Inuit knowledge and science in a changing Alaska | Polarjournal
Iñupiat observers help scientists by providing details about natural phenomenon, such as this fall flood (Photo: AAOKH)

Since 2006, an Inuit community in Alaska has been using a platform created by scientists to document how their region is changing. The experiment is turning out to be a valuable way of including Inuit populations in decision-making in a changing environment.

One of the essential quests of the polar scientist is to compensate for the lack of observations that results from studying areas where it is difficult to conduct fieldwork. A paper published in Arctic Science by a team of Alaskan scientists details the results of the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, which brings together experts from the Iñupiat region of northern Alaska. The work of these fishermen, hunters and gatherers, benefits scientists by giving them someone in the field year-round who possess traditional Iñupiaq skills and knowledge and is intimately linked to the environment that scientists want to learn more about.

Observers measure sea ice (siku), observe the land (nuna), weather (sila), temperature, wind and so on. They note the behaviour of polar bears and other animals and their geographical position. They also describe fish (iqaluich), coastal erosion, flooding and the presence of unknown or rare species This is all useful information for scientists, and observers can easily upload it to the platform, along with images or voice recordings, using an app. For the past 17 years, they have been contributing to scientific studies and, more recently, to public discussions.

The current observers were chosen by their community and are compensated for their service and supplied with measuring equipment such as sensors mounted on the underside of their snowmobiles that measure ice thickness during spring hunts.

AAOKH could be used by the federal government to inform decisions on issues such as hunting, fishing and coastal erosion. The platform could help to take traditional knowledge into account when making decisions, making the outcomes “fairer, more inclusive and more robust”, the paper said.

Traditional Iñupiaq umiak hunter’s boat made of skin and wood (Photo: AAOKH)

Because Facebook is widely used in rural and coastal Alaska, AAOKH has used it since 2017 to share recently acquired observations, relevant satellite imagery or other data and news — often within hours of being recorded. For example, in 2019, a picture of a bearded seal (ugruk) with strong-smelling orange-yellow blubber was posted and then commented on by other hunters in the area. Veterinary services speculated that the animal’s condition might be due to a malfunctioning liver. Hunters know how to examine an animal, so this information platform could facilitate discussions between memes of indigenous communities and federal agencies.

These observations were used by Roberta Tuurraq Glenn for her graduate internship in geography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2022, she joined the AAOKH team to create an annotated map documenting insights in coastal change shared by AAOKH observers. “Working with AAOKH as an indigenous student from Arctic Alaska has been a very rewarding experience […]. I felt very connected to the work I was doing and the people whose observations I was reading,” she said.

AAOKH’s ambitions now extend beyond Alaska, and the observatory plans to contribute to the development of an Arctic-wide platform on themes common to all communities. This 2006 initiative, which began with an inventory of the different ice typologies in the indigenous vocabulary, could become a major Arctic observatory.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal / English Version: Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Hauser et al. (2023) Arctic Science EPub Nunaaqqit Savaqatigivlugich—working with communities: evolving collaborations around an Alaska Arctic observatory and knowledge hub;

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