by Kim Lamb Gregory
CSU, Channel Islands, biology Professor Amy Denton, Ph.D., wears a silver bracelet engraved with: 80º 6′ 59.04″ N, 12º 8′ 29.04”E.
“The coordinates are my personal ‘farthest north,’ ” Denton said. “I reached that latitude in July of 2015.”
Hammered out by an Icelandic silversmith, the bracelet represents a spot just north of the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard (Norway) archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It’s just one of the frozen frontiers where Denton has collected and photographed arctic plants, and developed a passion for the stark beauty of the northernmost parts of the earth.
“I fell in love with the Arctic because it’s quiet and cold; and if you’re interested in evolution, the plants that live there live at the very extremes of tolerance,” she said.
Growing up next to a noisy freeway exit in Long Island, New York, Denton’s professional journey to the Arctic began with childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History.
“I loved going there and seeing the dinosaurs, so as a little kid I thought I would study dinosaurs,” she said. “I was good at science. I collected rocks, seashells, leaves — I liked the natural history aspects of biology.”
Her interest blossomed into paleobotany as she pursued her bachelor’s degree in environmental science/plant biology at State University of New York at Binghamton.
“Because I loved dinosaurs, I loved the whole idea of fossils,” she said. “I loved that you could look at and touch something that was alive 400 million years ago, which was the case with plants.”
A desire to live near mountains took her to Seattle, Washington, where she applied for the Ph.D. program studying plant evolution at the University of Washington.
In 1997, Denton’s dissertation took her to Tibet with a group of Scottish plant enthusiasts studying rare rhododendrons that grew in high mountain passes.
“We were the first people to go over these passes that no one had traveled since the beginning of the 20th century,” Denton said. “We stayed at around 14,000 feet the whole way. There was snow on the mountains and it was foggy and cloudy, rugged and very green. The rhododendrons can be 30 feet tall.”
In 2000, Denton accepted a faculty job at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks teaching botany and working as curator of the U. of A. Museum of the North herbarium.
Living in a cabin on five acres, she was accustomed to moose wandering into her driveway, and no sounds except an occasional icicle cracking off the roof.
Denton enjoyed her time in Alaska, roaming the far north reaches of the state and collecting plants, amassing an expertise that she began sharing with CSUCI students after joining the university shortly after it opened, intrigued by helping to build a university from the ground up.
Denton now teaches classes on plant evolution, botany and climate change, which she stresses, is a true crisis.
“The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world,” Denton said. “The thing that’s scary that a lot of people don’t understand is that the climate has changed on earth many times, but it’s happening so quickly, organisms don’t have a chance to adapt.”
Warming oceans and melting ice are threatening to destroy a balance of nature that will move up the food chain and affect every living plant, animal and human.
Through her CSUCI classes and with courses on the Arctic through the Osher Lifelong Living Institute (OLLI) for people 50-plus, Denton hopes to inspire others to protect the Arctic that protects us.
Off Campus is periodical column that features area college professors and their work beyond the campus. Kim Lamb is the communication specialist at CSU, Channel Islands.