Student Studies Arctic Taiga

Polar bear in Canadian Arctic
Polar bears are part of the landscape in the Canadian Arctic, where CAES student Charles Orgbon was studying the expansion of the taiga, the old-growth forest that connects the icy tundra to the world. Photo contributed

University of Georgia student Charles Orgbon, an environmental economics and management major in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, has been working to convince people of the reality of climate change since he was 12 years old.

But last fall, while knee-deep in a Canadian bog of melted permafrost and wearing shin-high boots, the impacts of climate change started to crystallize for him.

“In the coming decades, I think it will be necessary to have greater scientific competency around those (environmental) issues, and this trip challenged my understanding of climate science and global issues,” Orgbon said.

Orgbon was working with a group, the Earthwatch Institute, to monitor the expansion of the taiga, the old-growth, snowy forest that connects the icy tundra to the rest of the world. While expanding forests may seem like a good thing, climate scientists have been tracking the northward expansion of the taiga because it’s a sign that the permanently frozen soils of the tundra are thawing enough to support new tree growth.

Orgbon’s job was to trudge through the boggy edges of the tundra counting tree saplings. It was muckier work than usual for a dedicated policy wonk, but the experience helped answer a question he started asking when he was younger: “Why can’t we just fix this?”

Orgbon’s travel to the Canadian Arctic was part of an independent study project overseen by CAES Professor Terence Centner.

“Charles’ experience in the Arctic exposed him to actual biological research, the tediousness of the research and the need for data over time,” Centner said about the project. “It gave him a new appreciation for the organization and carrying out research, including the depth required for making an intellectual contribution.”

Orgbon’s Arctic adventure gave him a glimpse into the ways in which policies impact the Arctic and painted a clearer picture of why international climate negotiations can be so fraught.  

“My counting seedlings in the tundra relates to a long deliberation that scientists have had about what a tree is, but what I’m interested in is how data are collected on the international scene and how that influences policy,” Orgbon said. “And can Arctic nations come together to make meaningful change around Arctic issues? … The motives of all of the countries are not very aligned … the political will is divergent. All of these countries have different approaches to environmental regulation.”

No stranger to environmental science and activism, Orgbon started Greening Forward, a nonprofit that trains people to advocate for environmental issues and provides funding for educational programming, when he was a 12-year-old student in Gwinnett County, Georgia. He was still running that organization when he came to UGA as part of the CAES Young Scholars Program in 2013. His job that summer was to crush Vidalia onions so that they could be tested for their sweetness and sulfur content at UGA Cooperative Extension’s Agricultural and Environmental Services Laboratories.

Later he enrolled at the university, and during that time he’s studied Spanish in Spain, volunteered with the UGA Office of Diversity Affairs and organized community forums that introduce students to African-American pioneers who are UGA alumni.

Through an Erasmus+ grant, Orgbon will spend six months this year in an exchange with Universidad Publica de Navarra, studying Spanish and taking courses related to his major before traveling to Colombia. He will graduate in December and, in January 2018, will start his position as a sustainability consultant with Deloitte in San Francisco.

By Merritt Melancon