Excellence in International Engagement
Professor of Sociology
College of Liberal Arts
Right: Far from the Arctic communities he studies, Larry Hamilton ponders his backyard in Lee, N.H. with his wife and dog nearby.
"Two hundred thousand miles, or five days by car." Larry Hamilton is recounting, with a straight face, an answer given to the statistics quiz question, What is the distance between New York and Los Angeles? What troubles Hamilton is not merely that this answer—like others given to that same question—is so wrong, it's that for many people, the numbers that define the dimensions of our world have lost their meaning.
"There is this wall of innumeracy in our culture," says the UNH professor of sociology and senior fellow at UNH's Carsey Institute. "Data can represent important, tangible realities, but often numbers are just repeated or ignored without thinking. To many folks, statistics appear mechanical or boring, unconnected to real life, as if in some sense all numbers are equal."
Numbers induce the opposite reaction in Hamilton, a social scientist fascinated by how statistics can illuminate the shifting dynamics between people and the environment. For Hamilton, data sets—whether drawn from a glacial ice core or a population census—are as real and idiosyncratic as people, with stories to tell about societies' complicated and changing conditions.
Where some might see interminable columns of figures, for example, he sees a herring fishery transforming an Icelandic village within a few decades from a struggling, near-feudal society into a thriving commercial center. He further sees how technology, aggressive fishing practices, and oceanographic change cause that same fishery to crash and bring the community to its economic knees.
"What's interesting to me are those patterns that bind different societies together, like climate and the availability of natural resources," says Hamilton. "I compare this data with population changes, technological advances, historical records, and personal stories to see how these different strands connect."
In essence, Hamilton helps to paint the very big picture of how we have lived on this planet, and what our future holds. It is work that naturally leads him to collaborate with researchers from many disciplines. It's also work that keeps him traveling, and a flip through his well-exercised passport reveals many stamps from the eight nations that stretch into the Arctic Circle, where, he says "environment–society relationships are so stark."
Hamilton was first exposed to the region 15 years ago while working on a project in northern Alaska. "I was immediately drawn to the beauty of the landscapes, the amazing stories of the people, and the villages that have survived there for thousands of years." Those villages, he says, are changing rapidly today.
On Hamilton's front burner in the cold climate? Global warming. During this International Polar Year, he is working with colleagues in other nations to catalog the human dimensions of climate change in hundreds of communities, from Alaska and Canada and across the northern Atlantic to Scandinavia and Russia. The project aims to develop an overview of social trends in a time when climate and resource development are transforming the circumpolar North. Ultimately, the research will show how climate change has shaped the recent past in these communities, so their governments can help them cope with future changes.
Asked for an early forecast of how global warming will reshape the Arctic, Hamilton, characteristically, steps back for a bigger picture.
"Climate change will manifest differently in different parts of the world," he says. "Bad farming practices make the consequences of droughts more severe, and building on low coasts increases the likelihood of disasters as storms increase and sea level rises. By our actions, we can make climate changes easier or harder on ourselves."
What's amazing to Hamilton is how long it has taken for the world to pay attention to global warming given that its advent was apparent in the data more than 15 years ago. However, he's glad that people are taking note of the numbers, and their meanings, now.