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Local 'observers' bring traditional knowledge to study of Alaska climate change

Photo courtesy Michael Brubaker

The reports started coming in about a decade ago. Things were changing and people were noticing.

There was a funnel cloud sighting in Sand Point. No one could remember seeing one of those before. Nelson Lagoon was seeing more erosion than ever before, exposing a 10-mile-long water line. There were European chocolate slugs in King Cove. But who do you tell when you see something you’ve never seen before in your community?

It was from this need that the Local Environmental Observer Network, or the LEO Network, was born. A program run by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the program aims to create a repository for all such reports and offer an opportunity for people in rural Alaska communities to get answers to their questions.

“By mapping these events, we can track the changes that occur, we can share experiences and lessons learned, and try to prevent negative health affects,” said Mike Brubaker, director of Community Health and Safety with the Center for Climate and Health, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

The program uses observers from various agencies who live and work in their communities.

These observers report community sightings of unusual events, such as deer with patchy hair. The observation can include photos and video. Once an observation is made, scientists dealing with that area of expertise — be it ocean environments, mammals or weather systems — may be contacted to help the observer with an answer to their question. All these responses, as well as the observation, is posted online so information is shared with others around the state.

Using local observers, who receive some training as well as monthly webinar education opportunities, allows for observations that might not be noticed by someone who doesn't live in the area and know what is relevant. Community members are informed with posters about the program as well as who their local observer is.

"These local observers serve as a type of portal," Brubaker said. "Local and traditional knowledge is being applied to identify what is occurring and what is relevant and important."

The program is also working to create an enrollment program to allow people to sign in as friends of a local observer so individuals can post observations for review. Since its launch in January, the partnerships have expanded with observers dotting the state.

"The network is growing, and the goal is to have observers in every community around the state," Brubaker said.

Organizers say they are not trying to perform analysis of the data that comes in, but rather in facilitating connections.

"We are more of a switch-board type network," Brubaker said.

The Leo Network can be accessed online, where you can find out more information as well as view monthly logs of observations on a Google map.

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission. Carey Restino can be reached at crestino(at)reportalaska.com.