People, Oceans and Climate Change

COSEE ALASKA: People, Oceans and Climate Change

[Alaska] really is the bellwether, the canary in the mine; what we see over the next decade here and in the Arctic, the rest of the world will see in the next 25 years. - Robert Corell, Chair, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment for the International Arctic Council

Why create a COSEE in Alaska, given its relatively small and remote population of 660,000?

Alaska is the U.S. Arctic, and as such, Alaska's coast - which, at 43,000 miles is the longest state coastline in the nation - is also one of the most sensitive ecosystems to a warming climate regime. A report recently released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought global political attention to the issue of climate change and how it will be felt throughout the world, and especially in the Arctic.

The polar bear - a major predator in Alaska - has been listed as a threatened species because of shrinking ice habitat in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. New Arctic maritime transportation corridors could become accessible as seasonal sea ice coverage declines. Alaskan glaciers and ice sheets are melting at an unparalleled rate. Fish populations are shifting their geographic distribution patterns in response to increased ocean temperatures, potentially driving fishing fleets to new and potentially sensitive areas.

Commercial enterprises that depend on Alaska's ocean resources include the largest fishing port in the nation, Dutch Harbor, and the third largest fishing port, Kodiak. The value of Alaska's fish and shellfish harvest is approximately $2 billion per year, and the seafood industry is Alaska's largest private employer. Fishing for wild salmon is the state's commercial fishing economic backbone and engages local residents from Ketchikan (on the border with Canada) north to Kotzebue (above the Arctic Circle). Tourism brings more than two million visitors to Alaska each year, and oil and gas exploration in Alaska's arctic and offshore areas is a significant contributor to Alaska's employment, economy and U.S. energy supplies.

Polar bears
Alaskan coastal communities are directly experiencing the impact of a warming climate with more intense fall storms, increased coastal erosion, and instability from thawing permafrost, all of which are beginning to shift community behavior patterns.

Coastal communities have existed in Alaska for thousands of years and the knowledge of human interactions with the arctic environment is contained within those communities. Western "modern" science, however, has only recently (within the last 100 years) begun to quantify the interactions of humans and the environment in Alaska.

Eighty percent of Alaskans live on the coast and in some communities in Western Alaska, more than 600 pounds per person of subsistence-harvested animals and plants are consumed annually. Daily lives of Alaskans are impacted by weather, and as a result, traditional and local knowledge of natural cycles are strong in rural Alaskans. Five indigenous groups of Alaska Natives bring collectively thousands of years of place-based knowledge that can contribute to an understanding of our planet's changes.

Through its interactions with Alaska's coastal communities and rural school districts and use of technology, COSEE Alaska will help bring this vast, existing, historical knowledge to the forefront of scientific awareness and to the broader public. Linked with modern analytical and visualization tools, ocean and coastal climate change impacts will be translated into the global needs of education, economics, science, and culture.

Partnerships Among Scientists and Educators

Fishing off the coast of Alaska
COSEE Alaska is a partnership involving the Alaska Ocean Observing System, the Alaska SeaLife Center, the North Pacific Research Board, the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, the UAF Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, the Anchorage School District, and the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

With both a regional (Alaska's arctic) and thematic (People, Oceans and Climate Change) focus, COSEE Alaska seeks to increase ocean literacy both within and outside Alaska and to weave together western science and traditional knowledge about ocean climate change to share with the nation. The COSEE designation is especially timely, given the rapidly changing Arctic climate being blamed for storms that are eroding the seacoast, altering fisheries, thawing permafrost, and melting sea ice that polar bears, walrus and seals need for survival.

"This program provides a great opportunity to share with the world the dramatic changes we're experiencing in our region due to climate change and to help the Arctic research community connect directly with Alaskans, from fishermen, boaters, teachers and students to other marine stakeholders and the public," said Molly McCammon. McCammon is the director of the Alaska Ocean Observing System, and led the COSEE planning efforts.

Ocean Science Fairs in Rural Coastal Communities

Launched in late August, 2008, COSEE Alaska outreach activities will include workshops among scientists, teachers, and students; real and virtual field trips; and the creation of statewide Ocean Science Fairs. In October 2008, co-PI Dr. Ray Barnhardt and science fair consultant Alan Dick hosted an initial meeting of representatives from Alaska school districts to identify ocean science projects with substance and currency and to develop plans for establishing science fairs in remote rural coastal districts the first year. Three fairs are already underway: Lower Yukon-Kuskokwim, Unalaska, and Sitka. Ocean scientists in the region are working on science fair project ideas for these communities.


Each year, hundreds of scientists from Alaska, the U.S. and other countries come to Alaska to participate in research projects. In many coastal communities, this annual influx of scientists provides an opportunity for local residents to directly interact with researchers. The Alaska Marine Science Symposium (AMSS), held annually in Anchorage, attracts more than 700 marine scientists from the U.S., Canada and Russia and serves as a useful opportunity for researchers to network and develop collaborations with marine educators, communications professionals and community members who all attend this 4-day public symposium in the cold, dark days of January.

Fishing vessels
COSEE Alaska will expand the annual Communicating Ocean Science workshop at the AMSS. We will use the workshop as an opportunity to formalize SEANET, a network of ocean scientists, marine educators, students, and community members involved in communicating about research in Alaska's seas. SEANET establishes long-lasting collaborations among these interest groups and strengthens communication among scientists and informal and formal educators and the public. The COSEE Alaska grant culminates in a national ocean education and communication conference to be held in Alaska in 2012.

Alaska's Largest Village

COSEE Alaska is based in downtown Anchorage, which is the state's economic hub, and can be considered one of Alaska's largest villages, with an Alaska Native population of 23,000 in 2004. This figure represents 11 percent of the Anchorage population and nearly a quarter of the statewide Alaska Native population. An advisory board made up of representatives of the academic community, industry, rural communities, and state and federal agencies provides input from around the region.

Visit COSEE Alaska!