One Scientist on Running and the Climate Crisis

As an ocean scientist, I see the impacts of climate change every day. Here's what running has taught me about how to move forward.

Photo: Getty Images

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As I run over a complex network of roots, a web connecting all the trees around me, the soft crunch of leaves makes a melody with the creaks and groans of old wood. Branches move with the wind as they have since before humans set foot on this land. I feel a change in the air, and it is getting harder to ignore. 

Last year was one of the hottest years on record, but it might be one of the coolest for the foreseeable future. If you are stressed by that, you are not alone. As an ocean scientist, the realities of the climate crisis play out before my eyes every day, and it can be hard to stomach. From seeing miles of coral reef turn white and die, to haunting sights of polar bears stranded in the ocean searching for an ice floe, it can get really dark. 

As a microbial ecologist, I study how microscopic interactions combine to build entire ecosystems or determine how environments respond to stress. I focus on ecosystems that are very remote from our normal lives, thousands of meters deep in the ocean or at the ends of the Earth. I started working in these remote areas because I was fascinated with the alien-like ecosystems, but I stayed because of how much human impact I found, even in spaces that seem impossibly far from human inhabitants.

Trails have always been my escape, a place where I can breathe in the smell of life and root myself in the version of Earth that I so desperately want to hold on to. But lately, I see too many reminders of what our planet is enduring to feel much relief. Olaf Morgenstern, one of the lead authors of last year’s UN report on physical drivers of climate change, sums it up:, “wherever your running leads you, change is happening.”

The climate crisis is making an increasingly obvious mark on our world, and this is seen throughout the running community. Last year, we saw historic heat waves that led to a brutal Western States and what may be the hottest Olympics on record; unprecedented wildfires that created air that had to be chewed instead of breathed; rapid glacial melt that threatened UTMB trails; and storms and floods that swept away beloved trails. One race I was signed up for last year was cancelled because of a ‘historic’ storm.

We have extracted and burned so many climate-warming fossil fuels  from our planet that we have passed an atmospheric threshold not seen for five million years. Back then, beech and conifer trees covered the Antarctic continent and global sea level was 20 meters higher than today. As Earth struggles with the climate instability we have caused, it’s clear that massive and rapid changes are sweeping the globe. 

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On February 28, the UN released its newest report on how climate change is affecting human society and the world. Right now, with global temperatures having increased by about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above temperatures in 1850 before industrialization, the extreme events that used to occur every hundred to thousand years are happening about every decade. 

Global leaders have set a threshold to warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a boundary beyond which science predicts catastrophic impacts. We are currently on track for between 2- 3 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century. The new report says that if we allow 3 degrees Celsius of warming, we will see five times more extreme weather events, extinction rates that are ten-times higher than today, and up to half of our world facing water scarcity. Rare disasters will be a part of normal life. 

“Wherever your running leads you, change is happening.”

The report states that “near-term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems.” 

“This is really urgent,” said Anita Wreford, one of the lead authors of the report. “We can avoid the worst impacts of climate change if we start changing things now.”   

RELATED: How To Talk About Climate Change

Looking at Climate Change Through the Lens of Running

As runners, we practice dedication and determination on a daily basis – but our reward is often far in the distance, past obstacles and a lot of hard work. When I signed up for my first 100K, it seemed unachievable. But as I showed up every day and worked through my training plan, I started to see it become possible. As I learned to become a runner that showed up, even on the hard days,  even if only for a tiny amount of progress, this helped me think about the climate crisis differently. 

Looking out on the ocean, it’s hard to fathom how one person might be able to cause any change. But drop a stone in that ocean and it will make a ripple. Just as we work our way through incremental fitness gains toward long-term goals, can we implement incremental steps in our lives toward a more climate positive future? And can we do it in a way that ripples out into society?

The report states “any further delay in concerted global action will miss the brief, rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” If we want a future where we are not seeing pandemic-like race cancellations from the climate crisis and markedly more frequent global disasters, massive societal change is needed by 2030. Just as people who are toeing the line at big races didn’t just wake up that morning and show up, getting to a climate-positive future will require organized, actionable steps by all of us – starting today.

“From the individual choices that we make, through to who we vote for and how we use our voices [we are] signaling to our leaders that we want systemic change.”

I was inspired recently by an episode of the How to Save a Planet podcast that suggested constructing a Climate Action Venn Diagram. This can help you identify individual actions to take by breaking down what you are good at, what work needs doing and what brings you joy. For me, that meant starting a garden, composting to reduce my food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, using the bus and my bike and feet more than my car,  and writing and speaking about climate change. 

RELATED: What Running Can Teach Us About Sustainability

Wreford just signed up for her first trail race, and points out that one of the most carbon intensive elements of racing is travel.

“An important way that trail runners can make a difference is to think about how they get to where they are running,” she says. “Will they be flying to a big event? Would there be other options like taking the train instead?” And for gear, she notes, “the most sustainable product is the one you already have.”

When Greta Thunberg sailed to the 2019 UN climate conference instead of flying, she did not make a measurable impact on global emissions. What she did was inspire many others to join her in reducing their air travel. The number of people in Europe traveling by trains and other platforms has been increasing since then, and some companies have started to offer incentives to people who choose to slow down their travel and avoid airlines.

“It can sometimes feel like the small things we do don’t make a difference, [but] they all add up and can also influence our friends and family to start changing what they do as well,” says Wreford. “From the individual choices that we make, through to who we vote for and how we use our voices [we are] signaling to our leaders that we want systemic change.”

“We are conditioned to think that change to our lifestyles means a lower quality of life. But I think we, as trail runners, have learned that sometimes greater efficiency and simplicity brings much greater happiness,” says Faron Anslow, an ultrarunner and climate scientist. “Don’t become complacent, but also don’t despair. This is a solvable problem.” 

As runners, we pride ourselves on our ability to do difficult things and chase impossible goals. If there is any group of people who have a big enough investment in the outdoors, and the determination to see it through… couldn’t it be us?

Sarah Seabrook is a microbial ecologist currently based in Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand. She’s happiest winding her way through trails or a good story.

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