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Kennedy Dechant and Penny Nichol in front of a snowy mountain

Episode 133 – Arctic Adventure

Environmental Sustainability students travel to Norway's Arctic Frontiers conference to learn more about climate change in the North

Environmental Sustainability students Kennedy Dechant and Pennie Nichol talk about their recent trip to the Arctic Frontiers conference in Norway, working alongside Norwegian and Finnish students to learn how climate change impacts the North. Listen in to find out what inspired their love for the environment, what their field experience taught them and how their work abroad could potentially help inform solutions to Finland's political divide on climate issues and efforts to protect kelp forests from green sea urchins. (Running time 15:07)

RELATED: Networking With Climate Experts in the Arctic Circle



Katie: Hi everyone. Welcome back to this week's episode of The Bear in Mind Podcast. I'm your host, Katie Nord. Let's get started. NASA.gov quotes, "that while Earth's climate has changed throughout its history, the current warming is happening at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years." After the introduction to the industrial mechanics and technologies, Earth has seen a drastic change in its natural resources, such as a rise in global temperatures, melting ice caps and drastic increase of human sourced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's crucial that we work hard at preserving the health of the world we live in, as well as reduce any possible impact we may have. UNC students Kennedy Dechant and Penny Nichol have just returned from their trip to Norway, where they participated in the Arctic Frontiers Conference to work with Norwegian students and citizens to better understand climate issues in the Arctic. Today, we'll be speaking with these two to learn more about their research on global impact on the Arctic, as well as how their presentations offer possible solutions for Norwegians to preserve the land. Thank you for joining me today, and I can't wait to hear all about what you learned on your trip.

Katie: First off, we'll just start with having you both introduce yourselves. You can tell us your name year and major here at UNC, your interests on the topic or anything else you'd like us to know.

Pennie: My name is Pennie. I'm a senior here at UNC studying environmental sustainability studies with two minors in political science and sociology. I got interested in the topic because I grew up in Colorado around nature and being able to enjoy the outdoors, and then started learning that we are losing it. So I came to UNC, joined Earth Guardians, which I am now the president of here on our campus, and we do a lot of educational outreach to students, and that's what I hope to continue to do in the future.

Katie: Wow.

Kennedy: Hi, I'm Kennedy and I'm also an environmental studies and sustainability major. My interest on the topic kind of stemmed from I'm really interested in the fashion industry and like how harmful that could be to the environment. And I'm also part of Earth Guardians. I'm the project coordinator, and I really enjoy the environmental education and outreach that we do.

Katie: Wow, you guys are smart. Oh my gosh. So how did you guys first discover your interest in environmental sustainability? And what made you decide to choose the major?

Pennie: My senior year of high school, we had to do a project, and I started learning about zero waste and how single use plastic affects the environment. And after doing research on that, it just kept snowballing into this huge issue that I wanted to learn more about and be a part of the solution. And that led me to UNC with the Environmental Sustainability program and being able to do outreach to communities and help them fight for justice.

Katie: That's really cool. I can tell you're really passionate about that. And what about you?

Kennedy: I initially chose UNC because of like our teaching program here, but a similar thing happened to me in high school, and I, I took a web design class and we had to create our own company. And I started an online thrift store that donates half of everything made to environmental non-profits. And I just got interested in the impact of fashion. And then I decided to change my major to environmental sustainability here.

Katie: Do you think you'd want to work in the fashion industry as well as environmental stuff?

Kennedy: Yeah, I really enjoy the education aspect of it. So maybe something involving the two passions.

Katie: I think you would make a really cool science teacher, I will say. How did you first find out about the Arctic Frontiers Conference?

Kennedy: One of our professors in our program, Doctor Karen Barton, reached out to us last summer and was like, we have this really cool opportunity to go to Norway. And yeah.

Pennie: Yeah, she just invited us to work on this project with her last fall semester. We helped her kind of start planning a climate conference on UNC's campus. She got a grant through the Norwegian Fulbright Commission, and we, as a part of Earth Guardians, planned a conference last spring to educate youth in our community. So we had a bit of experience with that, and then we were able to kind of use that experience to help her plan her climate conference. And then roped into that whole experience was us being able to go to Norway to experience the Arctic Frontiers conference.

Katie: Yeah. I previously did an interview with the Fulbright Committee with some professors that were coming from overseas. So that's really cool to see the connections and how that's working. How long were you staying at Norway?

Pennie: I think the conference itself was four days, and then we had an extra day of our student forum stuff, and then we stayed for two extra days on top of that as well.

Katie: Yeah. While you guys were there, did you get to wander around and actually enjoy the sightseeing?

Kennedy: We did. The town that we were in was relatively small, but it was actually kind of nice because on breaks and stuff, we'd get to see all the sights and in our two extra days, and I think we saw most of the city, which was cool.

Pennie: Yeah, we got to explore. We were able to go out to lunch and out to dinner with our student forum group, but then those extra days that we were there as well, we were able to walk around, ride the cable car up to the top of the mountain and do a bunch of sightseeing.

Katie: Yeah. So tell me about the conference itself. What did you do throughout the few days you were there?

Kennedy: It was a really like jam packed couple of days, few days a week. I guess. It was filled with things like attending poster sessions and big picture talks, and we even got to meet some possible mentors that we could have continued a relationship with. And then we also were working on projects in small groups, and we eventually presented those projects later on.

Katie: Yeah. Is it true that you guys were one of the only Americans there?

Pennie: Yeah, the two of us, Kennedy and I, we both were representing the United States in our student forum group at least. So it was a pretty big honor to be able to work with other Finnish and Norwegian students on these projects that are affecting their daily lives.

Katie: Yeah, and it was mostly Norwegian, but there were lots of people from overseas, right?

Pennie: Yeah, students from Norway, Finland. And then one of the students in our group was from Northern Africa.

Katie: Cool. How many people were in your group?

Kennedy: My group had four people, including me.

Katie: Oh, so you were in separate groups?

Kennedy: Yes.

Katie: Gotcha.

Pennie: Yeah, my group was just three of us.

Katie: Oh, cool. Okay. And what did you guys do in your groups?

Pennie: My group focused on the political divide that's in Finland right now. A lot of decisions are made in southern Finland, where their parliament is, but it's not including Arctic citizens in those decision making processes. So we looked at how we could present a solution to involve Arctic citizens in these decisions.

Katie: Okay. So it seems like it's kind of split between the North and the South right now.

Pennie: Yeah, definitely. Citizens from the north are not too involved in the political decisions made in the south. And the southern side of Finland doesn't really know what's happening in the Arctic or how to be involved in any way.

Katie: What would your campaign achieve overall?

Pennie: Yeah, our proposed solution was to do an exchange program with citizens or with students at a university level, exchanging them from southern Finland to northern Finland and vice versa, so that each could experience a different side of life and they would be able to create a connection with the Arctic and see how climate change is impacting them directly, and then be able to be involved in those solutions.

Katie: Okay, that's really cool. I feel like a lot of political choices don't tend to involve everyone that needs to be involved. I would love to see all of that involvement from the high schoolers and from citizens that aren't necessarily from the Parliament and the area that they do vote. So that's really impactful and really cool.

Pennie: Absolutely. Yeah. It would be an amazing solution to be able to implement.

Katie: Yeah, exactly. And bringing attention to those big major issues in the Arctic is a really good cause. So that's really impressive. And what about you?

Kennedy: Yeah. Our project focused on the active conservation management of kelp forest. Basically, kelp forests are disappearing because of the green sea urchin, which is an invasive species that are kind of eating all of the kelp and kelp forests are really important because they help sequester carbon from the atmosphere and our biodiversity hotspots, which is cool.

Katie: The little spiky urchins? .

Kennedy: Yeah.

Katie: They're eating the kelp forest?

Kennedy: Basically, yeah. Our solution was just kind of to create an arena, which is not necessarily a physical space, but we wanted to gather all the stakeholders to talk about this issue and kind of create time-based goals to help put a plan in place to actively manage the kelp forest.

Katie: Yeah. And then how did it get to the point where there were too many urchins?

Kennedy: That happened for a few reasons. From my understanding, the main reason is the fishing industry. They were overgrazing the kelp forest, which then left room for the urchins to come in and eat more kelp.

Katie: Yeah, yeah. And since they're also fishing in that area there's less fish to eat the urchin, I assume. Right?

Kennedy: Yeah, yeah. The overfishing also got rid of any predators that eat the urchins.

Katie: Oh, okay. That makes sense. Man, they're so cute and prickly. I thought they wouldn't be any problem.

Kennedy: There are some species that are not invasive, so that's good.

Katie: I can't fully be mad at the urchins. Just the green urchins. That's fine. If that plan were to go through, what do you think would be the end result?

Kennedy: Yeah, So we'd hope for a few different things. The fishing industry and the local government could come up with policies where there isn't fishing in some areas, or there could be educational workshops that help bring awareness to the problem. That could be like a flier making workshop or things like that. I guess there's a wide variety of solutions, but we're hoping to just get all of these people to talk because the solutions already exist.

Katie: Yeah, and that brings a lot of people together, too. It brings fishermen, it brings citizens, it brings politicians, really a lot of people, which is really cool.

Kennedy: Yeah, definitely.

Katie: How long did you have for your groups to work on these projects? Just those four days.

Kennedy: Not even. Really? Oh, no.

Pennie: Yeah, yeah, I would say we picked groups probably Tuesday, and then we had a few hours here and there to be able to get with our groups, do this research. And then because we were attending other conference stuff, a lot of it became like homework that we had to do on our own time and then meet with our group the next day to go over what we had figured out, and then put our presentations together to be able to present on Friday.

Katie: Oh, gotcha. And what was the presentation experience like?

Kennedy: Pretty cool. I think. There was a panel of judges who were involved in the conference in various ways, like whether they were panelists or speakers or things like that, and they gave us some feedback on our projects, which was really valuable.

Katie: Really cool.

Pennie: Yeah, very supportive group of people. We were all, you know, cheering each other on for these presentations. And the feedback that we received was super helpful.

Katie: Do you know which group won the project?

Kennedy: Yeah, my group won, which was cool.

Katie: Congratulations.

Kennedy: Thank you.

Katie: Does that mean that the project gets to get put into action or are they more just focusing on it?

Kennedy: I don't know, I think maybe something like that is in the works, but not necessarily because of our project. But yeah.

Katie: The idea is out there.

Kennedy: Yeah.

Katie: And since this was a big activity and there was lots of work put into it, there had to have been like a big prize, right? Like $1,000 or like a trip somewhere.

Kennedy: There was a prize and it was a mug.

Katie: Oh.

Kennedy: But I really love mugs, so that was okay.

Katie: Did you each get a mug or did you have to share it?

Kennedy: We each got a mug, so that was good.

Katie: I hope it was a pretty mug at least that's a bummer.

Kennedy: Yeah, it says Arctic Frontiers on it.

Katie: Oh, okay. Yeah. I mean, you get a souvenir.

Kennedy: A souvenir. Yeah.

Katie: That's really. That's funny though. They're like, this is a huge competition and a panel of judges. And here's a mug. Congratulations. Overall, it's clear to see that you guys put a bunch of effort into it. So it's really impressive.

Kennedy: Thank you.

Katie: So what were some of the most impactful topics you learned throughout the event that you'd like to share with us today?

Pennie: A lot of what I learned focused on the indigenous population in Norway. I didn't have really any previous knowledge on Norway or its indigenous population, and to be able to talk to fellow students who are Sami, who interact with their culture every day and are working to be able to promote it on a larger scale, was so interesting, as well as being able to see the president of the Sami people interact on these panels with other scientists and the Prime Minister. It was so cool to be able to see that they are incorporating indigenous people in these conversations and prioritizing their knowledge as we see the impacts of climate change and are able to see their perspectives on these things.

Katie: Yeah, it's good to put a focus on everyone's opinions and especially indigenous people. And that is awesome.

Pennie: Yeah, absolutely.

Kennedy: Yeah, that was well said. Also, I think just as two people who were born and raised in Colorado, a landlocked state, we did not know much about the Arctic. And yeah, climate change affects the Arctic at a much higher rate than the rest of the world. And so that was really important to learn.

Katie: That's really cool. Oh my gosh, that's really impressive. What was your favorite memory from the trip overall?

Pennie: One of the events that we went to kind of related to the conference was called the Pecha Kucha presentation. And scientists, these people who are doing research in the field have 20s for each slide, and they present 20 slides. So it's a super condensed version of their research, kind of dumbing it down to a level that anyone could understand. And it was so cool to be able to understand such scientific topics in 20s for 20 slides. So I thought that was really cool.

Katie: You'd think that you wouldn't learn a lot from just a short amount of time, but I bet it's actually a pretty impactful.

Pennie: Yeah, they were going so quick, but because they only had a few seconds, it was so direct that it landed.

Katie: I feel like I would kill that. I talk so fast. I think I would do so good at that.

Pennie: I think you'd be great.

Katie: Yes.

Kennedy: Yeah. And another good memory from the trip was that we saw the Northern Lights.

Katie: What!

Kennedy: Yeah, it was awesome.

Katie: That is so cool. Wait, are they actually blue and purple or are they different every time?

Kennedy: We googled it after and it kind of depends on what molecules are in the atmosphere. But they were green the night we saw them.

Katie: That is so cool. Sometimes I forget those exist because is it only Norway you can see them in, or is it other places?

Pennie: It's like anywhere above the Arctic Circle, really. So yeah, you could see them all over the north and sometimes they migrate down south. But in Tromso it's a super touristy place that people specifically go to see the Northern Lights. So it was cool to be there and experience that.

Katie: That's a bucket list thing for sure. That's so cool. Did you guys get pictures?

Pennie: Lots of them, yeah.

Katie: Oh my gosh, I need to see all of them please and thank you. That is so cool. For our listeners who don't know too much about environmental sustainability and climate health and all that jazz. Do you have any advice you'd like to share with us?

Pennie: I think my one piece of advice would be to consume less in our society. I think that we promote consumerism a lot and that has a huge impact on the environment. So just maybe not buying yourself that little treat on the way to the store or driving less, walking more, just being able to lessen your impact in that way on the environment.

Katie: Yeah. Get your steps in, girl.

Kennedy: My piece of advice or tidbit of information would just be that climate change is largely a human caused issue, and I think that we all need to do what we can for the planet and then push ourselves to do a little bit extra.

Katie: Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much. Environmental responsibility is a very interesting and important concept for us to learn about today. I discovered so much more about global impact around the world, and hopefully this will inspire you listeners to do some more research on the topic. For any students who are currently at UNC or may be here in the future, it's nice to know that there are often opportunities to travel abroad for educational purposes, so always keep an eye out for those. For anyone who's passionate or interested about sustainability and eco-friendly topics. Similar to that, UNC's Earth Guardian Club is a wonderful extracurricular activity to join if that seems like something you would enjoy. If you have any questions, you can reach out to Pennie Nichol to learn more about the club, or you can look out their Instagram @Earthguardians_unco. Thank you for joining me today. I had such a fun time and I learned so much. Thank you for listening to this week's episode of the Bear in Mind Podcast. I'm your host, Katie Nord signing off.

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