Scientists work with locals to study Chukchi ice

Frederick Freudenberger
December 14, 2017

University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists are presenting their work at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in New Orleans this week. Here are some highlights of their research, as shared at the world’s largest Earth and space science meeting.

In the scientific world of high-tech research and data modeling, it’s easy for a scientist to get caught up in the details of science. However, University of Alaska Fairbanks research assistant professor Andrew Mahoney is on a team dedicated to taking a step back and thinking about science through a broader lens.

The project, Ikaaġvik Sikukun, will co-produce scientific research on the Chukchi Sea with local indigenous experts. It’s funded with with a four-year, $3.7 million grant to Chris Zappa at Columbia University from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“We want to address lofty science questions about changing sea ice and its impacts on social and ecological systems but do so in a way that incorporates western and indigenous knowledge,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney’s research focuses on sea ice change near Kotzebue, a village on the northwestern coast of Alaska. The project aims to use drones to monitor sea ice processes in the region during periods of animal migration to better understand change in the Chukchi Sea.

His work is taking a unique approach. From beginning to end, the scientists on the team are completing the research with Kotzebue residents. They wanted to include local experts every step along the way.

“One thing that stands out about the project is that we began it without any specific hypothesis and that was a deliberate choice because it allowed us to bring in the local experts and indigenous knowledge holders to allow us to define those hypotheses,” Mahoney said.

Local experts helped the team identify the hypotheses to test.

“The valuable thing about working with the indigenous experts is that their knowledge is much more holistic than ours,” Mahoney said. “Individually, we have parts of the puzzle to look at, but we don’t know what’s missing. Working with indigenous experts can really help us piece together what it is that we don’t know that we wouldn’t even know to look for. That’s how we are deriving more insight as a result.”

Mahoney said scientists will not just study sea ice. Because the project was driven by local interest, concerns often come down to food. Conversations with locals drifted to how changes in sea ice affect marine mammals, important species that they rely on for sustenance, especially bearded seals.

Through these conversations, it turned out locals had many of the same questions as scientists. They could collaborate to find the best way to answer them.

Now, the team is designing a plan that to answer questions that locals have about bearded seals to better understand sea ice. For example: Do bearded seals arrive at a specific time of year at Kotzebue Sound? The team can then ask specific questions about when the ice changes to better understand both seal migration and sea ice processes.

“We can look at those in some specific cases in how that is going to evolve in Kotzebue and how that is going to affect the locals, but at the same time they are the same questions we might be asking more broadly across the Arctic,” Mahoney said.

In the end, what scientists consider a finished scientific product is not always useful to the locals. So, while the experts are co-authors on all the papers, Mahoney wants to leave a legacy for the project.

“What we are hoping to leave is more of a story of how the project came to be and what we found,” Mahoney said. “That’s a lot more in line with how indigenous knowledge is collected and passed on.”