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Controversial Mining Project to Be a Focus of AAAS Arctic Division Meeting in Rural Alaska

When the AAAS Arctic Division convenes for the first time next month in Dillingham, Alaska, researchers and others will explore how local issues reflect challenges being confronted across the northern latitudes and beyond.

The meeting will focus on a range of critical science questions—energy supplies, food security, fisheries, and climate change—which are often interrelated. The centerpiece of the meeting will be a lengthy presentation and discussion on the proposed Pebble Mine, a controversial initiative to extract copper, gold, molybdenum, and other resources from undeveloped wilderness near Bristol Bay.

“Most ecosystems in the Lower 48 have been so highly altered that they function differently than they once did,” said Todd Radenbaugh, president of the Arctic Division. “There are so many human influences—and you can’t take the humans out of the picture. But in Alaska, and especially in places like the Pebble site, there’s such a minimal human footprint. What are the implications if you change that? That will get a lot of attention at our meeting.”

Lawrence K. Duffy, executive director of the Arctic Division, said the significance of the Pebble Mine proposal extends far beyond the local site.

Site of the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. View a larger version of this image. | Image courtesy of Tim Troll

“This is a big issue not just for Alaska but for all scientists, students, and leaders in America and the North,” Duffy said. “Pebble is the case study of how humans will create a sustainable future in a warmer, more crowded, and flatter planet. Within its context are issues related to rural versus urban cultures; local control versus federal one-size-fits-all control; place-based education versus abstract science; environmental justice versus the stock market; and many other questions like those.”

The division’s annual conference will convene from Wednesday 21 September through Saturday 24 September at the Bristol Bay Campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Dillingham is located in southwest Alaska, where the Wood and Nushagak rivers flow into Bristol Bay, the largest remaining wild salmon fishery in the world. It may be the most remote location ever to host a AAAS Arctic Division meeting. It is more than 300 miles from Anchorage and more than 500 from Fairbanks. No roads lead there; most visitors come by plane or boat. The town has a population of about 2500, though that doubles during salmon season. About 600 students are enrolled at the Bristol Bay Campus.

Admission to the conference will be free for Dillingham residents; students qualify for a discounted rate.

Despite Dillingham’s remote location and small population, interest in the meeting has been robust. Radenbaugh, director of the Bristol Bay Environmental Science Lab, said some 60 papers have been accepted for presentation as of mid-August. The presentations will cover a range of topics in science, engineering, and science education.

But the most prominent topic is likely to be the vast Pebble mining operation proposed for the state-owned lands and watersheds between Anchorage and Dillingham.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, which is pursuing the mine venture, is a joint effort by Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited and Anglo American PLC. A 2010 study estimated that the lands in the Pebble site could yield $300 billion worth of recoverable metals.

Bristol Bay Campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, in Dillingham, Alaska | Image courtesy of Todd Radenbaugh

The global companies have argued that the mine would create employment opportunities and economic development, plus generate millions of dollars in tax revenues for the state. They have pledged to take strong environmental protection measures.

But a vigorous opposition movement has emerged, with supporters locally and worldwide. Opponents argue that the mine would scar pristine lands with one of the world’s largest open-pit and underground mines. Its location at the headwaters to Bristol Bay would threaten a fishery that supplies about 50% of the world’s annual sockeye salmon harvest, they say, and inevitably would disrupt habitat for moose and many other animals.

All of that change would inevitably affect humans, the opponents say. Indigenous people and others in the area practice a traditional subsistence lifestyle, hunting and fishing for their food. Opponents also worry that mining operations can release mercury and other toxins into the environment.

The first full day of the Arctic Division meeting will feature a three-hour presentation and discussion that brings together state leaders, Pebble representatives, environmental groups, business interests, scientists, and tribal officials. Among those scheduled to speak are Rick Halford, a Republican who formerly served as president of the Alaska Senate, and Alaska state Representative Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham). The session will be moderated by Al Teich, a senior policy adviser at AAAS.

Technical sessions later at the meeting will include presentations on the possible impact of the mine on fisheries and nearby ecosystems.

Radenbaugh said climate change and its effects on northern ecosystems also will be an important theme at the Arctic Division meeting. One presentation by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will focus on how climate change is affecting the subsistence culture.

“We can’t get away from climate change because it’s happening more rapidly in Alaska and Arctic regions,” he said. Among the native people in the region, elders were once able to predict things such as the winter freeze, the depth of ice, animal migration patterns—all things that relate to fishing, hunting, and foraging for plants and berries.

“But,” said Radenbaugh, “those types of predictions are getting much more difficult because of uncertainty created by climate change. That affects the subsistence culture, and it scares a lot of people.”

Uncertain energy supplies and volatile prices also threaten the stability of the community and its economy. Despite Alaska’s wealth of oil resources, Dillingham imports diesel fuel from the Lower 48 to power its electricity grid and its fishing boats.

“We need a stable energy source,” Radenbaugh said. “All it takes is one barge not coming in and our entire society out here shuts down. And that’s happened in some rural villages.”

The meeting will include sessions on energy and a walking tour of local wind and solar power projects.

Founded in 1951, the AAAS Arctic Division fosters communication between researchers working on the Arctic, Alaskan, Canadian, northern, or Antarctic issues, including climate, environmental change, natural resources, telecommunications, and northern people and cultures. Most of the division’s members live in the North, but anyone who is a member of AAAS can join.

AAAS has three other regional divisions: the Pacific, founded in 1915; the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Division, founded in 1920; and the Caribbean, founded in 1985. [Learn more about AAAS’s regional divisions.] All AAAS members in good standing, and who reside or work within the specified boundaries of a regional division, are automatically included as members of that division.


Read registration and program information for the 2011 AAAS Arctic Division meeting in Dillingham, Alaska.

Learn more about the Arctic Division and AAAS’s other regional divisions.


Edward W. Lempinen

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