The front lines
Nome is an obvious place to begin an expedition into the Alaskan Arctic; there is a long pier capable of housing large ships, access to diesel, an airport with twice daily flights to Anchorage, and, at least by water, it’s on the way between everywhere south and anywhere north.
But this team would never simply use Nome for its convenience without also talking with the community about the expedition’s objectives. It’s their backyard, not ours. We want the locals in these Alaskan communities to know about the research being conducted, to contribute their knowledge, and hopefully to benefit from the findings.
So before loading and preparing gear, before the teams even moved onto the boat, three of the lead scientists gave a joint presentation through the Strait Science Series, hosted at Nome’s University of Alaska Northwestern campus. On a clear frosty evening, Dr. Jim Thomson talked about his focus on understanding wave mechanics and how storm waves affect ice formation and durability along the shore. Dr. Hauke Flores discussed the algae under the ice and the society of creatures it supports. And Dr. Franz Mueter talked about the small but critical Arctic Cod populations that depend on that layer of algae.
We had a great turnout and a constructive conversation with community members about the work being conducted on this expedition and the changes that have become prevalent in these waters.
Presenting information about climate research feels very different in Nome than it does in Seattle or Denver or Miami. Nome is the front line. The change is happening right out the back door, and it’s happening fast. Hauke portrayed this disparity in one of his slides. On one side, there is a graph of the average air temperature in the Arctic over the last 40 years, which shows a rise of 10 degrees centigrade. Mirroring this graph is one showing the average air temperature in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany over the same time period, which shows a rise of only 2 degrees. In Germany, where the big changes are happening far away, it’s hard to convey the urgency for action. But up here, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, the change is tangible.
And so, as Jim referenced severe flooding events, big storms and damage due to strange ice conditions, the audience nodded along in understanding. The impacts of melting ice and crumbling permafrost are not tales of far off problems here; they are reality. Which makes it even more important for scientists and local communities to share knowledge and experiences. These collaborations are crucial to our ability to move the needle!
Words by Becca Guillote
Photos by John Guillote
"Air temperature" slide by Hauke Flores