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Wyoming community college joins effort to collect climate data with help from locals worldwide

 James Kagambi on Mt. Kilimanjaro
Central Wyoming College
James Kagambi on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

For years, Central Wyoming College (CWC) in Riverton has been studying the effects of climate change on Wyoming's glaciers. Now they have an even more ambitious project up their sleeve. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards talked with Alpine Science Institute Director Jacki Klanchar about Climate Capture,an international effort to collect climate data with the help of locals. Partway through the conversation, they were lucky enough to be joined by NOLS instructor James Kagambi, who will be part of the first all-black team to ascend Mount Everest later next year as part of the Full Circle Everest Expedition.

Melodie Edwards: I wonder if you can just start by describing Climate Capture?

Jacki Klanchar: Well, Climate Capture is an offshoot of all the years we've spent in the backcountry on the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition (ICCE), Alpine Science Institute community college program. It's rooted there because in watching temperatures throughout the years that are in the microclimate of the cirque, and in really internalizing what it means that there's no fixed weather stations in wilderness — and I am all about, and support, having unperturbed wilderness, but it does create a significant data gap for the alpine glacial hydrologic regions. In any wilderness, we really have a vacuum of weather and climate data, and something that we can capture year-to-year and across the summer, and as we're hiking in-and-out type of data collection, [that] really became a bit of a chase.

So as we were out in the field with our expedition, we looked at these temperature changes, and we looked at the weather forecast and went, 'but it's not 59 degrees here. It might be in the middle of the ice where the wind is blowing. But here it's 85. We're broiling!' What does this mean for glacial ice reduction? What does this mean for water availability? What does that mean for water quality? What does that mean for biodiversity? And the humdinger is no one that can answer it because we don't actually have weather data and so we can't discuss adeptly weather monthly changes, let alone climate.

ME: And so I wonder if you can talk a little bit about why it's important to get these diverse populations, getting lots of different kinds of people collecting this kind of data all around the globe?

JK: One aspect of this is simply engaging as many people as we can. And I'll mention another critical partner for us in this, which is the National Outdoor Leadership School.NOLS is amazing because they traverse areas, if we just look at the Wind River Range, to begin with, from every angle, all season long, over about five months or a year, and that yearly gives us an idea of what the norm is. And if we continue this for a decade, two decades, three decades, we can very positively impact and inform science and, in a detailed manner, document what's happening on the glacier.

But we take that model, and we go globally because this is a global challenge. Not all communities will be proportionately impacted. We know that communities where there's no infrastructure, no place to fall, when crops fail, for subsidies or support, there's nowhere else to go. It's not an easy migration from A to B, no ready fix to turn on the tap. If surface water availability is compromised, those communities become critical. So we are looking at Patagonia, East Africa, Wyoming, and the Everest climbing community as our four starting areas.

ME: You had mentioned earlier that there's some technology challenges. How are you going to overcome some of those? And what are your hopes for how technology can meet your needs?

Jacki Klanchar in red with Sarah Konrad in blue on Mt. Kilimanjaro in the snow
Central Wyoming College
CWC's Alpine Science Institute Director Jacki Klanchar with UW Glaciologist Sarah Konrad on Mt. Kilimanjaro, collecting climate data.

JK: We thought maybe, initially, you would just use Google on the worldwide web and find exactly what you need out there. But we're asking for really specific technology. If we look at the Everest community in that Full Circle Everest project, and we look at even those NOLS courses, we're asking that that technology be unobtrusive, that it be able to be transported readily in a backcountry environment and have location details to go with that. And we're asking that there be no extraneous heavy or expensive components to this.

The partner that we have in place right now is electrical engineering at Penn State University and an engineer, Tim Sichler, who's part of the Penn State NASA Consortium. Tim is prototyping some tech for us that will go on ice axes for Everest. It will work with ski poles, hiking poles, and we'll test in all different kinds of conditions how this works, and how the data conversion from really, really raw data to just a CSV file that we can use in our GIS to map and start to sift through this statistically and analyze how that works.

And we're also looking at a whole suite of technology for this that does use the phone for location and data storage, but it's a really different audience. So that might be more your wilderness recreationalists who come to climb Gannett Peak, they stop off at Gannett Sports or Wild Iris or at the NOLS Gulch, and they pick up one of our field sensors, and it would potentially work with their phone.

Melodie, this is the infamous James Kigambi! He is our East African liaison and a key leader and participant on the Everest expedition.

ME: Hello! So nice to meet you. Tell me, how did you end up becoming somebody who tackled giant mountains like these?

James Kigambi: There's always a beginning. As I grew up, I liked mountains. I remember one time, in 1972, I saw somebody firing fireworks on Mount Kenya, on top. And I remember saying I want to do that, it's cool. And then, later on, I became a teacher. And then I went to one mountain in Kenya, just loved it, went to Mount Kenya, touched snow for the first time. I was like, 'this where I belong.' Luckily enough, I was in the right place, at the right time. NOLS was offering a course on rock climbing for locals and I was able to hear about it, apply for it, get it. And they picked me up, gave me a scholarship, and, from then on, I've just been going from mountain to mountain.

ME: Yeah, do you mind telling me a little bit about your trip up Everest?

JK: Yeah, the basic reason for the Full Circle Expedition is mainly to bring in people of different races, and also come out and show that they can also do this. Not necessarily just Black [mountaineers], but any other races that are not really represented in the mountains. And if we could do that, that's a big plus.

Now, this other thing, bringing the scientific gadget up would also be a historical thing. Because we also took this opportunity to do this, talking them into taking the gadgets and feeling that, 'okay, I'm the first one to do this, and that you know what I'm doing it for not only me but for the world. So that I can capture data that can help people understand what is going on, on my mountain.'

ME: I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how climate change is affecting poor countries in the world disproportionately and so why this research is so important.

JK: For mountaineers, definitely they are seeing a big change, like people who have the ability to go up Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. You know, if you have been going up to even the last five years, even five years ago, you go now, a glacier has definitely receded by like a meter or two. And maybe the part that most of them need to relate is, how us, as people, are affecting climate change, and what we can do differently. Those people already are up there. So you're not asking to do much extra work. Having another reason for being up a mountain, I think is important. So it's not just like carrying a pack for a client, getting to camp, and sleep. You know that you need to take maybe a gadget up higher and bring it down. And also, knowing that what you're doing is helpful to the whole world.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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