Climate ChangeEarth DayEarth Science

Conversation with Dr. Vivien Cumming

Srija Mukhopadhyay

Dr. Vivien Cumming is an Earth Scientist with an award-winning PhD and postdoctoral research at Durham University in the UK, Harvard University in the USA and McGill University in Canada. She is also a photographer, filmmaker and explorer whose work took her to 6 continents and some of the most naturally diverse locations on the planet. She uses photography and filmmaking as major tools to spread awareness about science and the natural world as well as how we can help conserve it. On the occasion of Earth Week, I got a chance to interview Dr. Vivien Cumming and have a short conversation with her about her work, climate change and everything that’s going on in the world right now.

Photo by Dr. Vivien Cumming. https://www.viviencumming.com/

You travel a lot and have also met a lot of people. To add to that, you also do a lot of activities like hiking, diving and other such adventurous things. What are some of your favourite memories from your visits to all the places you’ve been to?

I have a couple of really favourite moments of my life, I think. One of them would be diving at this place called Sipadan in Borneo which is just one of the most beautiful and fantastic dive sites in the world, and we were diving with sharks and schools of barracuda. (She mentioned how contrary to popular belief, being in the water with sharks is one of the most wonderful feelings because “you’re the same, kinda being not against each other in any way”.) So, that was just an incredible experience. Another one would be in Nepal and the Himalayas. I am a geologist and so mountains just have an impact on me, I guess. I find them fascinating. I see the rocks and think about the history of how they got there. It is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, so trekking up the trail was absolutely incredible on every level, be it spiritually or scientifically. Also, it was wonderful going down to Antarctica last year, and something I have always wanted to do, but we didn’t go on land so I would like to go back. Being in such a remote part of the world was incredible. I’ll stop there but there are more.

What are some of the most fascinating secrets of the planet which you could discover or get to know thanks to your expeditions and work, because rocks tell a lot of secrets don’t they?

Yeah, They certainly do. They carve the entire history of the planet, so just by looking at rocks and going back in time you could look at climate and how it has changed over the years. You could look at evolution and fossils and how life has evolved and how we have got here and everything. Well, I can go on about rocks like an encyclopaedia of information.

In one of your articles, titled “How hot could the Earth get?” you mentioned how scientists are trying to predict the future by looking at the events of the past. So standing at this point of time, what do you think the future of the earth would look like a thousand years from now (with all the pollution and global warming and everything else going on)?

A thousand years is a long time into the future. Certainly, the earth will get warmer and there will be a lot more extreme weather events and melting of the ice caps, glaciers and such things. Rising sea levels will have a huge impact on humans and the rest of the wildlife on the planet, and in particular the whole ocean ecosystem will change. I’d like to think that we would stop emitting so much and we might actually be able to bring the planet to a better state, but then a thousand years is a long time so a lot can change.

You were also a part of this documentary which focused on the disappearing of fishes. So, would you like to inform the viewers on why this is happening and how we can act together to stop it?

Well, there are a number of different reasons really. Two of the main ones would be overfishing and over-consumption of fish, and then another one would be climate change and the impact of climate change on the ecosystems in the ocean. That would be the two main reasons, and really both of them need to be addressed. We can’t consume fish as much as we are right now. Fish bounce back quickly when we stop fishing them, but consumption does need to reduction, and then obviously climate change and the impact of climate change is huge.

Photo by Dr. Vivien Cumming. https://www.viviencumming.com/

You also focused on how seaweed farming may be saving the lives of Indonesian fishermen. So, do you think that would be a good alternative for fishermen not only in Indonesia but around the world?

Seaweed farming is already a pretty good alternative for the people in the industry all over the world, and another great thing that is coming out of it is using seaweed as a plastic alternative. So, there are people making all sorts of different chemicals from seaweed. One of the things they are making is edible packaging and things like that, and seaweed has multiple uses from foods to packaging, so it’s definitely a good option.

Your work takes you to a lot of places, so which place do you think promotes the most sustainable living and what can we learn from the people living in that region?

I don’t think I want to pinpoint one place cause that could be politically difficult. I think some of the main things to learn is whatever you do does have an impact, so thinking about what to do and how you do it is very important. Thinking about how you live in terms of living in harmony with nature, growing your own food – things like that are really important. I’ve seen a lot of people move towards plastic-free and try to conserve the planet and those are really important things that we need to think about, but I think it’s just remembering that we all have an impact cause a lot of people look at themselves and think that by changing what they do they won’t have an impact or make a difference. But what we really need to remember is that everyone makes a difference.

Travelling also causes a lot of carbon footprint, so how can we reduce that?

(She jokes saying we should stop travelling.) I think we can push travel companies and airlines to reduce their carbon output, and for engineers to design new ways to travel that don’t involve using fossil fuels. I think certainly we will have to travel less, but I don’t think travelling is something we should not do because we learn a huge amount from travel and from visiting different cultures. So, I would not want to say everyone should stop travelling but we need to think about when we are travelling, and what impact it has and how we can maybe offset that, but another major thing is also putting pressure on airlines to go towards technologies that help.

With all these years of travelling, have you noticed a change in the attitude of people with the increase in awareness about climate change?

There is a huge increase in awareness particularly thanks to recent activists. People talk about it a lot more, people ask me about it a lot more. Climate change is something that I studied as a student, so I have known about it for years, but it was not a conversation that we heard when I was younger. When I was in school it was not something we talked about, so yes, I definitely think there has been an increase in awareness and I think people are thinking about it a lot more.

You are a part of the “River of Plastic” project. So, what are some of the major ways we can reduce pollution due to plastic, given that it is such a versatile polymer and hard to do away with?

That’s a very good question! Firstly, we already have a lot of plastic in our environment, so designing ways to capture that and remove it from the environment are very important things to do in terms of reducing plastic now. I think we really need to reduce our plastic consumption – we are already using the plastic that we already have. It is such an integral part of our society now because we all use plastic everyday, even if we are the most plastic free person, we are using it in some way. It’s just about being aware about the plastic that you use, saving it and reusing it or maybe recycling what you can’t reuse, and making sure it does not end up back in the environment. As a consumer, you do have responsibility for what you consume.

You also visited the Amundsen Sea and spent about 2 months in the ocean. What was your biggest takeaway from that experience?

It is a pretty incredible thing – spending two months in the middle of the ocean, where all we see is icebergs and whales! I think I am just so glad that I did it and got to learn a huge amount about myself as well as the planet, and how small we are, and how insignificant we are. When you are in the middle of the ocean and you don’t see anyone else you really realise that. And the oceans are powerful, and you feel at the mercy of them in the middle of the storm or in the middle of the Drake Passage – which is one of the roughest seas in the world. It also brings you so much clarity because all you see is the ocean and the sunsets and sunrises for months, and when you get back to land, suddenly you see all these different colours again and smell different things. Took me a while to remember how to cross the road, so I was like – Oh wait, cars, yeah they move!

Was there any moment when you felt overwhelmed because you were surrounded by this vast ocean and there was no land anywhere around you?

No, you don’t feel overwhelmed. Well, I didn’t. You feel humbled – I think that would be a better word. I felt safe, because I was on a big research boat, so I never felt like I was completely at the mercy of the ocean, but you definitely feel humbled I think.

You use photography and filmmaking and storytelling as great tools for spreading awareness. How do you think awareness has increased due to these wonderful tools in recent years?

Well, I think hugely. Really, in order to understand science and exploration and all these things, we need to tell people about the process you go through or the science you do. And a lot of people haven’t been to these places or do not understand the sciences, so it’s very hard for them to relate. So, storytelling can be a really great way to connect with people and to really showcase places and the science to explain it. So, I think without storytelling it would be very hard for us to do anything about what’s going on on the planet because people would not understand. The more storytelling we have related to science and related to the planet and how everything works – that’s really one of the best ways to help to gain a better understanding.

Right now the world is going through a deadly pandemic, as a result of which the world is in a sort of shutdown, and emission levels are pretty low. So, how do you think we should restart once again, so that the emission levels still remain under our control and don’t go out of our hands?

I want to say we could actually just stop and think about what’s going on in the world right now – which is showing the impact that our actions can have on our planet. Nature can bounce back very quickly, but obviously we can’t just completely stop. But, I think we need to find ways to move forward more sustainably, and really keep in mind what we are emitting and try to reduce that. I think as consumers we are held accountable, but also producers and emitters need to change what they are doing and I hope that what we are going through right now will help people think about how they can move forward in a more sustainable way.

What advice would you like to give to young people like us? How can we make the world a more habitable place and contribute towards spreading awareness?

Keep doing what you are doing, because most of you are already doing really great things and spreading awareness. I have been amazed in the last few years about how much young people care about the planet and think about it. So, keep doing that and just remember the planet will look after you if you look after the planet, and everything you do has an impact. But, keep doing what you are doing and enjoy life and enjoy nature too.

I would like to thank Dr. Vivien for taking time out of her busy schedule to have this chat, and would like to wish her the best of luck for her expeditions in future.

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