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Social Justice Series: Setting a Positive Climate for Change

Social Justice Series: Setting a Positive Climate for Change

Visiting Saints alumnae delivered an important message to current students during the recent “Climate Justice is Social Justice” session of Canterbury’s Social Justice Series—look beyond yourself and your immediate environment and see how climate change affects others around the world. Abigail Omaña ’20 and MaryBridget Horvath ’20 have each done extensive field research on climate change during their college studies, and they shared their detailed findings with attendees.

Abby, a recent graduate of Georgetown University with a B.S. in Science, Technology, and International Affairs, went to Acadia National Park in Maine to study the effects of cross-system subsidies—the transfer of energy from one ecosystem to another—as it related to blue mussels, a major food source not only for aquatic animals but forest animals as their shells are carried further inland. These mussels are now endangered, Abby explained, and the culprits are changing climates…and green crabs. 

“Green crabs are an invasive species in Maine, and their population has been increasing as ocean temperatures rise in correlation with climate change effects,” she said. “They prey on blue mussels, and the worry is, as green crabs survive more readily in their non-native habitats, what will happen to the blue mussel population? As it declines, what then happens when forest animal populations decline due to food scarcity, and how is that going to affect the plants they help disperse and regenerate? It starts this cascade effect diminishing these ecosystems that are dependent on one another in spaces that make up people’s homes, livelihoods, and food sources.”

Similarly, MaryBridget did her fieldwork in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta of the Alaska tundra to study the effects of permafrost melt on the populations there. As part of her research as a Geoscience and Biology major at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, she visited 14 of the region’s lakes and measured the amount of methane and carbon dioxide in each. She also examined the soil carbon, ecosystem, and greenhouse gas production in the area. The results of her work were alarming—the terrain was sinking due to permafrost melt.

“The Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta is within the lands of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik, indigenous people whose entire culture and being is tied to this environment,” MaryBridget told the students. “With the land literally caving away underneath them, they cannot continue the life they have always had. There are 73 communities throughout Alaska that are at immediate risk for infrastructure damage and loss of livelihood because of climate change in the next decade. In some cases, their only option is to pick up their homes and go somewhere else to try and create a new life. This is a serious issue.” 

The research and awareness that Abby, MaryBridget, and many others are bringing to light is an important step toward finding solutions for these climate challenges affecting so many people around the globe. That message is crucial for our students to hear, says Cammy Roffe P ’12, ’15, Canterbury’s Director of Sustainability and Science Department Chair. “It was great to have two former students come back and share their experiences in a field that I am passionate about,” she shared. “The seeds that were planted here have germinated and are growing well.”

And will likely continue to grow in Cammy’s students if the evening’s attendees are any indication. “The stories that Abby and MaryBridget shared were both fascinating and inspiring. It is tough to venture out and be isolated from the rest of the world for the sake of research,” said Juliana Loesche ’25. “The topic is important to me because I have a passion for science, and I hope to continue studying it in college.” 

Catherine Zeng ’25 heard their message loud and clear as well. “This gave me great insight on what goes on out in the world beyond Connecticut,” she explained. “People are struggling due to living in areas made dangerous by permafrost melting and other climate issues. I found their experiences interesting because I want to do hands-on research like that in college.”

Such takeaways are exactly what the visiting graduates sought to drive home to students. “My hope is that all of you try to build your personal connection to the environment,” Abby told them. “Find the small things that make you begin to feel connected to the space around you—then appreciate and understand how it might be important to someone else and how you can help keep it safe for them.”