As hunters deal with a warming Arctic, UAF partners with local observers to keep them informed

Vince Schaeffer takes ocean measurements with a CTD instrument near a station that measures ice and snow thickness in Kotzebue Sound in April 2019. (Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub photo via KOTZ)

As temperatures in the Arctic grow warm, keeping coastal communities informed about the environment remains vital. Climate change has disrupted the migration of animals traditionally hunted in the Arctic, and the frozen rivers and sea ice hunters travel on have become less reliable.

In Arctic communities like Kotzebue, subsistence hunters like Bobby Schaeffer have had to contend with a changing climate for decades. 

“In my experience, for a lot of years, I’ve been a hunter. I was out on the ice all the time, and hunting all those years. I’ve been noticing all the changes,” Schaeffer said. “Even prior to that, my father, John Schaeffer Sr., always mentioned the changes, even back as far as the 40s. And we always talked about them.”

Schaeffer is in his 60s and describes himself as an “elder in training.” He views global warming as a big issue, and he said he’s been involved in cataloging it since 2006, whether it’s changes in sea ice thickness or migration patterns for marine mammals and fish. He says that these changes are here to stay. 

“We have to be prepared for this,” Schaeffer said. “We have to evolve. We have no choice. It’s not going to change; it’s going to get worse.”

Since last winter, Schaeffer has worked with the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, or AAOKH. AAOKH is a research group out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks that provides resources and information to Arctic communities to better inform them about changing sea ice, coastal waters and wildlife in their areas. They partner with observers, like Schaeffer, who go out on the ice to gather data. 

Donna Hauser is the science lead for AAOKH who specializes in marine ecosystems. She says the program began in 2015 as an expansion of a sea ice monitoring program called the Seasonal Ice Zone Observing Network, or SIZONET. 

“AAOKH is meant to be a little more holistic,” Hauser said. “So recognizing that a lot of the traditional values and resources in a local area… you’re not just looking at the ice. You’re watching the wind because you care about the animals and the access and availability of the animals.”

Subsistence hunting and ice safety are among the most prominent topics that AAOKH’s research informs, and Hauser says that creating local partnerships has proven more fruitful than simply sending researchers up from Fairbanks.  

“If we can partner with local experts, who have, over generations, learned how best to find the animals, who know when the animals, who know when it’s safe to go out on the ice, when it’s not, and which way to go or if the wind conditions change you shouldn’t go out today,” Hauser said. “There’s a lot of value in partnering and working together.”

AAOKH has observers in Kotzebue, Utqiagvik, Wales, Wainwright, Point Hope and Kaktovik. Schaeffer says that Kotzebue has two monitoring stations where observers catalog several factors. 

“There’s two things,” Schaeffer said. “One, we measure the snow load on that station. And the second thing, we measure the thickness of the ice to monitor what the ice is doing.”

When measuring the ice, observers also check the salinity of the water. Saltier water tends to freeze at lower temperatures, so hunters need to be sure they can safely navigate without fear of slipping through the ice. 

In the weather conditions of decades past, the monitoring stations could be set up earlier in the winter season, like November. Kotzebue has had one of its warmest years on record, and while it’s had an effect on sea ice and subsisting, it also affects the monitoring equipment. 

Schaeffer says last year’s setup had to be bumped up to January for safety reasons — and this year’s setup will likely follow suit. 

“Once we get ice, we’ll put those stations up, but we haven’t had any ice yet. “It’s November 7 already and it’s still open on the front,” Schaeffer said.

Whenever the equipment gets up and running, AAOKH hopes that they can keep communities informed about how to navigate their communities safely. Noting that a lot of locals use social media these days, AAOKH is pushing their own platforms hard — where they share findings from the observers as well as satellite images and information on animal migration. 

“Learning to use that information of how the weather is changing, just makes for a safer hunt, a safer community, and maybe a more productive gathering for folks here,” said Noah Naylor, a Kotzebue local who serves on AAOKH’s steering committee.

And once the ice is thick enough, Schaeffer and his son will be back at their posts, providing much needed information for their community.