Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Category Archives: Social & Human Sciences

Endangered Archaeology: Climate Change Threatens to Swallow Paleo-Inuit Sites from Alaska to Greenland

A site used by a paleo-Inuit people known to science as the Dorset threatens to fall into the sea. Photo: John Darwent

A site used by a paleo-Inuit people known to science as the Dorset threatens to fall into the sea. Photo: John Darwent

When John Darwent returned to a remote corner of northwestern Greenland in 2012 to search for the remains of a paleo-Inuit culture that had occupied the area millennia ago, he found the site dramatically changed from the previous visit in 2006. Several meters of the coast had disappeared, chewed away by storm waves that had assaulted the permafrost. A rare archaeological find would soon be swept out to Baffin Bay.

A year later—and about 1,500 miles away—erosion along shoreline bluffs of the Chukchi Sea at Walakpa, about 12 miles from Barrow, Alaska, revealed an ancient sod house on an archaeological site once considered mined of all of its secrets back in the late 1960s. Anne Jensen and a small team of archaeologists raced to the area to conduct an emergency excavation, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), before the structure fell away when the next big storm pounded Alaska’s North Slope.

A storm in 2013 caused erosion along a bluff about 12 miles south of Barrow, Alaska, revealing an ancient sod house that has been dated to as early as 500 AD. Photo: Anne Jensen

A storm in 2013 caused erosion along a bluff about 12 miles south of Barrow, Alaska, revealing an ancient sod house that has been dated to as early as 500 AD. Photo: Anne Jensen

These events are not isolated, insist archaeologists. Countless archaeological sites are under threat from climate change around the world.

In the Arctic, the pattern has become a familiar one. Sea ice—a buffer between the coastline and open seas—is retreating earlier and returning later each year. That leaves the shoreline vulnerable for longer periods of time to angry storm waves, which pummel permafrost weakened by warmer temperatures like a battering ram on the walls of a castle long under siege. Large blocks of sod then tumble into the ocean along with human artifacts, even whole structures, buried within the soil for centuries if not millennia.

“Every archaeological site in the Arctic is eroding, and we can’t stabilize all of them,” says Genevieve LeMoine, curator and registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Maine.

LeMoine is principal investigator on a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, in collaboration with Darwent, to recover artifacts from the Late Dorset culture that are entombed at the historic Inughuit village site of Iita, located in Foulke Fjord, in northwestern Greenland. The team will head to the site in June. (RAPID grants are NSF research awards for which funds are set aside for projects with severe urgency, such as a proposal to study the aftershocks of an earthquake.)

Researchers Hans Lennert, Hans Lange and Justin Junge excavate Late Dorset culture artifacts from Iita in Greenland. The site served as a crossroads for various paleo-Inuit cultures crossing into Greenland. Climate change is endangering its long-term viability, so archaeologists are racing against time to save what they can. Photo: John Darwent

Researchers Hans Lennert, Hans Lange and Justin Junge excavate Late Dorset culture artifacts from Iita in Greenland. The site served as a crossroads for various paleo-Inuit cultures crossing into Greenland. Climate change is endangering its long-term viability, so archaeologists are racing against time to save what they can. Photo: John Darwent

“We’re starting to realize this is a broad and inevitable crisis, and we’re trying to figure out how to cope with this impending loss of lots and lots of archaeological data,” LeMoine adds.

Spreading east

The Dorset represent a distinct culture of the High Arctic that were broadly part of what scientists refer to as the Arctic Small Tool tradition. ASTt people, as the name implies, employed small tools made of flint or quartz—a useful technology for a highly mobile culture. Waves of these paleo-Inuit spread eastward from Alaska and Canada into Greenland as long as 4,500 years ago.

The Dorset people had ventured as far as northwest Greenland by 700 AD. Primarily hunters who preyed on seals through holes in the sea ice, the Dorset preceded another culture known as the Thule, whose own migration eastward from Alaska began around 1200 AD. Their move into Greenland occurred rapidly, according to Jensen, perhaps within one or two generations. The modern natives of Greenland are descended from the Thule, who had distinctive technologies that enabled them to hunt whales.

Iita, also known as Etah, was a crossroads for these paleo-Inuit migrations and cultures. Its location on the edge of the Northwater Polynya, an area of open water in sea ice, served as an ideal outpost to hunt marine mammals like walrus. A nearby bird colony of dovekies, or little auks, was also a valuable resource. In the past, Arctic fox and hare had also been plentiful in the area.

“It was a good base camp, and it had resources at different times of the year,” LeMoine notes.

Saving data

How did the Dorset Culture use those resources? What were their lives like—and what led to their eventual demise? What interaction, if any, occurred between the Dorset and Thule people? The answers to a number of such questions may be awaiting discovery just below the surface at Iita.

“The potential importance of the site for looking at Late Dorset culture is very high because it is rare to find stratified sites in the high Arctic,” says Darwent, who was on the team of scientists in 2006 that first discovered signs of Dorset Culture at Iita on an expedition originally focused on Thule excavations.

In particular, Darwent, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, is referring to the layering of artifacts like layers in a cake, thanks to a trick of the local geography. He described the area in a brief project summary following a 2012 expedition funded by NSF:

Iita sits on an alluvial fan created by a fast running creek; however, prior to the creation of the fan, during the time when ice still ran down the fjord, a steep-sloped deposit of gravel was left along the wall of the fjord, known as a kame. This kame is now eroding because of its steep slope; sand, gravel, and cobbles from it now flow down onto the alluvial fan, creating the stratigraphy now present at the site. … First an open surface exists that develops vegetation … then this surface is buried, and then another surface with vegetation develops. And upon these surfaces people lived.

“What makes the deposits special at Iita is not only the Late Dorset material stratigraphically below the Thule occupations; there are three distinct layers of just Late Dorset materials,” Darwent explains during an email exchange in May. “In essence, we have three snapshots of different times within the Late Dorset use of the region.”

Elation at such a discovery has been tempered by the precarious conditions that threaten to plunge Iita into Foulke Fjord. As luck—bad in this case—would have it, the most complex and informative deposits are located close to that erosion face, according to Darwent.

Archaeologist Justin Junge works to recover artifacts at Iita, Greenland. Photo: John Darwent

Archaeologist Justin Junge works to recover artifacts at Iita, Greenland. Photo: John Darwent

“As for timing, I would imagine in the next decade the stratified deposits could be gone,” he says, adding that the whole site is very large and there are some areas that will not be affected. “This summer will give us a good opportunity to see if substantial loss has occurred over the last four years. I am actually apprehensive that a large erosion event could have occurred already.”

Going all out

A lead scientist at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) near Barrow, Jensen used funds from her RAPID grant to collect and analyze samples from Walakpa. As late as 2013, the site at Walakpa appeared stable when the face of the bluff sloughed off, exposing a sod house, which has since been dated to as early as 500 AD. The Iñupiat people have inhabited the region for at least 3,500 years.

“There are a number of sites that are very important, and if we don’t get to them fairly soon, they will no longer contain all of this really cool data,” says Jensen during a phone interview from Alaska where she has worked for more than 20 years.

As late as 2013, the site at Walakpa appeared stable when the face of the bluff sloughed off, exposing a sod house, which has since been dated to as early as 500 AD. The Iñupiat people have inhabited the region for at least 3,500 years.

Researchers look over the eroded bluff where a storm in 2013 revealed an ancient sod house. Photo: Anne Jensen

Researchers look over the eroded bluff where a storm in 2013 revealed an ancient sod house. Photo: Anne Jensen

“It’s not just important because it has the cultural heritage of this area,” she adds. “It’s a place that’s been used consistently for a very long time.”

A storm over the 2014 Labor Day weekend took out as much as 11 meters of the coastline along a 100-meter front. More of the site was lost the following year in a different storm. Jensen is leading an all-volunteer effort later this summer to recover as many artifacts and material as possible before more of the coastline breaks away. She’s even donating airline miles to help defray travel costs for colleagues.

“We’ll probably have people staying at my house,” she says.

Reaching beyond archaeology

Jensen’s impassioned advocacy goes beyond archaeology. She says human occupation at many of these sites can provide the sorts of ecological and environmental insights that are often the dominion of ice cores, sediment cores, and tree rings.

For example, at Walakpa, people have brought fish, whales, and other prey to the same site for thousands of years. Tissue samples from those animals are preserved in the permafrost, like meat in a freezer, waiting to be extracted and analyzed.

“You have a frozen tissue archive with several thousand years of time depth,” she notes. “Museums don’t have that.”

Experts can look at DNA and tease out information about animal population dynamics, speciation, even how diets changed and the food web evolved in response to environmental upheavals. It’s even possible now to extract corticosteroids from bone samples to determine if an animal experienced stress during its lifetime, Jensen explains.

“You can date it all,” she says. “You can start to put your food web together and see how they changed over time.

“A lot of it is not just social science data,” she adds. “A whole lot of the data I’m talking about is not going to answer social science questions; it’s going to answer natural science questions.”

Racing against time

It’s difficult to race against time to save the world’s archaeological treasures if there’s not even a starting line: There is no comprehensive list of endangered sites or even a catalog of how many are under threat at this time.

“The scope of the problem is so big,” LeMoine notes.

Jensen says there is momentum in the scientific community to prioritize sites worldwide and create a vulnerability index, based on a variety of factors, from cultural value to preservation cost to the assessed level of endangerment. Pragmatism must be observed in some cases. “There’s nothing you can do to protect some of these things,” Jensen says.

In the meantime, Jensen is advocating for a campaign to collect as much data as possible from archaeological sites, even forgoing analysis in the short term. She says a similar program to collect ice cores from fast-disappearing glaciers in the mid-latitudes captured invaluable data in the form of ice cores before the ice melted away in many places.

“Something similar needs to happen with archaeological sites,” Jensen says. “If you do it in the normal science order, you will get far less data. In 50 years, we’ll get far less data than we would have if we had gotten the primary data and curated it properly.”

Weathering change

How much time is left is anyone’s guess. However, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than scientists have predicted.

Alaska just experienced its warmest February ever and second warmest winter ever in the modern record, according to NOAA. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country. Average annual temperatures have increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit with winter temperatures increasing by 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Arctic sea ice is at the tipping point, setting a record low maximum extent in 2016 for the second straight year, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., and NASA. Sea ice extent over the Arctic Ocean averaged 14.52 million square kilometers on March 24, beating last year’s record low of 14.54 million square kilometers over the 37-year satellite record.

The longer absence of sea ice is detrimental to the coastline, even in areas like Alaska’s North Slope where permafrost is still relatively stable, according to Vladimir E. Romanovsky, head of the Geophysical Institute Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which maintains a network of permafrost monitoring sites in North America and Russia with NSF funding.

Scientist Vladimir Romanovsky studies changes in the permafrost around the North Slope of Alaska in 2007. Warming climate is causing the active layer – the upper portion of the soil that thaws and freezers each year – to deepen. Warmer permafrost is partly allowing coastal erosion around the Arctic, endangering archaeological sites. Photo: Vladimir Romanovsky

Scientist Vladimir Romanovsky studies changes in the permafrost around the North Slope of Alaska in 2007. Warming climate is causing the active layer—the upper portion of the soil that thaws and freezers each year—to deepen. Warmer permafrost is partly allowing coastal erosion around the Arctic, endangering archaeological sites. Photo: Vladimir Romanovsky

That’s because wave energy has more space and time to build up intensity. “It’s going to accelerate the rate of coastal erosion,” he says. “Degradation of permafrost is mostly coastal erosion in the Barrow area.”

In far northern areas like Barrow in Alaska and Iita in Greenland, little of the permafrost is fully thawing, Romanovsky says. However, the permafrost is warming and the active layer, the upper part of the soil that thaws and freezes annually, is slowly deepening, he adds.

Under a “business as usual” climate model where human impacts from atmospheric carbon dioxide remain steady, temperatures in Alaska will climb by as much as 8 degrees Celsius by century’s end. “In this case, according to this scenario, permafrost will be thawing even on the North Slope of Alaska,” Romanovsky says.

Additionally, the high salinity content of some soils in Greenland and Alaska, particularly along the coast, means liquid may already exist in some areas. Where there is water, there is life – microorganisms decomposing organic material. The temperature in the permafrost doesn’t need to reach 0 degrees Celsius before frozen earth in saltier soils thaws, ruining Jensen’s ecological archive of frozen animal tissue as the microbes go to work.

“These things have transitioned from perfect organic preservation to bone mush – there’s nothing that you can recover,” she says. “It’s a very rapid transition. It’s not like we have a lot of time here.” —Peter Rejcek

For further information about the scientists and their work, visit their blogs, visit:

Jensen: https://iceandtime.net/

LeMoine: https://crockerland.wordpress.com/

Mapping Community Exposure to Coastal Hazards in Northern Alaska

The remote northern Alaska coast has some of the highest shoreline-erosion rates in the nation. Photo USGS (Click here for the page hosting the photo.)

The remote northern Alaska coast has some of the highest shoreline-erosion rates in the nation. Photo: USGS

Communities along the far northern coastlines of Alaska are witnessing some of the highest erosion rates in the world. Less and less sea ice cover results in the direct exposure of coastal soils to the destructive blunt force of powerful wave energy. That, coupled with permafrost thaw and sea-level rise, means the region can lose upwards of 50 feet of coastline per year in some locations.

Such a dramatic loss of coastal lands along Alaska’s North Slope has serious impacts on the villages that call the region home. Erosion is putting valuable community assets—like traditional lands, industrial sites, military infrastructure, and municipal utilities—at serious risk.

Community Mapping

Michael Brady, a doctorate candidate at Rutgers University in the Geography Department, is leading a National Science Foundation-supported project to document and map community exposure to coastal climate threats.

His project, titled Mapping Community Exposure to Coastal Climate Hazards in the Arctic: A Case Study in Alaska’s North Slope, integrates Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing, and other mapping tools to identify areas most at risk. What makes it particularly unique is that residents of the communities where he works are active participants in the research process.

“I do community mapping. I develop an erosion risk database in the North Slope, and then I create maps from that data to engage communities to both verify the maps, expand on them, and make sure the maps I create are locally usable,” Brady explained.

Ultimately, the map products that result from his work will be valuable resources to help communities and local officials plan for their needs in the face of a rapidly changing landscape.

Where Erosion and Valued Lands Overlap

Brady’s research takes a deeper look at areas where high erosion rates overlap with things people value.

“Near villages I’m working in, the erosion rates are severe, though not as severe as in other areas. Where I’m looking, we are seeing erosion rates of up to 10 feet per year in some places,” he said.

Over the past 2 years, Brady has conducted dozens of open-ended and semi-structured interviews with residents in Wainwright, Kaktovik, Barrow and Nuiqsut to get a better idea of where erosion is affecting people’s lives most.

During these conversations he and the participants highlight areas of high risk on paper maps. A number of themes emerged from those initial discussions.

“Traditional land use areas were a primary concern. In addition to Native Allotments, there are a lot of archaeological sites and cultural heritage resources that are significant. These are places where there still tends to be heavy activity. For instance, during the summer months communities often still use many of these places,” he said.

Residents also worry about the impact erosion may have on potentially contaminated Cold War sites that are near the marine habitats villagers often use to fish and collect other sources of food.

A cabin along the Arctic Alaska coastline was recently washed into the ocean because the bluff it was sitting on top of was eroded away. Photo: Benjamin Jones, USGS

A cabin along the Arctic Alaska coastline was recently washed into the ocean because the bluff it was sitting on top of was eroded away. Photo: Benjamin Jones, USGS

Utility infrastructure was the final major area of concern. “In Barrow, there are important pump stations for the utility company that if water gets into the system, the whole multi-million dollar operation is disrupted and would need major repairs,” Brady said. “At this point they are literally throwing dirt at it during the heaviest erosion months!”

Collaborative Exchanges

With the information identifying the assets at risk from erosion that villages cared most about in hand, Brady moved the next phase of his work—inputting this into a database and then developing accessible, web-based applications called story maps to share it more broadly.

Brady returns to these North Slope communities this spring with large, 10-foot long printed erosion risk maps of the region to verify the information in the database and speak with more community members about areas experiencing high erosion.

“This is collaborative, community-based research. An important tenant of that process is that it’s not just communities in the North Slope that are learning from the experience of being engaged with this research; I, as the researcher, am learning as well,” Brady said. “So this is reflexive research where there’s a mutual learning process. I’m learning and fine tuning my methods as I learn from people I work with in the field.”

Thawing permafrost accelerates erosion. Photo: USGS

Thawing permafrost accelerates erosion. Photo: USGS

More Applications

While Brady is in northern Alaska, he will also host usability workshops with local officials to explore how this spatially detailed erosion hazard risk information can be applied.

“At the end of this process, what I hope we all walk away with—and that other scientists can learn from, too—is the value of community engagement in research. I hope this process creates long term relationships that continue to grow, as they are the key to long term engagement on this issue,” Brady said.

For more information about Michael Brady and his project to map community exposure to coastal hazards in northern Alaska, visit https://sites.google.com/site/michaelbbrady1/. —Alicia Clarke

Looking in the Margins for Clues About Economic Inequality and Environmental Change in Medieval Iceland

During the middle ages, Iceland’s recently settled landscape saw many changes—everything from the transition to an agricultural society to the adoption of Christianity. These changes altered and shaped the rolling hillsides and the people of Iceland to their cores.

Kathryn Catlin, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University’s Anthropology Department, is digging in Iceland’s soil for clues to the impacts of these changes. She is now in the second year of a National Science Foundation-funded project to uncover how manmade environmental changes impacted the lives of medieval Icelandic farmers who scratched out a living on highly eroded farmland. The project, titled The Archaeological Investigation of Erosion and its Effect on Social Processes in the Arctic, focuses on medieval farms in Hegranes, an island in Skagafjörður, north Iceland.

This month, Catlin speaks with Field Notes about her research in to the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality and what we can learn from them now, as our own landscapes undergo dramatic manmade changes.

Field Notes (FN): What did the Norse settlement of Hegranes Iceland look like circa 870?

Kathryn Catlin (KC): Iceland in the middle ages was a lot like Scandinavia. The settlers brought a Scandinavian-style social structure with them. There would have been a chieftain who had several followers living and working on his farm.

During the medieval period, what we have were isolated farms dotting the landscape. Some of these farms were large and more powerful. Then there were these more peripheral, dependent farms where the farmers owed some sort of rent, tribute or labor to the central farm. I’m interested in the peripheral, marginal places.

FN: What do you hope to learn by studying the remnants of these smaller medieval farms in Iceland?

KC: I’m interested in looking at a series of abandoned structures that are still visible on Iceland’s landscape. These places are located in the marginal areas, between the more viable lands where the soil is deeper. The marginal areas are highly eroded; there’s barely any soil left at all.

I want to understand what the people were doing in these areas, how they related to the more successful farms, and how this was related to the human-driven environmental changes that were happening during this period of time.

FN: What was happening in medieval Iceland? Why were the first 500 years after settlement so dynamic and full of social change?

KC: The environment was changing quite a bit at this time, especially during the first 100 years of settlement. People began to deforest the landscape. They cleared land for homes, they set animals out to pasture in the highlands, and they cut down trees for fuel and for construction.

There was a really big push to change the land and make it similar to the agricultural landscape they had created in Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia. At the same time, there were related social changes that were happening where people begin to establish large farms and then smaller ones.

According to the Landnámabók, a medieval text that describes the settlement of Iceland, by about the year 930 the land was “fully settled.” We usually take that to mean that just about all the viable land that people could farm and live on had been claimed and turned into the property of one powerful family or another.

On top of everything I just mentioned, around the year 1000 Iceland officially became a Christian country. So there was a lot going on!

FN: What are the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality?

KC: There’s actually a relatively large body of research and literature to do with erosion and social difficulty. Studies, particularly some done in Africa, show that places where people are living in poverty tend to also be areas that are eroding.

It’s all tied in to the economic infrastructure of the region. The powerful groups often benefit from the exploitation of the land. At the same time, this exploitation destroys the livelihoods of the people that live on areas becoming degraded.

Along with the loss of trees in medieval Iceland, we are able to see rapid erosion and changes in the soil profile.

FN: How do you collect data to shed light on the relationships between erosion and economic inequality in a settlement that’s over a thousand years old?

KC: One of our major methodologies is soil coring. We do over a thousand soil cores every summer. We use a core that can extend up to 120 cm. This gives us a soil profile that contains information on how the landscape formed and the degree of erosion. It also helps us locate turf used for construction and midden areas where trash was disposed. We will be collecting more cores this summer, as well as many 1m by 1m test excavation units to learn more about each site and to collect materials (primarily charcoal) for carbon dating.

FN: What types of data do you collect? Do you find many artifacts?

KC: We actually find very few artifacts. In the places I’m looking, the people would have been on the lower side of the social scale. They may not have had that many objects, and the majority of the things they had would have been organic—made of bone, cloth, or wood, all of which tend to degrade over time. We often find butchered animal bones, mostly sheep and some cows. Additionally, Iceland’s soil is not very good for making ceramics, so there isn’t much of a ceramic tradition on this island. Occasionally we’ll find metal objects—things like jewelry, nails, arrowheads, and other kinds of iron workings.

Most of the construction in Iceland during this time was made from cutting turf out of the bogs and letting it dry. You can still see numerous historical sites where people built these types of structures. Once the turf gets buried in the sod, you see a very red iron signature in the soil. This tells us where the structures were on the landscape.

We also look for areas where they deposited trash—like charcoal, peat ash and animal bones. So these are the things we look for to tell us what was going on at these sites, when sites were established, and when they were abandoned.

FN: Can what you learn about medieval Hegranes tell us anything about how environment changes shape social and economic standing today?

KC: I’ve thought about this a lot! Infrastructure is something that’s created by the powerful to maintain a particular relationship with the environment and that feeds the economic resources back to those in power. Everyone living within that infrastructure tends to support the ongoing status quo that may or may not be environmentally sustainable.

My hope is that we can think about our modern-day infrastructure in these terms and consider how we can build and shape people’s practices more toward sustainability rather than away from it, which is what I think is happening now.

For more photos and information on Kathryn Catlin’s archeological work in northern Iceland, visit www.blogs.umb.edu/scass and www.kathrynacatlin.net/blog. –Alicia Clarke

Life in the Far North

A walrus is seen during a spring hunt near Wales. Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are talking to Alaska Natives and elders about sea ice to learn more about current melting trends and how it impacts life in the Arctic. Photo: Amos Oxereok

A walrus is seen during a spring hunt near Wales. Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are talking to Alaska Natives and elders about sea ice to learn more about current melting trends and how it impacts life in the Arctic. Photo: Amos Oxereok

Ed. Note: We loved this story by Diana Campbell published last month in the Fairbanks News-Miner about scientists, native Alaskans, and life in the far north. To read it in its original version, click here.

FAIRBANKS — My mother had so much to tell us about the taiga forest that she took my brothers and me into the woods during the summer when we were children. “Chew this,” she’d say, handing us hard chunks of spruce sap. “It’s gum.” Or “Don’t pick all the flowers,” she’d say. “Don’t pick all the berries. Save some for others and for them to come back next year.”

Mom was Alaska Native, and it was her job to tell us about the land. Because of this, we knew about which plants were good to eat or had good berries. One thing eluded her, though. She was always trying to make a willow flute just like her father made her when she was a girl. She never could figure it out.

My grandfather died when Mom was 8 years old, so we couldn’t ask him. But he did tell us because he helped a scientist. More on that later.

Generations of explorers, researchers and scholars coming to Alaska for study have depended upon their Native informants. For example, in the early days of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Lawrence Irving, who founded the Institute of Arctic Biology, had a close bond with Simon Paneak, of Anaktuvuk Pass.

It hasn’t always been a mutually beneficial relationship between informants and researchers. A story I’ve heard many times is how a scientist goes into a community, conducts his study and leaves, never to come back. He goes on to earn a Ph.D. or masters, publishes his findings in scholarly journals and builds a career. The people left behind have no idea what’s been said about them and their lives aren’t bettered by the visit.

UAF has a history of trying to change that dynamic, in part by considering their Alaska Native informants as co-researchers. A UAF group of scientists at the Geophysical Institute are building relationships with the people who live with the ice and snow they study.

“A satellite image doesn’t tell us details of what the ice is doing,” said Mette Kaufman, a UAF research technician for SIZONet Local Sea Ice Observation Program. Indigenous people, particularly elders, have generations of knowledge about sea ice, she said. Their information adds to the larger picture of what’s happening in the Arctic.

SIZONet Local Sea Ice Observation Program

Hajo Eicken came from Germany to the Geophysical Institute because he wanted to be in a place where people live with sea ice.

He’s been here about 10 years and was a leader in the founding of SIZONet, an interdisciplinary project for observing seasonal ice in the context of environment.

“The Inupiat and the Yup’ik have developed a very intimate relationship with sea ice cover,” Eicken said in an interview by Arctic Stories. “And as a result, they have a very deep and, in many ways, a different knowledge of the ice cover than someone like I would, who has university training.”

The joining of the two different perspectives gives a better picture of what’s happening in the Arctic and is one of the purposes of the SIZONet Local Sea Ice Observation Program, Kaufman said. They depend on observers from Western Alaska coastal communities to report what’s happening with sea ice, as well as the environment, when they go whale hunting. The local observers send their reports, sometimes with photos, to a website. Kaufman tags observations by theme.

Bowhead whale hunting happens in the spring when whales are migrating north. Inupiat whale hunters start building trails on the ice to the open water in February or March, said Billy Adams, co-captain of the Ana’i Crew of Barrow. They watch the ice freeze up in October until whaling season in April or May. They know it intimately.

“We watch how the ice is being formed,” Adams said. “You have to know a lot of things. It takes many years to learn something and work with it.”

Once the whalers catch their whale, they need a safe piece of ice to drag the beast onto for all the whaling crews and the community to butcher the whale. The ledge of ice also needs to be close to where the whale has been caught.

“We also teach our young children to come out to the landed whale,” Adams said. “Everyone in the community is allowed to help and get a share of the whale.”

For generations, Inupiat whale hunters talk to neighboring whale hunters about what the ice and whales are doing. Telling a scientist is the same thing, Adams said.

“We call that tusaaugak or qangiqsiuq, asking for understanding,” he said. “Everybody has to learn.”

Adams and other observers report the daily happenings on the ice via the SIZONet website. Sometimes they send photos.

“The melt water on top has drained out as expected, so it will be no problem for your equipment out in front of Niksiurag,” Adams wrote on June 4. “We call this draining of melt water ‘kinniqtit.’ It is time to travel or go back whaling on the sea ice.”

Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook

The Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook is associated with the whale/sea ice observations program but focuses on seal and walrus hunting conditions. Walruses also are hunted in the springtime when their migration north takes place, said Olivia Lee, a research associate with the Geophysical Institute. Lee is a marine mammal biologist but is learning about sea ice from an indigenous perspective.

“Most of the sea ice has drifted past, and today, there is no pack ice visible,” wrote Winton Weyapuk from Wales. “Wales passengers flying from Nome … reported seeing a large walrus herd on a ice-floe 20 miles southeast by Cape York, which was the only piece of ice available for them here.”

Lee said that kind of detail and context couldn’t be found in a typical scientific observation using calculations, satellite imagery or remote field measurements.

“They have a community of experts with long-term, location-specific knowledge of sea ice which allows them to put current conditions in context with the past,” Lee said.

Locals and scientists have interest in sea ice but for different reasons, Weyapuk said.

“Scientists see sea ice in relation to their studies and subsistence hunters from the perspective of safety,” he said.

The browning of the Arctic

The Arctic is greening, scientists have found. That’s because sea ice decline and warming trends are contributing to new vegetation in the Arctic, said Uma Bhatt, an associate professor in remote sensing at the Geophysical Institute.

Greening except for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska. Satellite data suggest vegetation there is browning. Bhatt and Ph.D. student Peter Bieniek sought help from Yup’ik elders who live in the area.

They worked with Ann Fienup-Riordan, a well-known Yup’ik cultural expert, and the Calista Elders Council in Bethel. The elders invited Bhatt and Bieniek to come and talk to them. First Bhatt and Bieniek wanted to know if the land was indeed browning and then if the elders had an idea why. An interpreter translated their questions into Yup’ik.

The elders sat in a circle and discussed the situation. Yes, vegetation was browning, they said. They thought perhaps it was the presence of salt in the air from the ocean.

Furthermore, berries were ripening sooner and not as good. Some reported the berries were salty.

“They were really scholarly elders,” Bhatt said. “They really thought this through. They are the professors of their culture.”

Bieniek said the satellite data was showing less snow cover and perhaps that was causing tundra plants to die. Clearly, the problem is complicated, he said.

Bhatt and Bieniek are waiting to hear if a grant proposal will be funded so they might continue their work on the delta. Developing relationships for science collaboration with indigenous people is a long process and dependent on funding.

“We don’t want to be like those who show up, take what we want and leave,” Bhatt said. “We all have to work together to understand the Earth.”

 And that flute my mother always wanted to learn how to make? In 1932, Cornelius Osgood, a Yale University anthropologist, came to Alaska to study the Gwich’in, then known as the Kutchin. My grandfather, John Fredson, was his guide and interpreter and one of his informants. Osgood wrote a book called “Contributions to the Ethnography of the Kutchin.” I grew up with my grandfather’s copy of the book in our home.

One day, I was skimming through it and I found the instructions on how to make the willow flute. The trick is to use willow harvested in the springtime when the sap is running and the bark slips off.

Mom would have liked that.

Diana Campbell is a writer for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is Gwich’in and Alutiiq and has been working in science communication for more than nine years. This column is free in cooperation with the UAF research community.

Scenes from Smithsonian’s Arctic Spring Festival

Ed. note: Field Notes frequent contributor Alicia Clarke checked out the Arctic Spring Festival last weekend and offered this snapshot of the event.

Crowds filled the halls of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. to learn about all things Arctic. The Arctic Spring Festival, May 8-10, 2015, was held to celebrate the people, cultures and science of the region. The festival marks the United States’ 2015-2017 chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Crowds filled the halls of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. to learn about all things Arctic. The Arctic Spring Festival, May 8-10, 2015, was held to celebrate the people, cultures and science of the region. The festival marks the United States’ 2015-2017 chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic is the fastest changing climate system on Earth. Many of the exhibits at the museum illustrated the dramatic change in sea ice over the past several decades.

The Arctic is the fastest changing climate system on Earth. Many of the exhibits at the museum illustrated the dramatic change in sea ice over the past several decades.

Visitors could explore the diversity of marine life found in the Artic Ocean in the museum’s Sant Ocean Hall.

Visitors could explore the diversity of marine life found in the Artic Ocean in the museum’s Sant Ocean Hall.

Experts and volunteers from the Smithsonian and other research organizations, including the National Science Foundation, introduced festivalgoers to some of the Arctic’s most charismatic marine creatures, including the narwhal and the North Atlantic right whale.

Experts and volunteers from the Smithsonian and other research organizations, including the National Science Foundation, introduced festivalgoers to some of the Arctic’s most charismatic marine creatures, including the narwhal and the North Atlantic right whale.

The Arctic Ocean’s charismatic mega fauna didn’t get all the attention. From krill to whelks, like the fat Neptune, museum exhibits highlighted the ecological importance of some of the Arctic Ocean’s smaller inhabitants.

The Arctic Ocean’s charismatic mega fauna didn’t get all the attention. From krill to whelks, like the fat Neptune, museum exhibits highlighted the ecological importance of some of the Arctic Ocean’s smaller inhabitants.

Traditional clothing made from animal skins were also on display. The hat (left) is made of ring seal and sea otter fur. Sea otter fur is the densest fur of any animal, which has made it a favorite of traditional craftsmen and craftswomen in the Arctic for centuries. The gloves (right) are made of beaver, wolf and moose pelts.

Traditional clothing made from animal skins were also on display. The hat (left) is made of ring seal and sea otter fur. Sea otter fur is the densest fur of any animal, which has made it a favorite of traditional craftsmen and craftswomen in the Arctic for centuries. The gloves (right) are made of beaver, wolf and moose pelts.

Just down the stairs from Sant Ocean Hall, visitors to Q?rius, an interactive series of exhibits, learned about the different bear species that roam the Arctic.

Just down the stairs from Sant Ocean Hall, visitors to Q?rius, an interactive series of exhibits, learned about the different bear species that roam the Arctic.

These objects on display in Q?rium are from East Greenland. They were collected by a U.S. Airman working in Greenland during World War II. They are crafted from narwhal tusks and were made by locals specifically for tourists and other visitors.

These objects on display in Q?rium are from East Greenland. They were collected by a U.S. Airman working in Greenland during World War II. They are crafted from narwhal tusks and were made by locals specifically for tourists and other visitors.

Festivalgoers also had the opportunity to try their hands at quilting using prints unique to the Canadian Arctic.

Festivalgoers also had the opportunity to try their hands at quilting using prints unique to the Canadian Arctic.

Residents of the Arctic need a good pair of shoes. Here, a craftsman shows visitors how to make traditional footwear from treated fish skin.

Residents of the Arctic need a good pair of shoes. Here, a craftsman shows visitors how to make traditional footwear from treated fish skin.

The halls of the Smithsonian were filled with dozens of Arctic experts, including photographer Wilfred E. Richard (pictured here). Richard was at the festival to discuss Maine to Greenland, a book he co-authored with anthropologist William W. Fitzhugh.

The halls of the Smithsonian were filled with dozens of Arctic experts, including photographer Wilfred E. Richard (pictured here). Richard was at the festival to discuss Maine to Greenland, a book he co-authored with anthropologist William W. Fitzhugh.

Gender, Environment and Change in the Arctic

Making genuine connections with the local community is an important step in building the relationships and trust needed to get answers to the researchers’ questions. Here graduate student Charlene Apok participates in a blanket toss last summer. Photo: Sarah Huang

Making genuine connections with the local community is an important step in building the relationships and trust needed to get answers to the researchers’ questions. Here graduate student Charlene Apok participates in a blanket toss last summer. Photo: Sarah Huang

Indigenous communities in the Arctic are facing a lot of pressure. The region is warming twice as fast as other parts of the world, with significant impacts to the Arctic ecosystem. To subsistence communities that primarily hunt, fish, and gather their food, these changes are significant. Loss of sea ice is also opening the Arctic to other interests such as shipping, tourism, and natural resource extraction. How members of these communities respond and adapt to these changes is the focus of Purdue University environmental anthropologist Laura Zanotti‘s research.

Through the project, Collaborative Research: Gender, Environment, and Change: Exploring Shifting Roles in an Inupiat Community, Zanotti and her colleagues are working closely with community members in Barrow to interview women and men in Barrow, Alaska about how they are navigating environmental, political and economic changes in the 21st century. The National Science Foundation-funded project got off the ground last summer, with Zanotti and her team conducting the first round of interviews.

This month, Zanotti talks with Field Notes about the questions she’s exploring with this project and how the indigenous community in Barrow is playing a key role.

Barrow Alaska is the stage for a project where scientists are teaming with indigenous communities to understand and document how they are navigating environmental, political and economic changes in the 21st century. Photo: Sarah Huang

Scientists are teaming with indigenous communities in Barrow, Alaska, to understand and document how those communities are navigating environmental, political and economic changes in the 21st century. Photo: Sarah Huang

Field Notes (FN): Why are indigenous communities—and particularly female members—vulnerable to environmental and political changes?

Laura Zanotti (LZ): This is an interesting question, and one that we are exploring through a local perspective. There are reports from the United Nations and other organizations that point to both historical and colonial violence enacted on indigenous communities. This has reverberated in to the present.

It’s important to point out that we are working with community members to understand the perception of that label [vulnerable] and ways they adopt, or not, to being described by these terms.

FN: What are some of the challenges that are affecting indigenous communities the most today?

LZ: Community members have identified long-term interactions with “outsiders” that have not always been beneficial. There’s also the historical injustice, lack of respect and dignity associated with these interactions. These are issues we have come across a lot, especially in the context of doing research. We are very sensitive to the role researchers have played in this and how legacies may persist.

Other challenges, as you might imagine, are some of these large-scale global issues, like climate change, as well as the positive and negative impacts of economic development. People point to these issues as bringing new challenges, as well as opportunities to grow and move forward.

Researchers Sarah Huang (right) and Charlene Apok (left) are all smiles while collecting data. Photo: Sarah Huang

Researchers Sarah Huang (right) and Charlene Apok (left) are all smiles while collecting data. Photo: Sarah Huang

FN: What do you hope to learn as you embark on this body of research?

LZ: We have designed a collaborative approach for looking at the ways in which women, men and the community are facing different types of change in their livelihoods. We are especially interested in changes that happened in the past 30 years.
We are working with indigenous women and men in Barrow to learn about their life histories and the challenges and opportunities they face. We also want to work with both women and men to discuss involvement in subsistence practices.

 

FN: This is a two-part question. First, how do you build the relationships with the community members in Barrow to get the answers to your questions and, second, what types of data are you collecting?

LZ: Building trust with communities and people that you are meeting for the first time is a long-term process. My co-principal investigator, Courtney Carothers, and myself are really dedicated to working in Alaska for the long term. We also very much want to be a part of a narrative that creates positive change and highlights some of the stories the community wants to tell that may otherwise be invisible to most.

The project is designed to be participatory. By that I mean we’ve been working along side project advisors who are community elders and leaders. They help us design interviews that, for example, get answers to our research questions in ways that are sensitive to community needs and meet research standards.

We spend lots of time—as much as possible—in Barrow talking with people, interviewing people and just being in the community for different important events.

FN: It sounds like you will have lots of interesting audio and visual records when this study is complete. How to you plan to share this wealth of information with the communities you work with and others?

LZ: One idea is to create an interactive eBook that might be used in workshops, in high school classrooms or in other ways. This would integrate the rich audio and visual material in a way that’s not only accessible now, but also accessible to future generations. We are partnering with the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow to archive audio records, if participants agree to that. We are also bouncing some of our ideas off of our project advisors.

In terms of the scientific community, we are exploring how we can design collaborative community projects that are meaningful and relevant. We anticipate that we will be writing some of this up in ways that other researchers can benefit from learning about our methodologies.

FN: Why is documenting the challenges faced by indigenous communities, as well as their responses to those challenges, important?

LZ: This is a great question, and certainly an important one. From my own perspective, indigenous people in North America are still somewhat invisible in our history books and are still negatively stereotyped by the media and elsewhere. Projects like this one can really help with putting a face on some of these larger global problems in a very local, place-based way. It will also challenge the dominant historical narrative about indigenous people.

To learn more about Lauren Zanotti and her work to understand gender, environment and change, visit: http://www.womenandstrength.com/. —Alicia Clarke

Where Tradition and Science Intersect: The Yakutat Seal Camps Project

r. Aron Crowell and students watch for harbor seals on a visit to the ice floe rookery near Hubbard Glacier. Photo: Darian LaTocha

Dr. Aron Crowell and students watch for harbor seals near Hubbard Glacier. Photo: Darian LaTocha

In 1915, American anthropologist Robert Lowie declared, “I cannot attach to oral traditions any historical value whatsoever under any conditions.” Some colleagues, such as Franz Boas disagreed, and debate has continued since then about the “historicity” of oral tradition.

These days, Dr. Aron Crowell, Alaska Director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, is contributing to the debate with his own anthropological findings from a research project in Alaska that’s searching for (and finding) archaeological sites using oral history as a guide.

500 year-old barbed arrow point excavated in July 2014 at the former Ahtna-Eyak village of Tlakw.aan (Old Town) on Knight Island, Yakutat Bay. Photo: Mark Luttrell

500 year-old barbed arrow point excavated in July 2014 at the former Ahtna-Eyak village of Tlakw.aan (Old Town) on Knight Island, Yakutat Bay. Photo: Mark Luttrell

Specifically, Crowell and a team of researchers supported by the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska Corporation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service are partnering on research into the unique history of the Yakutat people and their relationship to one of Alaska’s richest ecosystems.

In this multifaceted project, archaeologists are uncovering dwellings, artifacts, and animal bones at sealing camps and village sites, revealing ancestral lifeways; elders are recording place names and centuries-old oral traditions; geologists are tracking the glaciers’ movements through time; and hunters are sharing knowledge about seals and seal hunting, from past to present. Yakutat students are working with the scientists, to help rediscover the traces of their grandparents’ way of life on the land.

“My very strong interest is connecting the oral traditions to geological and archaeological research,” says Crowell, “It is fascinating to take two very different forms and discover where they intersect.”

The research team and a Yakutat Coastal Air Otter on the beach near the Smithsonian base camp on the Malaspina Glacier foreland. Photo: by Mark Luttrell

The research team and a Yakutat Coastal Air Otter on the beach near the Smithsonian base camp on the Malaspina Glacier foreland. Photo: by Mark Luttrell

In this case, that discovery is centered in Yakutat Bay, Alaska, where glacial recession after A.D. 1100 opened the fiord for colonization by harbor seals and for successive waves of Sugpiaq, Eyak, Ahtna, and Tlingit settlement.

According to the project’s Facebook page, the project was inspired by George Ramos Sr., L’uknax.adí Tlingit clan elder and traditional scholar, who learned the names and locations of ancestral sealing camps during his training as a young hunter. In his words and those of other Yakutat elders, the seals are the glacier’s gift to the people, and have sustained their way of life for centuries. The stories, which have persisted for generations, offer unprecedented insight into the locations and activities of ancient people, information that can aid archaeologists in their searches.

Archaeologist Aron Crowell and student Pierce Bateman record layers of cultural deposits inside an 850 year-old house at a sealing camp near Malaspina Glacier on the west side of Yakutat Bay. Photo: Mark Luttrell

Archaeologist Aron Crowell and student Pierce Bateman record layers of cultural deposits inside an 850 year-old house at a sealing camp near Malaspina Glacier on the west side of Yakutat Bay. Photo: Mark Luttrell

It isn’t just tribal stories helping archaeologists discover historic sites, says Crowell. Modern archaeologists are uncovering information that broadens and adds context to the oral history.

“There’s no calendrical dating within the oral history,” he says. “Archaeology allows scientists to put dates on stories.”

The potential here, he says is “to see a bit more clearly some big events and processes in indigenous history. This will help us understand the meaning of those events and who exactly was involved.”

It’s an enormous undertaking that’s sent Crowell and his team out into the field every summer from 2011 to 2014 In the course of their research, the team has uncovered settlements, conducted interviews in the Native village of Yakutat, , and more.

It also takes place in what Crowell describes as “the most spectacular setting I have ever seen in the North.” Giant glaciers come in at the head of Yakutat Bay and tower nearly 250 feet above the water (all told, the glaciers measure roughly 600 feet, from the sea’s floor to their top). Enormous peaks surround the bay. The landscape is treeless and covered in brush. A seal rookery supports about 2,000 of the animals, and Crowell estimates that in the heyday there were 30 times that many.

As for the project’s implications, well, they’re big, says Crowell.

“Because Arctic and Subarctic oral traditions have been extensively recorded, and in many cases are retained today by living speakers, there is great potential for this approach in Greenland, Canada (including the Northwest Coast), Alaska, and northeastern Russia,” he says. “The Tlingit area including Yakutat Bay and Glacier Bay may be especially good because oral traditions are actively maintained and taught, and are closely linked to clan identity, history, land, resources, and art.”

Yakutat undergraduate students Daniel Thom and Maka Monture in the research yurt at Knight Island base camp, 2014. Photo: Mark Luttrell

Yakutat undergraduate students Daniel Thom and Maka Monture in the research yurt at Knight Island base camp, 2014. Photo: Mark Luttrell

More, the project brings a host of benefits to indigenous communities, including education and inspiration for students, the development of a place-based science curriculum, and a renewed acknowledgement of the importance of subsistence at Yakutat, says Crowell.

“The recent decline of the seal population is of great concern and our archaeological data will help to show biological and population trends over time,” he says. “It is also possible that the detailed documentation of historic sites and land use patterns that come out of these data may be helpful in reestablishing Alaska Native ownership of traditional sites, as occurred under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.”

 

 

 

Recap: Joint Science Education Project 2014

JSEP students and their teachers gather at Summit Station in Greenland. All photos: Lynn Foshee Reed

JSEP students and their teachers gather at Summit Station in Greenland. All photos: Lynn Foshee Reed

Earlier this summer, Lynn Foshee Reed, organizer of Arctic Science Education Week, sent us a recap of the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP) 2014. In it, she wrote, “It is rare that high school students and teachers from multiple nations are provided with the opportunity to live and learn together. Even more uncommon is when they are given the chance to work alongside scientists and other experts in hands-on field experiences. To do so in the Arctic, in Greenland, demonstrates that the Joint Science Education Project is truly an extraordinary educational gem.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

For those of you who don’t know, JSEP brings select American high school students to Greenland for a collaborative diplomatic effort to team with Danish and Greenlandic students and researchers to learn about Arctic science. Admission is by application, and applications for the 2015 year will be due at the end of January 2015. Check back on the official JSEP website for application info.

In the meantime, here’s a glimpse of what JSEP students experience.

Last summer 18 students and seven teachers participated in JSEP, gaining exposure to the environment, research, and collaboration in the Arctic. All images: Lynn Foshee Reed

Last summer 18 students and seven teachers participated in JSEP, gaining exposure to the environment, research, and collaboration in the Arctic. 

JSEP students learn about weather balloons on the ice. JSEP introduces select high school students to a variety of National Science Foundation-supported Arctic research.

JSEP students learn about weather balloons on the ice. JSEP introduces select high school students to a variety of National Science Foundation-supported Arctic research.

The Arctic's diversity is evident through its varying landscapes.

The Arctic’s diversity is evident through its varying landscapes.

Students take water samples during one of their excursions as part of JSEP 2014.

Students take water samples during one of their excursions as part of JSEP 2014.

Oil development, conservation, and subsistence hunting rights converge in the Chukchi Sea

King eiders, a commonly hunted bird in the Arctic, is part of the focus of Prof. Jim Lovvorn's research on tribal rights, conservation, and oil development in the Arctic. Photo: Wikipedia

King eiders, a commonly hunted bird in the Arctic, is part of the focus of Prof. Jim Lovvorn’s research on tribal rights, conservation, and oil development in the Arctic. Photo: Wikipedia

At first blush, there is not a lot in common between eider ducks and increased oil production off the coast of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. But look a little deeper—or follow the work of Professor James Lovvorn of Southern Illinois University and colleagues Henry Huntington (Huntington Consulting) and Tuula Hollmen (University of Alaska, Fairbanks)—and you’ll discover that the researchers’ work on water birds is a key component in engaging Native communities in northern Alaska that may be affected by oil development.

Lovvorn and colleagues recently launched the first year of a four-year, NSF-funded project to model habitat requirements and map viable prey densities for the formerly hunted (now threatened) spectacled eider, and a commonly hunted species, king eider, in the Chukchi nearshore zone. They’ll amend their maps with traditional ecological knowledge on conditions and areas where indigenous people hunt for king eiders, and use the information to predict which hunting areas could be impacted by oil production, specifically by potential oil spills from pipelines, during the eider migration.

The researchers plan to present this information in workshops in local villages, and to assess methods for evaluating the potential risks of proposed oil pipeline routes, relative to cash benefits of local construction projects. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Subsistence rights

The goal, says Lovvorn, is to test ways for local communities to assess different options for protecting their historic subsistence lifestyle by empowering them with data and other information. The situation in the Chukchi is, he adds, complex.

In 1971, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act mandated the federal government to protect subsistence activities in Alaska. Since then there has been much debate and legal controversy over who qualifies as a subsistence hunter. At present, all resident Alaskans—Native or non-Native, urban or rural—have a right to hunt for subsistence. However, it is often unclear to what extent subsistence hunting trumps other national interests, and what activities actually threaten subsistence hunting in a given case. Decisions can be highly political and are sometimes settled through litigation.

Lack of unanimous agreement

Individuals disagree within communities about the benefits of allowing oil production. In some communities, oil development has brought an influx of money that’s ameliorated the health care, transportation, and schools. Conversely, many people fear the long-term environmental impacts of oil development and urge minimal development. Spread between those two extremes is a range of preferences.

“There’s a general misconception that there’s a single ‘Native perspective,’ but that oversimplifies the diversity of views,” says Lovvorn.

“There is a long history of decisions being made without adequate input from local indigenous people,” says Lovvorn. “Inevitably, this leads to misunderstanding and troublesome policies. So how can communities balance viewpoints and work toward positive and sustainable goals for everyone?”

Consensus and legal standing

Consensus building is often difficult. In Native communities there’s a strong tradition of respect for the perspectives of the elders, but this is being overwhelmed by rapid change. Recognizing that consensus may not be possible, Lovvorn still aims to help the locals improve their communication so they can present a more unified viewpoint to decision makers regarding their stance on oil development.

Before that, though, he and others must work to earn the trust of local communities.

He also hopes to demystify the labyrinth of legalese governing the development. Different federal agencies hold jurisdiction in different places—offshore exploration falls under federal jurisdiction; land near villages belongs to the local communities, but villages are separated by large stretches of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Construction on Native land is subject to local restrictions, but the local people would have no formal control over a pipeline passing through federal land unless they successfully argue that the government is not fulfilling its legal mandate to protect subsistence hunting, says Lovvorn.

“Even for legislators back in Washington, DC who would like to consider Native interests, if there is no clear and well-supported documentation of the Native consensus it is hard for them to know what to do,” he says. “The Native communities are in fact often divided on issues of development versus possible threats to subsistence hunting.  Our project is intended to test a method (structured decision-making) for reaching consensus within the local communities, and for documenting that consensus and the process for achieving it.”

Specifically, the researchers intend to move beyond a situation where an outsider flies in, holds a town meeting for one night to get comments, and then leaves without further discussion, deliberation, or formal documentation of those processes.

“If the procedure we are testing proves useful, we hope that it will help the local communities present a more representative, well-documented position for use in federal policy decisions,” says Lovvorn.

He adds: “We are trying to test tools for documenting local perspectives while working through differing opinions, interpreting scientific information, and then deciding what to do. However, we are still outsiders. The decision-making of course rests with them.”

Historic hunting

North Slope communities have a long history, both economic and cultural, based on subsistence hunting. For thousands of years the focus of hunting along the Chukchi coast has been whaling. Whales provide a large source of meat for the community, but other animals and birds are important, too. Pipelines connecting offshore oilrigs to onshore facilities could impact feeding grounds and migratory routes. Spills would undoubtedly be difficult to monitor and clean up because of limited infrastructure and often challenging weather conditions. The impacts on local animals and the peoples that hunt them could be severe.

“In the Iñupiat culture there is a tradition of sharing whale meat with the entire community, particularly with those unable to fend for themselves. There is a social system built around the hunt and the tradition of feeding everyone. In the 1960s, outside observers thought that subsistence hunting would phase out with technological improvements, but the opposite is true because now people can buy boats, gas, guns, and other equipment that helps them hunt more effectively. They take hunting very seriously. Food that is flown in is expensive, so a large fraction of their needs is met through subsistence hunting. Protecting this way of life is important,” says Lovvorn. “It is imperative.”

Marine mammals and eiders in the Chukchi Sea

Alaska’s remote northern coast lies on the Chukchi Sea migration corridor, an important region for marine mammal and bird species that move between the Arctic Ocean and lower latitude oceans each year. Mammals, particularly whales, form the bulk of the subsistence diet. In general, the local population eats far more meat from mammals than from migratory birds, but these animals use the same pathways that are constrained by ice conditions.

King eiders spend winters in marine waters near coastlines in the Gulf of Alaska or Russia. In the summer they make their way to the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea coasts where they nest in low, wet tundra. During migration through the Chukchi Sea, these birds eat mainly clams, which they dive for offshore at 10 to 40 meters depth.

Role of habitat mapping

During spring migration through the Chukchi Sea, the eiders must find areas of adequate prey density that they can access through the ice. A large part of this project involves mapping prey densities and then evaluating (based on satellite data on ice cover) how often good feeding areas are accessible. Sampling of prey organisms from ships, computer modeling of food requirements, and 13 years of ice data from satellites are being used for this evaluation.

“Patterns of ice cover are highly variable, and we want to know if the birds can have trouble finding good places to feed,” says Lovvorn. They probably require a range of feeding areas distributed along the migration corridor. This is likely true of many marine birds and mammals because they all follow open leads between landfast ice which is frozen to the ocean bottom in the winter, and pack ice which moves with changes in wind and currents.”

Understanding eider migration patterns and needs in more detail will be important for Chukchi coast communities that want to assist in policy making down the road.

Special occasion birds

Eiders are not a major part of the subsistence diet from a biomass perspective, but often provide fresh meat in spring before other animals are around. Eiders are often reserved for special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and traditional feasts. Areas critical to birds may or may not be the same areas critical for hunting other animals.

If Lovvorn’s group can determine important areas for these birds, they may be helping other animals, too, in terms of choosing areas less important for where oil development occurs. Offshore exploration is anticipated with talk of pipelines crossing shallow feeding grounds for eiders and other birds and animals. A couple of eider species are threatened, so the impact of oil infrastructure must be considered before development can occur. —Marcy Davis

GrIT Update: Mission Accomplished

The GrIT team made it back to Thule on June 3,. Here they are at the edge of the ice. Photo courtesy Geoff Phillips

The GrIT team made it back to Thule on June 3, 2014. Here they are at the edge of the ice. Photo courtesy Geoff Phillips

The GrIT operations team is back in Thule! After dealing with mechanical issues, traveling many hundreds of miles, and experiencing a range of weather, the team reached Thule this week, reports GrIT Project Manager Geoff Phillips in his status update, excerpted below.

On Tuesday, June 3, the Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) team landed in Thule. Despite all the challenges they faced along the way, they were in great spirits.

The team left the sleds in the frozen lake area at the ice edge near the transition, where the snow is rapidly melting. After assessing the loads, the team is optimistic that they can be packaged up and stored in proper places prior to the rocks starting to poke through the snow layers.

The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the Greenland Inland Traverse. CH2M HILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2014 spring traverse delivered fuel and cargo to Summit Station, continued efforts to optimize mobility, and provided a research platform for Zoe Courville’s NSF-funded scientific research project.

Monitor GrIT and SAGE progress here. 
Follow the SAGE science traverse via their blog. For more field notes coverage of GrIT, click here.