Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Category Archives: Social & Human Sciences

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.

Exploring Fisheries Management and Livelihoods in Iceland

The settlement of Norðurfjörður is home to 50 people who are snowed in all winter when the roads shut down. In the summer the harbor in bustling with activity from visiting fishermen due to its close proximity to cod grounds. Photo: All photos courtesy of Catherine Chambers

The settlement of Norðurfjörður is home to 50 people who are snowed in all winter when the roads shut down. In the summer the harbor bustles with activity from visiting fishermen due to its close proximity to cod grounds. Photo: Catherine Chambers

The North Atlantic island nation of Iceland is home to both large and small-scale fisheries; among them are cod, capelin and herring fisheries. Strong fisheries coupled with the country’s unique fisheries management system makes it a perfect place to explore questions of how people, their families, interests and finances are all connected to fishing and management strategies. These questions are driving the ethnographic research of University of Alaska Fairbanks doctorate researcher Catherine Chambers. She’s lived in Iceland for the past six years and is leading a National Science Foundation-funded project titled, Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Fishing livelihoods and fisheries management in Northwest Iceland, to examine these questions and their broader implications.

This month Catherine Chambers discusses her doctorate project, how she collected data and some initial findings with Field Notes.

Catherine with a small perk of the job. If you help out on deck you might get to take home dinner!

Catherine with a small perk of the job. If you help out on deck you might get to take home dinner! Photo: Catherine Chambers

Field Notes (FN): Where did the idea to study fishing livelihoods and fisheries management in Iceland come from?

Catherine Chambers: My husband and I came to Iceland in 2008 right at the time of the global financial crisis, which, as you might know, impacted Iceland first and very significantly. I became really interested in how people talk about the link between economic crises and other crises or changes, like climate change. There’s such a strong link between fisheries and economics, of course. For me it was really interesting to watch the discourse develop—OK, we have this really big financial shock, what does that mean for how we access our fish? Can we still make money off of our fish? So I began this self-led exploration in to all these issues through the Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Arctic and Subarctic program at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

FN: What do you hope to learn from this project?

CC: The main question I have centers around the connection between how we design our fisheries management systems and what that means for the individuals engaged in fishing. We know from around the world there are so many really intense cultural connections to fishing. Fishing is a way to make money, but it’s much more than that in many places. So my big question is what does a sustainable fisheries management systems look like – sustainable both ecologically and socially.

FN: What makes Iceland so well suited for this type of research?

CC: In Iceland almost all of the fisheries are run under one management system, which is a quota system. That means that the right to fish is a tradable commodity. So you own the right to fish and you pay for that right. The reason that it’s interesting to look at fisheries management in Iceland is because when you have something like people needing to pay to enter a limited fishery, it brings up questions about equity, who has the money to participate, and the fairness of the system.

FN: What roles do fishing and fisheries play in Icelandic culture and modern day society?

CC: Icelanders have always had a strong relationship with the sea, which has changed over time. The Vikings that came from Norway were farmers. Fishing was a way to feed their families in the winter months. It wasn’t until the 1700 or 1800s that people from other countries came in significant numbers to access the rich fishing grounds here.  Then in the 1800s and 1900s, as fishing technology improved, Iceland as a nation really started to get in to fisheries. When Iceland became an independent nation in the 1940s, fishing really became a nation-building activity because of the high export value of fish, especially cod. Fishing here has a very different history than a lot of other places where marine resources have been taken in large quantities for daily sustenance and direct consumption. It’s always been tied in with money and commerce, but that doesn’t mean it’s more or less culturally important.

Conducting an interview for a short film on fishermen's experiences with sea ice. Here Chambers talks to a fisherman about the way the ice moves in the bay and how fish accumulate around the ice.

Conducting an interview for a short film on fishermen’s experiences with sea ice. Here Chambers talks to a fisherman about the way the ice moves in the bay and how fish accumulate around the ice. Photo: Catherine Chambers

FN: How did you collect data?

CC: I primarily used methods from social sciences, especially anthropology, because I’m very interested in the cultural connections to fishing and fishing livelihoods. I use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. The qualitative methods are interviews. I go out on fishing boats to observe and help out, I meet up with fishermen in cafes and sometimes go to home visits and I have a list of questions to make the interview a bit more standardized. But I can deviate from those questions a little if something interesting comes up, and that makes it a little more qualitative than quantitative. I then transcribe those interviews and put them in to a coding software. It’s kind of like how people tag photos on Facebook. For example, you can tag every time someone is talking about salmon in the interviews. This lets you process the data in a way that is meaningful and lets you see how people are thinking about issues and what is important to them.

After I analyze the qualitative interview data, I then take the major themes, issues and questions that come up and I turn them in to survey questions. Last summer I finished a big, nationwide survey of Icelandic fishermen. We surveyed people by mail and also collected demographic data. The survey let me quantitatively test some of the questions that came up in the interviews to see if a broader survey sample size of people still agrees with that.

Iceland is pretty small, but it was great to take a whole sample frame of a nation. That’s really hard to do in the U.S. and maybe other countries. We sent the survey out to 500 people. There are approximately 1,200 small-scale fishing boats. So to survey a little less than half is pretty amazing. And the response was great.

FN: Are there any initial findings you can share with Field Notes readers? 

CC: In the survey there was a section that examined job satisfaction. Understanding how people like their jobs is an important link in fisheries management. It’s really interesting because the way people respond to these questions lets you know what’s going on in the fishery.

I have a lot of responses about people enjoying being their own boss, not wanting to work in an office, and therefore people want fisheries to be sustainable. People also want to be involved in fisheries management to ensure they and future generations still have a job as a fisher.  So you begin to see the underlying reasons of why people are fishing.

Research partner Katharina Schneider chats with a fisherman about his many previous boats, all with the same lucky name.

Research partner Katharina Schneider chats with a fisherman about his many previous boats, all with the same lucky name. Photo: Catherine Chambers

FN: What’s next?

CC: My next steps are to take the results, once they are ready, back out in to the community. My plan is to go around the country and do some talks in communities to show people what it is that I found. I want to invite fishermen to the talks to show the research they participated in is meaningful. I want to also invite community leaders and decision makers so they can see the results. For more information of Catherine Chambers’ research, visit: https://sites.google.com/site/catchambers/. Also check out a short video Chambers produced about her research titled Fishing livelihoods & fisheries management in North Iceland visit, at http://vimeo.com/40929092. Alicia Clarke

Retaining teachers in the Alaskan bush

A mural in one of the rural schools where Ute Kaden is doing her research is very colorful. All photos: courtesy Ute Kaden.

A mural in one of the rural schools where Ute Kaden is doing her research is very colorful. All photos: courtesy Ute Kaden.

There’s no question that life is different in the Alaskan bush. Challenging as the remoteness, weather conditions, and life in a Native community may be, these are often the qualities that initially draw teachers to rural Alaska. Unfortunately, these same qualities often send them packing for urban centers.

Isolation

This is what the commute to some rural communities looks like—not a Starbucks in sight!

This is what the commute to some rural communities looks like—not a Starbucks in sight!

Most of Alaska’s rural communities are accessible only by airplane or boat. Secluded locations coupled with long winter nights, cold temperatures, and limited housing often lead to feelings of isolation. Relatively low pay and high living costs are also contributing factors to high turnover rates and teacher shortages.

Ute Kaden prepares to travel to rural Alaska.

Ute Kaden prepares to travel to rural Alaska.

In a three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation, Ute Kaden and her research team (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) are looking at how to keep effective teachers in rural Alaska and throughout the circumpolar north.

During the study, which launched in August, 2013, current teachers, as well as those who have left their post already after two years or less, will be surveyed and interviewed about their training and experiences. NSF has already developed several publications with tips about teaching and doing research in indigenous communities. Kaden’s team includes Native researchers who will conduct focus groups and interviews with Elders, school board, and Tribal Council members.

Despite their isolation, most of the rural schools are like their more urban counterparts, including having gyms with rock climbing walls.

Despite their isolation, most of the rural schools are like their more urban counterparts, including having gyms with rock climbing walls.

“We really hope to establish and develop good relationships with rural Alaskan communities. This requires a certain protocol consistent with tribal customs,” Kaden explains. “We want to engage people who will talk honestly and openly about the issues facing the rural education system and this requires trust and respect for the tribal system. Understandably, there is some skepticism about Western education given the oppressive past, current inconsistencies, and high teacher turnover rates which is reflected in low academic student achievement.”

Reality versus fantasy

“They come for various reasons – Alaskan adventure, a first employment opportunity, or perhaps they lost a job and this is a fresh start. Most have never visited Alaska before and are either at the very start or very end of their career. We don’t see a lot of people from the middle,” explains Kaden.

Living and working in rural Alaska often proves more difficult and less romantic than teachers initially thought, says Kaden. Consequently, many teachers leave after a very short time. “We see an incredible annual turnover rate in rural areas each year related to the overall harshness of working in the northern part of the country,” Kaden explains. “We need to better understand why in order to improve the education system in rural Alaska and around the circum-Arctic.”

Difficulty immersing

Not your typical school yard.

Not your typical school yard.

One issue for many teachers is the lack of preparedness for living in a culture so completely different from their own. In rural Alaska more than 90% of students are Alaskan Natives and each community differs from the next. Teachers are treated as temporary guests, which can make community integration difficult. Teachers must learn a great deal on the fly.

“The infrastructure and cultural aspects in these mostly indigenous villages is very different from where most teachers come from. Consequently, teachers often have difficulty bonding with students and the community,” says Kaden.

Multifaceted job descriptions

Teachers use video to enhance their lessons.

Teachers use video to enhance their lessons.

In the United States, teachers are usually trained in just one subject area. However, teachers in rural Alaska may be required to teach several grade levels across many subjects. In addition to school obligations teachers are typically responsible for hosting outside activities at the school, which is often used as a community center and may be the only place in town with Internet. Consequently, these teachers have very long work days.

Job disappointment

All of the above afore-mentioned factors can contribute to feelings of loneliness and frustration. About 60% of Alaskan teachers leave the Arctic region after only two years. Consequently, students and their communities suffer from the inconsistency and lack of stability.

“Communities want effective teachers who inform parents and students alike. Good student –teacher and community relations are critical. How can we prepare teachers to be effective regardless of their time spent in a community?” says Kaden. “We can’t expect most younger people to spend their whole life in rural Alaska. But, how many years can we expect? Two to three years would be great, but teacher effectiveness is equally important to communities. To do this, we must better prepare teachers for the realities of living and working in rural Alaska so that they have a positive impact regardless of tenure.”

Improved teacher training

Kaden is also working with teachers and communities to incorporate and strengthen a field practicum in which university pre-service teachers, those still working on their qualifications, can be involved in several different rural classrooms prior to pursuing a full-time position. This exposure allows pre-service teachers the opportunity to work alongside effective rural teachers in a Native village. The experience helps prepare teachers for the social and environmental challenges of living and working in rural communities. They learn to better manage student needs and expectations while gaining first-hand knowledge of native communities and how to work with students from different cultural backgrounds through community events and immersion in Native traditions and subsistence lifestyles. Teachers are also offered a university support network, mentoring, and professional development.

“Our research will inform teacher educators, school administrators, and community stakeholders about how to support teachers with pedagogical and cultural training while stressing the need for patience, respect, and flexibility. We want to give them the tools to effectively teach multilevel classes and place-relevant lessons. By collaboratively helping teachers to develop community relationships and incorporate art, culture, and local material into their classrooms, we hope we will enhance the educational experience for both teachers and students,” says Kaden. “Rural education in northern Alaska is different than elsewhere and our research, hopefully, sheds light on these differences as well as the beauty of living and teaching there.” Additional information about the project can be found on the Web: https://sites.google.com/a/alaska.edu/nsf-research/  —Marcy Davis

Promoting Diversity in Science

Dr. Linda Hayden (left) and colleagues at the 2013 National Science Foundation Gender Summit. Pictured, from left to right: Hayden, Loretta Moore, Cynthia Winston, Sonya Smith, Kelly Mack. Photo: courtesy NSF

Dr. Linda Hayden (left) and colleagues at the 2013 National Science Foundation Gender Summit. Pictured, from left to right: Hayden, Loretta Moore, Cynthia Winston, Sonya Smith, Kelly Mack. Photo: courtesy NSF

Head north into the Arctic and you’ll find a self-selected crew of researchers devoting their field seasons to uncovering the mysteries and facts of the region. Look closely and you can’t help but notice these scientists are primarily white and male.

Minorities and Women in Science

But efforts are afoot to diversify the Arctic research community, and at the helm is Linda Hayden, Professor of Computer Science at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Fourteen years ago, Hayden spearheaded the effort to recruit and provide opportunities to minorities and women interested in polar science and climate. Today, her efforts have taken on a life of their own.

“The idea is to build collaborations that enhance diversity in polar science and engage those who do not self-identify as future polar scientists. I want students to understand that we need them and their talents and their skill sets to solve challenges in polar research,” says Hayden. “Like other areas of science, polar science greatly benefits from diversity, which balances bias, enlivens problem solving and expands on methods, explanations and approaches.  So, any strategy that engages the next generation of polar scientists must actively engage diverse participants, including arctic people, underrepresented minorities and women.

Scientific Opportunities for Underrepresented Undergraduates

Participating in one of the workshops spearheaded by Dr. Hayden has been life changing for some students. Photo: Linda Hayden

Participating in one of the workshops spearheaded by Dr. Hayden has been life changing for some students. Photo: Linda Hayden

ECSU is a “teaching-focused, community-engaged” Minority-Serving Institution in northeastern North Carolina. Located near the Atlantic Ocean, ECSU has long studied marine and coastal environments, especially through remote sensing techniques. In 2002 Hayden founded the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research (CERSER), part of ECSU’s Mathematics and Computer Science Department. As CERSER’s director, Hayden works diligently to provide opportunities for students in STEM fields.

Over the last 14 years the Arctic and Antarctic Research Experience for Undergraduates (AaA-REU) program has evolved with funding from the U.S. Navy, the University of Kansas’ Center for Remote Sensing of the Ice Sheets (CReSIS), with whom ECSU has a long-standing relationship, and the National Science Foundation.

The REU objective is simple: promote professional development of historically underrepresented undergraduate students (African American, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and women) through facilitating their participation in polar, ocean and marine science research.

Drawing from Personal Experience

“I think that in my role as an African American woman that it’s important that these opportunities are made available at least to the groups within my reach. Even if they know they are available they don’t see themselves as being participants. Sometimes, however, just helping them understand that opportunities are available is all it takes,” Hayden said in an interview with the Renaissance Computing Center, UNC Chapel Hill.

Admission by Application

Each year Hayden and faculty mentors select twenty-five undergraduate students. This includes 20 REU students and 5 pre-service teachers in the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) component. Ultimately, Hayden hopes to build a group from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds.

Typically, applicants are majors in mathematics, computer science, geosciences, biology, and physics. Students are required to have completed thirty hours of coursework by the start of the program and have a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Any student who meets these criteria is eligible for the program, but students who are in groups traditionally underrepresented in science are highly encouraged to apply. Each participant receives a stipend of $3600, travel costs, on-campus room and board and college credit, depending on the school through which they are partnered.

Summer Immersion

The Association of Computer and Information Science Engineering Departments at Minority institutions (ADMI), a professional organization, will select and support an additional 8-10 REU students. During the 8-week summer internship (late May-late July) participants will work in teams of 2-5 with a faculty mentor.

Several teams will be based in Elizabeth City. Others who work with faculty at a partnering institution spend a week or two at the institution to become familiar with their project and develop a relationship with their team. Partnering institutions for 2014 include: University of Kansas, Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Washington.  Students engage daily with mentors and their team. Seminars, lunch meetings, and social functions promote sharing and bonding.

Mentoring

Projects fall within one of four broad areas including cyberinfrastructure, wherein students work with faculty to develop innovative techniques for sharing data with polar scientists, Arctic and Antarctic science, and STEM education. Projects depend on the expertise of the faculty. Students must present a final oral presentation, poster, or paper at summer’s end.

Student-mentor relationships continue after the program with on-line mentoring and follow-up during the academic year. Post internship opportunities may include participation in national conferences, field work in the Polar Regions, and graduate studies.

“One thing that makes this REU unique is that we have a 2-tier system. Students can enter the program at the start of their freshman year and build a polar science vocabulary while learning about climate change science through their research project. Some do three years and then usually go on to grad school at that point. Some students return to mentor other students in following years,” Hayden says.

Life Changing Experience

One such student, Jerome Mitchell, now a graduate student at Indiana University who completed the program in 2006, cites his experience as a turning point in his career.

“Conducting quality research as an undergraduate is a privilege, but many are unable to participate in [these] rich experiences. My experiences as an undergraduate provided a gateway to conducting research in Antarctica and have provided a solid foundation for thinking independently and writing technical literature, which has been a necessity for me to thrive in a Ph.D. program. I partially owe my successes as a student researcher to undergraduate research programs, and I highly recommend [them]!”

To date, the REU has been increasingly successful. About half of participants are women and three-quarters minorities. Hayden hopes project funding will continue. —Marcy Davis

For more information about the REU or to become a faculty mentor visit http://nia.ecsu.edu/

To apply submit an application, current transcript, resume, a one page statement of goals, and one letter of recommendation by April 23, 2014, to:

Dr. Linda Hayden
Campus Box 672 ECSU
1704 Weeksville Road
Elizabeth City, NC 27909

Multidisciplinary Pilot Study Explores Tlingit Cairns in Southeast Alaska

Drs. Ralph Hartley (left) and William Hunt exploring one of the cairns. All photos courtesy William Hunt.

Drs. Ralph Hartley (left) and William Hunt exploring one of the cairns. All photos courtesy William Hunt.

For many, (semi) retirement is a chance to kick back and relax. But for archeologist Bill Hunt, retirement gave him the opportunity to delve in to unexplored areas of southeast Alaska and uncover the secrets behind manmade rock piles called cairns that dot the landscape.

Hunt spent the first chapter of his career as an archaeologist with the National Park Service (NPS). Now,he is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska where he and his research partner Ralph Hartley are leading a two-year, multi-disciplinary pilot study titled A Multidisciplinary Exploratory Study of Alpine Cairns, Baranof Island, Southeast Alaska.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project brings together archeologists, lichenologists, oral historians, the Tlingit community and others to document, map, date and understand the roles cairns play in Tlingit oral history and culture. His work is also the subject of Cairns Uncovered, an upcoming documentary recently featured on Field Notes.

This month, Hunt talks to Field Notes about his project and shares some initial findings.

FN: What is a cairn?

Documentation of an alpine cairn by UN-L Graduate Student Mike Chodoronek (left), NET videographer Pete Steegen, and OSU Graduate Student Nijmah Ali (right).

Documentation of an alpine cairn by UN-L Graduate Student Mike Chodoronek (left), NET videographer Pete Steegen, and OSU Graduate Student Nijmah Ali (right).

WH: A cairn is a manmade pile of rock. They can be very small—just five or six rocks piled on top of one another–or they can be huge. They occur all over the world and are used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to mark burial sites, trails, and are sometimes used to mark where meat is stored. Those are some uses, but there are many, many more.

For the Tlingit, they have a story about a great flood that occurred some time in the un-dateable past in which the Raven caused the water to rise. The water came up out of the ground and the people had to scramble up the mountainsides to keep from drowning. If you ask the Tlingit what these cairns are, they’ll say they are flood markers. Others will tell you that people took refuge from brown bears and other animals in the larger ones.

FN: What do you hope to learn from this multidisciplinary pilot study?

We are interested in finding out how old these cairns are and why they were built. We also want to understand what role the cairns play in Tlingit cultural mythology and oral history.

FN: What made you want to start a project focused on the cairns of southeast Alaska?

UNAVCO LiDAR Engineer Marianne Okal explaining her how her instrument works to OSU Professor Dr. Bruce McCune.

UNAVCO LiDAR Engineer Marianne Okal explaining her how her instrument works to OSU Professor Dr. Bruce McCune.

In 2007, I was just finishing a project at Sitka National Historic Site, which is on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska, when a Sitka elder told the park superintendent about how his grandparents, aunts and uncles would tell him that there was a large cairn on top of a nearby mountain. He was wondering if it was actually there and if we could find out anything about it.

Together with the Forest Service, the NPS, Coast Guard and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, we went to the two mountains. We found eight or nine cairns at one location in the five or six hours we were on the mountain top.  In another trip, we then went to another mountain and documented 14 more cairns.

I was really intrigued by all this because nobody had ever documented these cairns or done any archeology to speak of in the interior of these islands. All the archaeological research has occurred on the coast for various reasons. When we uncovered 24 cairns in such a short amount of time, in two places, that was really enlightening!

FN: Tell us a little more about the different scientific disciplines you are bringing together to document and learn more about cairns.

We have several scientists converging on this area to try to solve the questions surrounding cairns. We have oral historian Tom Thornton, from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who is interviewing Tlingit elders in a variety of villages in southeast Alaska to get information about these cairns and see what’s in the oral history.

Then we have a lichenologist named Bruce McCune and a graduate student Nijmah Ali from Oregon State University who are helping us age several of these cairns using lichen growths. This is called lichenometrics.

We also have a team of archeologists–myself, Ralph, Amanda Davey and graduate student Mike Chodoronek–from the University of Nebraska and [we] are working with UNAVCO engineer Marianne Okal to map our survey area with ground-based LiDAR. This will provide a really detailed map of the area.

FN: Is the Tlingit community participating in this project?

The Tlingit community is involved in a couple of different ways. Before we even started this project we met with tribal councils in Angoon and Sitka, and presented them with what we wanted to do [to] see if they had any concerns or recommendations. They were very helpful and very interested because with the loss [of] elders, their cultural “encyclopedias,” they are also losing different aspects of their history. So they were very interested in finding out as much as they can about their past.

We also offered to bring students from both communities to work with our crews while we were up in the mountains. Many students already had summer jobs fishing, but we did have a member of the Sitka community come up and conduct research with us for a couple of weeks.

Some of the field team relaxing in the dining\laboratory tent. From left to right: Mike Chodornek (UN-L), Dr. Ralph Hartley (UN-L), Pete Stegen (NET), Nijmah Ali (OSU), and Dean Einerson (PFS Camp Manager).

Some of the field team relaxing in the dining\laboratory tent. From left to right: Mike Chodornek (UN-L), Dr. Ralph Hartley (UN-L), Pete Stegen (NET), Nijmah Ali (OSU), and Dean Einerson (PFS Camp Manager).

FN: What have you and your team learned so far?

One thing that we’ve found is that they vary in size—from small ones with seven or eight big stones to cairns with hundreds of large stones. They have a lot of open spaces – no soil fill inside them. They generally occur as widely spaced features in rows on mountainside benches facing the water. This arrangement made us reject their use as hunting features like blinds or to control the direction of animal movement.

We took some of them partially apart. In some cases we took one-forth or one-half of an individual cairn apart. We did not find artifacts in them or around the margins of the cairns. However, two of the cairns contained a bone, which turned out to be vertebrae from a Sitka deer in each case. We don’t know how old the bones are, or if they are of any significance. What we’ll do is submit soil samples collected under the cairns and samples from each one of the bones to a lab for radiocarbon analysis. Dates from the soils will give us a “not earlier than” date while those from the bones could provide an actual construction or use date if the bones are not modern.

The lichenologist developed a new technique for relatively dating the cairns based on lichen growth by establishing the pioneer lichen species, which [species] grew later, how they overlap, how many different species are present, etc. We should have an idea of which cairns are the oldest and which are newer, as well as the radiocarbon dates.

FN: What’s next?

Now we’re at the point where everyone is looking at the data they collected. We will then prepare a final report for the U.S. Forest Service, the two tribes and the NSF.

Our examination of these cairns was really preliminary. In the future I’d like to do more in-depth investigations of cairns—really take them completely apart and see what’s going on.—Alicia Clarke

Ancient adaptation and climate change in the Aleutian Islands

An aerial photo of the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: Ken Wilson, author of "The Aleutian Islands of AK: Living on the Edge"

An aerial photo of the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: Ken Wilson, author of “The Aleutian Islands of AK: Living on the Edge”

The Islands of the Four Mountains in Alaska’s central Aleutians are about as inhospitable an environment as a person can imagine. Bad weather reigns, the wind and rain conspiring to create the perfect conditions for hypothermia. Mount Cleveland, an active volcano on Chuginadak, erupts at regular intervals, and simply accessing the archipelago is an exercise in endurance.

Adaptation

All of this may explain why very little is known about the early settlers who crossed the Bering Strait and eventually made their way to North America. After entering Alaska some of these early inhabitants moved southward to the Alaska Peninsula and then westward, traveling through and occupying the Islands of the Four Mountains. As they adapted to their maritime world these people periodically faced natural disasters: tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and changing climate and sea levels.

Surviving extreme weather and climate fluctuations

Understanding how these people adapted to their fluctuating environment is critical, informing both scientists and Pacific Rim communities how changing climate and periodic, large magnitude geologic hazards contribute to a changing physical world.

The changes are both gradual and continuous and punctuated by disaster; which played the larger role in affecting the prehistoric communities. This is why an international, collaborative research project is underway to uncover a breadth of information about the subarctic Islands of the Four Mountains. Starting this summer, Dixie West and Virginia Hatfield (Kansas University), Kirsten Nicolaysen (Whitman College) and Breanyn MacInnes (Central Washington University) will launch a three-year investigation with support from the National Science Foundation. The project includes excavating prehistoric village sites, studying volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, and determining climatic variations in the central Aleutians during the last 10,000 years.

“Our hypothesis is that the location and nature of the occupation sites [prehistoric villages] reflect the environment that the people were living in,” says Nicolaysen.

Fieldwork

To examine how the volcano might have affected these people, widely known as the Unangax^, the team selected village sites located at different distances and directions from Cleveland volcano. This summer’s field season will be devoted to excavating the sites and collecting a variety of stone, bone and volcanic ash samples. The village sites preserve critical scientific information about the ancient Unangax and the North Pacific region in which they lived.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Specifically, the team will include archaeologists, geologists, ecologists, and zoologists. They’ll extract radiocarbon, geological, paleoenvironmental, and cultural data to understand how prehistoric communities adapted to geological hazards, changing climate, and interacted with humans living both to the east and west.  These data include chemical signatures from past volcanic eruptions, sediments from ancient tsunamis, analyses of peat bog deposits to determine climate change, and identification of shells and animal bones to investigate changes in hunting and collecting patterns over time.

“We know that Cleveland was active during the last 9,000 years, when people were making a crucial leap across Samalga Pass,” says Nicolaysen. “We’ll be investigating how much ash is covering the occupational sites; did the people change their pattern of collecting resources during natural disasters; did they abandon sites?”

Lessons for modern adaptation

“We want to study sea level when historic people were settling the islands, as well as how they adapted to earthquakes, tsunamis, and eruptions,” says West. “This can provide information about coping skills in the face of geological and climatic perturbations useful to peoples living in the region today,” she says.

“We don’t know how often earthquakes and tsunamis occur there,” says MacInnes. “Yet if you do a hazard analysis, the Aleutian Islands are one of the most dangerous in terms of the ripple effect. People living on the Pacific Coast today should be very concerned about what’s happening there, and our research will fill in some of the gaps.”

She adds that by looking in low-lying regions next to the coast, she anticipates finding tsunami deposits that will indicate the natural disasters that happened over time and with what frequency and magnitude.

This, along with other information expected to emerge from the research, will help inform everything from future building to evaluation of existing infrastructure safety, says Nicolaysen.

Collaborators on the project include Pavel Izbekov of the University of Alaska, Arkady Savinetsky and Olga Krylovich of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mitsuru Okuno of Fukuoka University, Japan, Susan Crockford of Pacific Identifications, Victoria, Canada, John Power of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Zoya Johnson of the Museum of the Aleutians, Unalaska City, and the Aleut Corporation, Anchorage.  —Rachel Walker

Cairns Uncovered: Documentary Explores Ancient Tlingit Rock Formations

Ancient burial cairns scattered among Alaska's coastal range are the subject of a new documentary. Photo: Bill Hunt

Scientists are studying rock arrangements found atop some of Alaska’s southern mountains for information about ancient Tlingit culture.  Photo: Bill Hunt

Parts of south Alaska’s inland, alpine landscape are dotted with mounds of artificially stacked rocks that are closely tied to Tlingit culture. These structures, known as rock cairns, are the focus of Cairns Uncovered, a soon-to-be-released documentary that explores Tlingit oral traditions surrounding the structures, as well as archaeological research into their origins and purpose.

Peter Stegen filming on a ridge in Alaska for his upcoming documentary, Cairns Uncovered. Photo: Peter Stegen

Peter Stegen filming on a ridge in Alaska for his upcoming documentary, Cairns Uncovered. Photo: Peter Stegen

Last summer, with the support of the National Science Foundation, Peter Stegen, a videographer and production associate at Nebraska’s Public Broadcasting Station affiliate NET, spent several weeks in Alaska filming interviews with Tlingit elders and capturing a multidisciplinary scientific team collecting data to explain the rock cairns.

“We really wanted to show the importance of these rock piles and what they are to Tlingit culture and their story. The Tlingit passed on their culture through stories and dance. Some of the stories about the beginning of their history have to do with these rock piles. And we wanted to show that,” Stegen said. “We also wanted to go up there and study and potentially date the cairns. So, it’s also a very science-based documentary.”

A Brief Introduction to Cairns in Tlingit Culture

Some Tlingit oral traditions speak of an ancient great flood that drove people from their coastal homes and into the mountains. According to the stories, as the flood waters rose the Tlingit took to small rafts and used the rock cairns to anchor and save themselves.

Some cairns also may have other significances, such as territorial boundaries, shamanic sites, territorial markers, wayfaring landmarks or signaling sites.

Exploring Culture through Film

The idea for the documentary took root when Michael Farrell, Stegen’s boss at NET, met a researcher with a pilot study called A Multidisciplinary Exploratory Study of Alpine Cairns, Baranof Island, Southeast Alaska, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and headed by William Hunt at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

From there Stegen connected with Tom Thornton, a cultural anthropologist and human geographer from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who works on the Hunt project. Thorton was responsible for the oral historical and ethnographic documentation and contextualization of the rock cairn sites.

Stegen did most of the filming for the 15-minute documentary in Juneau, Angoon and Sitka while working with Thorton and other members of the research team to interview members of the Tlingit community.

“Tlingit oral history is rich and it is best captured by orators themselves, especially where clan elders, the keepers of these traditions, can be featured. But we also interviewed young people who were familiar with these sites, and some who had heard about them, and could describe them vividly, yet had not seen them personally,” Thorton said. “To get a perspective on this, it is always better to record the oral history from the living tradition bearers. Peter greatly facilitated this process, and I was grateful to have him along.”

Striking a Balance

In addition to documenting interviews with Tlingit elders, Stegen also filmed archaeological data collection at cairn sites on False Island. Situated near Barnoff Island in southern Alaska, False Island is home to more than 40 cairns, many of which had never been documented prior to this expedition.

“The challenge for me was balancing the culture and the science in the documentary,” Stegen explained. “There’s a great quote in the film from a Tlingit elder that I really like. He basically says that they [the cairns] are very spiritual, and scientists don’t want to believe in the spirituality, but it’s something that we strongly believe in.”

What’s Next?

Stegen, a first-time documentary maker, is currently working with other film professionals to put the final touches on Cairns Uncovered. He will unveil his work in early March 2014 to the Tlingit community, the researchers he worked with, the National Science Foundation and a broader viewing audience.

“I think the results [of the documentary] will enhance the project greatly and also be an important record and resource for the Tlingit themselves,” Thorton said. “One of our interviewees remarked on how knowing these stories of survival can be a source of strength for present and future generations.”

The Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau will feature the film, and Stegen is planning to build a website about the project, as well as host several screening events at the University of Nebraska later this spring.

“There are also talks of airing a shorter rendition of the film on a running NET program called ‘Nebraska Stories,’ which is an educational, character-based series on people in Nebraska.” Stegen said.

A Rewarding Experience

Stegen found that telling the story of the area’s rock cairns from both the cultural and scientific perspectives was an exciting challenge, one that had some unexpected and unforgettable rewards.

“These aren’t stories Tlingit elders just tell anyone, so it was a humbling experience for me to hear these stories that have been passed down for generation upon generation. They were proud to tell me these stories and took so much pride in their history and culture,” Stegen recounted. “It was a very rewarding thing to sit back and listen to these beautiful stories told straight from their mouths. To me, it was like poetry.” —Alicia Clarke

Reconstructing ancient populations in Alaska

A team of archaeologists excavate a highly disturbed site at Port Clarence, AK. All photos: Shelby Anderson

A team of archaeologists excavate a highly disturbed site at Port Clarence, AK. All photos: Shelby Anderson

Shelby Anderson spends most summers in the Alaskan bush digging up clues about the peoples who lived there more than 1,000 years ago. Anderson’s work focuses on northwest Alaska’s hunter-gatherer societies that hunted whales, built permanent settlements, and formed trading partnerships and regional alliances with other groups.

We spoke with Anderson in 2010 as she was planning the last of her dissertation field work while at the University of Washington. An Assistant Professor at Portland State University since 2011, Anderson’s got a couple of new irons in the fire. We caught up with her again for a report on her current research.

Her most recent project expands across the Seward Peninsula area with a new site at Port Clarence, where, with support from the National Science Foundation, she is collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management.

The landscape looks desolate, but it was once home to thriving native populations. Anderson and her team are working to piece together an archaeological history of the area.

The landscape looks desolate, but it was once home to thriving native populations. Anderson and her team are working to piece together an archaeological history of the area.

Last July, Anderson’s team of 15 spent two weeks digging test pits. They found animal bones, some bone and antler tools, pottery, shell and metal fragments, glass, and even nails.

“The site was studied in the 1940’s by Helge Larsen and Charles Lucier, but no research has been done there since,” she says. “It’s a challenging place to work in that the site is threatened by subsistence digging where people dig up artifacts to keep or sell. In addition to subsistence digging, natural coastal processes are acting on the site, [as are] 50 years of Coast Guard occupation near the site, and close to 2,000 years of people living in the area. The soil is really churned up. It makes it tough for us to establish a meaningful site chronology.”

But Anderson is not one to shy away from a challenge.

She and her team are relying on a number of techniques to unearth and understand what occurred at Port Clarence.

Geomorphic analyses by geoarchaeologist Owen Mason will reconstruct changes in the landscape. Radiocarbon dating of bones will yield the ages of the animals. More—the bones will be sorted and identified at the species level. This will help the team understand what people ate while living at Port Clarence and the time of year they spent at the site. Tools, like harpoon points, represent technology for a certain time period and will better establish a Port Clarence timeline.

Ceramic sherds offer relevant clues to the past. However, their excavation and reconfiguration requires extensive patience.

Ceramic sherds offer relevant clues to the past. However, their excavation and reconfiguration requires extensive patience.

Anderson also aims to find out about past social interaction and exchange networks by analyzing ceramic fragments.

“There is evidence of past ceramic exchange in northwest Alaska and this can tell us something about the way the people interacted across this region and how these interactions changed over time in relationship to both cultural and environmental dynamics,” Anderson wrote in a recent email. “Northern pottery is something of a technological feat. It may not appear as elaborate or ‘beautiful’ (a very subjective and non-scientific term!) as pottery from other times and places, but it represents an amazing ability to manipulate raw materials and the environment.”

Making pottery, she says, helped people adapt to their environment in terms of cooking and storing foods. Finding the pottery sherds and piecing them together requires extreme patience, she says.

“Often, a large number of ceramic samples are found within houses that were occupied semi-permanently,” she says. “But in general one can only make an educated guess about where exactly to excavate and then go from there.  It is part of the fun of archaeology, although it means you don’t always collect exactly the type [or] quantity of data you want.”

Following excavation, Anderson sends samples to the University of Missouri Archaeometry Laboratory for chemical analysis. She also studies the mineralogical composition of the sherds, which helps her link a sample to a general location of production. Anderson is now working with a colleague at Washington State University, Shannon Tushingham, to analyze food residues absorbed into the ceramics. This will yield information about what people were cooking and eating in ceramic pots.

Like following a trail of breadcrumbs, understanding where a ceramic pot originated is a first step in understanding Alaska’s early trade routes as well as which people had access to the raw materials necessary for ceramic construction. Geographic patterns of human settlement and interaction will provide more information about regional cultural identity as well as changes in subsistence, economics, coastal environment, and climate.

“I would say that it is pretty clear that pottery technology was adopted from the other side of the Bering Strait sometime between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, although we don’t really know why this happened and why at this time. So, there are similarities (in technology and decoration, and change in these attributes) between the pottery on both sides of the strait and across the North American arctic and subarctic.”

Looking forward, Anderson says she would love to collaborate with Russian, Japanese and other researchers to better understand the ceramic traditions that came before the pottery we know from the North American Arctic.

And she’ll likely get her chance – we hope to see her working in the Arctic for years to come.

“Until recently, very little archaeological research in the north used ceramic data to answer questions about social interaction and human behavior in general.  This is an amazing period of maritime adaptation and people becoming more established in coastal communities!”  —Marcy Davis

The following organizations and communities are supporting Anderson’s current research at Port Clarence:

National Science Foundation, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs – Anchorage

Division of Polar Programs joins Facebook!

Exciting news! NSF-funded researchers at Woogaani ye (Aron Crowell, Smithsonian Institution, PI). Disenchantment Bay, 2013. Photo by Emily Silber using camera self-timer. — in Yakutat, AK

Welcome to Facebook!  Researchers at Disenchantment Bay, Ak (Aron Crowell, Smithsonian Institution, PI). Photo: Emily Silber

Follow Arctic and Antarctic research news through the new Facebook page of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs. The recently launched page carries stunning pictures and updates on the U.S. polar programs, north and south. Here’s where you’ll find:

We’ll be checking in with the page regularly and encourage our readers to do so as well (and if you like it, please don’t hesitate to “Like” it).