As glaciers melt, more voices in research are needed

Professor Mark Carey | People and Melting Glaciers

When UO historian Mark Carey hired Jaclyn Rushing, an undergraduate student in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, to explore how nongovernmental organizations were addressing melting Himalayan glaciers, he got an unexpected return.

Jaclyn RushingHer dive into the literature found that women's voices are rarely heard in glacier-related research, a finding that triggered a larger project and led to a paper now online ahead of print by the journal Progress in Human Geography.

"Jaclyn found a report that noted how women are more vulnerable to glacier changes and hazards than are men," said Carey, associate dean of the Clark Honors College and a professor of history and environmental studies. "I had never researched these gendered vulnerabilities."

That report linked flooding from a glacial lake with an increase of sexually transmitted infections in women. "I was fascinated by how two seemingly disparate issues could be so intimately linked through glacial ice," Rushing said. "I wanted to know more about the relationship between women and ice, so we pursued the topic from climate-change vulnerability to knowledge."

Expanding the investigation made sense, Carey said. "In disaster studies you always look at who is more vulnerable to hazards, and it's usually the marginalized populations. It's the poor groups, the underrepresented groups based on race and ethnicity, and gender has been discussed some in that."

For her Clark Honors College thesis, Rushing showed how men's voices have dominated the research, with masculine-driven efforts overcoming environmental adversity driving the narrative in both published research and media coverage.

After Rushing graduated and left for Oregon State University to pursue a graduate degree, Carey brought in M Jackson, a doctoral student in geography, and Alessandro Antonello, a postdoctoral research fellow in the honors college, to look deeper into the science of glacier studies and explore the gender issues.

They found that glacier research has been intertwined with gender relations, masculine cultures of exploration, geopolitics, and individual and institutional power. That, in turn, led to glacier-related academic and governmental jobs being predominantly filled by men.

"Melting glaciers are today considered a national security risk for numerous countries," Carey said. "Power and colonialism have shaped the science."

That message is detailed extensively in the paper.

"The root of this paradigm comes from the era of Victorian Imperialism in which manly vigor and scientific discovery provided the dominant way of both understanding and dominating foreign spaces," Rushing said. "This results in a total lack of consideration of alternative ways of understanding glacial ice, which is especially troubling in the current age of rapid melt."

Women, however, have not been completely absent from glacial research. The paper cites the work of Fanny Bullock Workman, who studied glaciers in the Himalayas in the early 20th century, and Mary Morris Walcott, who photographed and measured glaciers in the Canadian Rockies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More women entered the field by the 1970s, but they were viewed as outsiders.

The long-running reliance on knowledge produced from the perspectives of natural science, the researchers concluded, have marginalized the voices of women and cultures around the world that have lived in the shadow of glaciers.

"Men's voices generally are more represented in government than are women's voices," Carey said. "Women might be less able to migrate out of a flood zone during a sudden glacier melt. In Peru, we know that men migrate to the cities for jobs, whereas women are more confined to their homes and child rearing."

To better address the emerging challenges associated with melting glaciers, Carey said, the information gathered from the social sciences and humanities needs to taken more seriously.

"We do a lot of modeling and study satellite images, but what if we look at literature, at art, at drawings and recordings of glaciers?" Carey said. "We need to be looking at the cultural lenses on how people describe and talk about their landscape."

Carey, Jackson, Antonello and Rushing were co-authors on the journal paper. The National Science Foundation supported the research as part of a five-year grant to Carey for his studies on glacier-societal interactions.

By Jim Barlow, University Communications