The Arctic Sounder

Subsistence hunters measure wave height and use an app to predict conditions at sea

To harvest whales, seals or walruses, Wainwright hunter John Hopson goes out at sea. He leaves the bluff area next to the village and travels farther from shore, where the waves often become rough. Before every trip, Hopson studies the horizon and checks weather apps to make sure he and his crew are safe. Still, the conditions sometimes surprise the hunters.

“The ocean might be calmer, it might be rougher, and you just don’t know until you get out there,” he said, “just get out there and find out.”

Last summer, Hopson participated in the Backyard Buoys project, which helps Indigenous coastal communities collect and use wave data to support maritime activities. Similarly to residents in Point Hope, Utqiagvik and other places, Hopson installed several buoys close to Wainwright to measure wave height. That real-time data was available to him and other subsistence hunters through a prototype app.

“The app has really, really, really, really helped us,” Hopson said. “It saved us a lot of time and effort and probably kept a lot of people safe, knowing that it’s rougher than what it looks like.”

Following the initiative’s success, this year the project will include more Alaska communities. Developers will release the live version of the Backyard Buoys app in May for another summer of expanded wave data collection.

“We just look forward to using the program another year, hoping that we can ... include more locations in our hunting areas,” Hopson said. “We’re looking forward to another successful summer and another successful ocean boating season this year.”

Backyard Buoys

In the Backyard Buoys project, subsistence hunters and fishermen collaborate with scientists and developers to install small buoys in locations traditionally used for subsistence and monitor the wave data they gather, said Sheyna Wisdom, director at the Alaska Ocean Observing System, one of the regional systems of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which co-manages the initiative.


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

The project was initially funded by the National Science Foundation for the 2021 to 2024 period, but the Alaska Ocean Observing System plans to continue it for at least three more years, until 2027, using some of the NOAA funds, Wisdom said.

The Backyard Buoys initiative covers three regions: Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Pacific Islands.

In the Pacific Northwest, the app serves boaters and fishermen of the Quileute Tribe and Quinault Indian Nation, who live close to La Push, Washington, and have dealt with increasing storm surges.

The project’s partners In the Pacific Islands area include the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, the National Park of American Samoa, Hawai’i Sea Grant and Conservation International Hawai’i. In that region, fishing is the main subsistence activity. Additionally, in American Samoa, one of the most culturally significant subsistence events occurs each austral spring when villagers across the islands take to the reefs at night to harvest palolo, a delicacy of gametes from a marine worm, Wisdom said.

“The ocean is where they subsist and where they have for millennia, but the ocean is changing, and so it’s harder for the groups to be safe out there,” Wisdom said. “Using all of the tools that we can — including Indigenous knowledge, elders’ stories, technology like these wave buoys ... it’s really about keeping people safe, for them to still be able to do what they need to do.”

Last year, in Alaska, seven buoys were installed in Utqiagvik, three in Point Hope and three in Wainwright. This year, the project leaders hope to install even more in Utqiagvik and Wainwright, and three in Point Hope and Kaktovik, each. each. Communities such as Gambell, Savoonga and Little Diomede are also interested in participating. Installation is planned for June, as soon as the hunters are ready, Wisdom said.

Trusting the app

Last year in Wainwright, Hopson installed three buoys in late July when the ocean was ice-free. He placed them at 2, 5 and 10 miles out from the shore. While Wainwright hunts a little farther out, the idea was to get information helpful for coming back home, he said.

Until early October, the data was available to Wainwright community members who hunted in the waters, Hopson said.

“Whether it’s hunting bowhead or walrus, beluga or caribou, or fishing, or getting geese or eider ducks, it’s a year-round endeavor,” Hopson said. “Subsistence is life up here. You’re subsisting year-round to make sure that you can feed your family, your crew members and your community.”

Hunters often look at various weather apps while preparing for their trips so they can stay safe during a hunt, but forecasts often project weather for the next two or three days and don’t match current conditions, Hopson said.

“You just never know when that wind will shift on you, it’s at a blink of an eye that it happens, so you have to be prepared for it regardless of what season you’re looking at,” Hopson said.

So when Hopson installed the Backyard Buoys app, he did not trust it at first.

“What I thought about it initially was, why? Why do I need that?” he said.

Wainwright village sits on a high bluff, and when hunters look at the ocean, the water often looks calm, Hopson said. On one of those days, he remembered pulling up the app and seeing that the waves were 5 feet tall. Hopson did not think the app was accurate and got on the water — only to find out that the waves were tall indeed and he needed to turn around. That’s when he started trusting the app more.

“Now we can just pull out the app as soon as you get up, because it’s real-time, and you can see, ‘Oh yeah, I can go boating today,’ or ‘Nah, I think we’re going stay home today,’ without even having to do much,” he said. “It was well received by the hunters here.”

Drive for technology

For Wainwright and other Arctic villages, it’s not uncommon to welcome new technology that helps residents stay safe, Hopson said. For example, hunters often look at the ice conditions in satellite imagery to see where the open water is. In Utqiagvik, whaling captains and scientists have collaborated to measure ice thickness with electromagnetic devices and satellite imagery and to map the trails.


[Utqiagvik whalers and scientists collaborate to map ice trails and measure ice thickness]

“We are technology-oriented,” Hopson said. “We always take traditional knowledge and keep it with us, at the same time, applying it to technology.”

The Backyard Buoys project has been a collaboration with residents in the Arctic from the start.

The Alaska Ocean Observing System approached local groups such as the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission before developing a project proposal, said Jenny Evans, communications director for the commission. The whaling captains who make up the commission consulted with residents in their villages to see if they were interested in seeing the project implemented in their communities, she said. They also helped determine where those buoys should go and how they should be deployed, Evans said.

“The idea behind this whole project was to have it be community-driven, Indigenous-led,” Evans said. “This project is developed within the communities.”

Evans added that co-production projects don’t always follow this path. Often, agencies fund projects based on a proposal written without input from the communities. By the time researchers visit the villages where they want to implement their projects, the details of what the projects would look like are already set in stone, she said.

“That system is broken,” she said. “To really change it and move into a true co-production environment, we need to go back into the system and not put the cart before the horse.”

Hopson said that residents are welcoming when researchers and developers come to the region introducing a technology that is useful to them and doesn’t disturb their practices.

“When something like this is introduced, it’s going to take a little bit to warm up to it, but once everybody sees the benefit and the true value of it, and being able to actually put it to use ... it becomes a value to the hunters,” he said. “Come to us with an open mind.”

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.