Victoria Herrmann, Coastal Communities Explorer

University of Cambridge PhD student, Victoria Herrmann, is the lead explorer for America's Eroding Edges, a National Geographic-funded research and storytelling project on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, livelihoods, and cultures.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 27 Nov 2017, 15:10 GMT
Victoria Hermann in Alaska conducting fieldwork for her project, America's Eroding Edges.
Victoria Hermann in Alaska conducting fieldwork for her project, America's Eroding Edges.
Photograph by Eli Keene

How did your career begin?

My first job out of college was at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. I was in its energy and climate programme, working on urban mobility and climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities. I worked on mega-cities, mainly in Brazil, India and China, exploring how to accommodate mass growth with the impact of climate change. I found that work incredible.

So why did you switch focus?

I found that cities, by and large, have the resources to adapt. As I spoke to officials, mayors and legislators, they were looking for guidance and solutions to the impacts of climate change and how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and they mostly had the resources to do what we were suggesting after the research.

So I switched focus to look at places that have less resources, and less capacity, both financial and technical, to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Victoria Herrmann on the frontline of America's Eroding Edges.
Photograph by Eli Keene

Where did that lead you?

That took me to the Arctic – I moved from the most populated to the least populated places in the world, but there are similarities. I took a Fulbright Award to the Arctic in Canada to look at how indigenous peoples in the north were able to advocate, within the Canadian government system, for the needs they were seeing within their communities for climate change adaptation and mitigation. At that time there was a Canadian prime minister who was less interested in climate change and I was interested in how they were getting their voices heard.

What brought you to the UK?

I applied to continue doing that work in a PhD at the University of Cambridge and I started my studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute, with a Gates Scholarship from the Gates Foundation.

What’s your current field of study?

I look at climate change security, but also military security, search and rescue, food security, cultural security. As I got deeper into the Arctic realm, I realised that there were a lot more similarities between the Arctic and other geographies than people give credit for. People often think of the Arctic as a far away place that’s remote, desolate with tundra and doesn’t have much in common with the New Jersey shore or Miami. But there are actually quite a lot of similarities.

Communities that are disenfranchised and with less economic resources are adapting to the impact of climate change, such as extreme storms and erosion.

How has your contact with National Geographic helped?

My National Geographic grant project took that idea and ran with it. It’s called America’s Eroding Edges, and took lessons I learned in Alaska and asked those same questions across the United States, US territories and coastal communities. I’m interested in how people are adapting today, and what resources then need from a national level to make their communities as safe as possible, and what they thought of the media narrative coming out of their communities. Was their voice being heard in the right arenas?

Victoria Herrmann interviewed 300 people in US coastal communities and US Pacific territories about the challenges they face from climate change.
Photograph by Eli Keene

What type of fieldwork did you undertake?

I interviewed just over 300 local community leaders in Alaska, along the Gulf Coast, in Chesapeake Bay and in American territories in the Pacific islands. The idea was to get a good cross-section of coastal leaders and find what commonalities could be drawn out of those interviews and to do a bit of storytelling along the way to drive home the fact that climate change is an American story. We should start telling it, to elevate the voices of the community champions.

Like most fieldwork it’s a bit of planning and a bit of working on the fly. Eroding Edges communities are on some spectrum of deciding if they are going to relocate, to move away from the shoreline in some capacity; or perhaps they have considered relocation and decided that is not something they want to do; or maybe it’s communities that have stories written about them but no one had spoken to them about what they wanted.

How easy was it to get people to open up to you?

I reached out to the heads of those communities, mayors, civic leaders, church leaders and once I was there for a month or two, I was able to find who was the next person I should be speaking to. People were mostly receptive – I made it clear I was not a journalist. My intention was to listen, and to understand what they were going through and what resources they need.

Throughout her extensive research, Victoria Herrmann found incredibly resourceful, resilient and insightful local champions.
Photograph by Eli Keene

What did you find?

Across the US and US territories I found incredibly resourceful, resilient and insightful local champions who were doing everything they could to save their communities from the impacts of climate change and make them thrive for the next generation. Those stories often don’t get told in the media – the more common story is the victim of climate change, the disappearing island, or a disappearing culture in the Arctic as it melts, but that’s not the whole story. While there are real concerns about cultural heritage in a changing climate, there are people across all communities dedicating their lives to making sure that doesn’t happen, and if it does happen that their communities stay together and that they’re strong and that they give something to the next generation to hold on to. I wanted to make sure that my research told those stories.

Why do positive stories carry so much weight?

Positive stories are important for how we perceive those communities, because research shows that telling negative stories and putting people in victimising situations means that as humans we are cognitively less able to view them as individuals worthy of resources. So you can see how policy makers, if they see a community as a victim, are less likely to provide financial and technical resources for ensuring its survival.

What sort of positive outcomes have you been able to achieve?

I was able to get a grant to work on a project to build a fieldbased volunteering platform to connect experts with the communities that I worked with, to bring them the help they told me they need. I’m excited I can go back to almost all the local communities and work with them again. To go back through the interviews and say this is where you identified a need, now let’s work to mitigate that need.

I also started and incorporated a non-profit organisation called the Arctic Institute which provides a platform for younger scholars to write, present at events and run workshops around the many dimensions of Arctic security.

Local communities opened up to Victoria Hermann about the climate change challenges they face and the resources they need to mitigate them.
Photograph by Eli Keene

What’s it like being part of the National Geographic family?

Beyond the financial resources to do this work, the best thing is working with a bunch of amazing explorers all around the world, and to meet up a few times a year and talk about what we’ve done and where we can work together. From National Geographic I’ve connected with another Arctic research and we’re hopefully doing a project on glacier stories and communities and how changes in glaciers are impacting communities’ cultural heritage. I’m working with another two scholars to build a skills-based volunteering platform to help communities that I’ve interviewed. I’m working with another one on a podcast.

That kind of network is more than a professional network. It’s a bunch of really incredible people – everyone understands you can do more when you work together. With National Geographic you can work with explorers across the world to do more with your ideas.

Photograph by Eli Keene

Where are your favourite places in the UK?

My favourite trip was to the Shetland Islands – I went to the folk music festival and it was incredible. In Cambridge, my favourite thing is to go punting on the Cam with friends when it’s sunny; and to get tea and coffee at Hot Numbers which is a Cambridge chain.

What’s your favourite music?

Bruce Springsteen – I was raised in New Jersey and although I don’t think I’ll go back, I’ll keep it close to my heart.

How about your favourite book?

My top book series is Harry Potter – I often read it when I’m isolated on a research trip and want to feel connected to people.

Communities that live in rugged and remote landscapes, like Alaska, have more in common with coastal communities in Miami or New Jersey than people think, says Victoria Hermann.
Photograph by Eli Keene

How do you relax?

I’ll grab a book and go to a local coffee or tea shop and read something that’s not academic, that’s not about climate change, and just lose myself in the pages.

I also love to travel and it’s an important balance to travel for research and also just to experience a new place. So I relax when I go trekking or snorkelling, and just enjoy where I’m visiting.

What luxury do you take on your field trips?

I always pack a bit of dark chocolate wherever I go. When I’m visiting the fly-in-fly-out communities in Alaska I eat a lot of canned goods and local fare, which is great, but dark chocolate is a good thing to bring.

Who would you invite on your dream expedition?

I would like to invite my grandfather, who survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. He inspired me to care about people who don’t have a voice. I’d love him to be able to come with me and help with my work.

As someone who understands how serious a problem climate change is and has done tremendous work helping cities, exposing Michael Bloomberg to my fieldwork could help to motivate him to expand his work to more rural, periphery coastal communities in America.

And I’d like to take whoever is the next president of the United States, in between their election and inauguration. I would love them to come to the communities around the US and see why it’s so important to act on climate change.

Photograph by Eli Keene
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