Arctic climate scientists look to the past

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A five-year, $2.5 million federal research program is looking at how the people of Alaska's Arctic can deal with a shifting climate, as well as protecting themselves from weather disasters that may come with the changes.

The study involves sophisticated atmospheric science as well as recording elders' memories about changing weather patterns.

The project, led by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder, will gather climate data and then produce reports, maps and computer programs that individual villages and local people can use to make decisions. The money comes from the National Science Foundation.

''The idea behind this project was to find out what the people on the North Slope of Alaska were environmentally vulnerable to and how we could help,'' explained lead scientist Amanda Lynch, an atmospheric modeler at the university in Boulder, Colo. Lynch did climate research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the early 1990s.

Principal investigators include anthropologist Anne Jensen of the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. of Barrow and Glenn Sheehan, president of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, as well as a political scientist, an expert in remote sensing and a battery of climatologists and supercomputing wizards.

Villages built on coastal bluffs and barrier islands have become increasingly vulnerable to storm damage because sea ice remains offshore longer. But that's only the most dramatic example. Many people throughout the region say they fear that something fundamental about their world has altered.

''One thing that people tend to say across the Arctic is that the sun has moved and the stars are different,'' said Jensen, senior scientist at the Barrow Native corporation. ''I do get the sense that people feel like things are changing.''

The project is part of a broad initiative called Human Dimensions of the Arctic System. Initially it will focus on Barrow, but later it may be expanded.

One goal is to develop a way for scientists to work with local people, Lynch said.

A storm erosion handbook, for instance, might outline where people should place sandbags for a storm, or help a village decide how to protect roads.

''People in Barrow said they wanted scenarios to possible solutions to the shore erosion problem,'' Lynch said. ''Also, they wanted better information on the behavior of storms and how they might change in the future.''

One researcher has been trying to adjust a shoreline erosion program used in the Netherlands for the Barrow area.

Others have been compiling detailed maps of the coast. They're looking at satellite data, ''lots of old dusty reports'' and historic storm information.

''We're trying to find out how different types of storms cause different types of damage,'' Lynch said. ''If we can understand how different storms behaved in the past, then we can say how they'll work in the future.''

Whether recent changes are part of a global warming or a natural cycle is enormously complex.

For instance, Lynch said, storms seem to be occurring earlier in fall, when they can do more damage. ''But we don't know whether those trends are significant or not.''

Detailed records reach back only a few decades.

That's where traditional local knowledge -- as well as historic data -- can help fill in some gaps.

One researcher working with Lynch is Barrow 11th-grader Chastity Olemaun, who is interviewing elders about storms and climate changes.

Olemaun has gathered firsthand accounts of a devastating storm that swept off the Arctic Ocean in October 1963.

Driven by 50-mph winds, the storm surged ashore, pounding bluffs with 15-foot waves and flooding miles of shoreline. The storm destroyed 20 buildings and consumed up to 60 feet of beach southwest of the village, according to newspaper accounts.

''They say it was the biggest storm to ever come to Barrow,'' Olemaun said.



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