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At AAAS Arctic Meeting, Researchers Explore Unprecedented Changes Confronting the Far North
Bruce Forbes with a Nenets herder in the Varandei region of Arctic Russia, on the Barents Sea
Photo © Nina Meschtyb
FAIRBANKS, Alaska—The news came in mid-September that Arctic sea ice had shrunk to its second smallest size on record, but even before that, 2008 had given many Alaskans a troubling sense that things were somehow out-of-kilter. Record summer rainfall caused damaging floods and swamped backyard vegetable gardens. Floods and high gas prices disrupted subsistence hunting and fishing out in the Bush. And schools in Alaska's urban areas reported an unexpected surge in students, apparently because families are moving from rural villages.
The connections aren't immediately obvious, but among more than 170 scientists and engineers who gathered in Fairbanks for the recent annual meeting of the AAAS Arctic Division, the news fit a pattern that is gradually coming into focus: A broad, unprecedented change is underway in the Far North, driven in part by a warming climate, but also by other sorts of environmental degradation, global competition for oil and gas, economic stress, and social change.
"It's not a future event that we have to worry about," said Virgil "Buck" Sharpton, vice president for research at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) and a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. "It is a reality that we have to deal with now.... The Arctic is key to the nation's economy, policy and strategic strength. Few in the Lower 48 have an appreciation of this fact."
Virgil "Buck" Sharpton
But as Sharpton and others at the conference suggested, the importance of the Arctic will become more clear in the 21st century. As scientists search for understanding, several speakers urged that they work closely with native Alaskan groups who have a deep, almost intuitive grasp of the Arctic environment. And, others said, researchers must help the public to see that in every challenge, there is an opportunity for solutions that could transform and improve the way people live.
"We can wallow in the very adverse changes that are happening as a result of global warming and the increase in greenhouse gasses that we are putting into the environment," said Deborah L. Williams, president of Alaska Conservation Solutions and former special assistant on Alaska issues to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. "We need to recognize this and draw attention to it, but it doesn't do any good if it only leads to despair. When we put our minds to something... if we have the right leadership, I believe we can turn this around."
The arctic researchers—along with students, K-12 teachers, and native Alaskan leaders—convened in Fairbanks from 15-17 September for the 59th meeting of the AAAS Arctic Division. Under the theme "Growing Sustainability Science in the North," the researchers' presentations focused for one day each on observing, understanding, and responding to change in the Arctic. Within that framework, the meeting ranged from discussions of the Beringian climate and environment over the past 2 million years to the current International Polar Year, building a better ice-breaker, and the importance of interdisciplinary education.
Lawrence K. Duffy, executive director of the AAAS Arctic Division, takes a hair sample from a sled dog as part of a study of mercury concentration in Alaskan sled dogs fed meat from wild animals and fish.
"The breadth of the agenda reflects the complexity of Arctic System, especially when the human element is included," said Lawrence K. Duffy, executive director of the Arctic Division and interim dean of the UAF Graduate School. The Fourth International Polar Year, "for the first time, explicitly acknowledged the importance of people and their activity as part of arctic systems science. In our meeting, the complexity of sustainability and stewardship led to inclusion of many perspectives about arctic science, ranging from geophysics to education and policy."
A delegation of AAAS officials from the association's Washington, D.C., headquarters included Albert H. Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs and liaison to the Arctic Division; Richard Weibl, director of the Center for Careers in Science and Technology; and Sarah Banas, a program associate in the International Office. Weibl offered a program on AAAS career development resources. Banas spoke about AAAS sustainability initiatives.
Unprecedented Changes, Sweeping Effects
The University of Alaska-Fairbanks is one of the world's centers of Arctic science and engineering research, and scientists there and elsewhere in Alaska have been at the forefront in documenting significant changes in the Arctic climate and in land and marine ecosystems. While such change has generated some news coverage over the past decade, developments in the past year signal that the challenge is unmistakably global.
Among the plenary speakers at the meetings opening session was Hajo Eicken, who researches the geophysics of sea ice and directs the executive committee of the North by 2020, an interdisciplinary forum dedicated to researching and planning opportunities for sustainable development.
On its website, the group outlines the scale of the Arctic's transformation: "Regime shifts in climate and the environment that are unprecedented in the historical and recent geological record; sweeping effects of change on Northern populations and cultures; expansion of global geopolitical and economic interests into the North; and increasing interdependence between the Arctic region and global processes."
At the Arctic Division meeting, examples of such transformation were plentiful.
Arctic sea ice is receding to levels surpassed only once—last year; NASA reported in September that sea ice melted faster than ever recorded during a four-week period in August. More melting means that new sea lanes will open, and that will mean more shipping in Arctic waterways. That, in turn, will mean new development, and could bring new pressures to drill in fragile Arctic ecosystems, which rest atop roughly a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Russian explorers last year traveled in mini-submarines to the ocean floor 14,000 feet below the North Pole and planted the Russian flag, a move apparently designed to advance the nation's claim to troves of oil, gas, and minerals. The Russian move set off sharp criticism in the United States, Canada and other nations.
U.S. officials have grown so concerned about the changing Arctic that, according to news stories in August, U.S. policy emphasis in the region is being shifted from scientific research to security and sovereignty issues. An example: As the waters of the Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea warm, marine life moves north, following warm water. Fishing crews follow the fish—and that leaves the U.S. Coast Guard concerned that fish are being improperly harvested by foreign crews in U.S. waters.
The changes also play out locally, sometimes dramatically. When sea ice recedes, the hunting patterns of polar bears are disrupted; their health and numbers decline. Forests, stressed by the warming climate, are being lost to an increase of wildfires and lethal insect infestations. Toxins such as mercury and fertilizer chemicals are infiltrating marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
Though the topics of the Arctic Division meeting were diverse, the lectures, discussions, and symposia, taken together, offered a powerful sense that all of these changes—climate and environment, economic and diplomatic—have a daily impact on the lives of people who live in the Far North. Compared to people who live in urban or more temperate rural areas of the Lower 48, they tend to feel nature's changes more directly and immediately. As the environment changes, humans pay a toll.
Resilient Cultures Face Historic Test
That impact falls disproportionately on rural residents, and especially on native Alaskans who still embrace the traditional subsistence lifestyle.
In coastal communities such as Shishmaref and Kivalina, erosion in the past decade has caused extensive damage to barrier islands that have provided a home for hundreds of years. In those communities and others, leaders are planning relocations that will cost tens of millions of dollars.
When temperatures warm and sea ice recedes, traditional over-ice transit routes become unreliable, and that disrupts seasonal hunting and fishing. Flooding disrupts food-gathering, too. When gasoline becomes more expensive, that limits subsistence hunters who must use trucks or snowmobiles ("snow machines," in the Alaskan parlance) to reach remote areas. And high gas prices drive the cost of food in rural Arctic stores to levels unimaginable in the Lower 48. All of these changes make it more difficult to feed a family, or a community.
The result, according to Eicken: "You're going to have people coming into Fairbanks from all over Alaska because they can't afford to live in rural Alaska." To underscore the point, schools in Anchorage and Fairbanks reported during the meeting that enrollments this fall are significantly higher than expected, in part because of migration into the cities from Bush villages. But many who arrive in the cities find a new set of challenges: Housing and transportation are expensive. And, in ways small and large, living in a city requires different skills than living in the country.
By definition, native Alaskans—and Arctic people in Europe and Canada as well—have had to be resilient to live in such a demanding environment, and many leaders say they will endure whatever changes are happening now.
"We've been on this land for 10,000 years because of our ability to adapt," said Miranda Wright, an assistant professor at UAF and academic head of the university's Rural Development Department. She acknowledged that the population of her home village in west central Alaska is below 300 for the first time in her memory, but, she said, when important ceremonies or celebrations are held, over 1000 people return to the village to take part.
This may reflect a complex change in culture for native Alaskans. In the past, their communities tended to be more mobile, shifting to different sites in response to seasonal conditions and food availability. Today, because of schools, government offices and services in the villages, the villages tend to be more fixed. Some residents want access to more modern services and amenities that aren't available in smaller communities.
There are other signs that native people of the Arctic are torn between old ways and new pressures. Many native Alaskan communities are working to strengthen their traditional cultures, and village elders are crucial to that effort, said UAF doctoral student Jordan Lewis, a native Aleut. But in some communities, Lewis said at the Arctic Division meeting, they feel "useless"—they're not being brought into schools as they once were, and younger people are less inclined to listen to them.
The Value of Indigenous Knowledge
A similar point was made repeatedly during the meeting: Researchers must work closely with local residents and native peoples if they are to understand the environmental changes that are occurring and how to craft the best adaptation strategies. (Scientists and indigenous leaders held a landmark meeting on climate change in March 2008 at National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.)
Bruce Forbes, a veteran of Arctic research now based at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Finland, described his extensive work with the Nenets people on the Yamal Peninsula and neighboring Nenets Autonomous district in Russia's Far North. This extremely remote region includes some of the largest undeveloped reserves of oil and gas in the world, but development has disrupted the Nenets' nomadic, reindeer-herding culture. As Forbes researched the Nenets, they often have given him profound scientific insights and sometimes confounded his expectations.
An example: Russians have built new roads on the Yamal Peninsula to facilitate gas and oil drilling. Though cultural and political changes had largely passed them by, the Nenets found that the roads brought an array of new problems: poachers, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases.
They told Forbes and fellow researchers that the roads were having another, more subtle effect. Grading a road out of the tundra exposes dirt and dust. As dust drifts up and falls on the roadside, it changes the chemistry of the soil and plants growing there. The quality of the berries changed—though they were a traditional staple, people began to get sick from eating them. In addition, mushrooms and lichens rapidly disappeared and the species composition of the moss cover began to change.
The reindeer would feed from the same roadsides, he said, and the Nenets herders told the researchers that the reindeer, over generations, grew smaller and weaker. "They're very conscious of how much a reindeer can pull—they pull sledges over snow in winter and over vegetation in summer," Forbes explained. "And they were saying: 'The reindeer can't pull as much as they used to.'"
It was a difficult question for researchers to explore. How did the Nenets explain it? The grit in the dust was grinding down the reindeers' teeth, making it more difficult for them to chew and digest their forage properly.
On arriving in Russia, Forbes said, "I thought I knew what was important. But when I talked to the people who had lived there for generations, my understanding became broader and richer—it improved significantly. There were a lot of things that I hadn't thought of."
The Nenets have not fought the development, though they are "clearly worried about the lack of meaningful consultation" by Russian government and business interests, Forbes said. "They understand that they cannot survive the forthcoming development if their migration needs are not properly taken into account." And yet, intent on preserving their traditional culture, they are taking the long view. "They know about cycles of boom and bust," Forbes explained. "Their view goes way beyond that: 'What's going to happen when this is done?'"
Sustainability—and Solutions—for the Remote Arctic
S. Craig Gerlach
UAF anthropology Professor S. Craig Gerlach, whose term as president of the Arctic Division ended at the conclusion of the meeting, has heard similar stories during his work in the Alaskan Bush—stories of native people struggling to cope with development, of environments and food sources tainted when roads are carved across fragile ecosystems.
But, he says, traditional knowledge is only part of the answer to unprecedented changes. Traditional knowledge "is rich in story and content," Gerlach said, "but it is not always the only guide needed for understanding the kinds of social and ecological changes that rural people are forced to confront now. Rural Alaskans have come to expect unpredictability with respect to weather, the changing seasons, the watersheds, the sea ice, and their ability to plan for hunting, fishing, sea mammal hunting, travel, and barge shipments. This requires a responsive local knowledge that is flexible and emerging... This is where the scientific community has to come in and say, 'Here's what we can bring to the discussion.'"
Gerlach has been working with Athabascan villages in the remote upper Yukon for 15 years. Villagers there are "quite aware" that the climate is changing, he said, and many of them work closely with scientists on climate and related issues. But, he added, "what I've heard time and again and again, especially last summer, is that climate change is not the only issue that they have to cope with and work around. If you're hanging meat or hunting moose or planting a garden, what matters is the weather."
Sometimes, he said, village residents are "frustrated with segments of the scientific community that talk with them about nothing else" beside climate change. In response to the shifting conditions, Gerlach and his colleagues and students have been working with the villages on an array of projects—biofuels, sustainable forestry, village gardens.
"The Athabascan people are right out there on the edge," he said. "Athabascans have no word for sustainability, but they do have a word for self-reliance—it's self-reliance they're interested in, strong and healthy communities. That's their language, not mine."
Deborah L. Williams
Gerlach and many others scattered across several colleges, academic departments, and programs at UAF provide the village residents with research-based information, but then it's the residents who make the decisions. "They are trying a lot of new things, trying to see what will work," he said. "What I'm interested in doing is coming up with real-world solutions to these problems. And we better get successful at it sooner rather than later."
This is the sort of work—and the sort of problem-solving initiative—that Deborah Williams, the president of Alaska Conservation Solutions, may have had in mind when she urged scientists not to wallow in despair.
"When you speak about these issues, and especially when you provide hope, you are the most credible sources of information," Williams told the gathered researchers. "You are heroes. There's nothing easy about this... but I would just urge all of you to recognize even more how important you are and how critical this moment is in our earth's history."
The AAAS Arctic Division, founded in 1951 as the Alaska Division, includes more than 300 AAAS members, most of them from Alaska and the Canadian provinces of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
The four regional divisions of AAAS—Arctic, Pacific, Southwestern and Rocky Mountain, 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 AAAS regional division, with a charter dating to 1914, followed by the Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division (1920), the Arctic Division, 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 regional division. Arctic Division membership also is open to all science and engineering researchers who are working on Arctic, Alaskan, Canadian, northern, or Antarctic issues.
8 October 2008