How scientists wrestle with grief over climate change

Those who study nature are dealing with frustration and sadness over what’s being lost

degraded coral reef

Marine biologist Tim Gordon sets up an underwater speaker on a degraded reef in Indonesia’s Spermonde Archipelago to test whether playing the sounds of a healthy coral reef can attract young fish back to the reef.

T. Gordon

Arriving at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in October 2016, Tim Gordon thought he was living a dream. As a boy growing up in the southeast African country of Malawi, he’d covered his bedroom walls with Technicolor reef posters and vowed one day to explore those underwater worlds. The marine biologist was unprepared for what he found: a silent and colorless field of submerged rubble.  

 At Lizard Island, off the northeastern coast of Queensland, Gordon hoped to study the sounds of the reef’s creatures. “A reef should be noisy,” with crunching parrot fish, scraping sea urchins and myriad squeaks, rumbles and whoops of other marine animals, says Gordon, of the University of Exeter in England. But many of these creatures had vanished as climate change warmed the ocean, triggering widespread coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017. 

“Instead of documenting nature’s wonders,” he says, “I was documenting its degradation.”

Scientists like Gordon are grieving over the ecological losses they’re witnessing firsthand. They are worried about the probability of more losses to come and are frustrated that warnings about the dangers of unchecked carbon emissions have gone largely unheeded.

water sampling
The Central Arctic Ocean is usually locked in ice. But recent warming allowed an August 2017 expedition to sail into the area without assistance from an icebreaker ship. Tim Gordon (shown) and colleagues sampled the water. T. Gordon

Already, climate change is altering the environment at a quickening pace. Glaciers are losing billions of tons of ice each year (SN Online: 9/25/19). Wildfires and storms are growing more intense and destructive (SN Online: 12/10/19). Permafrost, which locks carbon in the earth, is thawing, disrupting Arctic communities, releasing carbon and accelerating warming. 

And thanks in part to other human-caused threats, including pollution and habitat destruction, 1 million species are at risk of extinction (SN: 12/16/19, p. 5).

“There’s this idea that scientists have to be completely emotionally detached from what they study,” Gordon says. But the magnitude of the damage he and others are seeing is taking an emotional toll. “Especially,” he says, “because it doesn’t look like this is going to get sorted out anytime soon.”

Early observers

Grief is a natural response when a loved one is lost and their absence is strongly felt. But humans also become attached to, and love, their natural surroundings, whether a forest held sacred by a certain community or a beloved oak seen from a bedroom window. Plants and animals, winding rivers and rugged mountains can all stir deep emotions.

When those places are lost or degraded, people mourn. The rapid decline of the American chestnut, an iconic tree that once dominated the eastern forests but largely disappeared during a fungal blight in the early 20th century, stirred widespread grief, says Susan Freinkel, a journalist who wrote a book about the tree

“The chestnut was intimately bound up with a way of life in the Appalachian Mountains, the heart of the tree’s range,” Freinkel says. Chestnut wood walled homes and its bark covered roofs. Mattresses were stuffed with leaves, and people roasted the ubiquitous and creamy nuts. “That intimate connection made people feel like they were losing a beloved friend when the trees began dying,” she says.

The grief was profound for some. Joe Tribble from eastern Kentucky recalled, “Man, I had the awfullest feeling about that as a child, to look back yonder and see those trees dying. I thought the whole world was going to die,” according to a collection of oral histories compiled by Nyoka Hawkins in 1993.

The first people affected by environmental change are often the farmers, fishers, indigenous communities and others who live off and work the land. Also affected are scientists who are focused on monitoring and studying — and increasingly on saving — our natural world. 

 Scientists are “at the very tip of the spear … watching Armageddon in slow motion, cataloging loss every day,” says Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. In particular, she says, those who’ve spent their career studying a species or ecosystem that’s rapidly disappearing suffer the most. “They can’t turn away from it and focus on something else,” she says.

To raise awareness about the possible mental health effects of climate disruption, Van Susteren cofounded the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a national network of psychiatrists committed to addressing what she calls the defining threat of our time. Eventually, climate disruption will affect everyone, she acknowledges. But climate scientists already are acutely aware of what’s happening.

“Some scientists are more open about it than others,” Van Susteren says. “But I don’t know of a single one who isn’t distressed about what they’re seeing.”

To get a handle on the scale of the problem, a group of social scientists working on a project called the Adaptive Mind began a survey in spring 2019. They asked scientists and other professionals working to help society adapt to climate change how they were coping. 

According to preliminary results, 80 percent of 122 respondents said they were feeling burned-out, although their reasons could go beyond climate grief. Many of them also said that, while they remain committed to their work, they often feel they aren’t doing enough or working fast enough, says social scientist Susanne Moser, project leader of the Adaptive Mind. 

“That’s the best recipe to burnout,” which can force some to leave a scientific field altogether, says Moser, of Antioch University in Keene, N.H. “These people look existential dread in the eyes on a daily basis,” she says. “When you let climate science and all that it means really sink in, and connect it to your local reality, it quickly becomes not just a cognitive experience, but an emotional experience.” 

“A parental sense of responsibility” 

Kayaking across an Alaskan bay lined by towering rock cliffs in August 2019, glaciologist Ethan Welty felt a profound sense of despair. A decade earlier, the bay was covered in ice, part of the gigantic Columbia Glacier that Welty began studying in 2009. Now, he paddled among drifting icebergs, kilometers away from the glacier’s edge.

Glaciologist Ethan Welty kayaks amid drifting ice near the Columbia Glacier in southern Alaska in August 2019. A decade earlier, much of this bay was covered in ice. Mylène Jacquemart 

With the cliffs exposed, “it was arguably more beautiful than it was before, but I was just overcome with grief,” says Welty, of the University of Colorado Boulder. He wasn’t upset just by the glacier’s rapid retreat, by some 20 kilometers over just four decades. After all, the Columbia Glacier’s retreat isn’t due solely to human-caused climate change, but also because of natural processes associated with the Little Ice Age that ended in the 1800s. 

But Welty sees the glacier’s demise as a sign of what’s to come with global climate change. As atmospheric temperatures continue to climb, many of the world’s glaciers will melt (SN: 1/21/17, p. 14), causing ecosystems to be lost, sea levels to rise and, eventually, coastlines to become swamped (SN Online: 10/29/19). 

“Before I went to Columbia Glacier, I didn’t grasp how quickly these landscapes can change and how nature is not just a stable thing that we can rely on indefinitely,” Welty says. “When you repeatedly return to a place, you develop a sort of attachment. It’s almost a parental sense of responsibility.”

For fellow glaciologist Andy Aschwanden of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the sense of loss over the world’s shrinking ice is compounded by feelings of frustration and helplessness. He and colleagues have spent decades warning about climate change consequences, yet climate-warming carbon emissions continue to rise. Researchers project that 2019 will be another record-setting year of global carbon dioxide emissions (SN Online: 12/3/19).

Andy Aschwanden
Glaciologist Andy Aschwanden drills an ablation stake, to monitor ice levels over time, into the Black Rapids Glacier in eastern Alaska in April 2016.Gabe Wolken

“I struggle to grasp how it can be that the science has been relatively clear since the 1970s,” Aschwanden says, “yet people still aren’t taking meaningful action.” He hopes that will change as more people see climate change affecting their daily lives (SN: 12/21/19 & 1/4/20, p. 25)

“Whether it’s indigenous communities noticing changes in migratory patterns [of hunted animals], or coastal residents seeing more erosion, more people are talking about climate change,” he says. “It gives me hope, even though the window for action is closing.” 

Opening up 

Dealing with ecological grief can be difficult and lonely. There rarely are customs or protocols among scientists for processing it. 

“When a loved one dies, society wraps around you … you get leave from work or school. There’s a funeral, people bring food,” says social scientist Ashlee Cunsolo of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University in Happy Valley–Goose Bay, Canada. “But there are no rituals for ecologically based grief. Many people don’t talk about it at all, because they find it embarrassing, or they don’t know what to say.” 

While studying how Inuit communities in northeast Canada are coping with climate change, Cunsolo became so stressed that she developed a pinched nerve in her shoulder and had to take six weeks off work. The Inuit’s stories were heart-wrenching, she says. One elder told her: “Inuit are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?” 

Ashlee Cunsolo
Social scientist Ashlee Cunsolo (left) interviews Nunatsiavut resident Susan Saksagiak about her experiences and her work as a mental health professional supporting Inuit neighbors experiencing climate grief in Nain, Canada.Inez Shiwak

Inuit lands are part of a region that has experienced warming at a rate three times the global average since 1948, according to a 2019 Canadian government report. For years during her research, Cunsolo kept her grief to herself. “I didn’t talk about it, because I didn’t want to take ownership of their pain as a nonindigenous settler,” she says. But eventually Cunsolo shared her feelings with Inuit community members, which she says was helpful. “That was a turning point; we all opened up and started talking.” She says Inuit community members are coping too, in part by creating programs, such as classes on traditional weaving practices, to keep people connected to their culture when they can’t go out on the ice as much. 

Other scientists are also talking about their fears and frustrations as the stakes of climate change become stark. Spurred on by more open discussion, Cunsolo says she and other researchers are developing a survey on climate change, mental health and ecological grief to assess the impact on those working in ecology, conservation and environmental fields globally.

Gordon, the coral researcher, and two other reef scientists penned a letter in the Oct. 11 Science titled “Grieving environmental scientists need support.” The three argued that scientists should be more open about the emotional toll of their work, and urged universities and institutions to adopt protocols for helping researchers cope. Dozens of scientists sent Gordon personal notes of thanks. “Scientists really welcomed the emotional honesty,” he says. 

After acknowledging the stress of studying degraded coral reefs, Gordon shifted his work toward trying to restore this ecosystem. “I wanted to channel my grief into something more positive,” he says. He’s using underwater speakers that mimic the sounds of a healthy reef to help baby fish naturally swept out to sea find their way home, a journey made difficult without the beacon of reef noise. The method shows early signs of working, Gordon and colleagues wrote November 29 in Nature Communications. The approach might complement other tools scientists are using to restore degraded reefs (SN: 10/29/16, p. 18)

But not everyone can shift their work’s focus. Moser, of the Adaptive Mind project, suggests that scientists can be realistic while still maintaining hope. “It’s not a Pollyanna-ish hope that everything will be just fine,” she says. Instead, she points to the sort of hope often found among people who are terminally ill, who must decide how to move forward despite a bleak prognosis. She advises that scientists similarly could try to envision a worthwhile and reachable future and then figure out how to work toward it.

Time for advocacy

Herpetologist Karen Lips had already been dealing for decades with dread when she decided she could help by doing more in science policy and diplomacy. 

Amphibians have been in sharp decline due to pollution, habitat destruction and the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd (SN: 4/27/19, p. 5). Climate change is also bringing higher temperatures that alter ecosystems, for example, drying up streams.

Lips, of the University of Maryland in College Park, was among the first scientists to raise the alarm about Bd, after she had witnessed waves of death in frog populations in the 1990s in the Talamanca Mountains in southeastern Costa Rica. Some scientists suggest climate change could make the threat from Bd for certain species even worse. Warming also threatens to squeeze many amphibian species out of the narrow temperature ranges for which they’re adapted.

Karen Lips
Herpetologist Karen Lips holds a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) during an annual survey in southwestern Virginia.Carly Muletz Wolz

It can be “depressing work,” Lips says. But it’s also “exciting because you’re helping fill in the gaps of a story, outline the scope of the problem, ultimately hoping to help solve the problem.” At the same time, she can get discouraged by the limited impact one scientist can have. 

Even when she has successes — she helped persuade the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to temporarily ban imports of certain amphibians to the United States in 2009 to reduce the chytrid threat — the effort might address only one tiny part of the problem.

“But that’s all we’ve got,” Lips says. “I’d hate to sit here and say we saw this happening, but didn’t do anything. That’s unacceptable.” 

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