OSU-Cascades anthropologist studies climate change

Elizabeth Marino’s work looks at a village facing disaster

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published Jul 20, 2014 at 12:01AM

Instead of examining the composition of the atmosphere, the resident climate change expert at OSU-Cascades studies communities — in particular, communities on the edge of disaster.

Elizabeth Marino, an anthropologist and program lead for the social science degree track, based her dissertation on a small island community in Alaska that may soon be displaced by rising tides. Marino, 35, who began teaching at OSU-Cascades in 2007, is currently turning that work into a book, which she hopes to have out by August 2015.

The Louisiana native couldn’t shake the appeal of Alaska following a summer working beneath the peaks in Denali National Park. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Marino returned to the state to work as a journalist, covering tribal towns only accessible by plane, the kind of places, Marino said, where whaling activities were big news.

“This was right after 9/11, when people were thinking about what it meant to be part of a nation, and some of these people from these small, remote villages were going off to Afghanistan and Iraq,” Marino said. “At the same time, many of them only spoke (the tribal language) and were getting 75 percent of their caloric intake from hunting and gathering. It was just such a fascinating place.”

To further explore the state, Marino earned a master’s degree in linguistic anthropology, making a place-name map using the native language. While working on her project, a series of severe floods occurred, and Marino realized the names she found offered a window onto past ecological conditions. For instance, a barren area may have been named, “Place With an Aspen Stand,” giving a sense of what had changed.

“As it became clear this oral history data was really helpful to climate scientists, the place where I was working experienced three floods that exceeded 100-year levels in four years,” Marino said. “Over time, it became increasingly important for me to think about what these ecological changes would do to populations.”

This pursuit led Marino to a doctoral program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and, eventually, to Shishmaref, an island community of about 560 just north of the Bering Strait.

“It’s about a half-mile wide and 3 miles long, and I spent a lot of time there,” Marino said. “I first flew in about a decade ago and for my dissertation spent about six months there observing the community and how their leaders interacted with state and federal agencies dealing with disaster policy.”

Seven years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the island had 15 years left before becoming uninhabitable because of erosion. Because of this, Marino’s research focused on the impending demise of the community’s home and the population’s inevitable migration, a future, she said, which the government has no solid plans for.

“This is an example of what has been seen all over, where marginalized populations experience climate change with harsher consequences than others,” Marino said. “And it’s important to remember that these are societies who have contributed the least to greenhouse gases. There’s only one car on the island, and all it does is bring your luggage from the landing strip to where you are staying.”

Marino also said one of her “big claims” in the book is that colonized populations are more likely to feel the negative effects of climate change. In this instance, the native population went from being a mobile, adaptive society into one based around a single spot, in the model of European societies.

In her book, Marino will discuss policy that could help the native population make the leap from the island to a new settlement, a process, she said, that would benefit from major input by the Shishmaref population. Marino believes the addition of social scientists into the realm of climate change, which is often seen as the domain of natural scientists, is essential for the management of ecological change and its impact on humans.

“Understanding the whole cycle of what’s happening in the upper atmosphere and how it affects people and what role policy can play requires people who can cross disciplines,” Marino said, adding that social scientists are now common at climate change conferences.

Natalie Dollar, OSU-Cascades associate dean of arts and sciences, characterized Marino’s work as the “future of scholarship.”

“When I look forward, I think research is going to be much more interdisciplinary, and it already is here at OSU-Cascades,” Dollar said. “We’re bringing people together from fields in the social sciences like (Marino) with people from the hard, physical sciences, like chemists.”

Dollar said Marino’s work is “drawing so much attention” to the university, noting her participation on grant review panels and conferences, such as a NASA and National Science Foundation-sponsored meeting this winter.

Looking forward, Marino hopes to continue exploring how ecological change affects communities, with the possibility of shifting her focus to Oregon.

“It would be interesting to look at the issue of flooding on the coast and how people are coping with the loss of marine resources,” Marino said. “Another thing is risk perception, something I was thinking about during the Two Bulls Fire. Disasters are interesting moments in social life, they expose all of our greatest flaws and attributes as a community.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com