Today, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced a $3.7 million grant to Columbia University to support research that couples state-of-the-art geophysical observations from unmanned aerial systems with a community-engaged research approach to bridge scientific and indigenous understanding of sea ice change in the Alaskan Arctic.

Led by Columbia University, with co-investigators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Native Village of Kotzebue, the project will research changing patterns of Arctic ice and other physical characteristics in Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea, using a combination of sensing technologies carried by drones and indigenous knowledge. Sea ice is integral to the way of life for Kotzebue’s predominantly Iñupiaq community, which relies on the marine mammals that inhabit the ice pack for food and maintaining strong ties to their culture.

“This project, highlighted today when the White House announced actions to protect natural and cultural resources in the Alaskan Arctic Ocean, is particularly significant not only because the focus of the research is so timely but also because it couples advanced sensing technologies carried by drones and indigenous knowledge of ice plus other environmental characteristics,” said Denny Takahashi-Kelso, program director for the Moore Foundation’s Marine Conservation Initiative. “The research will, from the beginning of research design, involve local experts who have sea ice experience.”

Despite the significant sea ice changes (including later formation, thinning and earlier break-up) that have been witnessed by local residents, large-scale field observations and sea ice modeling efforts have largely been focused at higher latitudes near or within the perennial ice pack. As the Arctic ice pack transitions to a seasonal state, understanding the processes and changes taking place in locations such as Kotzebue, which already lie within the seasonal ice zone, will offer critical insights.

“When the sea ice starts to melt, it exposes more ocean. That allows more sunlight to be absorbed by the ocean, and it warms up,” Christopher Zappa, Lamont associate research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explained. “We can monitor that warming with an infrared camera that measures ocean temperature to understand the ice-albedo feedback. We also use a hyperspectral camera to monitor for phytoplankton blooms, which will absorb more light and warm the ocean significantly, causing more melt.”

“The project will include the establishment of a locally run program to monitor sea ice growth and melt and a series of on-ice measurements to validate data collected from unmanned aircraft,” said Andy Mahoney, assistant research professor in Geophysics, University Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). “This project will also tie into the Alaska Arctic Observation and Knowledge Hub, which is a broader network of community-based observations coordinated through UAF designed to monitor and understand the impacts of Arctic environmental change.”

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is Columbia University’s home for Earth science research. Its scientists work on every continent and in every ocean to develop fundamental knowledge about the origin, evolution and future of the natural world, from the planet’s deepest interior to the outer reaches of its atmosphere.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. Visit or follow @MooreFound.


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