By Nicholas Smaldone, Contributing Writer
Westborough – While the highest levels of government continue to debate the best way to tackle climate change at the Capitol, it is easy to feel hopeless trying to fight global warming at home. But Westborough High School alum and current Hampshire College student Natalie Baillargeon is traveling across the world to help save the environment.
This past summer, Baillargeon spent her vacation months abroad in the Alaskan tundra, collecting data and conducting research on climate patterns. She spent her time in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in western Alaska, about 45 minutes outside the town of Bethel.
Baillargeon went there with the Polaris Project, funded by the National Science Foundation and Woods Hole Research Center.
“Its purpose,” Baillargeon explained, “is to support undergrad research on climate and permafrost thaw.”
Baillargeon has long been interested in environmental science, excelling in her high school science classes and becoming the founder and president of the Westborough High Science Club. She wanted to create the club to “cultivate science fair projects and scientific community outreach to get younger kids interested in science.”
As an upperclassman, when it was not offered at the school, Baillargeon took AP Environmental Science as an online course. Through college, she continues her passion for science both on and off campus through research projects and the classes she takes.
Before she left, Baillargeon engaged in extensive research to guide her study in Alaska.
“The area was very close to the 2015 wildfire, the second largest in Alaska, and my interest became studying impacts wildfires have on plant nutrients, plant composition, nitrogen cycling,” she said.
In the arctic, Baillargeon, and her 11 fellow student researchers, could apply years of study in a real life situation. There, a regular day in the field consisted of “going to burned and unburned sites, and simply observing and harvesting plants in the area.”
Off the research site, Baillargeon describes the tundra region as “so beautiful and so weird,” and extremely isolated.
“There was no WiFi and barely any connections with outside world, so it was weird to see planes flying over with people, while being so alone on the ground,” she noted, adding “the mosquitoes were really hard. I got bit tons and tons of times.”
In addition to the changing soil, Baillargeon observed the effects of the warming planet in the lives of Alaska’s residents. Due to the natural thaw and freeze of permafrost, it is common for an Alaskan to have to reset their home once every few years, but now, it has become a yearly occurrence.
In Alaska, scientists are “seeing the most intense consequences of climate change, and it’s expected to get worse.” For Baillargeon, this worsening news was a call to action.
“With more storms and drier conditions in the area, there will be greater wildfires, but the impact is not yet known, so that’s why I’m studying right now,” Baillargeon said.
When she returned mid-summer, intense research of her plant collection began at Woods Hole Research Center on Cape Cod. This fall, she brought her info back to Hampshire and continued her research as an independent study.
For Baillargeon, just conducting research wasn’t enough. After much deliberation and preparation with her team, she crossed the country again to present her findings to a meeting of American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC.
Her presentation focused on two different shrub species and the differences in nutrient composition throughout the fire gradient.”
In addition to being able to share her work, Baillargeon took away much from the conference.
“I met people who already knew everything about my research and others who were totally removed,” Baillargeon said, “so it helped me practice the way I talk about my research to different people and made me think of new questions for the future.”
This summer, Baillargeon will return to Alaska for further research.