In late 2016, researchers at Columbia University, with co-investigators from the Native Village of Kotzebue and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, began to examine changing patterns of Arctic sea ice and other physical characteristics in Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea. The project, funded by the Moore Foundation and known as Ikaaġvik Sikukun or “ice bridges,” included producing a documentary film called “Ice Edge” exploring sea ice change around the village, an Iñupiaq community in northwest Alaska.  

During warmer winters over the past few years, Kotzebue residents have experienced less formation and earlier breakup of the sea ice. These changes have been detrimental to their way of life, as the sea ice supports marine mammals, seals in particular, that the largely Alaska Native Inupiaq community relies on for food and to connect with their culture.  

The project team was led by scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of the Columbia University Climate School, who partnered with elders from the Kotzebue community, researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and unmanned aerial vehicle pilots and engineers from L3 Latitude Engineering. By pulling in experts from both the Indigenous and scientific communities, the project employed a co-production of knowledge approach starting with a year-long joint effort to formulate the key questions and hypotheses the research would address. The main areas of focus were understanding the changes in ice mass during recent warm winters, the impacts on marine mammals, and the resulting implications for subsistence hunting. 

Since co-production of knowledge framed the project, Indigenous expertise was highly valued. From the beginning, the team connected with community members, listened to their concerns and observations, and worked together to inform and refine their research questions. This early emphasis on Indigenous involvement made it easier for the research team to weave insights from Western science in with Indigenous knowledge to test their hypotheses and develop their conclusions. 

IMAGE: Members of the flight team discuss UAS operations at an open house with the local community. Image credit: Sarah Betcher/Farthest North Films.

During the research, the team combined modern technology (such as unmanned aerial vehicles) and measurements with Indigenous knowledge. Kotzebue elders shared valuable information and historical records to share when it came to weather, seal hunting activity, and seasonal changes in the sea ice, supplementing the research data with “boots-on-the-ground” experiences.  

“This research has validated our basic assumption when we conceived of the project that the collaboration of Indigenous knowledge holders and Western scientists would produce better science with mutual benefits,” said Moore Foundation program officer Gary Greenburg.

“Understanding how Arctic sea ice is changing as the planet warms is of critical importance not only for the Arctic Indigenous communities that rely on it but also as a bellwether for the rest of the planet.”  

Gary Greenburg, Program Officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The work produced several research papers, and findings included that warm air temperatures and residual heat in the ocean were some of the main causes of the shrinking and thinning sea ice in 2018 and 2019. In the fall and winter, cold water from the rivers flowing into Kotzebue Sound helped the ice grow. But in the spring, warmer water from those same rivers contributed to the breakup of the ice. Village elders have also observed that local summers were growing longer while winters became shorter.  

The earlier sea ice breakup in the spring is reducing the amount of suitable habitat available for seal dens. While still an open topic, the researchers also believe that the weight of deep snow pushing down on the thinner ice increased the likelihood of surface flooding, which created unfavorable conditions for ringed seal lairs. Less ice also makes for dangerous conditions for hunting, preventing hunters from traveling as far to hunt as they traditionally have, and Kotzebue natives noted that the earlier breakup of ice in the channel forced an abnormally early start to the bearded seal hunting season in 2018 and 2019. Going forward, Arctic communities are concerned about access to seals and other resources they have traditionally relied on.   

IMAGE credit: Sarah Betcher/Farthest North Films.

Speaking at the documentary's launch event on January 27, 2022, Donna Hauser, a marine mammologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, discussed the importance of working closely with the Inupiaq community members. “Marine mammals are part of an ecosystem that’s involved Indigenous people since time immemorial...even though scientists haven't always necessarily included Indigenous people in those ecosystem perspectives in the past,” she said. 

“Our results are stronger because we’ve done this collaborative process."

"And they’re more meaningful and directly relevant to the people that are most reliant and affected by the impacts of climate change and the impacts on these marine mammal species. These collaborative approaches are an opportunity for more inclusive science, more equitable distributions of power in terms of the research process, and it’s been some of the most exciting research that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of.”  

The team hopes that this project can serve as a model for how scientists can work with Indigenous communities not simply to answer research questions, but to also figure out which questions to ask in the first place. They noted that while forming hypotheses is a critical part of the scientific method, Indigenous voices have often been noticeably absent from that part of the process. 

IkaagvikSikukun-University of Alaska Fairbanks student Kate Turned and advisory council member Cyrus Harris read data after a CTD cast

IMAGE: University of Alaska, Fairbanks, graduate student Kate Turner and advisory council member Cyrus Harris read data after a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) cast. Image credit: Sarah Betcher/Farthest North Films.

In the documentary, John Goodwin, one of the Indigenous elder advisors from Kotzebue, compared this project to past studies, noting that previously it was difficult to get others to accept Indigenous Knowledge due to a lack of written documentation. The co-production of knowledge approach in this project successfully addressed those concerns. “I can see it’s going to be really beneficial in the future because we’re validating what our people knew,” he said. 

The documentary’s launch event took place on Thursday, January 27, 2022 and featured members of the research team, including village elders. “Ice Edge” is available for viewing on YouTube.  



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