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AAAS Arctic Division Meeting to Explore Adaptation to Food, Energy and Climate Challenges
Photo © Patrick J. Endres/Alaskaphotographics.com
As many U.S. researchers and policymakers consider the potential impact of dramatically higher energy costs, potential food shortages and climate change, these interrelated issues are already reshaping daily life for many people who live in the Far North. Hundreds of Arctic scientists and community leaders will gather at the annual meeting of the AAAS Arctic Division next month to assess not only how to observe and measure these changes, but how humans can best adapt.
The meeting—"Growing Sustainability Science in the North: The Resilience of the People in the Arctic," will be held from 15 to 17 September in Fairbanks, Alaska. It is expected to attract 200 or more scientists, government officials, native Alaskan leaders, educators and students for three days of symposia and lectures that will provide insight into issues that could someday confront nations and people further south.
The meeting comes at a time when the old ways of life for the Arctic's native peoples and other hardy denizens is undergoing swift and significant change. Barrier island communities, pounded by storms and rising seas, are eroding away. Animal habitats and migration patterns are changing as the warm seasons grow longer. Freeze and thaw patterns are shifting, which changes transportation and hunting for people who continue the traditional ways of living off the land. And spiking gas prices result in staggering price increases at grocery stores in Alaska and other remote Far North regions.
Many of these changes have been predicted by researchers, says anthropologist Craig Gerlach, president of the Arctic Division. With one key exception: "Things we said were going to happen by 2050 or 2070—they're happening now," he said in a recent interview. "What I'm interested in doing is coming up with real-world solutions to these problems. And we'd better get successful at it sooner rater than later."
Lawrence K. Duffy with a sled dog
Climate change is nothing new in the Arctic—over tens of thousands of years, shifting patterns often have affected Far North regions earlier and more deeply than the rest of the planet, added Lawrence K. Duffy, a chemist and biomedical researcher who serves as the Arctic Division's executive director.
"The climate has changed before, and people have adapted," he said. "They've hunted different animals, they change what they eat, they migrate.... Today, the question up here around the pole is: How do we adapt and mitigate? Do we move people? Do we protect barrier islands? ...A holistic, interdisciplinary approach leads to an awareness of vulnerability and resilience, and an awareness that we can adapt."
The AAAS Arctic Division, founded in 1951 (as the Alaska Division), promotes science activities and communication among researchers, graduate students, wildlife managers, business leaders, rural residents, Alaska natives, teachers, students and others. Recent annual meetings have explored topics including climate, environmental change, natural resources, and, in 2007, on the International Polar Year. The annual meetings are typically held in Anchorage or Fairbanks, but on occasion have been held at other sites in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
This year's meeting also will feature events exploring the legacy of the current International Polar Year. There will be poster sessions. There will be two art exhibits, including a show of work by Siberian schoolchildren arranged by Albert H. Teich, AAAS's director of Science and Policy Programs.
"The AAAS Arctic Division meeting assembles a critical mass of researchers, policymakers, and affected citizens to discuss the key issues that are having or will soon have an impact on the environment and life in the Arctic regions," Teich said. "The meeting is not that well-known in the 'Lower 48,' but it's a major focus among members of the Arctic science community. AAAS is performing a vital service to the nation and, in fact, to the world through its sponsorship of this division and its annual meeting."
The meeting's primary focus this year is on how change is affecting life in Arctic regions, and how the impact could create new challenges—and new opportunities—in other parts of the globe. For example, as warming opens new transit lanes in the century ahead, the Arctic will become an important route for trade and commerce between Europe and the Eastern Pacific regions. In order to respond and adapt, researchers, policymakers, and the broader culture must recognize and understand the changes.
Each day of the conference will feature a variation on the theme of change:
Monday 15 September: Observing Change—The day will feature discussions and technical sessions on subjects including cycles of change and the impact on humans; the international study of Arctic change; national parks and public lands in the north; and interdisciplinary education.
Tuesday 16 September: Understanding Change—The day will feature sessions on subjects including Arctic climate change in the Quaternary Period over the past 2.6 million years; northern engineering; climate change and atmospheric science; engaging local expertise in developing food systems.
Wednesday 17 September: Understanding Change—The day will feature sessions on subjects including native Alaskan leadership; policy, sustainability and adaptive governance; and circumpolar health. The National Science Foundation's Office of Integrative Activities (EPSCoR) will also present a session for graduate students.
Gerlach cited the island communities of Shishmaref and Kivalina, which are suffering from erosion so severe that they may have to be relocated. "The linkage between climate change and ocean currents and weather and the impact on communities—it's clear, it's very evident," he said. But, he added: "For many communities, it's the indirect effect, the cumulative effect. The price of fuel, the lack of infrastructure, the expense of food—all of these make it difficult for them to respond to change."
Much of Gerlach's research has focused on food and food security among native Alaskans and others in the Far North—on nutritional ecology, community health, and the restoration of traditional food systems. In the Sustainability and Stewardship Alaska Research Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, he worked with students and others to explore these issues. They also promoted "village-supported farming" as a complement to traditional hunting, fishing, and food-gathering.
Gerlach takes a system-based view of the challenges confronting the people of interior Alaska. A simple example: He knows a stretch of the Yukon River that is, in summer, usually crowded with people fishing to fill their larders for the winter. This year, fishing was poor because the river flooded, and gasoline was so expensive that people couldn't afford to run their motor-boats.
Another example: Rivers, lakes, and ocean shorelines are freezing later in the fall than they did 20 years ago, and ice is breaking up two to three weeks earlier every spring. Native Alaskans rely on snow and ice for their travel to hunting area, but the snow and ice are less predictable now than they were.
Gerlach said that affects reindeer-herders on the Seward Peninsula, for example, or communities that rely on moose-hunting. Because autumn is warmer now, moose stay longer in the remote uplands and migrate a few weeks later. But the legal dates for moose-hunting have not shifted to match the new migration season, and so few moose are readily available during the hunting season.
"People in the villages are really concerned about food security," he said. "The cost of gas raises the cost of food—the cost of food in Alaska is up 92% in the last 10 years. Now people can't afford to buy food in the stores... People in the villages are actively trying to come up with strategies to cope."
The local Cooperative Extension Service and others are engaged in farming projects in more than 40 villages. There are new initiatives to encourage food-growing—lettuce, cabbage, peas and potatoes are among the main crops.
"People have been gardening for a long time, but this is new," Gerlach said. "They're trying to experiment with a marketing co-op, producing food so that it can be put in the store and made available for sale.... We're working with people to give them food they have control over."
The AAAS Arctic Division includes AAAS members from Alaska, Canada's Yukon and Northwest Territories, and other polar areas.
The four regional divisions of AAAS—Pacific, Southwestern and Rocky Mountain, Arctic, and Caribbean—serve as regional networks for scientists, organizing meetings on regional issues and promoting publications from scientists active within the division. The Pacific is the oldest division, with a charter dating to 1915, followed by the Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division (1920), the Arctic Division (1951), and the Caribbean Division (1985).
All AAAS members in good standing, and who reside within the specified boundaries of a regional division, are automatically included as members of that division.
27 August 2008