University of Massachusetts Amherst: New Research Partners Indigenous Arctic Communities with Scientific Researchers for Climate Resilience

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A new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $2.98M will support a three-year collaboration with Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks to bring academics from across the US 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, which is led by Julie Brigham-Grette, professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, aims to investigate the rates at which the Arctic, in general, and the YK Delta, in particular, is changing due to global warming, and then to use those scientific insights to help the local villages of Mekoryuk and Kongiganak make critical decisions about their infrastructure, livelihood and plans for future.

The project also benefits from the expertise of Caitlyn Butler and Emily Kumpel, both professors of civil and environmental engineering in UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering, as well as James Temte, project manager at Alaska Pacific University and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

“The YK Delta region is sinking,” says Brigham-Grette, “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 only 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 the communities in Alaska together with geologists and civil engineers.”

The YK Delta region is sinking, 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 only extends for only two or three.

“I am excited to be part of this diverse team,” says Temte. 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, one of the local communities which are helping to steer the research, and a co-lead investigator, 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 a similar threat from climate change.”

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