National survey in Iceland on place attachment, climate change awareness, and risk perception

Emma Dexter, a UW student in the Coastal Communities and Regional Development master’s program at UW, is currently conducting a nationwide survey in Iceland as a part of her master’s project. The survey measures place attachment, climate change awareness, and risk perception for people living in Iceland. The findings will help inform sustainable development strategies on a local and national scale and suggest how individuals’ perceptions might be better integrated into these plans.

Click here to take part in her survey  (participants must live in Iceland)

Emma is a 23-year-old student who graduated with a BA in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from Colgate University (USA) in 2023. She’s held coastal communities close to her heart since she was a child. She grew up in southern Maine, very close to the ocean, and she is proud to be from a state forged by the working waterfront and whose economy is dependent on many of the same marine species as Iceland. This made her transition to Ísafjörður feel relatively natural, and she’s found Maine and Iceland share many characteristics in common. She’s also always been drawn to Arctic spaces, and she distinctly remembers learning about the Inuit for the first time in the 7th grade and being gripped with curiosity and the urge to learn more about Arctic cultures.

“I feel incredibly grateful to be living in a near-arctic nation like Iceland today. One way in which I've embraced Icelandic culture is my pilgrimage to the Ísafjörður swimming pool every weekday from 7-8am”. says Emma.

Emma’s research was inspired by Matthias's work with CliCNord, an international project that helps coastal communities enhance their resilience against climate change. Matthias is the program director of the Coastal Communities and Regional Development master’s program at UW and Emma’s thesis advisor. The idea was to fill a gap in the project's current body of research, and to date, there has not been a comprehensive, nation-wide survey of Iceland regarding their areas of interest.

“Matthias and I actually met in spring 2022 when I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Iceland via SIT. He was hosting two of my friends on the program and after a few conversations, we began to realize how much of our research interests overlap” - says Emma. They began working together to apply for the Iceland Fulbright Research Award. Ultimately, they were not awarded the Fulbright grant, but Matthias suggested that Emma should return to Ísafjörður to get her master's at UW and they adapted their research proposal into Emma’s master's thesis.

“In the past, most of my independent research has taken the form of semi-structured interviews, so designing a survey was an exciting change, and I know I'll learn a lot from the analysis aspect in the spring” says Emma. She has always been really interested in the human/cultural element of climate change, and that was part of what drew her to CliCNord and Matthias's research. Suggesting strategies for climate adaptation and resilience building that are culturally-relative and locally-informed is something that she thinks academics, scientists, and "experts" in general need to improve on. She’s hoping the results of their survey can contribute to such development.

One obstacle Emma and Matthias worked through recently in their project is how to navigate the recent volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, given how this event might skew participants' responses to a survey about risk and natural hazards. They were very conscientious of this as they developed this survey. Most of all, they wanted to be respectful of how the recent eruptions have disrupted people's lives on the Reykjanes peninsula, particularly the residents of Grindavík, especially with an awareness of their own positionality as non-natives. They were also mindful of the anniversaries of the 1995 and 2020 avalanches in Súðavík and Flateyri. They discussed this between themselves, and Emma also consulted her co-advisor, Jóhanna Gísladóttir, who is Icelandic and has more ownership of these issues. We all agreed that it was best to continue delaying the survey until the media coverage of the eruption died down.” says Emma. This conversation was also very important to them, considering the sensitive nature of several topics the project is interested in (i.e. avalanches).

Emma loved studying in Ísafjörður as an SIT student. Which heavily influenced her decision to enroll at UW as a master's student. She feels that Ísafjörður is a small, close-knit community whose residents are incredibly warm and generous. She was happy to find that the relationship between UW students and local residents is a mutually beneficial one that is celebrated by most. From her conversations with some of the people living here, the locals appreciate the students’ energy, business, and labor and the students certainly value their hospitality, acceptance, and local culture. Emma also mentions that studying in Ísafjörður allows her to balance her coursework with extracurriculars which are close at hand, such as cross-country skiing, swimming, and hiking. “Despite the town's small size, there is no shortage of places to do my schoolwork. Besides school there's the cafe, the library, and the forest on warm occasions. There are also countless opportunities for students to explore their own areas of interest further by pursuing grants and attending external courses and guest lectures.” says Emma.

She has currently not made plans for after graduation, but her hope is to defend her thesis in September 2024, and she anticipates moving back to the United States following graduation. Emma would love to work in disaster risk management, particularly relating to climate disasters affecting coastal communities. According to Emma, that decision was heavily influenced by her research, as well as the course Coping with Disasters taught by Uta Reichardt this spring. “I think this is an appropriate marriage of my undergraduate degrees in Environmental Studies and Anthropology which I want to use to help communities prepare for and recover from disaster while championing local agency and culture.” says Emma.

Emma was featured last year on UW’s webpage, when she received a grant from the Regional Development Agency of Iceland for her final project. We asked her what the grant meant for her project. “The funding Matthias and I received has helped enormously with this project. I am lucky in that my research doesn't require too many expenses: the survey is online and I don't have to leave Ísafjörður to disseminate physical copies. However, having this grant money allowed me the financial freedom to conduct my master's research while simultaneously doing the coursework for my degree. Thanks to the grant money, I am able to live in Ísafjörður, without incurring too many financial burdens.” says Emma.

When Emma was asked about what this research means for local communities, she said that Icelanders are keen observers of their environment through their everyday lives and activities. She says they move through, and take note of their surroundings every day, whereas researchers might spend only a few weeks or months conducting a study and then leave. “Recognizing locals' knowledge, even if it is not "objective" or collected using the scientific method, is incredibly valuable. I think people know their communities best, and so they should be the ones leading adaptation/resilience initiatives. Honoring the collective agency of communities like Ísafjörður is a core value of this project.”

We wish Emma the best of luck with her master’s project and encourage people to participate in her survey.