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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

Arctic Scientist Runs 1,800 Miles to Raise Awareness of Climate Change

Erlend Moster Knudsen, an Arctic climate system specialist, spent four months running from Norway to Paris to help spread the word about the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Erlend Moster Knudsen is seen running through the Norwegian Fleridrett

Erlend Moster Knudsen started his 1,800-mile (2,900-km) run on August 3, 2015, in front of the Polaria. The world’s northernmost aquarium, located in the polar region of Knudsen’s native Norway, provided a fitting backdrop for the start of his journey on foot from the northern polar region to Paris – an epic excursion to raise awareness about the devastating effects of climate change.

Knudsen had just finished a PhD in climate dynamics with a specialty in Arctic sea ice and atmospheric interactions. Confronted on a daily basis with the consequences of global warming in the Arctic, Knudsen was baffled by the lack of action when it came to combating climate change – a sense of frustration he shared with his friend Daniel Price, an expert in the Antarctic climate. Together they came up with the idea for Pole to Paris. Knudsen would run from the northern polar region to Paris, where the 2015 Climate Change Summit would take place, while Price cycled from the southern polar region to the French capital. Along the way, they’d help bridge the gap between academia and the public and talk to passersby, students, government representatives and the media.

On December 4, four months and one day after setting off, Knudsen and Price arrived at COP21, the Paris Climate Conference. “We were trying to raise our voices and raise the voices of people who are already seeing the changes, in order to make change, to be part of the movement of people in Paris demanding a change,” Knudsen told Arctic Deeply during a recent conversation.

As part of our project highlighting the work of emerging leaders in the Arctic, we spoke with Knudsen about his research, his run and the people he met along the way.

Arctic Deeply: You’ve undertaken an epic run, from the North Pole to Paris. Tell us a bit more about that project.

Erlend Moster Knudsen: Pole to Paris was initiated by two climate researchers, out of frustration. We were frustrated because the world has known about climate change and the role human beings play in it for a long time. Despite the fact that there’s so much knowledge about this topic, knowledge about the consequences and the certainty that it’s going to be much more beneficial to act now compared to taking the consequences later, there hasn’t been much action to try to get on a more sustainable path, a path away from irreversible climate change. We are basically doing nothing. That frustration caused us to start to run and cycle from the two polar regions to Paris, when the climate summit was taking place there last December.

Dan, the director of Pole to Paris, has a PhD in Antarctic climate system studies, and I have a PhD in Arctic climate system studies. We each traveled from a pole, the regions where climate change is occurring at the fastest rate, into Paris. Along the way, we interacted with as many people as we could. One of the reasons we wanted to undertake this trip was to get the message about climate change out in a different format, using language that people could understand. The advantage of cycling and running is that you get to interact with a lot more people than you would if you were just sitting behind your desk in the office.

The project was just as much about bringing the stories of the people we met along the way to the climate summit in Paris, presenting them to the media and to politicians. We met so many people who have seen climate changes with their own eyes. They see them in the retreating sea ice, they see them in the melting glaciers, they see them in the fish stocks moving northward, they see them as the trees are becoming denser as the temperature is increasing or precipitation increases in parts of the world. Basically, we were trying to raise our voices and raise the voices of people who are already seeing the changes, in order to make change, to be part of the movement of people in Paris demanding a change. And we actually ended up getting it.

Arctic Deeply: Is there a story that particularly stuck with you?

Knudsen: In northern Norway, I met a Saami woman, Layla Inga. The Saami have been living off traditional reindeer herding for centuries. She told me that because of rising temperatures, there’s now sometimes precipitation falling as rain instead of snow in the middle of winter. When the temperature falls again below zero, it creates an ice layer and that makes it much harder for the reindeer to dig through to the food they need. Unless they’re fed, the animals will starve. For Layla Inga, this means a complete change of livelihood. The way she and her ancestors have been living for centuries is now under threat. She fears her children won’t be able to carry on with the Saami traditions she’s so proud of.

Arctic Deeply: You’re also a climate scientist. Tell us a bit more about your work in that field.

Knudsen: I’m a specialist on the Arctic climate system. Up in the North, warming is taking place more than twice as strong as the global average. The Arctic is basically the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the climate system. It has a large area covered by snow or ice. This layer is melting because of increasing temperatures, and white surface is being replaced by darker surfaces. Think about wearing a dark T-shirt on a warm summer’s day compared to a white T-shirt. The dark T-shirt definitely absorbs more heat. The same thing happens with the ocean, the land underneath or snow and ice. There will be a stronger warming because of the declining reflectivity, and so the Arctic is warming extremely fast. This is causing severe problems for inhabitants of the North – Indigenous people, ecosystems, etc. On the other hand, the retreating ice is creating opportunities for industries – tourism, fishing, shipping, oil and gas.

Arctic Deeply: Who inspires you in your field?

Knudsen: I’ve always been attracted to the North. I always loved the snow and the ice, skiing, being out in the wild. But the person who had the most significance for me is Will Steger. He is an Arctic explorer from Minnesota in the U.S. and he was the first person, and the last, to cross the Arctic Ocean on dogsleds from Russia to Canada. I met Steger as I was taking part in a Fulbright program between my bachelor’s and my master’s. The way he was telling stories from the North was so sincere. He used his voice, and his experience in the North and the South, in Antarctica, to explain and educate the younger generation. He now has an organization, called Climate Generation, devoted to getting younger people interested in the environment. I find that both very interesting and very important. Other than Steger, I always found the early pioneers, like [Fridtjof] Nansen and [Roald] Amundsen and so on, super fascinating. Their stories were incredible and they had a lot of scientists on board on these expeditions.

Arctic Deeply: What motivates you?

Knudsen: I’ve always been idealistic. I’ve always wanted to make a difference. I care about my legacy. I also really believe in the goodness of people. I think that if you can get people to understand and see what is going on, they will take the right decisions. That was the motivation for Pole to Paris – we thought that if people got the right information and realized what was going on, they would start pushing their politicians to make significant action in Paris, as well as in other places. That bottom-up approach – interacting with people, learning from people, hearing their stories, their questions and concerns – very much motivates me. While I was doing my run, out in the field, I didn’t meet a single negative person. The people who responded negatively were found only in the online chat forums. In general, people were very supportive and that motivated me to continue onward to Paris. I felt like I was carrying those people’s voices with me on the way, and I was lifted on by them.

Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now, and what do you need to make that vision happen?

Knudsen: If we want to end up with 1.5 degrees warming 10 years from now, we should have shut down most of our greenhouse gas emissions and need to stop any greenhouse gas emissions for four years. That’s basically impossible. If we want to end up with 2 degrees warming within 20 years, we need to make substantial cuts. As I said before, the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine, everything is changing rapidly there. So it makes no sense whatsoever to start developing oil and gas in the Arctic. I think we can do tourism. It’s important for people to see the changes, see the polar bears, see the rich animal life out there in order to understand the issues.

My vision of the Arctic is one that shows it is possible for countries to collaborate for the better good of all people. I really hope we can come to something like the Antarctic treaty for the Arctic. In the Antarctic, there’s a demilitarized zone and international collaboration on science. That will be extremely difficult in the Arctic given the growing tensions between countries, but it’s nevertheless extremely important.

This Q&A is part of our series on young leaders in the Arctic. Read more:

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