The trend is clear. Temperatures are rising. Plant and animal populations are dropping. Scientists in Alaska explain the need for more data that will allow them to make predictions about coming changes.
Hundreds of scientists and people interested in marine science are gathered in Anchorage for a four-day conference. In calm and dispassionate tones, dozens of presenters give 15-minute talks organized by regions — the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. They are also organized by topic: marine mammal, human, climate and oceanography, lower trophic (such as single-celled plants and animals), fish, seabirds, and ecosystems. One after another, scientists describe their research and the results in presentations that show enormous rapid changes underway in all those regions and affecting all those fields of study.
Numbers of seabirds, zooplankton, abalone, salmon, herring, seals, beluga whales, cod, pollock, sea lions, kelp, sea urchin, and polar bears, among others, are plunging. Areas of shoreline covered with intertidal plants are shrinking. Crab and mussel shells are thinning.
On the other hand, disease rates, acidification, algal toxins, and the number of acres of dead coral reefs, which served as nurseries for juvenile fish and other animals, are shooting up. In the case of seabird corpses found on west coast beaches, numbers are rising by the hundreds of thousands. Air, river, lake, ground, and ocean temperatures rise in ever higher peaks.
Rowenna Gryba, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, is working to create a model for combining traditional knowledge with research to help explain and predict animal habitat and movement. Tomorrow she will be giving a talk based on interviews with hunters in three Alaska coastal villages. She’s been asking hunters in Utquiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), Point Hope, and Kotzebue about the habitat and behavior of seals.
She says traditional knowledge is “massively valuable,” and if scientists can find the best way to include it in their research, “We're just going to do better at what we do.” And that can lead to better decision-making, said Gryba. “Recognizing that there are Indigenous peoples who have knowledge about a multitude of habitats for a multitude of species, it [the knowledge] should be valued and recognized as something that can be readily incorporated into management decisions.”
Traditional knowledge is valuable for several reasons, she said, “it has a depth and breadth to it that we [scientists] don’t have.” For instance, she uses satellite tracking of tagged animals to track migration patterns. She can only get so many years worth of data from that, though. Compare that, she says, to what she can learn from experienced hunters with knowledge handed down over generations.
“I’m talking to a hunter who's been hunting for goodness knows how long, and he is basing what he does on information that's been passed on and on and on and on,” Gryba said. She said hunters also see the interrelationships of more factors. She said she expected to hear about the ways sea ice changes are affecting seal behavior. But hunters already have opened her eyes to the importance of ocean currents and wind, as well as sea ice, in understanding seal movement and behavior.
Maija Katak Lukin, Inupiaq, is just the kind of person who can use scientific data in decision making. She’s the superintendent of Western Arctic National Parklands in Northwest Alaska. She values traditional knowledge but said it isn’t enough to keep people safe in the midst of rapid and overwhelming change.
“People are dying because we haven't been able to adapt to the changing weather patterns and the diminishing sea ice,” Lukin said. “Our natural and cultural resources are being lost, both because of erosion, and then also because of the changing weather patterns that affect animal migrations, caribou breeding grounds and things like that,” Lukin said. “For thousands of years we've had safe sea ice and pretty stable land ice. Recently, very recently, we haven't had safe sea ice and we've definitely haven't had safe land ice.”
Ice isn’t as safe as it once was for travel. People used sea ice to travel to hunt migrating seals, walrus, and whales. Rivers became winter highways with ice thick enough to support trucks as well as snowmachines.
“You might see it’s nice out and no clouds, so you decide, ‘I'm going to go out and get some wood today,’” Lukin said. “‘I have to go across the ocean and then onto the river ice and then get my wood and then come back.’”
“But halfway there could be open water hidden under the snow. Or it’s been so warm water flowed up over the ice,” Lukin said. Snow machines drop into holes and the driver is overcome with hypothermia before he or she can get a grip on the ice to crawl out. They get stuck in a patch of tundra that thawed out. Wet, they die of exposure walking the two miles home. “That’s the kind of things that are happening to people right now,” said Lukin.
“Caribou is the number one resource that we harvest for the region.” And people are having to travel farther to get caribou. “The cost of fuel has increased. And so they end up spending a lot of money on fuel trying to harvest and then not catching anything.”
Plus, the number of animals has dropped, sometimes by half.
“This forces our lab managers and local people to take drastic measures to protect them. That includes local residents self limiting their catch, reducing their harvest and protecting their breeding cows,” Lukin said. “So in just one generation, the changes experienced by local hunters has threatened our entire culture.”
Alaska Natives also harvest marine mammals. “They're important not only for cultural value, but for the iron-rich meat, the nutrition, that indigenous people get from it,” Lukin said.
“They [villagers] drive snow machines out onto the frozen sea where seals and walrus rest between feeding and nurse their young.” The lack of sea ice “forces our hunters to travel much further out in very rough seas to catch their year bearded seal,” Lukin said.
“When we don't have ice cover, people take risks. Unsafe practices are sometimes used just to ensure that they get seals.” Worst, Lukin said, is that future generations will not learn the ways of their people, the time-honored practices that allowed the Inupiaq to survive in a harsh climate.
“Unfortunately, that means that even though my grandparents, parents, myself and my children are taught safe hunting techniques on safe ice packs, proper harvesting, and traditional processing, my grandchildren will never, ever experience or learn that because of the warming trends today.”
Kaare Sikuaq Erickson, Inupiaq, is North Slope science liaison for a subsidiary of the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation Science. Utquiagvik once was home to Naval Arctic Research Laboratories, and when the military left, local leaders stepped up. Erickson said as many as 500 scientists per year come to the Arctic for research. Iñupiat Corporation Science provides support — everything from housing, lab space and vehicles to warm clothing, local permits, and workers. He said he also holds community meetings so locals know what kind of work is getting underway and how it will ultimately benefit them.
He said the freeze thaw pattern they’re seeing on the edge of the Arctic Ocean melts snow, which then freezes into inches-thick ice. “That's really devastating for animals and for traveling.” Reindeer that usually dig through the snow to feed, can’t get to the food under the ice.”
And that affects hunters.
Erickson said villagers “really have to keep up with things on a daily basis. And we have a year-round cycle where we're always busy. A lot of people are always busy every day doing things just to stay on top of things, to keep their family fed,” Erickson said. “We’re dealing with the real time right here, right now. We’re dealing with today. And tomorrow we're going to be dealing with tomorrow.”
Erickson said his hope is that scientists will find solutions. He said he’s seeing a new emphasis “where the funding agencies are requiring immediate, actionable, tangible, positive impacts on the people in the Arctic through their research. So that's kind of the, one of the highest tiers, you know, to get the funding,” Erickson said. “If you have a really good plan to kind of incorporate that, the local tangible, positive impacts on people, then you're going to have a lot better chance of getting the funding.” He appreciates the new focus on finding solutions. Still he’s concerned the answers aren’t coming fast enough.
Lukin said even if scientists come up with solutions, “It’s very difficult to come up with the funding needed to mitigate those effects [of weather extremes].”