamic of a larger team, managing more people, and ultimately more complexities as they arose, was harder for me.

The expedition team climbs towards camp 1 on Mt. Logan in Kluane National Park and Reserve.
The expedition team climbs towards camp 1 on Mt. Logan in Kluane National Park and Reserve. Credit: Leo Hoorn/National Geographic Rolex Perpetual Planet Expedition

As you hint with this question, it can also be mentally more difficult to climb a route you’ve climbed before. There is one particular section of the route, the King Col icefall, that was a little dicey to navigate in 2021. It was daunting leading up to the 2022 climb thinking about that section again, and also thinking about spending weeks up high on the summit plateau; just a couple days up there on my previous two climbs of Logan was more than enough! It was hard to wrap my head around staying up high for that long in the weeks leading up to the 2022 expedition.

Ethos: Can you talk about Girls on Ice Canada and why that was important for you to start? Does the group lead climbs? What’s that like for you to see young women exploring mountains? 

AC: Girls on Ice Canada is a no-barriers, tuition-free, science- and mountain-based wilderness program for female-identifying high schoolers. The outdoor classroom is a powerful environment to develop critical thinking skills and encourage lifelong confidence.

I grew up in liberal New England, in an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston, and I’m white. I am where I am today for so many reasons, but one of them is privilege.

A primary reason that I wanted to make this program a reality was the strong drive to create something in Canada that helps to redistribute privilege and open up new opportunities to a range of youth by removing as many barriers as possible.

National Geographic Explorer Dr. Alison Criscitiello
operates the ice core drill on Mt. Logan's summit
plateau
National Geographic Explorer Dr. Alison Criscitiello operates the ice core drill on Mt. Logan’s summit plateau. Kluane National Park and Reserve. Credit: Leo Hoorn/National Geographic Rolex Perpetual Planet Expedition

GOIC aims to increasingly reach Indigenous and minority populations across all provinces and territories, particularly in the North, helping serve young women from the most remote parts of Canada who have limited access to opportunities like this one.  

Ethos: What role do you see women and queer community members playing in the fight against climate change and in science? 

AC: As a marginalized part of the population, I (perhaps idealistically) hope to see us among those leading the charge. Our queer community is and will be disproportionately impacted by climate change because of social stigma, higher unemployment, etc. Intersectional issues with climate change is an enormous topic, and not my area of study, but I can say one thing unequivocally: we cannot fight climate change without social justice.

Ethos: Can you speak to working with Rolex and National Geographic on the Perpetual Planet Expedition? What’s it like partnering with the organizations? 

AC: Working together with Rolex and NatGeo on the Perpetual Planet Expedition has easily been the most rewarding experience of my scientific career to date. Beyond the resources and support they of course have given that make risky, ground-breaking science possible, I feel just so lucky to be a part of this community of incredible people who all help push the boundaries of what’s possible. 

Ethos: Let’s also talk about that giant piece of ice core. Have any data been returned on it yet? And are you noticing any changes to the region/ice? If so, what?

AC: We have just completed the analysis campaign, and have all of the liquid chemistry data in hand. The data are BEAUTIFUL, but currently on a very very preliminary age scale.

Analyzing a core sample taken from Mt. Logan's summit plateau ice cap, Kluane National Park and Reserve.
Analyzing a core sample taken from Mt. Logan’s summit plateau ice cap, Kluane National Park and Reserve. Credit: Leo Hoorn/National Geographic Rolex Perpetual Planet Expedition

I can’t say anything detailed just yet, but I can say that this climate record is unique and shows all signs of being distinct in some ways from Greenland ice core records. And, the ice at the bottom is very old.

In terms of changes to the ice along the route, the icefalls are definitely changing. Both King Col icefall and the icefall lower down on the mountain (between C1 and C2) are not as straightforward to navigate as they were ten years ago due to lower snowpack earlier in the season, as well as icefall thinning that I imagine is related to speedup. The icefalls are becoming more mobile, and snow bridges through seracs and crevasses are thinner. All these changes, related to surface warming, make the route more difficult and more dangerous.

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