Alaska observer network promotes grass-roots environmental science

After a warm winter that left Southcentral Alaska's mountains with the sparsest of snowpack, followed by a hot spring and summer that further dried the landscape, fishery researchers working last month around Jakolof Bay near Seldovia came upon a scene of devastation.

Thousands of dead fish piled on the dry ground where a creek normally runs into a saltwater bay from the freshwater lake above it. The fish, salmon and Dolly Varden, had run out of water on their way to spawning sites.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this," said Michael Opheim, environmental coordinator for the Seldovia Village Tribe. "It's pretty worrisome that we're not getting any fish into the lake or the stream system to spawn."

The finding was quickly relayed to the organization that has become the go-to repository for reports of unusual events in Alaska's natural world: the Local Environmental Observer Network managed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Before environmental changes can be quantified and analyzed in peer-reviewed academic studies, they have to be witnessed and reported.

Enter the local observer program, which goes by the acronym LEO.

The network relies on people with traditional knowledge "who are so familiar with their environment -- it's familiar, like family," said Mike Brubaker, director of ANTHC's Center for Climate and Health, which oversees the LEO program.


The reports, filed by tribal employees and other citizens in far-flung villages and communities, include descriptions of missing sea ice, plants budding early, fish and bird die-offs, the appearance of unusual birds and insects and numerous reports of paralytic shellfish poisoning in clams, including a case in June in the Alaska Peninsula community of Sand Point when PSP toxins were nearly 83 times the level considered dangerous.

The LEO Network's origins go back to 2009, when ANTHC got some federal funding to do climate-health monitoring, Brubaker said. That program, which generated a series of community and regional assessments that continue to be compiled, brought forth a torrent of grass-roots responses that deserved more analysis and more exposure, he said.

"We were getting all these observations and we realized we really needed some kind of a tool that would allow people to share these unusual events as they happened," he said.

That evolved into the LEO Network, which has collected more than 350 observations since January 2012 and which attempts to do more than note the occurrences of unusual things on land, in the air and in the water; it also connects observers with expert consultants -- from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other agencies and organizations -- to try to explain why the events are happening.

In some cases, there are advisories about whether fish or game is safe to eat. In other cases, there is agency action, such as the investigation launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in late 2011 after a mysterious ailment sickened and killed ice seals off northern and Northwest Alaska. The outbreak was formally designated an "unusual mortality event" under the auspices of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The LEO Network, which has grown into a sophisticated, computer-supported system, is now an international model for environmental monitoring.

Under U.S. chairmanship, the Arctic Council is seeking to expand the system around the circumpolar north, creating a Circumpolar Local Environmental Organization, or CLEO.

U.S. environmental regulators are also hoping to develop a similar observing system, complete with expert consultations, across North America. And the White House, in one of the Arctic-related announcements made during the president's trip last week to Alaska, touted LEO's new federally funded mobile app that allows people to view reports in the field and will, in the future, allow them to post reports from there, using precise GPS coordinates and uploading photos.

Some of the observations sent to the LEO Network findings appear to be clearly linked to climate change, such as the numerous postings about scarcity of sea and river ice. Some have nothing to do with climate, such as the appearance in Shishmaref of a rubber boot that appears to be from Korea.

Some observations seem ominous but defy easy explanation, such as reports of a distressed moose that was swimming in circles before it died in an Aleknagik lake in July. Alaska State Veterinarian Bob Gerlach, one of the experts consulted on that case, called the incident "curious" and suggested that it might be a sign of encephalitis, with a variety of possible causes.

Some observations are of circumstances that are benign, or possibly even beneficial, like the July sighting of a juvenile sablefish in Seldovia, a harbinger of a strong run for that species.

Some observations have resulted in important scientific discoveries. Unusual-looking worms that were in the bodies of grouse hunted by a woman in Unalakleet in 2012, for example, turned out to be the northernmost sighting of a parasite called Splendidofilaria pectoralis.

Funding for the LEO Network comes from a variety of sources, chiefly the Environmental Protection Agency's Indian Environmental General Assistance Program, which spent $27.7 million last year on tribal environmental programs in Alaska, said Santina Gay, an Anchorage-based tribal coordinator for the agency.

Development of the app was funded by $160,000 in grants from EPA's Office of Research and Development, Gay said.

EPA is working with organizations in the Lower 48, Canada and Mexico to try to replicate some of the LEO program, she said. Although there are other citizen environmental-monitoring networks, she said, few are as advanced as LEO, which employs state-of-the-art communications technology and a vetting and consultation system, she said.

"I'm not aware of any other observation network that's quite like LEO," she said.

Outside of the LEO network, other reports from local observers -- whether in a formal network or not -- have also resulted in important scientific discoveries.


Rain-on-snow events, which have become more frequent in warmer Arctic winters, became the subject of a focused examination after hunters in the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut reported a die-off of about 20,000 musk oxen that were disoriented and starved after a 2003 rainstorm created a layer of ice that locked away their food source. Local information about extreme winter rains in 2012 on the Norwegian island of Svalbard led to another detailed study of rain on snow.

Fittingly, the LEO Network has been reaching out to observers as far away as Nuuk, Greenland. Information from faraway sites can be important to Alaska, said Brubaker, who cited migratory birds, wildfire smoke and infectious diseases as subjects of concern.

"Our focus is Alaska, but the influences to Alaska extend beyond our borders," he said.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.