A group of Skagway students is heading south for spring break. They’re leaving the harsh north winds for the warmth of the Marshall Islands. But their focus is serious, to study how climate change is impacting the island nation. The trip will even include a visit with the president.
The Marshall Islands are located in the central Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines. Over 5,000 miles southwest of Skagway. The low-lying island nation is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That’s why a group of Skagway high schoolers is headed there.
“This is their issue. While I will feel it, they will have to take it on,” says Kent Fielding, a high school teacher at the Skagway School. He’s leading nine students on an upcoming trip to the pacific islands.
“When you start talking to students, they’re all aware of climate change,” says Fielding. “This was an issue that seemed to touch a nerve, something they all wanted to investigate.”
Zach Breen is one of the students.
“It’s a place that none of us have really been to,” says Breen. “That sort of area in the world. That’s something that’s new for all of us.”
But, why the Marshall Islands, when communities much closer to home in Alaska are also directly impacted by climate change?
“When you look at places that are affected first by climate change you’re talking about Pacific island atolls and you’re also talking about Arctic places,” says Fielding. “You look at Alaska right now, this last year we have two, maybe three villages that have asked to be relocated due to increasing winter storms, decreasing winter ice and melting permafrost.”
Climate change is impacting Alaska as well. But Fielding says exploring the situation in the Marshall Islands will give students a perspective outside of the state.
“I think if you can form the connection between these places you make climate change more real,” says Fielding. “It’s not just an Alaskan problem, it’s a world-wide problem.”
Breen has started to put those pieces together.
“They’re just kind of experiencing the other hand of it,” says Breen. “Whereas we’re losing our glaciers, they’re losing their land.”
Students will meet with a number people, including the country’s president, Marshallese poets and climate change activists. They’ll also visit high schools and a college. They’ll make a documentary based on the trip.
Leading up to the adventure, students are doing prep work. Presenting on different topics related to the country.
Denver Evans researched coral bleaching. The Marshall Islands are coral atolls.
“And if there’s a small or even a big change that happens really fast as far as temperature or alkalinity or acidity or anything of that nature, the corals actually get really stressed out,” says Evans.
When that happens, she says the corals turn white.
“And that can actually disrupt a lot of the ecosystem around the coral itself,” says Evans. “If they are continually stressed the corals actually start to die. And that whole ecosystem collapses with them. So it can really affect their livelihood.”
Evans and Breen both say they’re excited to be immersed in a different culture. And to learn firsthand how other communities are experiencing climate change.
“Getting a different perspective from somewhere else that still relies on marine life much like a lot of Alaskan communities do, seeing that impact of how they’re – not only their ecosystems and their food systems, but also their actual homes are being affected is going to be very interesting,” says Evans.
Fielding says he doesn’t expect the group of students to be able to solve any climate change problems on this trip.
“But little-by-little, by making connections, perhaps at some point we can have a political will to actually make a change in this country,” says Fielding. “Because right now there isn’t a political will to make a change – the political will is going opposite of climate change.”
The group will host a climate change conference in Skagway next October.