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Snow2Rain fieldwork report from Tasiilaq, East Greenland, Part II

‘An anthropologist and a snow climatologist walk into the snow…’

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but for me, it was the beginning of an interesting collaboration which takes place in the remote town of Tasiilaq, East-Greenland. The anthropologist is my colleague: Anna Burdenski. She is a German PhD candidate at the University of Vienna. The snow climatologist is me: Jorrit van der Schot. I am a Dutch PhD candidate at the University of Graz. We are from different countries, with different backgrounds, different personalities, working at different Austrian universities within different disciplines. What we have in common is that we are collaborating on the interdisciplinary Snow2Rain research project, where we look at environmental changes related to snow and impacts of these changes for local people in Tasiilaq. In particular, we are interested in the transition from snowfall towards more rainfall. With climate change and a warming Arctic, the Arctic is expected to get quite a bit wetter in the future. You can read more about this change in a blog post on our project website. Here, I want to share the story of the collaboration between Anna, me and local people in Tasiilaq.

Making science matter

Our walk into the snow began when we landed at Nuuk airport, in the beginning of November 2021. Our research project had started much earlier, but due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we had delayed our entry into Greenland. Imagine our excitement to finally enter Greenland and start our research there! Before we headed to the East coast, we spent time in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, to attend the Greenland Science Week 2021 conference with the important theme: ‘Making science matter’. In science, it is always a good idea to ask yourself: ‘Why does our research matter and to whom?’. When expected impacts of climate change touch on the lives of people (which is almost always), mapping those impacts at a local scale can help people understand how the changes can possibly affect their lives. This relevance often extends the local scale. For example, the knowledge we gain through the project can be relevant in other settlements in Greenland as well. Apart from this relevance, our project also matters in another way. The collaboration between two PhD students from different disciplines and local people is intensive, exciting and challenging. Not only do we learn a lot from this ourselves, we hope that answers can draw inspiration related to including local people in the research process if the research is relevant to them. That way, science can make a more direct impact on people’s lives.

Snowy Nuuk was the host location of the Greenland Science Week conference 2021.

Snow climatology: from sitting behind a laptop to standing in the snow

Thus far, since I started my PhD in snow climatology, all of my work has been done in front of my laptop screen. Granted, I learned a lot about Tasiilaq, the Greenlandic climate, and snow and climate interactions using this laptop. However, there is something to say that being involved in this discipline should also mean getting (really) cold while standing in the snow once in a while. In Tasiilaq, part of our assignment was to do manual snow measurements and install a snow sensor. Without experience in these areas, these were challenging tasks. This was even more so the case for Anna, who did not have prior experience in snow climatology. To overcome this challenge, we engaged in a ‘learning by doing’ approach. Even though it helps to read a manual on how to do snow measurements, actually doing these measurements was the best way for us to learn. As well as being an excellent way for us to develop this new skill, our approach also allowed us to think about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the methodology together. With our snow measurements, we are gathering data on the height and density of the snow layer. The goal of doing these measurements is gathering data that we can compare to climate model results, in order to see how well these models are representing the local snow conditions.

The snow sensor installed in Tasiilaq.

Interdisciplinary mindset: 2 + 2 = 5

The most interesting and intensive part of the collaboration between Anna and me started when we arrived in Tasiilaq. Interdisciplinary research – What does that mean? I would answer: ‘It means a way of doing research where different disciplines are involved and where there is some benefit of this combination which extends the added value of the two separate disciplines. You could think of it as: ‘2 + 2 = 5’. Combining and integrating two disciplines leads to additional and unexpected benefits. By better understanding what people’s lives look like in Tasiilaq, we can also better study those changes in snow that matter to people. And by studying changes in snow and weather, we can better understand the expected changes in people’s environment.

Houses and the church against the backdrop of the iconic mountains of Tasiilaq.

By combining all this, we try to close the gap between a natural scientific approach to snow science and a local knowledge approach to the same topic, so that communication between researchers and locals makes more sense. Therefore, the two of us took our time and engaged in daily life in Tasiilaq together, instead of swooping in and starting workshops and interviews about our research objectives without the prior understanding of local context.

When I write this down, it sounds pretty simple. In reality of course, our collaboration was not always without any challenges. We often had to operate outside of our comfort zone. Our different scientific disciplines use a different kind of language and sometimes have very different approaches. We had to solve disagreements about the best approach for our research, and make clear why certain approaches are common within our respective disciplines. A challenging, but fruitful exercise, as it is another lesson in thinking about ‘why do I do my research in this way?’ and ‘why does this matter?’.

Our research project is far from finished. And my colleague and I are separated by about 3.000 kilometres and the Atlantic Ocean at the moment. In June this year, I will head back to Tasiilaq with a backpack filled with locally relevant scientific results based on our snow measurements and climate models. Anna will remain in Tasiilaq until then, to find out more about the intricate ways in which people’s lives in Tasiilaq are connected to snow. In the meantime, we continue our exciting collaboration.

Anna and Jorrit performing snow measurements in Tasiilaq.

Media information

Written by Jorrit van der Schot.
Contact: use our contact form.
© Photos by Anna Burdenski and Jorrit van der Schot.
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About the scientific author

Jorrit van der Schot, PhD student in snow climatology at the department of Geography and Regional Science, University of Graz

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