Crossing North 13: Don't Just Leave Footprints

Lela Cooper and Katie Hearther in Greenland.


How is global warming affecting Greenlanders and what responsibilities do climate-scientists have to the peoples of the Arctic? UW seniors Lela Cooper and Katie Hearther discuss how a course in Greenland about climate change inspired them to study new languages and integrate the humanities into the sciences they love.

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Katie Hearther: Like, a quick anecdote about my own first couple hours that I really think is funny is something Michelle kind of told us before we got there was, “Oh, you're gonna take so many pictures of icebergs, and then you're gonna get back and be like, ‘Why did I take 2,000 pictures of the same iceberg?’” But when we got there, there was this tiny little, kind of, inlet within walking distance of our hostel, and there was literally the smallest iceberg there, and I took about 50 pictures—and small, I mean, like I could have picked it up if it was close enough—I was like, “Ice! Wow!” And then, like, later that night we actually walked out— I think I might butcher this, it's like UNESCO? UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ilulissat Icefjord, and we could walk there and we turned the corner, and it was like cruise-ship-sized icebergs, and I just, kind of, sat down and was like “Whoa ho ho...” [*laughs*] —scale increase, a little bit. So that was, that was fantastic.

Colin Gioia Connors: This is Katie Hearther, a senior at the University of Washington. She is double majoring in oceanography and marine biology—

Katie: —and then minoring in Arctic studies. I'm from Honolulu, Hawaii, and I traveled and studied abroad to Greenland and Denmark in August and September of 2018.

Colin: The study abroad program, led by Michele Koutnik, a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, aimed to teach students how global warming is changing the Greenland Ice Sheet, how these changes affect people in Greenland and around the world, and how Greenlanders and Danes are attempting to address these challenges. Undergraduate students in the program represented a wide variety of research backgrounds, including physics, engineering, business, human rights, and Scandinavian Studies. This is Lela Cooper.

Lela Cooper: I'm a senior in the Program of the Environment within the College of the Environment at UW and I'm also minoring in urban design and planning and Danish, and Danish is one of the languages I've studied here at UW along with Inuktitut, which is the Inuit language of eastern Canada and central Canada in the Arctic.

Colin: Visiting Lecturer of Danish Kristian Næsby and I sat down with Katie and Lela to discuss how Michelle’s course brought the people of the Arctic into focus and highlighted the importance of integrating language study and the humanities into the sciences they love.

Lela: I think it really speaks to the power of study abroad, and I always felt like a walking cliche when I came back and told everyone, [*dramatically*] “Oh, it changed my life!” You know, two weeks in a different country changed my life. [*laughs*] But it really did, and even, even the not as glamorous moments, and subsisting off rye bread for proximately two and a half weeks, [*Katie laughs*] even that, I kind of miss it because I just miss the whole experience, and just seeing something that honestly I never thought I would be able to see.

[*Intro music starts*]

Colin: Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.

[*Intro music ends*]

Colin: In the 1990s, the Greenland Ice Sheet lost 33 btn of ice every year. That rate has since increased over seven times to 254 btn per year. This rapid increase is a result of human-caused climate change, primarily a result of burning fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are now higher than any point in the past 800,000 years. The world is heating up faster than ever in the history of our species. And as the average global temperature rises, the ice sheet melts.

How to respond to these changes is a question that Indigenous Greenlanders are answering for themselves. With the implementation of the Self-Government Act in 2009, Greenlanders won control of their domestic policy from Denmark. The Danish government still controls matters of defense and foreign policy, but now the Greenlandic parliament is poised to set policy on matters like the economy and the environment in the best interests of its people. The rate and scale of climate change is more apparent in the Arctic than at lower latitudes, and these changes are already having dramatic effects on Greenlandic livelihoods. But Greenlandic culture has proven to be resilient to climatic and colonial pressures in the past, and many Greenlanders are optimistic about their future.

The melting ice affects Greenlanders in a number of ways. Without sea ice, many methods of traditional subsistence hunting are increasingly untenable; hunting on ice, for example, becomes increasingly dangerous as the ice melts, thins, or disappears altogether. Melting ice does come with new opportunities, though: fishing on boats for species like halibut becomes more possible because of the effects of climate change. But this new opportunity is not without its own climate-change-related risk: Icebergs calve more and more unpredictably, and the influx of freshwater from melting glaciers makes ocean currents faster and more turbulent. On land, melting glaciers are revealing potentially valuable mineral deposits, but are simultaneously exposing toxic and nuclear waste abandoned by American Cold War bases. This waste is a low-level concern now, but as the ice sheet continues to shrink, that concern may grow. For now, some Greenlanders are taking advantage of the warming climate by farming more vegetables and increasing sheep herds, but farming is both climate- and weather-dependent. Increasing climatic temperatures allow for increased precipitation and increasingly unpredictable weather. One summer might bring drought; another might bring endless rain. Each new opportunity in Greenland that comes as a result of climate change also comes with its own new risks in an unpredictable environment, as both Katie and Lela discovered during a summer snowstorm. 

Lela: I think seeing Arctic climate change in person is a really—it's just an otherworldly experience. So we talk about climate change here, especially in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, but the scale of which things are changing in the Arctic doesn't really compare to what changes we see here, and I think as well, seeing how it's actually impacting these Indigenous communities and both bringing in new ways of life but also threatening their traditional ways of life— It's it's something that I don't think you can necessarily learn from a textbook or doing your own research, and it really opens your eyes to what climate change means for these societies that especially in the U.S., we don't necessarily associate with often or think of that often.

Katie: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean for me, or for both of us, it was the summer before our junior year and so I'd already gone through a lot of coursework that was just very technical, you know, like here's the science and, you know, terms like “Milankovitch cycles” and, you know, “glacial mass balance” and things where it almost—I don't know if this makes sense— “dehumanizes” it? —even though when you're talking about a glacier, it's not human— but there's that otherworldly aspect, also, I think. And so for me, I went there because of my scientific fascination, but then while I was there I think I got the most out of the completely unscientific parts, like talking to a couple with sled dogs and talking to, even, just our Danish van driver, talking about, like, having his children there and, like, how he tries to, he's trying to learn how to hunt seal for the local kindergarten classes, but he can never do it because he never knows when they're gonna pop up [*laughs*] but the local seal hunters just know where they're gonna go. And so things like that, but then also like Lela was talking about, the human aspect. And then there was a lot more mourning than I thought would happen while it was up there. I think I'd been shoving down the feelings for a long time. I think when you hear about it constantly— “climate change,” “everything's melting, everything sucks” —in your, a thing about Sciences: you're supposed to not have emotion. So there's a lot of, like, stamping it down, and then I think while you're actually sitting there watching it happen, in the short term of course, there's a lot of feelings that came out that I wasn't ready for, but that's... I told people it was life-changing when I came back, and then I couldn't really answer them when they asked me why, and I think that's why, now that I say it out loud.

Kristian Næsby: How was it apparent to you that it was climate change that you were seeing?

Katie: Very fair question, because it's such a long-term thing. Glaciers calve—that's normal. I think what made it apparent was the people we were talking to, how their routines have changed. Something that struck me, actually, I feel so bad that I can't recall his name—our driver, but he drove us to the hostel we stayed at from the ferry terminal in Nuuk, and he was talking about how usually there's berries in the summer, and how usually they can like make jam and his kids really look forward to it, and that this year it was too cold and it's been too cold for a really long time, and then talking to the couple with the sled dogs saying that they can't really take them out anymore, and it's very expensive to feed the dogs, but when you can't exercise them as much as you want or even go out on the ice to hunt because it's too dangerous and too thin now and has been for some time.

Lela: Yeah, I think it's really easy to see how the climate has changed, especially in many arctic regions, because there's a great oral history within many of those places, and so hearing these stories from people that had lived in the same settlement for their entire lives and their parents and grandparents, you know, you passed down these stories. And in Greenland specifically,  when we look at glaciers or the ice sheet and things like that, you can see the pictures from 1950s, 1970s, and it has— I mean, the ice is rapidly retreating. So I think when you're there in person, it might not be that noticeable, but when you see all these pictures and the stories from others, it's pretty noticeable. I think a lot of Greenlanders have a different view on climate change than we do in the US for many reasons. I know at least in Seattle, climate change is always considered bad, bad, bad. You know, there's no good side of climate change, which is a fair viewpoint. And then in Greenland for a lot of people it's making it more livable and they have opportunities for farming and things that you know can actually help their society a lot and help the health of the people that live there. So it's a really complicated dynamic between balancing this traditional way of life, and then trying to, kind of, gain some independence, especially now that they're trying to get more independence from Denmark.

Katie: Another specific example I just thought of is: we got to do a very cool excursion out to the face of Eqi Glacier, and when we arrived you could see on the sides of, kind of, the mountain where the glacier is coming down and terminating where it used to be, like, how tall it used to be and how wide it used to be. So it’s like a literal scar of something that used to, used to be there, and now it's just... still fantastic, obviously, I was losing my mind, [*laughs*] but it was just visible instantly how much it had shrunk.

Colin: Yeah, I remember having a similar experience in Iceland, going to a glacier, and you can drive up to them, and you come up to a parking lot and you drive through that, and you drive to another parking lot, and then you drive to a third parking lot, and then you park your car and you get out and you take your picture of the glacier, and then you realize... “Wait, why were there three consecutive parking lots?” That's because they were built one after the other and the glacier has been retrieving that much each time.

Katie: [*gasps*] Yeah. I can't remember what the name of it is, but if there's a glacier up there now that they have, like, the memorial to it because it officially, like, lost its glacier status last year.

Colin: Yeah, that glacier’s name is Ok, “O-K,” and the plaque is, has the words from an Icelandic writer and activist named Andri Snær Magnason, and he says, you know, “This is to memorialize this this glacier here, but this is a letter to the future, and so only you in the future will know whether we did what was needed to to address climate change.”

Kaite: [*gasps*] Wow.

Colin: Did your classes discuss how to address these concerns for the local communities who are there?

Katie: I don't think it was part of Michelle's intended curriculum, but we had several, like, breakout conversations specifically about our own impact. I think about halfway through we all began to feel, “Okay, we had to fly here from Seattle to the main airport in Greenland, and now we're flying more within Greenland, and taking all these boats, and, like, is it worth it?” Like, is what we're doing, is the long-term benefit of all those emissions—I don't really know how to put it—like, is our future impact on the world going to make that a worthy, kind of, sacrifice, I guess? It got us all in our heads, and it's something I still constantly think about.

Colin: Did your professor have an answer to that question?

Katie: I think I might know what she would say. [*laughs*] I think Michelle actually got her start—there's a, I don't know if you've heard of the Bonderman Fellowship here. It's a travel fellowship. It's money given to graduate students and undergraduate students just to travel. You have to travel alone to at least six different countries for a period of at least eight months. —and  so that was the first time she went to Greenland. She received that fellowship when she was a graduate student, and I recently just applied for it, and that was also something I was tackling. I was, like, “Okay what is—” like, I'm gonna be flying, I'm gonna be doing all this stuff, like, “How can I make it so that it's worth it?” Because we were trying to talk about during the trip, like, carbon offset companies and how hard it is to find ones that are legitimate, things of that nature, and I think her answer would just be, “If it's as life-changing as you said it is, then the obvious answer is yes. If you take the experience and learn from it and use it to inspire and educate then then yes.” 

Lela: Yeah, I think it's definitely a very difficult balance. It's something I think about all the time. I pretty much never want to travel now because I know that I'm going to all these places that, you know, I want to visit because they are disappearing, but I'm part of the reason why they're disappearing if I go visit them. And it's difficult especially in someone, or especially for someone that's, you know, studying the environment and really passionate about climate change and helping to solve the climate crisis, but at the same time, how do you balance that need? And I think as Katie said, traveling, especially when you're conscious about your own impact on the places you're going, is very important, especially for people in the environmental sciences. Personally I'm not planning to be a scientist [*laughs*] but I know that the experience that I had will greatly inform my future career in policy, and I think it's very important to actually talk with these communities that are on the frontlines and understand that in order to be an effective policy maker. So I think it's worth the cost and, you know, it's something I wish all people in our college could do, and anyone that's interested in climate change, but yeah, it's just, you have to be conscious of your impact.

Katie: Kind of bouncing off something you said about how important it is to actually talk to the communities that, you know, you want your policy to influence, or, like, that I want my science to influence, is—oh I hope he doesn't hear this and call me out. We had a visiting professor, a Danish professor, and he goes to Greenland almost every field season. But the thing is: when we first landed in Ilulissat, he was like, “I've never been here before,” like, “I've never talked to anyone before.” And I was like... “What?” [*laughs*] Because the thing is: the only major—as of when we went—the only major runway that can land a jumbo jet is—I'm gonna butcher this—  Kangerlussuaq, and that's where all of the science parties are stationed out of. We actually stayed at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support station, I think it was. Like, KISS for short. And it's where all the scientists go while they're being staged, and then they're just shuttled to the ice sheet and back, they do their science, they leave. And there's very little if any interaction with the communities about how that science might impact them at all, or what science they're, like, what questions they’re interested in having answered. And I think that's what I, like my dream job, that would be what I wanted to do, like coordinated scientific projects that’s, like, answering the questions that are important to the people that live there! [*laughs*] 

Lela: You know, I agree completely. That sort of mindset, this idea that policymakers and scientists don't actually interact with a lot of these communities that they're supposedly serving —I remember a local in Nuuk said, “Don't just leave footprints when you come to Greenland. Make sure that you're actually integrating the community and talking to people and making them a part of the work you're doing here,” because I think historically, Greenland and many other arctic communities, scientists go there, and then they do their research, and then leave, and never actually integrate anyone else into this process. And I think that is part of the reason why when I came back to UW, I realized, you know, in America we have this ideology that, “Oh, we can just let people come to us, we don't have to accommodate any other societies, we don't, you know, we speak English here. That's how it is.” And I kind of realized, you know, even though a lot of people in Greenland do speak English, you're not really meeting them where they are, and that's why I wanted to learn Danish. I'd love to learn Greenlandic as well, but it's not taught here. [*laughs*] And I think— I grew up in a multicultural household so I always saw the value of foreign language, since I'm the daughter of an immigrant and my grandparents can't speak much English, and it's very difficult here. But it's something I never really considered integrating into my academics until seeing how valuable it is to actually try to accommodate these other societies especially as a researcher, or scientist, or policymaker.

Katie: Yeah being completely honest, I'm slightly, like, jealous and in awe of Lela since we came back, and like, the progress she's made, and like, starting to take Danish and then also take the Inuktitut class. I've always been very intimidated by foreign language, but my, I mean, my family is, we’re your pretty basic, white middle-class family. My father is active duty Navy and then we moved to Hawaii, and I got exposed to a lot more things there that I'm very thankful for. And I think when I came back, instead of pursuing a foreign language, I got really motivated to pursue science communication, because in a way the science I'm learning is a completely different language. I… sometimes I open a journal and a paper, or a professor is like, “Read this,” and I start reading it, and I'm like, “I... No. This is English, but [*laughs*] I have no comprehension.” And I think, what I've begun to tell people is: despite my love and my passion for science—I could learn about it for the rest of my life—I don't know if I'd be happy as a researcher because the science already exists to tell us that we need to do something, and more sciences come out and it hasn't changed the minds that need to be changed. And so, I think that what I would be very happy doing is acting as sort of a translator or a moderator or something to actually communicate the importance and mostly inspire people to love nature and the ocean again. Because, I mean, the instinct to protect something you love is fierce, and so if I can maybe get people to reconnect with that, like I did in Greenland, I think... I think we can make a lot more progress.

Kristian: I feel like we've already heard a little bit about it, how it has informed your studies after you came back or change the direction in which you see yourself like going forward after that, Are there any more things you want to say about that?

Katie: I think I kind of briefly mentioned how my focus has shifted away from strict research science, and I absolutely 100% attribute that to this experience. I think coming back and having to, kind of, reinsert myself into STEM classes where, you know, it's nine weeks of oceanography and then the last week is reserved for climate change, but when you, you know, were so slow in your lectures, you just axe that last week, “It's fine,” or you get through that last week, but there's no space to talk about the emotions that it, kind of, makes you feel, or how it impacts you. I mean, it can be really sad, all the stuff you're hearing all the time. And then, just the interactions with the people is what, kind of, pushed me towards the Arctic Studies minor in general. It's kind of a joint program between the Jackson School of International Studies and Oceanography. So it's about half science classes, half people and policy classes, and so I got, when I took I took Arctic 200, which I think is Introduction to Arctic Indigenous People, and that was one of the favorite, one of my favorite classes I've ever taken, and it really got me pushed on the path of, more of how the people are impacted by the scientific things I'm passionate about. It's something I'm still figuring out how to get a job in [*laughs*] I don’t know, but I'm very excited to pursue it, and I would just really like to work in a field that has anything to do with it.

Colin: You mentioned the word “mourning” a few times, and I think that— I just want to validate that— to say that there's a term called “ecological grief”—

Katie: Oh yeah.

Colin: —which perhaps you know very well, that kind of encompasses this: that this pain and frustration that a lot of people, especially in the sciences who are working on studies that are observing the impacts of climate change, are feeling and looking for inspiration for what is the next thing that we can do, where to move forward, and using the idea of grief as something to empower— which maybe are not words that go together in usual mainstream American discourse, of grief and power being together, but at least that is something that acknowledges that, that what you are thinking about is something that you love, and that those are valid feelings that will allow you to work through that and find a path forward, and that there is a path forward, that even after you lose a person in your life that keeps going and there is a path forward.

Katie: Hey, quick pitch here: there's a professor at Bothell Dr. Jennifer Atkinson and she does a climate grief and anxiety course, and I bussed up to Bothell last quarter to take it, and we learned, we talked all about stuff, like, exactly like what you said. Like how grief and, maybe like, hope, and how you don't usually think of them together, but making that connection, and oh, I'm trying to think, it was such a, such a good quote. I think there's a book called Active Hope and I can't remember the author off the top of my head, but there's a portion in it where it says, “You have to make room in your heart for grief and then keep going.” So I tried to explain it to my mother recently. I think I kind of freaked her out. [*laughs*] She was like, “ you’re just sad all the time?” I'm like, “No! [*laughs*] No!” But it's just, kind of, part of my identity now, that I'm always grieving over what's happening, but I'm not letting it confine me to my bed until 6:00 p.m. anymore, like, I definitely used to have days like that where I would just be paralyzed in my bedroom about what was going on. And now I have the space to, like, accept that and process it, but kind of almost use it as a fuel to keep going, if that makes sense.

Colin: Yeah, that makes sense.

Kristian: Yeah. Is there a specific part of this program or an experience or a person you met that made you feel empowered or hopeful?

Lela: I think for one, just seeing how passionate all of our fellow students were in all their different fields and all their different intended careers was very empowering because I think we were all going through similar things that Katie mentioned of grieving and being overwhelmed by seeing, you know, this very dangerous reality in front of us, but seeing how passionate and driven everyone was to address the climate crisis in some way in their respective fields, to me, was very empowering. I think a lot of our courses, you know, they're very realist. They tell you, “This is what's happening. We have X amount of years or we have negative X amount of years [*laughs*] to address this problem. What are we gonna do?” But I think it's really important to just understand that we all do have power and collectively, especially, we have power, so using that grief and frustration. So yeah. I was just, I was so happy to see how passionate everyone else was. It's always so empowering in any setting where you see that.

Katie: I could not agree more, just seeing all of us from disciplines from all the corners of campus. In general, I think I I was, kind of like, closing myself off, you know. Like, “I'm the only one that cares this much,” because that was the only rational thing. I'm like, “There's no one else.. there's no one else that feels as strongly about this as I do,” and I could not have been more wrong because after this experience, like, I knew thirteen more people—students—and then not even including the faculty, like, seeing what they're doing with their science and their outreach, and the things they're passionate about. And it was very overwhelming to all of us [*laughs*] but the other way, like, not sad overwhelming. Just like, “Whoa!” All of us doing what we can, being this passionate, and, like, together in a group. It was just, I think it really was the people that made my experience as much as where we went.

Lela: I think also though, the Inuit, in general, are very resilient people, and it was also always reiterated to us that, you know, “Our society has thrived in this very harsh environment that has faced many changes throughout history. We will get through this,” and being reminded that, you know, the climate crisis is real, but we do have the power to adapt and, you know, help other societies that need it, and get through it together, was really enlightening because I... we don't really get that sort of rhetoric that much in America, [*laughs*] at least from my familiarity, so seeing how they viewed climate change and its risks, it was really enlightening.

[*Outro music starts*]

Colin: If this episode inspires you to study abroad with Professor Koutnik, her course is cross-listed as Earth and Space Sciences 402 and Arctic Studies 387. The course isn’t offered every year, but Michelle hopes to offer it again in 2021. If that interests you, send Professor Koutnik an email. Links are in the show notes and on our website.

There are plenty of funding opportunities for UW students if you are thinking about studying abroad. The 2018 course that Katie and Lela went on was generously funded by the Scan Design Foundation, who every year offers fellowships to UW students to study abroad at many major Danish universities. In addition to this specific program led by Earth and Space Sciences, the UW Department of Scandinavian Studies regularly offers faculty-led summer study abroad programs and has direct exchanges with universities in each of the Nordic and Baltic countries. We also offer a number of scholarships and stipends every year to UW students regardless of whether you study abroad or not. Preference is given to those studying a Nordic or Baltic language, but all are welcome to apply.

Now is a great time to start learning Danish or any Nordic or Baltic language. Language classes offer students a chance to learn a life-long skill in a small and supportive environment. Language classes help students learn valuable skills like confidence, empathy, how to deal with ambiguity or discomfort, and how to communicate in smart, effective, and creative ways. Language classes help set students apart from their peers by giving them experience in human-centered approaches to research, business, and design. Nordic and Baltic language classes offer students access to international communities that are global leaders in researching climate-change, developing smarter and safer tech, and building more sustainable cities. Our courses teach the cultural competency necessary to work in diverse and international fields and across cultural boundaries. If you don’t want to just leave footprints behind when you travel, learning a foreign language is a good place to start. Registration for fall language classes opens April 14.

Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Visiting Lecturer of Danish Kristian Næsby. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at Once again, that’s 

[*Outro music ends*]


Release Date: March 16, 2020.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Kristian Næsby.

To learn more about ESS 402 / AS 387, email Dr.

Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.