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Breaking New Ground While Treading Gently On The Alaskan Tundra

September 15, 2005
University of Cincinnati
The Inupiaq people are watching climate change with concern. The lakes are draining; the permafrost is thawing; their coastline is eroding. They must now adapt to changes that are rapid and unpredictable. A University of Cincinnati team is interviewing the Inupiaq elders and working with them as partners in order to better understand and predict future environmental changes -- for all of us.

University of Cincinnati assistant professor Wendy Eisnerand a team of researchers are studying the Inupiaq people of Alaska aspart of a research project on global warming. “It’s all woventogether,” says Eisner. “The processes, the changes, the belief systemand the lake drainage.”

The Inupiaq people are watching climatechange with concern. The lakes are draining; the permafrost is thawing;their coastline is eroding. They must now adapt to changes that arerapid and unpredictable. A University of Cincinnati team isinterviewing the Inupiaq elders and working with them as partners inorder to better understand and predict future environmental changes —for all of us.

The UC Team

Wendy Eisner (geographyand women’s studies), Chris Cuomo (philosophy and women’s studies) andKen Hinkel (geography) were awarded a grant from the National ScienceFoundation (NSF) to study climate and environment on Alaska’s NorthSlope. What makes this project unique is that the three are combining“western” science with the traditional knowledge of the Inupiaq(Eskimo) elders who live in the far North.

“The Inupiaq people(Eskimos) are the indigenous people of the Arctic,” explains Eisner.“They live in small villages in the tundra part of northern Alaska. Wewere looking at the landscape history and landscape changes of theNorth Slope, especially the thaw lakes of Alaska. Thaw lakes areshallow lakes formed by local thaw action. About 20 percent of the landis covered by thousands of lakes — the land looks like Swiss cheese ormore so!”

Scientists come up several weeks a year to study theselakes. Many social scientists are studying the people. What’s uniqueabout the UC project is that it is a team of both social scientists andphysical scientists.

“Ken is a pure physical scientist. I have abackground in archaeology, anthropology and paleoecology. Chris addsher expertise in environmental ethics and philosophy,” says Eisner.

Ken Hinkel has been working extensively in the Arctic region for many years.

“Thebulk of my efforts is concentrated on permafrost and periglacialstudies conducted in the Arctic, primarily in northern Alaska,” saysHinkel. “This research has been continually funded by the Office ofPolar Programs at the National Science Foundation since 1991, andfocuses on energy and moisture exchange between the atmosphere andpermafrost.”

Global Warming

“Global warming isexpected to be enhanced at high latitudes and, for this reason, shouldbe detected there first. An increase in air temperatures would causewarming of the ground surface and melting of the upper regions ofpermafrost," says Hinkel. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground. Itunderlies about 20 percent of the earth’s land surface.

"Uponmelting, this ice-rich frozen ground would sink and the ground surfacewould be displaced downward, disrupting any engineering structures suchas roads, house foundations and pipelines. Furthermore, the carbonstored in the frozen materials in the form of partially decomposedorganic material would be released into the atmosphere as ‘GreenhouseGases,’ thus providing a positive feedback to warming.”

Hinkel’sresearch entails the installation of sensor arrays at sites acrossnorthern Alaska. Temperature and soil moisture data are used to monitorthe effects of climate. These data are also used to construct models ofheat and moisture flow across the active layer — the thin zone abovepermafrost that experiences seasonal freezing and thawing.

“Byunderstanding how heat energy is transferred between the atmosphere tothe permafrost, we will be able to estimate the impact of climatechange in permafrost regions,” says Hinkel.

“Ken has been thelead principal investigator in this area for many years,” says Cuomo.“Wendy and Ken really are leading researchers in this area of arcticclimate. I was really impressed with the prominence of Ken’s work.People should know that UC scientists are at the forefront of thisclimate work in the Arctic. It’s something to be proud of. It’s a greatopportunity for graduate students to go up to work in the Arctic.”

Eisnerand Hinkel’s original focus was on lakes and lake drainage: how thelakes drained and when the lakes drained. On their own, they startedinterviewing the elders to learn about the lakes. Then they receivedfunding to do some interviewing and finally obtained a grantexclusively for interviewing 12 – 13 people about landscape and climatechanges.

“We told an NSF project manager that Chris was aphilosopher and he said, ‘Wow!’” said Eisner. “I’ve never heard an NSFofficial say, ‘Wow’!”

“It’s very unusual for an NSF project to have a scientist and a philosopher together,” says Cuomo. “Very cutting edge.”

“It’s the colleagues that count,” says Eisner. “Chris is going nuts — she can’t believe the information she’s gathering!”

Afterthe interviews, then the team corroborates the information given themwith satellite images. It’s not a pretty picture: the drainage ischanging.

The Inupiaq People

“The people areworried,” says Eisner. “There are 249 permanent residents in this area.Some people still earn subsistence from hunting, fishing and gathering,but especially fishing — which is tied directly to the lake drainage.Everything else must come from the lower 48 and it’s very expensive.They receive subsidies, but the subsidies don’t match their needs sothey really depend on hunting and fishing. It’s a marginal existencefor many.”

Because of this and more, the Inupiaq people are really attached to the land, although outsiders see it as harsh.

“Theywouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Eisner. “I think it’s all quitebeautiful.” She adds with a laugh, “Normal people see it as bleak.”

The team asked the natives, especially the elders, to tell them about the lakes they knew.

“‘Iknow one of them that’s drained recently’ they would start, then theystarted to explain their language,” Eisner says. “They have ways ofdescribing things that we don’t.” Well, this harkens back to the ideathat Eskimos have several hundred words for “snow.”

“It’s notquite like that,” says Cuomo. “It’s not that they just have severalwords for our word, ‘snow,’ but they have observed several differentkinds of snow. They have a different expression for wet snow, adifferent phrase for crystallized snow.” It’s a lot like knowing yoursnow if you’re a cross-country skier so that you can choose the rightwax. But cross-country skiing for most people is entertainment. Thequality of the snow is a question of livelihood for the Inupiaq — afactor in their very existence.

“Some types of snow are betterfor making an igloo, some better for making tea, some better fortravelling over,” says Cuomo. “That’s one of the things that’s changing— the quality of the snow is changing.”

The Inupiaq people useigloos the way people in the mainland use tents. They actually lived insod houses traditionally, not igloos.

“Igloos are your travelling shelter. If you’re travelling and you can’t build an igloo, that’s really dangerous,” says Cuomo.

Another danger is the change in the sea ice.

“Theice is thinner, so whaling is much more dangerous, precarious. Whalingteams go out on the ice,” Cuomo says. “Now the ice breaks up muchearlier. There was an incident where a bunch of hunters a few years agostarted drifting after a piece of ice broke off unexpectedly.”

TheInupiaq are very attuned to weather patterns. It’s a science for them —their existence depends upon it. When things become unpredictable, theybecome concerned — and rightly so.

“Subsistence methods are risky methods,” says Cuomo.

The language of the people also reflects the changing climate.
“Whenyounger folks learn these languages, they might be preserving them butnot preserving all of the words and the concepts,” says Cuomo. “In ourinterviews, the elders would use words that the younger translators[weren’t] familiar with. Their language is very specific about thelandscape. The younger folks learn the language but not to the depth ofthe older people.”

The team paid some of the people a consulting fee, more as an honorarium than an incentive.

“Thepeople are so gorgeous. They were very open and eager to talk — theyare the most helpful people I’ve ever met,” says Eisner. “Because theland is so harsh, people have to help one another.”

“It’s been soheartening to see how the community is about talking to us,” saysCuomo. “They know it’s very important for their livelihood. And alsothe community wants the knowledge of their elders to be archived anddocumented. A fringe benefit of doing this work is that it will beuseful to this community.”

The elders, mostly over the age of 70,understand the thaw lake cycle, the freeze-thaw process and permafrost.Permafrost is thawing under the warming conditions in the Arctic.What’s scary to them is that there is a difference between the seasonsnow and the seasons that they have known for generations. The rapidrate of change is alarming.

Very Important Visitors

Barrowwas abuzz with anticipation one day while the team was there. HillaryRodham Clinton, John McCain and two other senators (Susan Collins, fromMaine, and Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina) were visiting for theday to learn about research on climate change. Cuomo seized anopportunity to join in a lunchtime discussion.

“It seems that ifwe are looking for big overarching solutions to the problem of climatechange we are going to be easily discouraged,” Cuomo said. “Thecommunities up here are already dramatically affected by globalwarming, so there are great incentives for cooperation andcollaborative problem solving. For example, in the research projectthat we’re working on, we are bringing local Eskimo elders togetherwith scientists who work on the tundra, to better understand thesources of climate change, and to predict future changes.”

“Yes,”said Clinton, “We were in the Yukon yesterday, and it’s reallyinteresting to see how willing the native communities are to work withscientists and politicians….”

Future Steps

A lot of the elders interviewed are women. Both Eisner and Cuomo have joint appointments with the Department of Women’s Studies.

“Thewomen provide a different point of reference. They’re back in the homewhile the men are out hunting and fishing,” says Cuomo. “If we getextended funding, it’s a part of the project that should really grow,to focus on some of the women’s stories. The folks are so amazing. Weare definitely going back in the spring.”

“This work is a pretty big deal as far as scientific research is concerned,” says Eisner.

Thenext step in the project is to transcribe and organize the 20 hours ofvideo tapes. The team has two graduate students working on the projectbut need more. One grad student is still in Alaska. Eisner, Cuomo andHinkel will be presenting their findings at the American GeophysicalUnion conference in San Francisco in December.

“They’re the partof the United States most affected by climate change right now; they’rethe canary in the coal mine,” says Eisner. “Add onto that the wholeissue of global change — these are the last Inupiaq speakers and theyhave a great deal to tell us.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Cincinnati. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Cite This Page:

University of Cincinnati. "Breaking New Ground While Treading Gently On The Alaskan Tundra." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 September 2005. <>.
University of Cincinnati. (2005, September 15). Breaking New Ground While Treading Gently On The Alaskan Tundra. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from
University of Cincinnati. "Breaking New Ground While Treading Gently On The Alaskan Tundra." ScienceDaily. (accessed July 15, 2024).

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