STUDENT PROJECTS — Two groups of Nome-Beltz high school students led by biology teacher Sarah Liben worked on projects to study the impact of harmful algal blooms on subsistence resources. One group consisted of Nutaasaq Ahnangnatoguk, Iryna Kadatska and Aldred Omedelina. Michael Marvin, Madison McClaren and Jeremy Miller were in the other.   RESILIENCE — Chris Olanna and his father Ralph Olanna spoke of the environmental changes they’ve witnessed in the region while working in the aviation industry and hunting and fishing the region’s food resources.KEEPING WARM — Megan Waite, an undergraduate student at UAF, showed the audience a 3D piece of art to demonstrate the different kinds of insulation used in subarctic and arctic housing to increase energy efficiency. RESILIENCE — Chris Olanna and his father Ralph Olanna spoke of the environmental changes they’ve witnessed in the region while working in the aviation industry and hunting and fishing the region’s food resources.WALRUS HEALTH — Kathi Lefebvre, a research biologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, spoke about how harmful algal blooms are exposing marine mammals like walruses to toxins through their food sources.

Experts talk about ‘Western Alaska in Transition’ at Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference

The Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference, or WAISC for short, was held in Nome last week. Hosted by Alaska Sea Grant and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus, the meeting brought together a few dozen researchers and knowledge holders from across the state and Lower 48.
Talks covered a vast array of topics, from harmful algal blooms and coastal storms to energy efficient design and reindeer husbandry.
Presenters included scientists who live in Massachusetts as well as high school students at Nome-Beltz.
As the theme of this year’s gathering was “Western Alaska in Transition,” a common thread ran through many of the discussions: How to meet the challenges of the region’s changing environment while drawing from different knowledge systems like Western science and Indigenous knowledge.
Gail “Topkaruk” Smithhisler set the tone for the week’s conversations last Monday evening, with a plenary presentation during the opening reception at the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum. Smithhisler has been involved in efforts to help revitalize the Iñupiaq language, posting videos to share Iñupiaq words on social media and now teaching classes at Northwest Campus.
“Language is one of the many bonds people share to continue fostering a healthy and meaningful way of life, which leads into the stewardship and care of our land, our animals and each other,” Smithhisler said, explaining why revitalizing language is an important part of preserving culture and values.
She touched on the ways new technologies like the internet and social media have allowed for greater ease in sharing and gathering information as well as documenting different spellings and meanings. Greater connectivity also allows Iñupiaq speakers and learners to have more dialogues and discussions with people who speak different dialects.
The next morning, as the conference got started at Northwest Campus, Rick Thoman spoke about the various climate indicators that show the rapid changes taking place in the region’s ecosystem. Thoman is an Alaska climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In his plenary talk, he noted that the seasonality and thickness of sea ice is changing. Air temperatures and ocean temperatures are warming. Permafrost is thawing. All of these factors are not only altering Western Alaska’s ecosystem but changing human activities and global interest in the region.
Thoman said that Western science and Indigenous science are united in trying to learn what their observations about all these changes might say about the future.
 “Science is just a way of understanding the world that incorporates new information, which is why Western science and Indigenous science are completely compatible,” Thoman said. “We know for sure that Indigenous science incorporates new information. Why? Because some of your ancestors witnessed the flooding of the Bering Sea land bridge.” They were able to adapt and produce stable, thriving cultures.
Thoman made a plea for his fellow scientists to examine how their work serves and informs the public. Research might improve the understanding of a phenomena, but did impacted communities have a say in the investigations?
“Are you researching something because your advisor handed you a disk and said, ‘Go work on this’? Or are you working on something because a tribe has identified it as something they would like to know more about?”
Environmental monitoring and surveillance might bring clarity to what’s happening now, but these should also be used to provide context and meaning, Thoman said, adding that future outlooks are only helpful when they are relevant, accurate and accessible.
“In a time of transition, accurate, timely information is power,” Thoman said.
A father and son pair, Ralph and Chris Olanna, spoke the next morning in a final plenary talk about changes to the region that they have witnessed in their lifetimes.
Chris Olanna, who relies on reading the weather to ensure safe flying in his work with Bering Air, said that the nuances of using one’s senses as Elders taught are just as important as computer observations. And using the two together could offer a great advantage. He asked the audience to help the Alaska Native community to continue to be resilient.
“We’re never going to go away—the resiliency is there,” he said. “We’re still here and we’re gonna be here.”


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