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Room for Native wisdom in monitoring Arctic sea ice

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
OPINION: Without the knowledge of scientists, Native hunters and industry leaders working together, chances are great that the moving target of sea ice prediction will catch someone off guard, likely resulting in tragedy of some sort.

For thousands of years, Native Alaskans have studied and learned about the ice. They learned what to expect from different seasons and changing weather patterns. They learned what ice to trust, and what ice was unstable. They learned because their existence depended upon it.

For hundreds of years, explorers and scientists have been studying the ice, too. A body of scientific data has been developed and used to predict ice behavior. Those predictions are used to inform mariners and industry operating in Arctic waters. And increasingly, they are unreliable, asserts Hajo Eicken, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Eicken recently attended the Arctic Observing Summit in Vancouver, Canada and reports that the stakeholders agreed.

In a recent article posted in Nature, an international journal of science, Eicken said the fast-changing sea ice is dangerous because of its unpredictable nature. Where once there was multi-year sea ice that responded in predictable ways, now there is young, first-year ice.

Eicken said the new ice is more difficult to predict not only because it changes quickly but also because current satellite systems are being confused by meltwater. Satellites, he said, are even struggling to track the difference between newly formed ice and open water with waves or foam. Native observers are often far more accurate at predicting when ice is forming than satellites, scientists have noted, even with the changing conditions.

In addition to these challenges, scientists gathering data for different purposes are struggling to communicate and share information about these increasingly variable conditions. Eicken notes that scientists producing data for academic purposes, those working for government agencies and those working for industry as well as international scientists are not producing information in a way that can be useful and accessible to people in the Arctic. Further, the lack of a single access point for Arctic data makes exchanging information difficult, he said.

Recently, the Arctic Council adopted an initiative to catalogue the different observing activities, a step forward in working toward collaboration. But in addition, Eicken notes that the needs of Arctic users must be addressed.

To accomplish this level of coordination, Eicken says a broader base of Arctic stakeholders need to be involved in predicting and tracking sea ice. While current national weather service agencies must be involved, new partners are needed, he said.

"First, the priorities of Arctic scientists and other users must be defined for sea ice observation, prediction variables and regions of interest," Eicken wrote in Nature. "These must ensure safe maritime operations and protect ecosystem services and habitats. Observations and predictions should target ice-associated hazards, such as the remnants of old, thick ice or highly dynamic regions, as well as services that the ice provides, such as a platform for marine mammals and people."

New methods of observation must be employed, he writes. Where thick sea ice used to support observation from field camps, scientists must now use submarine or airborne vehicles to accomplish the same efforts.

Lastly, Eicken says different stakeholders must work together toward the singular purpose to properly fund such ice prediction research and monitoring. Sustained funding from governments, industry, private foundations and agencies is needed to create a solid foundation, he said.

That's not likely to come easily. While most agencies, corporations and government entities probably agree with the concept of working together toward a common good, our culture isn't geared that way. Take last summer's Arctic drilling efforts. Shell had its own ice predicting scientists working to provide what it deemed to be the most accurate information possible, and later, it's own weather prediction service gave it the thumbs up to head south from Unalaska in December.

Collaboration requires trust, and corporations and scientific agencies don't generally find themselves in that space. The problem with ignoring Eicken's advice is that with the constantly changing conditions, it is virtually impossible to use conventional prediction strategies when it comes to sea ice prediction. Without the knowledge of scientists, Native hunters and industry leaders working together, chances are great that the moving target of sea ice prediction will catch someone off guard, likely resulting in tragedy of some sort.

Eicken's piece concludes with a golden nugget of thought -- that the key to understanding sea ice in the Arctic in coming years will come from Native experts to the south. Learn their traditional knowledge of sea ice, and those operating in the Arctic may have the key to understanding the new sea ice patterns in the ever-changing far north. Without collaboration on the scale that the scientist suggests, however, such transfer of knowledge across the spectrum of research and use is unlikely.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.

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