Seeing Shifts: Ecologists' Lived Experiences of Climate Change in Mountains of the American West

Kimberly F. Langmaid (2009)

This study explores the lived experiences of field ecologists who research the effects of global climate change on mountain species and ecosystems in the American West. The purpose is to generate narrative descriptions of ecologists’ experiences in order to communicate about both the scientific ecology and human ecology of climate change. Twenty prominent field ecologists participated in this study. Interviews with ecologists were transcribed and analyzed using a hermeneutic phenomenological methodology. Eight experiential themes emerged through the process of data analysis, and these themes provide the structure for presenting narratives of ecologists’ experiences. The eight themes are: thinking ecologically, the place-based ecologist, seeing shifts, coping with complexity, a paleo-perspective, crossing thresholds, triage, and silver linings. Each theme is presented through the stories of the particular ecologists who exemplify that theme. The series of narrative descriptions reveals a process of scientific inquiry embedded within human experience and the social construction of global climate change. The life histories, personal motivations, and values of ecologists are found to be an integral aspect of their scientific work. By bringing to life the way these scientists see, understand, realize, and care about their work, the narrative descriptions may connect readers to the seemingly esoteric science of climate change. In addition, the experiences of field ecologists reveal this group of scientists as exemplars of human resilience in the face of complexity and adversity. This research contributes to the human dimensions of climate change by offering place-based and personal stories of scientists’ experiences. Deeper questions for society emerge about: a) the future role of ecologists in education and b) making choices about the kind of world we want to live in.

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