Opinions

The importance of University of Alaska-based monitoring of our oceans

Data is the lifeblood of science. It provides scientists with a way to prove, refine, or disprove our ideas about how the world works. Data from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is providing valuable information for oil spill response, public safety and economic development efforts in the 49th state.

UAF passed a remarkable milestone this month, when scientists from the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences completed a half-century of regular observations at a Gulf of Alaska oceanographic station. Station GAK-1 is located near Seward at the mouth of Resurrection Bay, and it has the longest set of sustained measurements of surface-to-seafloor temperature and salinity in all of Alaska’s coastal and offshore waters.

What does this mean for our state? GAK-1 is providing data to drive good decision-making and help us evaluate risks to Alaska’s marine ecosystem and economy as the ocean becomes warmer and more acidic due to climate change. This monitoring contributes to our understanding of melting glacier runoff in the ocean, variations in Alaska’s commercial fisheries, and the population status of marine mammals.

Data collected at GAK-1 and elsewhere across Alaska’s oceans provide public benefit by contributing to responsible development of marine resources, vessel operations, tourism, and public safety. Observations made from ships, autonomous underwater gliders, and oceanographic moorings all support sustainable fisheries management practices and direct responses to warming-induced blooms of paralytic shellfish poisoning.

In the Arctic, land-based ocean current mapping systems staged in Bering Strait and near Utqiaġvik are assisting marine navigation and helping the US Coast Guard with oil spill response and search and rescue missions. Moored ecosystem observatories that track everything from ocean physics and chemistry to fishes and whales are our eyes on the offshore Arctic waters through the months when ice excludes vessel traffic.

The first GAK-1 observation was taken in December 1970 by UAF faculty member Tom Royer, who then began visiting the site every month or two. Royer later used the data to help accurately predict the time it would take oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to reach Kodiak.

We recognize that compared to thousands of years of Indigenous observations, 50 years is a blink of an eye. While useful, long-term systematic scientific data collections are just one cornerstone of a comprehensive resource management framework. Scientific knowledge and Indigenous knowledge accumulated through Alaska Native oral traditions both provide critically important references for assessing change. Both are necessary for responsible and equitable management of Alaska’s marine resources, and the University of Alaska is an ideal place for bridging the two systems of knowledge.

Although monitoring can be expensive, the alternative — not establishing and maintaining key data records — can be even more costly, far beyond dollars and cents, to ecological, cultural and social impacts that affect the well-being of us all.

Every dollar the state of Alaska spends on research at the University of Alaska brings in about six more. Diminished funding to our university system threatens our research capacity, and, in turn, jobs, public safety, and our economy. Our shared goals of healthy ecosystems and subsistence harvests, responsible development, and public safety depend in part on a strong University of Alaska.

Seth Danielson is an associate professor of oceanography at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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