Alaska News

Hometown U: Tools for the Arctic

President Barack Obama's recent visit to Alaska helped etch the Arctic into the rest of the nation's consciousness in a fresh way. While that's a good thing, Alaskans have been worrying about red flags in the region for some time. The U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska -- responsible for coastline security and disaster rescue -- is a significant if under-resourced player in the rapidly warming landscape.

To assist the Coast Guard with its mushrooming northern duties, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided in 2014 to fund a Center of Excellence at UAA, called the Arctic Domain Awareness Center. Over five years, the federal government will spend $17.5 million for ADAC to develop tools to better monitor change and threat in the Arctic.

These DHS Centers of Excellence are affiliated with universities across the United States and charged with "conducting ground-breaking research to address homeland security issues." ADAC at UAA is one of 13 such centers (, each focusing on a particular DHS concern.

For example, Purdue and Rutgers universities lead big data analysis aimed at detecting national threats. The University of Minnesota is working on vulnerabilities in the nation's food supply. The University of Southern California is evaluating risks, costs and consequences of terrorism. Texas A & M and Kansas State are detecting diseases transmitted from animals to humans.

ADAC's purview is all things Arctic. This center's challenge includes creating predictive models for oil spills, sea ice movement and coastal storm surges. It means developing capacity for reliable remote monitoring -- by recruiting an observation network of coastal residents and developing low-cost, wireless sensor systems that operate and report without batteries.

In its research, UAA will work with a consortium of academic and industry partners, including four other schools (the universities of Idaho, Washington, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Maine Maritime Academy) and eight industries (Lockheed Martin, AeroVironment, Spectron, Liquid Robotics, Robotic Technology, GeoNorth, MDA Systems and the Port of Anchorage). Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is a partner, as well as residents of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island.

Last week, I sat down for an overview with ADAC's director and principal investigator, Helena Wisniewski (


Wisniewski arrived at UAA in 2011 from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, to become vice provost for research and dean of the graduate school. She brought a long corporate career, including senior roles at Titan and Lockheed corporations, and service with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the CIA. She drew on her academic, industry and defense agency relationships to draft UAA's successful bid for the DHS center.

ADAC is housed in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. Wisniewski said new technology and product development are aimed at helping the Coast Guard respond to and plan for events in places it can't easily observe -- from oil spills in the Chukchi Sea to storm surges in Norton Sound.

"In the big picture, we're enabling the decision-maker," Wisniewski said. "We'll provide a Coast Guard incident commander with actionable information to decide how to respond to and prepare for current and future catastrophic events."

ADAC researchers are developing predictive storm surge modeling. "In the case of coastal erosion, if storm modeling can predict that a coastline is really going to erode by a certain date, should we start moving the village back now?" she said.

Chief among ADAC's tasks is creating an "integrated intelligent system of systems," that can blend and analyze data from all the ADAC-developed reporting channels.

"But we aren't just collecting and fusing," Wisniewski said. "We're also giving it intelligence. The 'system of systems' will be able to make value judgments. If a monitoring report indicates a catastrophic event, we will have the intelligence to go back and look at the data to verify that it is definitely a catastrophic event."

She contrasted that with a typical incident scenario today. "The Coast Guard has multiple databases and multiple screens, so when they're working a case, they're pulling weather information from one source and modeling information from another, and then trying to make an informed decision on how to proceed. The 'system of systems, will do all that for them," she said.

The Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council, now chaired by the United States, will meet in Anchorage Oct. 20-22. Wisniewski said DHS has asked UAA to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for ADAC on Oct. 21. Also, from Oct. 19-22, UAA is hosting Arctic Zephyr for the Coast Guard, which will perform a series of tabletop demonstrations that pose search and rescue scenarios for cruise ships. Already one ship, the Crystal Serenity, is booking a 32-day, $22,000-per-person voyage through the Northwest Passage, from Anchorage to New York, Aug. 16-Sept. 17, 2016.

Wisniewski said the ADAC ribbon-cutting will draw Washington visitors, including Coast Guard leadership and the undersecretary of the DHS.

Kathleen McCoy works for UAA where she highlights campus life in online and social media.

Kathleen McCoy

Kathleen McCoy was a longtime editor and writer for the Anchorage Daily News.