‘Everything is connected to everything’

How the National Snow and Ice Data Center prioritizes collaboration to study climate change

Maintenance on the Clyde River Weather Station Network in 2022 with local technicians Esa Qillaq (left) and DJ Tigullaraq.

The work of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at CU Boulder is as varied and interconnected as the earth systems they study. 

On any given day, one scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center might be doing research on the geopolitical impacts of Arctic change while another is educating policy makers, while data specialists and software developers work to handle datasets that are used by the likes of NASA, NOAA and scientists across the world.

“Whatever is going on with the cryosphere, you can be assured that NSIDC is part of it,” says NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. That’s saying a lot considering that the cryosphere consists of all the frozen regions of the planet including snow, ice, glaciers, sea ice, ice sheets, ice shelves, frozen ground and permafrost.  

In one recent study co-authored by NSIDC Senior Researcher Twila Moon, scientists discovered a genetically distinct, previously unknown subpopulation of polar bears in Southeast Greenland that has adapted to use glacial ice to hunt in the absence of sea ice — which has big implications for management and conservation of the species. 

In another study led by Serreze, researchers are working alongside Indigenous communities to better understand the impacts of rain-on-snow events in the Arctic. 

And while the world of polar bears and sea ice may seem a world away from Boulder, there is perhaps no place better connected to the frozen parts of our planet than the National Snow and Ice Data Center. 

The center has been around for more than 40 years, but in recent years, it has increasingly prioritized collaboration across disciplines and communities. NSIDC is both a data management center and a research center, and the collaboration between the two is part of what makes NSIDC tick. 

“We’re involved very much in the science using the data,” Serreze says. “We produce some of the data ourselves. We have this synergy between the data management side and the science side of us, and that is really what has made us so successful.” 

Not only does the cryosphere span from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many regions in between, it’s also a rapidly changing part of the earth system that has far reaching impacts. For example, melt from ice sheets in the Arctic can influence ocean currents and cause sea level rise in the lower and mid–latitudes, which in turn impacts coastal infrastructure. Thawing permafrost, or frozen ground, can release large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.   

“One of the fundamental parts of understanding and dealing with climate change is starting to view our world as an interconnected system,” says Moon, much of whose research centers on the Greenland Ice Sheet. “There’s all of these elements, and they feed back and relate to each other.”

These systems don’t understand borders and are fundamental to the air, water and food systems we rely on, Moon says.

 “Everything is connected to everything,” Serreze says, echoing Moon’s sentiment. 

In the Arctic Rain On Snow Study being led by Serreze, researchers are studying the physical, ecological and societal impacts of rain-on-snow events, which are becoming increasingly common as the Arctic warms.  

Rain on snow is a phenomenon in which rain freezes in thick ice sheets on top of snow, preventing reindeer and other animals from accessing the grasses and lichens they rely on for food, ultimately causing starvation. These impacts can be devastating, as reindeer herding communities rely on the animals for everything from food to clothes to transportation, Serreze says. 

The study is a collaboration between NSIDC researchers and the Indigenous communities who have been witnessing and are being impacted by these events. Shari Fox, a senior research scientist at NSIDC, is working to help facilitate knowledge exchange with Indigenous people, like hunters and reindeer herders.

Glen Liston Shari Fox (middle) sharing tea and frozen Arctic char on the sea ice with long-time collaborators, Elders, and friends Ilkoo (left) and Kalluk Angutikjuak (photo: Glen Liston)

Fox is based in the Arctic in Clyde River, Nunavut, an Inuit community on Baffin Island where she works for NSIDC remotely. She’s been working with Inuit for more than 25 years with a focus on community-led research, Indigenous self-determination and the “co-production of knowledge.” 

“For too long, research in the Arctic has been driven by researchers from the south who have viewed the Arctic as a laboratory,” Fox wrote in an email. “It is a home, a homeland. Inuit and other Arctic Indigenous peoples are the original researchers of their own lands — they know it best.” 

The work of cross-national research is no easy task. Building trust in communities takes time and geopolitical events can sometimes throw a wrench in the plans. The COVID-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, significantly impacted where researchers in the Arctic Rain On Snow Study, which began in 2020, could and couldn’t travel.   

The work of NSIDC goes beyond working with an interconnected web of communities and scientists across the globe – it’s also about education and outreach for everyone from K-12  students to policy makers.

Moon views this education as equity work, and much of her work in this realm focuses on helping people understand our climate realities and feel connected to the cryosphere through storytelling and interactive learning. 

It’s not so much about helping folks feel specifically connected to the Arctic or to the Greenland Ice Sheet, Moon says, but rather helping folks feel connected to the changes we’re  all experiencing. 

“Exactly what you’re experiencing on one day can look different,” she says. “I might be dealing with wildfire smoke while you’re dealing with a river flood. Someone else is dealing with trouble with growing their crops. But we’re having a very shared human experience of a system that has for so long seemed very familiar, suddenly doing things that are surprising and unexpected.”

It’s also about helping folks feel empowered. Moon says it’s reasonable to feel anger, grief and frustration over our changing climate, but she encourages individuals to find opportunities for action within their own lives and communities. 

“We still have a really wide range of future potential paths,” she says. “We’re in a place where we do need system change, but systems are also made of individuals.”