APU research partners Indigenous Arctic communities with scientific researchers for climate resilience

Lonny Weston (at left) and George Williams Jr. both of Mekoryuk on scenic Nunivak Island with their catch of chum salmon mac’utat. photo by Bessie Weston

Collaborative effort, backed by $2.98 million grant from the NSF, will collaboratively address water and sanitation challenges in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

A new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $2.98M will support a three-year collaboration with University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks to bring academics from across the U.S. together with indigenous Yupik and Cup’ik communities in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta.

The initiative, part of the NSF’s Navigating the New Arctic program, is called Meq Unguvatkarput (Water is Our Livelihood)—Building Community Resilience for the Future, and is focused on shining scientific attention on pressing problems of water and sanitation, identified by local communities, that are only intensifying due to climate change.

“There are many things to be excited about with this project,” says Bessie Lea Weston, one of the project’s co-leaders and a resident of Mekoryuk, a 200-person village in the YK Delta that is on the front lines of climate change. “I am especially excited about the inclusion of local youth in scientific processes that will result in useful local data. It is also exciting to think that this project could potentially help pave the way for future successful partnerships that would benefit the community of Mekoryuk—the only Cup’ig community in the world.”

The project aims to blend local and Indigenous knowledge with western science to investigate the rates at which the Arctic in general, and the YK Delta in particular, are changing due to global warming. The collected information can then be used to help the local villages of Mekoryuk and Kongiganak make critical decisions about their infrastructure, livelihood, and plans for future.

“The YK Delta region is sinking,” says Julie Brigham-Grette, a geosciences professor at UMass, “both because permafrost is melting and because the coast is undergoing unprecedented erosion. The amount of sea ice used to extend 30 – 40 kilometers out from shore. Now, it extends for only two or three. Not only does this accelerate erosion, it also negatively affects local hunting practices. Meq Unguvatkarput is a wonderful opportunity to bring geologists together with civil engineers, who understand water and sanitation issues, with the communities in Alaska.”

“I am excited to be part of this diverse team,” says James Temte, project manager at Alaska Pacific University and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. From the very beginning of this project we have centered local and Indigenous knowledge, community values, and the communities’ priorities. The braiding of Indigenous knowledge with western science will only enhance the understanding of our changing climate as well as inform real working solutions to address the communities’ concerns.”

Tracy Lewis, a resident of Kongiganak, a co-lead investigator and one of the local communities that is helping to steer the research, says that “building resiliency, planning, and adaptation will help protect our people, land, and water from the impacts of climate change.”

“I have always enjoyed bringing together people from different backgrounds and specialties to work together to address enormous scientific questions,” says Brigham-Grette. “Ultimately, we hope that this process of co-producing knowledge in the Arctic can be transferred to other villages that are facing similar threat from climate change.”

Alaska Pacific University provides a world-class, hands-on, culturally responsive educational experience in collaboration with our students, communities and Tribal partners. APU is a fully accredited four-year Alaska Native-serving and tribally controlled University offering academic programs ranging from certificates to graduate degrees. APU continues to add and maintain programs and degrees that serve all Alaskans and attract local, national, and international students and attention. Learn more at www.alaskapacific.edu