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5 Scientists on the Important Environmental Stories of 2016

When journalists decide to write about science, the experience can be both intimidating and frustrating for everyone involved. Reporters vie for charismatic characters and gripping footage, while researchers hedge and hide behind scientific jargon. Angela Luis, a population ecologist at the University of Montana who specializes in science communication, has seen this process play out many times.

“The stories likely to be missed by journalists are those that are inaccessible because they require too much specialty background knowledge to understand, which isn’t always the reporter’s fault,” Luis said.

But if you ask UM scientists for stories that need more, and better, media coverage in 2016, you’ll be surprised: rather than focusing on incremental scientific advances, they’ll be delivering big-picture ideas.

(Matt Roberts)

Michael DeGrandpre on Sea Level Rise
Professor of chemistry and biochemistry

“It’s bad. It’s one thing to have warming and have the distribution of organisms change and some species go extinct. But when you’re talking about thousands of square miles getting inundated with water, that’s a major refugee problem. You talk about the possibility of Bangladesh flooding, but people don’t give a damn about them here in the U.S., of course. But if you talk about Florida and Manhattan, it definitely starts to raise some eyebrows. Those politicians will go down in infamy for not doing something sooner.”

scientists_Tony Ward_web2
(Matt Roberts)

Tony Ward on Increasing Seasonal Forest Fire Smoke
Associate professor, School of Public and Community Health Science

“I think we will be seeing bigger impacts from climate change and one of the impacts is forest fire smoke every single summer from here on out. Before ’97, like once a decade, it would be a bad fire season. Now it seems like every summer there’s smoke. The forests are getting drier. You’re getting more intense fire seasons that are lasting longer. It not only impacts the populations outdoors. We did some measurements inside the laboratory during the forest fire season and it showed there’s actually high levels of wood smoke inside.”

scientists_Steve Running_web2
(Matt Roberts)

Steven W. Running on Oil and Fracking Booms
Regents’ professor of ecology, former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change member, climate change scientist

“The oil and fracking business in the Bakken is another classic boom and bust cycle of the energy industry. They’re just like a damned 1800s gold rush where they come storming into town to try and get as rich as they can. As soon as the play runs out they’re off…The fact that we let them flare off hundreds of millions of dollars of gas because they don’t want to bother collecting it and selling it—why do we let them do that? I don’t think our state journalists scrutinize this hard enough. It’s a manifestation of we as a society just letting the fossil fuel industry just do what it wants.”

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(Matt Roberts)

Kelsey Jencso on Water Supply
Montana state climatologist and watershed hydrologist

“Water is going to become the new gold. It’s a precious commodity. Investors and large global corporations and investment firms see that opportunity. And it’s really important for Montanans to start understanding that we need to know how much water we have. We need to make sure that we keep those resources within Montana and that we don’t farm the ability to make those decisions out to people that aren’t from Montana. We need to make sure we own our water and that we keep track of it so that we can effectively manage it.”

scientists_Cara Nelson_web2
(Matt Roberts)

Cara Nelson on Conservation Practices
Associate professor of restoration ecology

“Conservation in decades previous was about setting land aside and not touching it and preserving populations at the brink. Now, people have recognized that an important component of conservation is actually having people assist in the repair of degrading ecosystems. So that’s something really new. It’s interesting that in restoration there are almost always strong social benefits and those are important in their own right. But without articulating and telling the story of those social benefits the projects are at risk.”

Matt Roberts worked as a technician for a cancer diagnostics lab, an agricultural development communicator and an ethanol preparation and distribution specialist (bartender) before pursuing a career in journalism and science communication at UM.