Science outreach in coastal Arctic communities

By: Lucia Hosekova

Figure 1: NASA image by Robert Simmon based on Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) surface temperature analysis data including ship and buoy data from the Hadley Centre. Caption by Adam Voiland.

Few people are more aware of the rapidity of the changes in our oceans and climate than Polar Scientists. Due to an effect known as polar amplification, temperatures in the Arctic regions have been observed to rise approximately twice as fast as the global average temperature (Fig. 1). It is a result of a complex system of feedbacks, including the effects of declining sea ice and changes to the vertical temperature profile [1]. The Arctic is now considered the canary in the coal mine that is climate change – the place where warnings are quickly turning into a worrying reality.

 In May 2019, I had an opportunity to visit the cities in the north coast of Alaska as part of a small team of scientists hosting outreach events at schools and community centres and hoping to engage in a dialogue with indigenous Inupiat communities that can be beneficial to both sides.

Our first stop was Kaktovik, a town of 300 sitting on an island surrounded by a lagoon on one side, and a beach exposed to Beaufort Sea on the other. This beach, together with many others along the Arctic coastline, is now undergoing erosion at unprecedented rates and leaving many communities exposed to flooding.

 From the moment we stepped off the small twin prop plane capable of landing on a lonely runway that emerged from the surrounding whiteness, I immediately gained respect for the people who, by choice or birth, made their life here in the tundra. With only two flights a day carrying supplies and people along the coast when the weather permits, the cities rely on indigenous ways of hunting and beachcombing to provide supplies and food. Here, the snow machine helps you reach places once the road inevitably ends, a bear gun is as common a tool as an umbrella back home, and every first-grader learns what temperature and wind speed is safe for playing outside.

 The children continued to impress: we spent two days visiting the local school and talking to students of all ages about the climate and ocean, engaging them in interactive demonstrations. We were rewarded by endless curiosity and questions that showed us that they know all too well how vulnerable their island is to permafrost thaw and waves hitting the beach previously protected by sea ice. At the end of our visit, we held a community meeting that served as a showcase of our science and the ways it touches the local life. As we quickly found out, no Inupiat social gathering is complete without a raffle (with prizes ranging from water purifiers to drones) and a generous dinner, and it was up to us to be cooks, hosts and scientists at the same time! It was a lot of fun seeing the children we met during our school visits in the company of their older family members. Here’s a little secret: if you want to make an Inupiat friend, bring Tang.

 After Kaktovik, we headed to Utqiagvik (previously known as Barrow), the largest settlement in the North Slope Borough and the closest the coast has to a town – you can find hotels, restaurants, even a Subway. With access to a large runway and other infrastructure, Utqiagvik is home to a sizeable transient scientific community, occupying a section of the city referred to as NARL (United States Naval Arctic Research Laboratory). In the communal accommodation, we found a vibrant international atmosphere of scientists representing a wide range of fields – from environmental and biological sciences all the way to a NASA team who came to test their new robots in extreme conditions.

 The communal meeting we organised here, called ‘Sandwich ’n Science’, reflected this varied demographic. Scientists were joined by locals and interested parties, who were aware and outspoken about the challenges their communities are facing in the near future. They want to know how long before the road they take every day will be flooded on a regular basis, do they need to move out of their house and, most importantly, who is going to pay for it. These are all very good questions, and scientists can play a key role in answering them. The U.S. funded project CODA (Coastal Ocean Dynamics in the Arctic) that sponsored my outreach trip and further collaboration, aims to study the link between coastal erosion and increasing wave activity in the Arctic caused largely by sea ice retreat and diminishing of the natural protection it used to provide to the coast lines. Waves in the Arctic are a ‘hot’ topic in polar sciences right now as their presence alters the sea ice state, increases energy in the upper ocean and may cause complex thermodynamic feedbacks. Along with other researchers at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University of Reading, I am involved in an effort to understand the dominant processes in wave-ice interactions and study their impacts on present and future climate in state-of-the-art sea ice models [2].

 It is one thing to listen to academic seminars and discussions, and it is quite another to come face-to-face with people for whom the sea ice I mostly know from satellite images is the view from their bedroom window, and the effects of polar amplification represent a real threat to their way of life. Not everyone gets to witness the wider consequences of their actions, be it as a scientist or simply an inhabitant of this planet.

The members of the science party in the company of a local guide on a walk around Kaktovik.

Children in Kaktovik launching AEROKATS kites to take aerial photographs of the village.

References: 

  1. Stuecker, Malte & Bitz, Cecilia & C. Armour, Kyle & Proistosescu, Cristian & Kang, Sarah & Xie, Shang-Ping & Kim, Doyeon & Mcgregor, Shayne & Zhang, Peiqun & Zhao, Sen & Cai, Wenju & Dong, Yue & Jin, Fei-Fei. (2018). Polar amplification dominated by local forcing and feedbacks. Nature Climate Change. 8. 10.1038/s41558-018-0339-y.
  2. Bateson, A.W., D.L. Feltham, D. Schröder, L. Hosekova, J.K. Ridley, and Y. Aksenov, Impact of floe size distribution on seasonal fragmentation and melt of Arctic sea ice, The Cryosphere Discuss., https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2019-44 , in review, 2019.
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