What happens in Greenland won’t stay in Greenland

Coastal town in Greenland

Coastal town in Greenland

Climate change is in the spotlight this week because of the release of the third National Climate Assessment, which discusses observable and troublesome changes in the U.S, and a new study from Harvard that predicts that many food crops around the world will lose nutritional value as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise.

My colleague Steve Hinnefeld blogged about the key involvement of two Indiana University professors in the national assessment and their insights about climate change in the Midwest. Last week I helped IU anthropologist Virginia Vitzthum raise the issue by announcing her National Science Foundation-funded research project to study the biological, cultural and environmental challenges facing an Arctic community. Vitzthum said in a news release that like many coastal and modernizing communities worldwide, northern Greenlanders are confronted by a changing climate, demographic shifts and global economic forces that threaten their very existence.

“Cultural reproduction of communities and biological reproduction of individuals are necessarily linked, but rarely is this intimate connection so clearly revealed as when facing unprecedented challenges to indigenous lifeways,” said Vitzthum, senior scientist at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction.

“Ice is literally melting beneath their feet. There are more accidents, and the shifts in hunting and fishing seasons make it more difficult to earn a living. There’s a changing sense of connection to the land; it’s critical to learn what’s happening there and how it affects residents and the survival of their community.”

Greenland, while roughly a quarter of the size of the United States’ contiguous states, has seen its population shrink below 60,000.

What she and her team (researchers from The Kinsey Institute, University of Montana and the University of Greenland) learn in Greenland could benefit the health of men and women in the U.S.

Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum

Vitzthum has conducted research in several others countries to better understand variation in hormones and how it affects fertility and health. Arctic residents experience months of continuous twilight in winter and continuous daylight in summer but the impact of extreme changes in light exposure on human hormones are not well understood. They could, for example, influence immune functioning, cancer risks and the effectiveness of hormonal contraception. From the release:

Findings from this study in the Arctic are directly relevant to the health of people wherever technological advances extend waking and working hours, including swing and night shifts, which increase light exposure and leave fewer hours for sleep. Vitzthum noted that Americans, in general, sleep less than they did a century ago.

“It’s critical to understand what’s happening in this far-north community and how it affects people’s lives,” Vitzthum said. “Changes around the globe will be dramatic, and it’s reasonable to think that coastal communities everywhere will be affected. The changes are underappreciated because we don’t see these changes yet in the temperate zones, but they’re happening right now in the Arctic.”

IU experts commented on the National Climate Assessment in this news release, which includes comments from Sara Pryor, Provost Professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Geological Sciences; Phil Stevens, Rudy Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and A. James Barnes, professor in SPEA and the Maurer School of Law at IU Bloomington. Pryor is a member of the panel of scientists that produced the report and is the convening lead author of the chapter on climate change in the Midwest.

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