Members of the rowing team at Waynflete joke to each other that their coach must be in the CIA.
How else to explain the fact that Susana Hancock speaks four languages fluently and can converse in six others? Or that she’s constantly traveling to places around the world at the drop of a hat – she was in Sweden this month – or that she sometimes talks to people who work in the White House or at the United Nations? If all that wasn’t enough to make one wonder, Hancock is heading to a remote Arctic archipelago in May, where she’ll pull a sled full of gear and carry a rifle to ward off polar bears.
“Before we understood fully the breadth of what she does, it was the only logical explanation we could come up with,” said Henry Wagg, 17, a rowing team member at Waynflete School, in Portland.
Hancock, 34, of Freeport, is actually a climate researcher who works with governmental agencies and scientific research groups around the world and whose interests and expertise are so wide and varied they almost defy belief. She speaks Russian, Czech, Norwegian and English fluently but says she’s conversant as well in Icelandic, Slovak, Swedish, French, Danish and Hebrew. She attended the University of Oxford in England on a full Rhodes Scholarship, where she earned two master’s degrees, in anthropology and linguistics, and a doctorate in anthropology.
She was a downhill ski racer as an undergraduate at Connecticut College and was a member of the rowing team at Oxford. She was invited to the Olympic trials by the U.S. National Team prior to the 2016 summer games, but a shoulder injury kept her from competing.
She’s served as an expert reviewer for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and serves as vice president of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, as well as working with other research groups. In addition to coaching rowing at Waynflete, she serves on her hometown school board.
Hancock’s unusual combination of skills and expertise – as well as her athletic ability and fitness – all contributed to her being selected as a team member for the upcoming Jubilee Expedition: Svalbard 2022, said Jonas Paurell, the expedition’s leader. The Arctic trek will cover up to about 240 miles over a month or so starting May 1 and will roughly follow a journey made by Finnish-Swedish explorer A. E. Nordenskiold, during his failed attempt to reach the North Pole in 1872-73. The expedition will take place on one or two islands of the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, about 650 miles from the North Pole.
Because the team will be trying to loosely re-create something that happened 150 years ago, they will be traveling without any outside help or motorized conveyances. They’ll use cross-country skis to move over snow and ice and will pull their gear and food in sleds behind them. Paurell, who runs a photography expedition company based in Sweden, conceived of the trip as a way to bring attention to climate change in the Arctic by documenting changing conditions. The findings will be showcased in a film and shared with interested institutions. He has raised money for the trip from corporate sponsors and through donations and that fundraising continues. Right now, the team is still being finalized, but it will likely have seven or eight members, Paurell said.
“Her background in rowing and her strength were important factors, but I also watched some of her TED talks and found them very inspiring,” Paurell said about Hancock. “In terms of the science, being an anthropologist and climate researcher, she has an understanding of how climate affects humans and how to communicate that. That is something that can be super challenging to do. We need the Arctic to stay frozen, and we have to make more people aware of how important that is.”
POLAR BEARS POSE THREAT
Hancock feels so passionate about this trek and its mission that she’s willing to risk her safety. She knows of scientists who’ve been attacked by polar bears in the area where she will be traveling. They survived, but in August 2020 a Dutch man was attacked in his tent and killed by a polar bear near Longyearbyen, a settlement near the expedition’s proposed routes. The exact route the group takes will depend on weather and ice conditions.
Hancock is learning to handle a rifle and will have to prove proficiency in firing it before being allowed by local officials to embark on the journey. An electric trip wire will be set up around the campsite, and one group member will be on guard at all times while others sleep.
“I’ve never really wanted to rethink my decision, but having to deal with the reality of polar bears changes the romantic view of trekking across the Arctic,” said Hancock. “It won’t be just skiing across the snow with polar bears off in the distance. We’ll have rifles in our sleeping bags, to keep them warm.”
Hancock’s mother, Lin Peyton of Freeport, says she’s not surprised her daughter is taking on such a massive challenge given that she’s been unafraid of new challenges her whole life.
“I’m very excited for her, but I’ll be holding my breath,” Peyton said.
Peyton remembers when she first held Hancock in the hospital, the baby held her head up and seemed to look around, taking everything in. Peyton remembers thinking, “I don’t think this is usual.” Hancock has had her eyes and mind wide open to the world and its possibilities ever since.
Hancock was about 4 or 5 years old when she became fascinated with the night sky, after learning about it in day care. She would patiently stay outside at night trying to identify constellations and see shooting stars. In elementary school, at Mast Landing in Freeport, she got to take units in astronomy.
Through all of her years in school, first in Freeport then at Waynflete in Portland for high school, she took courses and pursued a path that she hoped would lead to a career in astrophysics. Because of things she had heard about the Cold War from her grandmother – something that was ending around the time she was born – she decided she’d need to learn to speak Russian, since the Russians were also big players in space.
THE CONCEPT OF ALBEDO
While in high school, she pursued opportunities to further her studies, including a summer program at an observatory in Arizona and classes at the University of Southern Maine. She also helped start the rowing team at Waynflete. When she was about 14, Hancock said, her rigid dedication to astrophysics felt like it was controlling her, and she started to question whether it was her true passion.
In learning about space, she began learning more about the Earth. She remembers studying the concept of albedo – the ability of surfaces, like ice, to reflect heat from the sun and slow the warming of the Earth – and thinking that she’d rather study and work in a field that might improve things here.
“We know so much more about outer space than we do about what’s in our oceans,” said Hancock. “I started thinking I wasn’t studying the right area, if I really wanted to effect change.” She enrolled in Connecticut College, in New London, and changed her focus to linguistics and the environment.
She also continued studying Russian and thought about working on solutions to global problems like climate change, with people from around the world. After graduating, she studied and did research in Norway, where she spent time with Sami reindeer herders and documented the effects of climate change on their way of life. While in Norway, in her spare time, she headed the northern Norway chapter of Amnesty International and played cello in a regional orchestra.
After getting her Ph.D. from Oxford, she moved home to Freeport, in 2019. She doesn’t have one primary job, but instead has been involved in various research programs and serves on panels looking into climate change, often traveling to speak at conferences. She is on the planning committee, for example, of the North Atlantic-Arctic Ocean Science Initiative, a group of scientists from around the world studying ways that those oceans connect the nations on them or with interests in them.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND POLITICS
One issue that falls into this category, Hancock said, is China’s interest in sea routes that are opening up north of Russia, because of melting ice, and how China may want a closer relationship with Russia because of that. The status of China’s relationship with Russia has been in focus since Russia invaded Ukraine, as the world waits to see whether China will help and what it has at stake.
“She’s very eloquent, for one thing. She can take her interest in policy and her understanding of science and explain it in a way that policy makers and the general public are receptive to,” said Larry Hinzman, assistant director of polar sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who has heard Hancock speak at conferences and has worked with her as part of a mentoring group that matches early-career researchers with more veteran ones.
She’s also given talks for the Camden Conference, a Maine-based nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that fosters discourse on world issues.
One recent talk by Hancock was on climate politics in Europe. Her interest in public policy led her to getting involved with the state executive board of Democracy Maine, a group that focuses on improving election access and voter engagement.
That experience made her curious about how local government works. So when there was a vacant seat on the Freeport-based Regional School Unit 5 board in 2019, she expressed interest and was appointed. She won reelection to the board in 2020. She said educational experiences and support were crucial to her development.
She wants to help make sure all students have “opportunities to try new things, explore and grow, and gain the skills needed for their post-high school trajectory, whether that’s the military, a trade school, college, a career or something else.”
Hancock first heard about the Jubilee Expedition to Svalbard when Paurell reached out to the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists looking for someone who might be interested to join the trek. Hancock was interested, and Paurell had her join the group in January. She’s been preparing for the physical rigors of the journey by rowing, on machines at home and at Waynflete, weight training and cross-country skiing.
She also takes walks in the woods while pulling two to three truck tires, to get used to the weight and movement of pulling a sled.
Earlier this month, she was in northern Sweden with other team members preparing for the trek and getting used to pulling a sled while on skis.
She’ll be one of several scientists in the group, which will also include guides and filmmakers. Hancock’s work will involve documenting and photographing conditions – including where ice exists or doesn’t, how thick it is – and comparing her findings to conditions Nordenskiold and his group encountered 150 years ago.
She said people can see climate change in their own backyards, including in Maine, where blueberries have been harvested earlier than usual in recent years and where warm-water fish are starting to become more plentiful. But they don’t often think about how drastically it is affecting other parts of the world.
Hancock and the other scientists are also being asked to collect a variety of data for universities and government agencies. She will be measuring plastic pollution in the ice, for instance. Plastic fibers from clothes being washed eventually get into the oceans, become part of Arctic ice and are ingested by birds, often killing them, she said. A film of the expedition will be made, though where it will be shown is not yet known. Hancock hopes to share some of her adventure on her Instagram account.
“The Arctic is warming four times faster than any place else; it’s massive and drastic,” said Hancock. “It’s a place that’s inaccessible for so many people. With this expedition, we want to show some of what’s happening there.”
Ray Routhier — 207-791-6454 firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @RayRouthier