‘The ocean is their garden’: Whalers to measure wave height and direction before going out into the sea

North Slope whalers might be able to know wave height and direction before going out to the ocean this summer, thanks to the new initiative aiming to make the subsistence lifestyle safer and to improve co-production between the Alaska Native communities and researchers.


In the Backyard Buoys project, residents in whaling communities will be hired to install up to 25 small buoys to gather wave data in real time, said Sheyna Wisdom, director at the Alaska Ocean Observing System which co-manages the initiative. The buoys will be deployed in 2023 and 2024, she said, and the wave information they collect will be publicly available online for people to use before they head out on the water.

“It would provide them with a real-time tool to be able to look at where should I take my boat out today? Where is it safe to go?” said Wisdom with the Alaska Ocean Observing System, one of the regional systems of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that uses ocean data in innovative ways.

“Their entire livelihood is based on the ocean, you know, the ocean is their garden,” she added. “Being able to decide when to go out to be safer so that they can continue to feed their families is how this project can help.”

Due to diminishing sea ice, increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic and overall shifts in ecosystems, the whaling villages are at the forefront of dealing with the effects of climate change, said Lesley Hopson, the executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

Wisdom agreed: “Because we’re seeing increases in storm surges, what’s been used in the past isn’t always what they can use now.”

Each whaler has different areas where they put their boat out and where they put it back in, Wisdom said, and the wave buoys are going to be deployed at those spots. The whalers and their communities will also decide when to use the buoys, what information to track and how to use it. NOAA then will help residents develop the right data tools so they can, “look at their phone before they head” to the ocean to ensure safe travels.

“We help design that data tool to where it’s really useful for cold, wet hands on the water. Are they more interested in wave height or wave direction or both? Or wind speed?” Wisdom said. “It’s how they want to see it and how they would use it.”

The buoys would allow residents to see real-time current conditions – what is happening right now. But the data could also be used by the National Weather Service or other researchers to look at what’s happening over time and to improve forecast models, Wisdom said. The data can also help with longer planning related to climate change resilience.

The two-year, $4.98 million National Science Foundation grant for the project started in November 2022 and goes through September 2024. NOAA and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which advocates for subsistence whaling rights, plan to start deploying buoys in several villages during the open water season this summer and expand the deployment to more locations in 2024, Wisdom said. This is one of the six projects funded through the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator, a program to find solutions to large-scale societal challenges through research, innovation and partnerships.

A Wave Buoy Program Coordinator and Village Buoy Facilitators, who would work directly on deploying buoys and coordinating the project, can be hired in any of the 11 whaling North Slope villages that are part of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Residents in Utqiagvik, Nuiqsut, Little Diomede, Wainwright, Gambell, and Savoonga expressed interest in the program, Hopson said.

Besides allowing the North Slope residents to get practical information about wave conditions, the Backyard Buoys project can bridge local Indigenous knowledge and scientific data collection

The amount of scientific research, integral to understanding how climate changes in the Arctic, has increased, but there are very few projects that involve Indigenous knowledge and co-production, Hopson said.

“This huge increase in research has had an impact on our coastal communities, including the disturbance of marine mammals we subsist on, conflicts of their hunting and constant continued requests for consultation,” Hopson said. “Most often this consultation is completed without any compensation … and doesn’t always have a direct benefit to our way of life.”

In Backyard Buoys, residents can learn how to develop scientific projects independently, manage their own data and apply it to everyday life, Wisdom said.

“If you think about self-determination, sovereignty for these communities in Alaska,” Wisdom said, “this is a real step in a partnership that’s helping us move in that direction of independence and being able to create our own data and tools.”

Typically wave buoys are three meters tall – “they’re huge,” cost $150,000 or more, and require big vessels for transportation, Wisdom said. But this is not the case with buoys from wave buoy and sensor company Sofar Ocean, which will be used in the project.

“These wave buoys that had been developed are about the size of a basketball,” Wisdom said. “They’re much smaller, they’re portable, they’re affordable. They’re made to be useful by an average person versus, you know, a scientist on a big research vessel.”

In this way, Indigenous communities have fewer barriers to leading the Backyard Buoys project and getting wave buoy data, Wisdom said.

“In the Pacific Northwest, it’s fishers, and in the Pacific Islands, it’s fishermen, it’s waterman,” she said. “And then in the Arctic, it’s fishermen and whalers and marine mammal hunters,” she said. Right now, subsistence whalers, fishermen and hunters have “to make decisions based on this changing Arctic without tools.”

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.