Woman, scientist, climate advocate: Can you be all three?

Sarah Myhre is a woman, a scientist, and a climate advocate. Are these strengths in a climate crisis?

photo:Grist / Sarah Myhre

A Sea Change in Science

In 2015, a University of California, Davis researcher named Sarah Moffit appeared in a four-and-a-half-minute video detailing her work studying ancient ocean ecosystems.

Looking young and serious, with a long ash-blonde mane falling around a scarf that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nancy Meyers protagonist, she explained the methods she used to make a new and significant discovery. First, she had sliced up cores of sediment from the ocean floor “like a cake.” Then she’d used a microscope to examine high-resolution photos of the microorganisms scattered throughout those samples.

Moffit’s analysis indicated that when an ocean ecosystem had suffered an ecological shock — such as relatively sudden shifts in oxygen levels or temperature — it had taken 10 times longer to recover than was previously believed, millennia as opposed to centuries. In other words: Climate change’s impact on marine life could be much more drastic than we thought.

“It’s a place of personal heartbreak to know that, in the future, if we go down a path of unchecked climate warming, these places that are so beautiful, these organisms that are so fascinating and bizarre and alien — that those organisms and those ecosystems will not be there for my grandkids,” she concluded, clearly crestfallen.

Three years later, in a coffee shop nestled in a damp alley just off the University of Washington campus, she tells me that video was one of her first forays into a debate that is currently raging in climate-scientist circles. At the time, she recalls hearing a rumble of disapproval from some of her UC Davis colleagues along the lines of, “That’s not how a scientist should talk.” Scientists shouldn’t bring emotion or family or humanity into their work, they argued. It’s unprofessional! It’s irrelevant! And, of course, it’s feminine.