U.S. Department of Interior Presents “Changing Ice: Managing the Changing Arctic”

April 9, 2015 – Washington, DC
Steve Gray, Executive Director of the Alaska Climate Science Center (ACSC), presented a seminar regarding the center’s holistic approach to link glacier retreat and permafrost loss to impacts on ecosystems and the resources they provide to people living in the Arctic region. NSG attended the event at the Department of Interior (DOI) headquarters.
The ACSC develops vulnerability assessments, decision support tools, landscape scenarios, and other products that have a wide variety of immediate, real-world applications for the changing Arctic.
The ACSC is one of eight regional centers that partner with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and universities—in this case, the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The ACSC covers all of Alaska, except the Aleutians, and uses research models that cross the Canadian border.
The ACSC’s tools include cooperation with UAF and other Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to train and mentor graduate students and post-doctorates, enhance coordination and cooperation with stakeholder engagement, and pool resources for research funding. Together they focus on putting CSC research into action.
Gray used research on glacier changes—specifically about what the changes mean for resource management—as an example of the collaborative approach. The ACSC continues to capitalize on its partnership with the USGS Benchmark Glacier Program to build on existing modeling and data. UAF resources help research water chemistry and glacial runoff, and provide innovative instruments to measure snow accumulation in Alaska’s mountain ranges and how that impacts runoff, which in turn impacts salmon fisheries and other critical resources for which more information is required in order to determine adaptations to climate change. The ACSC’s information is shared with private industry as well, such as glacier tour operators, to disseminate their research to the public.
The Integrated Ecosystem Model (IEM), regarding the impact of melting permafrost on infrastructure, is another example of the ACSC’s work. As the permafrost melts under black spruce forests, major changes occur in vegetation and hydrology. The ACSC was asked to predict how this would impact the habitats for fish and game and other subsistence resources, as well as the foundations for future infrastructure projects.
IEM looks at the broader scale of the impact and integrates all types of changes, from the increase in forest fires to melting permafrost and species vulnerability, in determining how this information can be used for conservation, adaptation and resource management efforts. It’s important to note each CSC does not provide policy recommendations.
IEM is in the third year of a five-year project, and other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and Bureau of Land Management, have used this approach for their own purposes as they, too, learn to adapt to climate change.
In summary, the ACSC works to find direct links between research activities, resource management, and decision-making tools as scientists work directly with resource managers and tribal leaders. With the UAF-USGS partnership, the ACSC increases research capacity and can overcome federal agency barriers to deliver science, train and mentor human resources, and grow research and resource management programs in the Arctic.
When asked how permafrost melting has impacted Alaska villages, Gray said it has created a range of threats, from unstable structural foundations to changes in the overall way of life. Permafrost melt has rendered sewer systems unusable, unable to be repaired, and/or unable to be constructed, forcing villages to go back to honey buckets. In addition, permafrost was used for thousands of years as a food cache, but now villages need more generators—running on $7-$10 per gallon fuel—to power refrigeration.
A DOI policy analyst asked about the relationship with UAF and how Alaska state agencies benefit. Gray said UAF is providing insight by using state resources that the center would not otherwise have, because of the federal government’s more tenuous relationship with Alaska.
Shelly McGinnis of the Bureau of Reclamation asked about how the ACSC sees the implementation of its research in climate change response. Gray said visitor centers, glacier tours, ship navigators, the cruise industry, and NOAA use the ASCS’s research to help them decide where vessels can travel. The ACSC is also working with tribes regarding the impacts of climate change on berries and other vegetation, in addition to the impact on big game habitat and the impacts on harvesting and hunting.
Randy Bowman, DOI policy analyst, asked about the impact of melting permafrost on North Slope oil facilities. Gray said the ground is more stable over the Brooks Range with the most impact on the Northwest coast.
Asked about the ACSC’s cooperation with NOAA, Gray said the entities work together primarily on climate change impact, especially glacier research, rather than mapping or ship navigation. The ACSC also shares office space with NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program.
North Star Group asked Gray if the ACSC shares data with the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue and oil response programs. Gray responded the center does not coordinate with the Coast Guard, but does share information with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which uses it in studies and plans for coastal flooding, erosion, climate modeling and ocean coastal management.
North Star Group also asked Gray if the Alaska state budget crisis has an impact on ACSC resources, given the partnership with UAF. Gray said most of the ACSC budget comes from USGS. While there are new concerns about achieving goals with the university and maintaining staff and departmental partnerships as layoffs and budget cuts loom, the university remains committed to the partnership.
When asked about the ACSC’s role with the management of Arctic resources if they integrate with the Arctic Council, Gray responded the center is working with the North Slope Science Initiative and UAF’s Scenario Network for Arctic strategic planning. The ACSC is also learning about permafrost changes from data gathered in Scandinavia. While Alaska has more climate change challenges in common with Russia, especially with permafrost melt, coordinating and sharing research remains a diplomatic challenge.

About The Author

Andrea Wagner