Zoe Burr acknowledges she’s been living “in a bubble” during her studies of sea birds in Svalbard in recent years, which means she hasn’t heard much talk from skeptics of science – and also is less than ideally suited to reach out to them.
She tried to do so Saturday by taking part in the global March for Science on Saturday, with Longyearbyen among the roughly 500 locations expected to participate. The local marchers, plus those in Ny-Alesund, were the world’s northernmost participants.
While skepticism of climate change and other science might be flourishing elsewhere, Svalbard’s population has a high percentage of true believers due to its status as an international scientific research hub and drastic impacts climate change is having compared to non-Arctic parts of the world.
Temperatures during the 30-minute walk under sunny skies through the center of Longyearbyen were a relatively balmy minus three degrees Celsius – nearly 10 degrees above average for April – as the town closes in on its 79th straight month of above average temperatures.
Chants during the march included a scholarly call-and-response:
Q: “What do we want?” A: “Evidence-based science!” Q: “When do we want it?” A: “After peer review!”
And more succinctly (and probably more attention-getting for the masses):
“No science, no beer!”
The march ended at the historic miner’s statue in the town square.
Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, said in the event’s main speech that we’re now living in era where science is being increasing scorned, “alternative facts” are on the rise and skepticism of reality has gotten to the point “where pictures taken now question how many people are standing in this square.” (Organizers estimate 110 people participated in the march).
Gathering at the statue at the final rallying point particularly appropriate since he and his colleagues through Longyearbyen’s mining history didn’t partake in rituals before they descended into the tunnels, Holmén said.
“He trusted his life to the engineer, and that his superviser was utilizing science and experience to ensure his safety,” he said.
But Holmén also noted scientists can’t be too certain in their beliefs when utilizing them and sharing them with the world, noting corrections and new discoveries are an ongoing process. An avalanche that destroyed two apartment buildings in Longyearbyen in February, for example, occurred hours after experts concluded there was no need to evacuate the buildings because there was no risk of a snowslide hitting them.
“There were weaknesses in the calculations, but the solution is not denial,” he said.
Organizers noted at the end of the march a further series of awareness activities are planned. Burr, a part-time employee at The University Centre in Svalbard where she was also student, said she’s already thinking about what she can do individually.
“I have been thinking I’d like to get more involved,” said Burr. She said she just wrote her first blog post and joined Twitter, believing it is possible to be an effective advocate in 140 characters.
“I think it’s less about arguing and more about awareness,” she said.