Janet Walker—How to Approach a Rising Sea

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Janet Walker—How to Approach a Rising Sea


As sea level rise moves from being a natural phenomenon for observation to an event directly affecting human lives, some are now calling for a more holistic approach, which is where the expertise of those like Janet Walker comes in.

“The research I’m doing is part of what people across the disciplines are now calling the geohumanities,” Walker says. She is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at UCSB and co-convener of the Environmental Media Initiative Research Group (EMIRG) of the Carsey-Wolf Center (CWC) where she collaborates with fellow researchers to study how media is used to conduct and communicate sea level rise research.

As an alternative, newly imagined animations might depict rising water as transparent, revealing what is underwater the problems we face when buildings and other structures are flooded instead of just what is left standing on dry land.

Beyond analyzing visualizations, humanities and social science researchers bring another asset in responding to sea level rise by including the insights of individuals known as first stewards. “Indigenous people living in areas where the permafrost is melting or on low-lying islands facing sea level rise are, in many senses, the ‘first stewards’ of these lands,” Walker says. “The U.S. and other fossil fuel dependent countries have much to learn from their experience and wisdom about the possibilities for environmentally sustainable living.” She is referring to groups such as native Hawaiians, Alaskan tribes, or the local Chumash here in Santa Barbara who have inhabited their areas for thousands of years and are now currently or soon to be affected by sea level rise.

For the April 12th Rupe/Figuring Sea Level Rise conference, Walker and East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies Professor ann-elise lewallen invited several speakers who were witnesses at the First Stewards climate symposium to participate on an academic panel. “It was enormously enlightening and crucial to hear from them,” she says. “Their perspective is incredibly valuable and has been ignored over the long term and to the detriment of all of us.”

Besides collaborative research through Figuring Sea Level Rise, Walker has also begun to realize  some practical outcomes of the initiative within the UCSB community. The “I Heart h20” project, commissioned through the initiative, is a series of hands-on activities designed by LA-based artists and water enthusiasts Sara Daleiden and Therese Kelly, who were brought on board by Professor of English Stephanie LeMenager.  The activities included a scavenger hunt, the “How’s Your Water Relationship?” survey, and workshops that explored campus members’ relationships to water.  “The imaginative survey (available online) is not a social science project—it’s a poetic exploration,” she explains. “We’re not set on what we’re doing with the answers—the sky is the limit and we’re open to invention.”

The research group, which includes core team members Professors Josh Schimel, Mary Hancock, ann-elise lewallen, Stephanie LeMenager, John Foran, and former Associate Director of the CWC LeeAnne French, recently wrapped up leadership of the year-long initiative, Figuring Sea Level Rise, which hosted multiple workshops, conferences, and events exploring how to picture, communicate, and interpret the effects of rising sea levels. The initiative was part of “Critical Issues in America”, an annual series sponsored by the College of Letters and Science to raise awareness of new and threatening problems throughout the country.

One insight humanities scholars have come to regarding the rising oceans involves examining how digital visualizations are meaningful in and of themselves, apart from the data they depict.  Walker says, ”the choices that go into a particular visualization matter enormously.”. An example of this is how seawater in scientific animations is often shown as a solid blue area engulfing the land. “Opaque and inexorable rising water animations may well shift the focus to inevitability and adaptation rather than the need for mitigation,” she says.

One idea stemming from the May workshop is to create visualizations of ocean tidal charts that could be used as screen savers on campus computers. “The idea there would not necessarily be to get everyone surfing, although we’re not averse to that, but rather to increase peoples’ consciousness about where we are and what is going on with the ocean,” she says.

Looking back on her participation in Figuring Sea Level Rise, Walker says she enjoyed the wide collaboration in the project and that it is an example of how UCSB can be an even bigger leader in environmental communication than it already is. “Our campus has strengths in oceanography and environmental science, there’s the Bren school, there’s the Marine Science Institute, we’re on the beach, and we’re really strong in Communication and Film and Media Studies,” she says. “So I think there’s a lot of potential for us to play a leadership role in communicating about the environment.”