Sometimes Science is Personal
I am happy to reach out to you from the National Centers for Environmental
Information’s Center for Weather and Climate in Asheville, North Carolina,
home of the world’s largest weather library. We preserve and distribute
weather and climate observation data sets and use them to study and track
climate here at the center. Yes, we do really big science!
As you may know, the intersection between climate and biology is not
simply a crossroads. It’s a giant, busy, loud, and interwoven set of superhighways. Our fields touch and impact each other just like the climate and biosphere affect each other.
In our cross-disciplinary relationship the most fundamental connection
is our shared reliance on data. But, in addition, our fields share a mission to
measure and understand the world around us while sharing these findings
with - and inspiring - learners.
Whether measured by thermometers, through changes in the distribution
of species, or by tracking the frequency and timing of extreme weather events,
we are seeing rapid and consequential change. Again, our fields share a goal to
quantify what is changing, and to help understand what those changes mean.
We also share an awareness that we are all working in an era of significant
social and cultural uncertainty that envelops everything we do. Certainly, this
adds complexity to the challenge of fulfilling our mission.
Some of our assessments and predictions for the climate seem dire and
this can be frightening. That is one reason why it was such an honor for me
to address the NABT annual professional development conference in
November. It was affirming for me to hear your experiences in a field
which is dealing with change much as we do. The conversations I had with
NABT members reinforced my view that scientists and science educators
are two sides of the same coin – particularly during times of change.
Here’s a personal story to underscore why biology teachers matter.
Even though it happened decades before I was born it still resonates with
me today. However, it is also about you, and the work you do daily often
in the face of profound physical, climatic, biological and even social, cultural and political change.
I’m a child of Oklahoma and grew up with intimate knowledge of one of
the nation’s most infamous climate events, the Dust Bowl. The scar of that
time remains on our collective psyche. We recorded the event in song, in
novels, and in photographs. Nearly a fifth of our population became refugees. The stories I have heard about that time reveal just how quickly things
changed and how much that seemed like the end of the world to those
My grandmother was one of the survivors. She had a tough life as a teenager in the 1930s. Once the Dust Bowl started, the only permanence in her
life was her responsibility for her little sister. They bounced between situations in a desperate time and destroyed environment. It went about as well
as you might think.
She survived and ended up making a better life for herself and her
family - one of whom was my mom. It’s a nice story of a tough person
overcoming adversity for which we in the family have nothing but
admiration, and there are hundreds of thousands of similar stories among
the people of the Plains.
But here’s the rest of the story.
If you asked one of my climate colleagues, based only on the data, to
identify which decade ripped my region apart, scattering children and ref-
ugees to the wind, for most of Oklahoma, they’d probably point to the
droughts of the 1950s.
That’s right. For much of the region, the 1950s took a slightly harder
punch from the climate system than did the 1930s. My grandmother raised a
family there in the Fifties. Times were tough, but the fabric of society was
not ripped open as in the 1930s, and neither was the soil. There is a reason
for the difference.
The relative obscurity of the 1950s droughts testifies to the work imme-
diately following the earlier Dust Bowl years. That generation undertook
investigation and intervention across multiple areas, including crop and ani-
mal science, soil science, water management, soil management, resource
management, a bit of climate study, and even home economics. Experts in
these areas fostered other approaches – like the role of education in practical
management – in stark contrast to the years preceding the Dust Bowl.
Researching and understanding and teaching, all directed toward bet-
ter management of living systems was a major ingredient in the relative suc-
cess story of the mid-century drought. Biology, educators and students
were all ingredients in that recipe of progress.
The effect was immense; it spared hundreds of thousands of families –
including mine – from a potential trajectory of ruin. Collectively, we learned
from our experiences, and avoided making the same catastrophic mistakes
as in the 1930s. We also looked toward science – and, importantly, the teach-
ing, learning, and application of science – to help us make informed decisions.
It is now again time to make informed decisions in the face of climate
change, consider potential consequences of our actions, and develop the
science necessary to manage water, other resources, crops, and soils. Above
all, our shared mission is to teach our children – and their parents – what
science says about the future and how we might deal with it.
So please, let me reinforce, partly as a climate expert, but mostly as
someone just two generations removed from calamity, that your work matters. You and your colleagues touch the lives of people you’ll never meet, in
places you’ll never see.
Derek “Deke” Arndt
Chief, Monitoring Branch
NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI)
151 Patton Avenue, Room 476A
Asheville, NC 28801
Photo courtesy: Dayna Reggero, Climate Listening Project
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER GUEST EDITORIAL 329
Derek S. Arndt