Science takes center stage at USARC meeting in Nome

Science was in the spotlight when the U.S. Arctic Research Commission came together for its second and final day of meetings, covering a range of topics — from fire forecasts and walrus tagging to sea ice loss and the nutritional value of reindeer meat.

The agency — which advises the White House and Congress on Arctic issues — gathered Aug. 26 at Nome’s Mini Convention Center to hear from researchers working at the regional and federal levels.

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Greg Finstad presents on the social and economic impact of reindeer herding at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission’s meeting in Nome. Finstad works with the reindeer research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.
Greg Finstad presents on the social and economic impact of reindeer herding at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission’s meeting in Nome. Finstad works with the reindeer research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Local researchers were up first. Gay Sheffield with the Marine Advisory Program discussed subsistence needs and food security in the Bering Strait, while Jack Omelak of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission emphasized using local knowledge to guide polar bear management strategies.

Federal researchers also focused on the local angle, highlighting what makes their work relevant to the region. Karen Murphy is coordinator of the Western Alaska Landscape Conservation Cooperative, which is developing a model to predict storm surges, tides, ice movement, and more in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.

“When the National Weather Service says ‘expect a storm surge of four feet over mean-high water levels,’ what does that mean on the ground? What does that mean, actually affecting the communities? These maps will help people interpret that,” said Murphy.

Murphy said the goal is to get information to the people who will use it — in a format they can use easily. That means maps and other tools will be available online. Murphy said the information will also be broken down by region, so locals can find forecasts specific to Norton Sound or the Seward Peninsula rather than all of western Alaska.

The National Park Service is also doing research on the Seward Peninsula, monitoring the migration of brown bears, muskox, caribou, and other animals. Jim Lawler does research with the National Park Service and said tracking species provides valuable information for locals as well as larger agencies.

“If local subsistence users aren’t getting caribou, is it because there aren’t many caribou?” asked Lawler. “Or is it because the caribou are in a different location than the people are?”

The National Park Service is creating caribou migration maps that can answer that question. But Lawler said professional biologists aren’t the only ones getting involved. The National Park Service has recruited students at the Shishmaref School to help photograph migratory birds to get better on-the-ground information and engage local people.

Fran Ulmer is chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and said gaining local insight is key to successful Arctic policy.

“In Alaska particularly — where subsistence is such an important part of life — to understand how changing ecosystems, species, populations, [and] migrations connect with choices that are being made on the ground by managers, but also [by] subsistence hunters, fishers, and gatherers, is a really important way of making sure the federal government is spending its money wisely when it comes to research.”

The Commission wrapped up its meeting with presentations on renewable energy and port development.