Indigenous knowledge holders share thousands of observations on the changing Arctic in a new study

For Bobby Schaeffer, observing the weather in Kotzebue is a crucial daily task. In the continuously changing Arctic, the ocean freezes later in recent years, exposing coastal communities to storms. And the warming waters affect seals and birds that locals rely on for subsistence.

Schaeffer is one of the Inupiaq experts who contributed to almost 10,000 observations about the changing environment in a research paper published in May in the journal Arctic Science. The research project was aimed to continue tracking Arctic change, support documenting Indigenous knowledge and nurture the next generation of Indigenous scholars, said the primary author of the paper Donna Hauser. The next step is finding more practical applications for the observations’ database.

“Arctic Alaskans have been stewarding and monitoring the environment since time immemorial,” Hauser said. “Those voices, I think, in science have been underrepresented. ... So how do we center Indigenous perspectives and observations, particularly ones that have been neglected for a long time period?”

The research paper is based on the data gathered between 2006 and 2021, combining earlier databases with observations from the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub — the partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers and Iñupiaq observers.

During the latest step, between 2016 and 2021, observers from Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Utqiaġvik and Kaktovik provided regular reports about sea ice, wildlife, weather and coastal waters and collected data on water salinity and temperature.

In the paper, physical measurements — such as water temperature and salinity — were paired with narrative observations to show what that oceanographic data means for the locals’ food security, travel safety and infrastructure, Hauser said.

“That’s where you get the context of what does it mean that it’s been so hot,” she said. “By pairing those with some community observations, we get the broader, long-term, holistic perspective that comes from the Indigenous knowledge of the place and being reliant on the land.”


Bobby Schaeffer joined the Knowledge Hub as an observer in 2018 but he has been in tune with the environmental changes around him long before that.

“I’ve always been observant because my father was very, very alert to the changes. He was always talking about the changes that he had witnessed during his lifetime” Schaeffer said. “He had really big concerns about how they will affect our ability to hunt and be successful.”

Historically, Inupiaq peoples relied on their observations and stories to pass down their knowledge about the environment, Schaeffer said.

“The way to remember was through language and therefore discussing the changes with others and then talking about the changes to their children,” Schaeffer said.

In recent years, paying attention to the changes in the Arctic has become even more important because “the weather changed tremendously,” Schaeffer said. In the Kotzebue area, he said the seasons are shifting, with spring coming a month earlier and fall arriving much later than in September. The changes are speeding up permafrost melts, increasing the number of coastal storms and affecting travel and food security in the Arctic.

“We talk about the weather all the time. It drives everything: It drives stronger storms. It affects the landscape and especially on the coast, where natural erosion is occurring,” he said.

In 2019, the Kotzebue area saw extremely diminishing sea ice and uncharacteristically early breakup, which allowed bearded seal hunters to start hunting earlier that year, Hauser said. In July of the same year, the water in Kotzebue Sound was so hot that when the hunters would normally be fishing for king crabs, the crabs moved to deeper cooler waters.

This past year, Kotzebue and other Arctic communities were battered by storms, including Typhoon Merbok in September 2022, which hit Western Alaska towns south of Kotzebue the hardest but also affected Kotzebue and even Utqiaġvik.

“We’ve never seen water this high before. People’s homes got washed away,” Schaeffer said. “People’s lives were in danger.”

The importance of recording these changes is clear to Schaeffer.

“You see all this happening but the policymakers are slow to react. If we get past that tipping point, we are at a point of no return,” Schaeffer said. “The reason I’m really concerned is, I have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

In the process of collecting data, scientists worked with the observers to understand what changes they are the most concerned about, Roberta Tuurraq Glenn said. Glenn is a Knowledge Hub project coordinator and co-author of the paper who previously published a story map that communicates the effects of climate change from the perspective of local observers.

To address the priorities and needs of the local observers, several projects based on the observations came about — including the whaling trail mapping project in Utqiaġvik and Ocean, Snow and Sea Ice Monitoring project in Kotzebue.

“People are concerned about Kotzebue Sound, the sea ice conditions and how the ocean chemistry is going to affect the sea ice conditions and their hunting for that year,” Glenn said.

[From 2022: Inupiaq researcher documents how climate change affects Arctic communities]

“Overall, the Knowledge Hub researchers and observers are now looking for more ways to connect their observations with people and organizations that can utilize the observations in scientific and decision-making contexts. For example, they are looking into how detailed observations of sea ice conditions can inform the National Weather Service and their sea ice data tools, Glenn said.

“Our database of 10,000 observations — that’s a sitting resource that no one has used or been able to use or has thought to use,” Glenn said. “There is a database of observations here that you can just scroll through, and you can get a sense of what’s going on, of what people care about, of what people are observing, and what those observations mean for community equity and safety.”


Focusing on practical applications of the data also reflects the ability of the Indigenous communities to adapt to the changes around them, Glenn said.

“We’re still hunting animals, and we’re still able to carry out our traditional subsistence lifestyles,” Glenn said. “It’s really important for the outside world to know that we are still here, and we’re still thriving.”

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Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.