NOAA Arctic Theme Page

Changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 50 years: Bridging the knowledge gap between the scientific community and the Alaska Native community.

Executive Summary
Marine Mammal Commission Workshop
on the Impacts of Changes in Sea Ice and Other Environmental Parameters in the Arctic.
Girdwood, Alaska,
15–17 February 2000.

Sponsors: University of Alaska's North Pacific Marine Research Initiative
National Marine Fisheries Service
NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

Marine Mammal Commission
4340 East-West Highway, Room 905
Bethesda, Maryland 20814

The Workshop
To bring together scientists and indigenous experts to discuss the many signs of change in the Arctic environment, the Marine Mammal Commission held a workshop on Impacts of Changes in Sea Ice and Other Environmental Parameters in the Arctic. The combination of multi-disciplinary science and traditional knowledge made a strong and urgent case for addressing the challenges posed by environmental change in the Arctic. Although the workshop focused largely on the Alaskan Arctic, its implications are international in scope, as all Arctic regions face similar challenges related to environmental change.

The workshop was held 15–17 February 2000 in Girdwood, Alaska. The number of participants in the workshop was limited, and chosen to provide a balance between scientists and indigenous experts, and among areas of expertise. The purposes of the workshop were:

  • to review, from both traditional knowledge and scientific perspectives, how changes in sea ice and other environmental parameters may be affecting Arctic living resources and the indigenous cultures and practices that depend on those resources,
  • to identify possible measures that can be taken to mitigate the impacts of realized and anticipated changes, and
  • to develop a document that provides a compelling blueprint for action for legislators, conservationists, Arctic residents, and others.

This final report contains the conclusions and recommendations of the workshop, a summary of the discussions held by break-out groups during the workshop, and papers describing various aspects of environmental change in the Arctic.

In Arctic Alaska, there are many indications of significant environmental change over time. Such changes are not merely curiosities from a remote area. They have severe impacts on the lives of residents of northern Alaska, most of whom are Alaska Natives pursuing traditional ways of life deeply rooted in the local environment. The changes seen in the Arctic are the early signs of changes in climate that are likely to affect much of the world in the next several decades. The impacts to Arctic residents and the lessons those impacts have for the rest of the country and the world are ignored at our peril. It is clear that more attention is needed to assess the risks that we face and to identify actions that can be taken to minimize those risks.

In considering what is known today and what needs to be done, workshop participants made a number of observations on the state of our knowledge and its applicability to the responses that might be made to the impacts of climate change:

  • There are significant disconnects among scientific disciplines. More attention is needed to the species that affect people directly.
  • Policy makers give too little attention to environmental change.
  • Better information is needed about specific regional scenarios for changes in sea ice, especially for helping to identify potential impacts to communities.
  • More systematic use should be made of the expertise that Alaska Natives have in observing the environment, extending back many decades in personal memory and farther in what has been handed down from past generations.
  • Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering are vital and irreplaceable activities for Alaska Native communities, but it is difficult or impossible to express their full significance.

A common thread to these and other discussions during the workshop was that climate change is a far-reaching threat to coastal communities. It is essential that such communities be involved in research and policy concerning environmental change. In this regard, workshop participants had a number of observations on the process of research:

  • Collaborative research between communities' members and outside scientists requires continuity and time to build trust, train personnel, and learn to understand the perspectives and expectations of the various partners.
  • Community-based programs should be coordinated or integrated so that the communities can make best advantage of the programs in which they participate.
  • Research needs to involve young people, especially through schools.
  • Progress requires dedicated individuals, not just good ideas.
  • Research involving the participation of local researchers must adequately compensate those participants.
  • The use of scenarios must be done sensitively, especially with "worst-case" predictions about the future of specific communities.

Workshop participants listed a number of recommendations in several categories, listed below, plus two overarching recommendations emerged:

  • Promote long-term commitments, especially for collaborative research that requires recruiting and training local researchers.
  • Take better advantage of existing programs, including those that are already active in Arctic communities and those that upon which community-based research can be built.


  • Develop a formal plan for recording systematic observations by residents of coastal communities. A team of scientists and local observers should determine which measurements are appropriate for gathering by local observers and which factors are significant from the local perspective.
  • Develop a system for reporting other noteworthy events. In addition to observations of regular phenomena, unusual events such as strandings and die-offs are worth recording and analyzing.
  • Promote the creation of better baselines of data. Existing baseline data are often from too few monitoring sites or over timelines that are too short. Effective monitoring requires archiving of data as well as ready access to those data for analyses and comparisons.
  • Document Native observations of environmental change. The systematic documentation of Native knowledge can help identify patterns in the environment over time, helping sort out short- and long-term changes.
  • Develop more detailed local scenarios for assessing the potential impacts of climate change. While firm predictions are beyond our reach, more details about the range of likely effects would help generate more plausible scenarios from which responses could be planned.
  • Make more use of integrative tools for analyzing data. In part this is a question of data access, but it is also a matter of having tools that allow researchers to integrate various data sets to prepare complex analyses.
  • Allow time for the creation of real partnerships between communities and researchers. Where possible, time and perhaps funding for the development of real partnerships should be given.
  • Explore ways to make use of climate change. Some effects of climate change may provide opportunities for alternative energy or for new patterns of resource use.


  • Address the causes of climate change. From a policy perspective, we need a greater willingness to examine the range of human actions that affect climate change and to develop means of changing our actions to minimize their impacts.
  • Recognize actual and potential problems. Ignoring the warning signs of climate change will only lead to far greater costs in the future, when problems become crises.
  • Provide intrinsic valuations for natural resources. Alternative means of valuing natural resources should be developed so that activities such as subsistence that are largely outside the cash economy are properly reflected in damage calculations.
  • Assess institutional cultures that prevent meaningful change. Understanding the nature of those institutional cultures is essential to identifying ways to bring about effective and timely responses to threats such as those posed by climate change.


  • Develop better ways to communicate results to Native communities. Good communication should take into account Native ways of thinking and communicating, for example through visual and oral media rather than only in writing.
  • Provide training in communication. Communication should stimulate curiosity and convey the excitement of science, which will help attract greater interest among community members, especially young people.
  • Consider a variety of means for communicating. Local radio programs, regional newspapers, public lectures, mailings to community residents, and posters are among the many ways that can be used to communicate with affected groups.
  • Teach scientists, agency personnel, and others about Native cultures. Written materials and in-person orientation sessions are among the ways that newcomers can be introduced to the ways of a community.
  • Teach community members about science and scientists. In addition to introducing community members to scientists, such training should include an introduction to scientific methods and theories.
  • Review web-based programs to develop new ideas. The web can be used for data management and access, and for frequent communication between researchers within and outside the community.
  • Promote professional recognition for the importance of communicating. Giving professional recognition to efforts to give results back to communities would help encourage greater effort in communicating effectively and often.


  • Develop general curricula on climate change and our connection to the environment. Curriculum materials that can help explain and demonstrate both will create a better-informed citizenry.
  • Develop specific curriculum materials to show the local context of climate change. Generalizations about climate change should be supplemented with specific local information to help students see how climate change may affect them and their home regions.
  • Promote interactions among schoolchildren from different places. Sharing local experiences and observations with students from other parts of the country or world can help students learn more about others and more about the different ways that climate change affects various parts of the globe.
  • Make use of existing programs that involve students and teachers in research. Such programs can help with education as well as communication, helping researchers become more involved in the communities in which they work.
Courtesy Dr. Henry Huntington, Huntington Consulting and Dr. Rob Mattlin, Marine Mammal Commission, 4340 East-West Highway, Room 905, Bethesda, Maryland


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