Annual Report – 2021 Year in Review

AK CASC Annual Report 2020 Cover

This is the web version of this year’s Annual Report 2021 Year in Review document. The full report, along with past years’ reports and other documents, can be downloaded from the AK CASC Communication Products page, or listen to the document in full via the AK CASC 2021 Year in Review Audio Version.

2021 IN REVIEW

Climate science in action. The AK CASC works with federal, state and Alaska Native partners to provide actionable research on local-scale climate scenarios, future wildfire patterns, changes to stream hydrology, and impacts to Alaska’s natural resources. In 2021, AK CASC helped managers in each of Alaska’s federal land management agencies integrate high-resolution climate projections into vital management and planning efforts for the future.

Community learning in climate adaptation. Despite limitations related to COVID-19, the AK CASC has made significant strides to connect climate adaptation research with communities, managers, and partners in 2021 The launch of the Alaska Tribal Resilience Learning Network in January 2021 brought together climate researchers, traditional knowledge experts, and tribal resilience staff to create a community of learning, sharing, technical assistance, training, and support for Alaska Tribes as they respond and adapt to the current and future impacts of climate change.

Supporting the next generation of climate scientists. This year, the AK CASC supported the launch of the UAF Honors College Climate Scholars program, with AK CASC fellow Kristin Timm selected as an inaugural Faculty Fellow to help lead the effort. The Climate Scholars program offers UAF undergraduate students an interdisciplinary academic experience with a focus on actionable science and community engagement. In Southeast Alaska, AK CASC graduate and undergraduate students are leading research on the impacts of climate-driven changes to stream patterns and juvenile salmon.

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Tribal Resilience Learning Network creates space for dialogue and information sharing

Researcher rappels backwards down a cliff into the Suicide Basin to collect data.

Participants from the Building Resilience Today project during a field visit in Kotlik.

With the rapid and compounding impacts from a changing climate, Alaska Tribes are responding and making decisions to address multiple issues like food security, critical infrastructure needs, land issues, preparedness for extreme events, and wellness. Planning and decisions introduce and require the integration and learning of new or needed information within the unique context, history and area of each Alaskan Tribe.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Tribal Climate Resilience Liaison program, and our Alaska liaison Malinda Chase, are critical to the AK CASC’s support for Tribal communities’ planning efforts. In 2020, the AK CASC successfully completed the Building Resilience Today project, and other webinars and trainings. Together with a broader team of CASC personnel and community team members the Alaska CASC launched the Tribal Resilience Learning Network that provides a system of support and increased voice for Tribal communities in adaptation planning.

The tribal feedback received during the Building Resilience Today project helped to identified the need for the network and refine the approach. Though the research support provided to those communities in their climate adaptation planning efforts was critical, the training organizers recognized that support is needed at both earlier, and later stages in the planning process. Additionally, successful models and deep planning knowledge exist within Tribal communities across the state. This knowledge can sometimes be hard to access and share across distances and communities, highlighting the importance of longstanding relationships in adaptation planning.

The Learning Network increases communication channels, supports relationship-building between the CASC and our Tribal partners, and provides a space for knowledge sharing among a network of skilled knowledge-holders and climate adaptation practitioners. The team now offers monthly network calls and information sessions. So far this year information sessions have introduced tribal climate adaptation planning approaches, highlighted the impacts of permafrost thaw on rural infrastructure with experts from UAF’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center, and spotlighted youth opportunities in climate adaptation planning and education have also been highlighted with the support of BIA Pathways Intern Alexis Wagner, and an in-person event focused on wellness in tribal climate adaptation planning is on the horizon.

The network is also spearheading an effort to increase the visibility and use of a range of web tools developed by CASC partners within the International Arctic Research Center that provide access to climate data for planners, decision makers, and leaders who can use the information to make significant decisions about Alaska’s wild fish, animals, lands and waters.

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Spotlight: BIA Pathways intern Alexis Wagner

Erin Trochim leads a training on the use of Google Earth Engine in research.

Wagner poses for graduation photos in a traditional cedar hat and moccasins at Pt. Davison on the Annette Islands Indian Reserve, Alaska.

What drew you to the BIA Pathways program and working with the Alaska CASC?

I’ve always known that I wanted to help Indian Country in some way and when my cousin told me about the Pathways Program I knew that it would be a great way to get my foot in the door with the BIA. Choosing the Alaska CASC wasn’t a hard decision being from a small community in southeast Alaska (Metlakatla). It was a great opportunity to work with a region that is as unique as the many Tribes within it.

Alexis it’s been wonderful having you as part of the team. What’s the biggest thing you think you’ve learned as part of this experience?

It’s difficult to pick just one thing. I’ve learned a lot and have grown so much during this experience. If I had to choose, it would be the importance of having a team for support and different perspectives. With our team, we were able to work together to create the Alaska Tribal Resilience Learning Network which supports Tribes in their climate change adaptation efforts. We are continuously developing new ways to provide assistance and it’s amazing to see the support from the Tribes and other organizations.

We can’t wait to see what amazing work you get up to! What’s next on the horizon for you?

This experience really solidified my passion for working with Tribes, and especially on climate change projects. The goal is to continue working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hopefully with the Tribal Climate Resilience Program. The Native American and Alaska Native Tribes really are at the front lines of climate change and I want to help with that fight, whether its with grants or technical assistance.

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Planning for the future with climate scenarios

Man in red jacket speaking to a group of scientists gathered around him in front of a valley of trees in autumn colors.

Jeremy Littell presents local climate data to community members during the Building Resilience Today project.

The complex language of future climate projections can be daunting and inaccessible to resource managers and community leaders without a prior background working with model outputs. Yet, an understanding of changes to the climate and ecosystem factors such as snowmelt, permafrost thaw, wildfires, and vegetation is vital for planning. AK CASC Lead Scientist Jeremy Littell not only develops local-scale climate information needed for planning efforts across the state, but ensures its use by working directly with local partners throughout the process.

Greg Hayward, a wildlife ecologist with the US Forest Service (USFS), has been working with AK CASC researchers since its inception in 2010. His long-standing relationship with the AK CASC has enabled the co-production of research that directly aids in management decisions through a deep understanding of both what managers need, and what scientists can deliver.

This partnership was illustrated in the development of a Vulnerability Assessment for the Chugach National Forest in southcentral Alaska. Climate projections on future snowmelt conditions from Littell and colleagues allowed the USFS to determine which streams in the Chugach are most vulnerable to major shifts in hydrology over the next 50 years. “That’s the kind of answer that managers need. It helps us put some reality to what, prior to analysis, is just a fear factor,” said Hayward.

Due in part to the partnerships built during his work with the Chugach National Forest, Littell has now supplied or is in the process of supplying climate projections and ecosystem summaries for all the major Department of the Interior and US Department of Agriculture lands in the state, including all US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and USFS management units.

Littell works closely with Tribal Liaison Malinda Chase, supporting Tribes that are creating climate adaptation plans. Localized climate information on changes to areas of interest to communities can provide necessary materials for funding applications and planning efforts.

This work is a realization of years of relationship-building between the AK CASC and partners to refine a process for distilling science needs from managers and communities, asking the right questions, and translating complex climate projections into useful products.

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FIRE PREDICTION APP BRINGS RISK EVALUaTION INTO THE FIELD

The Fire Behavior Prediction app interface.

The Alaska CASC is working with partners to make wildfire behavior prediction more rapidly available for fire managers, and to build a community sourced wildfire observation and photo database. Fire management in Alaska has benefited greatly by adopting the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System as the method for evaluating fire risk. This rating system combined with weather information is used by Mesowest in a fire prediction algorithm that predicts fire behavior, allowing for real-time estimates of rates of spread, direction of spread, which provides critical information for on-the-ground fire planning. However, the usefulness of this Fire Behavior Prediction Calculator can be limited by internet connectivity.

In an effort to make fire behavior prediction more rapidly accessible in the field, the Alaska CASC supported the development of a new Fire Behavior Prediction application beta test built and designed by our partners that launched during summer 2021. This summer interested users can download the new application to their phone and instantly calculate fire behavior predictions without an internet connection. Additionally, the application allows for the sharing of photos and observations of wildfire by anyone. This community sourcing of wildfire photos and observations has potential to be a useful resource for wildfire communications by providing
a database where users can easily search for wildfire information by location and date.

The application was built by our partners at the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning. Throughout the summer, it is being deployed to select users within the fire management community through the Alaska Fire Science Consortium for them to put it through its paces. That’s meant communicating with potential users, organizing sign-ups, and providing tutorials for the beta process. Users will then provide feedback and suggestions for improvements to the underlying program before a full release.

For now the beta application is available on iOS only. A successful 2021 beta of the app, built on infrastructure from the recent purchase of the MountainHub application, could mean a full application release next year for both iOS and Android.

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northern notes

AK CASC WELCOMES NEW FACES- Jessica Garron was appointed deputy university director for the AK CASC. Jason Fellman joined the AK CASC as a Co-Investigator. Charlie Parr took on the role of AK CASC Data Steward. We also welcomed new AK CASC Fellows Claire Delbecq, Kevin Fitzgerald, and Chris Waigl.

RECENT GRADUATES- Congratulations to Alexis Wagner, Kristin Timm, and Ross Spicer, who completed their respective programs this year. Alexis Wagner, BIA Pathways Intern, graduated from University of Washington with a Master’s degree in Infrastructure Planning and Management. Kristin Timm, AK CASC Fellow, completed a PhD in communication from George Mason University. Ross Spicer, AK CASC Fellow, completed an M.S. in Computer Science at UAF.

PUBLICATIONS- AK CASC researchers published 31 peer-reviewed publications/reports during Year 4. See the featured publications section for a selection.

INSPIRING GIRLS EXPEDITIONS LAUNCHES NEW PROGRAMS– Inspiring Girls Expeditions launched a successful online program last summer, “Expeditions@ Home,” in lieu of their planned summer field expeditions due to COVID-19. This year, Inspiring Girls Expeditions launched Girls in the Forest, co-sponsored by Alaska EPSCoR.

ALASKA VOICES- In Summer 2020, the Alaska Voices team produced six 1-hour long radio shows for KUAC (Fairbanks, AK National Public Radio station). They also produced a 10 episode “bridge season” which aired in Spring 2021. To date, the Alaska Voices podcast has had 1,355 unique downloads.

POLAR BEAR STUDIES- The AK CASC supported UAF graduate student Gwen Quigley, who is working with AK CASC scientist Todd Brinkman to conduct research on human-polar interactions in Alaska, as well as a review of polar bear tourism in the Circumpolar North.

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AK CASC students lead stream research in Juneau

Jessie Young-Robertson and Bob Bolton

Jessie Young-Robertson and Bob Bolton have been recording Alaskan’s stories for years. Now those stories are being headed out into the world through the Alaska Voices podcast.

On the banks of Juneau’s Montana Creek, AK CASC fellow Claire Delbecq sorts through the plant matter, insects, and sediment that have been collected from the water. The contents of this sample can tell us about where and when salmon are getting their food, and how altered patterns of stream flow due to climate change might affect their growth.

Understanding how nutrients move from streams out to the ocean and how salmon growth fares in varying hydrologic conditions is a small thread of a larger picture AK CASC scientists are weaving together of how retreating glaciers, changing hydrological patterns, and our warming climate are altering coastal rainforest environments.

Though warmer and wetter years are predicted for Southeast Alaska, the implications for streamflow are not straightforward. Year-to-year variations in precipitation patterns can cause both drought as well as larger and more frequent storm events. Meanwhile, melting glaciers can supplement stream flows, until retreat becomes so advanced that glaciers may disappear from some watersheds completely.

Amid high and low flow, salmon persist in these waters as the landscape changes around them. Delbecq and AK CASC fellow Kevin Fitzgerald are studying the flow of nutrients from land to sea, and how juvenile salmon feed during storm events and how different hydrological patterns affect their growth, which is central to our understanding of their future survival.

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meet fellow JULIAN DANN

Ross Spicer

Originally hailing from Portland, Oregon, Julian Dann’s journey to the Alaska CASC has spanned coast to coast. After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in Astronomy his focus began to shift. “I decided I wanted to do something a little closer to home,” said Dann. The resulting move toward work on magnetospheres and aurora led him to a 3-year position with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

It was this work and his involvement in the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments project that brought him to meet AK CASC Co-Investigator Bob Bolton. “It was really working with him that convinced me to come up here”. Julian is bringing his expertise in remote sensing and drones, as well as his adaptability to shifting situations to bear in his current research developing risk assessments in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “There’s a clear and urgent need for this work to be done.”

Julian initially planned to spend the winter of 2020-2021 measuring snow depth where exploratory vehicles crossed the Arctic permafrost to understand the effects of development in the area. COVID-19 delayed Dann’s research as well as the seismic exploration on the north slope this past season. However, a pivot to more satellite imagery will allow him to assess the amount of water and the timing of its freeze-thaw cycle.

Dann joined UAF as an interdisciplinary student, due to his keen interest in the field of Science Communication on top of his research skills. While doing his research he is also completing coursework in scientific journalism and northern geography. This dual focus has also allowed him to be part of the American Geophysical Union’s Voices for Science program, and to sit on the United States Permafrost Association’s DEI and Communications committees.

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featured publications

Bhatt, U.S., Lader, R.T., Walsh, J.E., Bieniek, P.A., Thoman, R., Berman, M., BorriesStrigle, C., Bulock, K.; Chriest, J., Hahn, M.; Hendricks, A.S., Jandt, R., Little, J., McEvoy, D., Moore, C., Rupp, T.S., Schmidt, J., Stevens, E., Strader, H., Waigl, C., White, J., York, A., Ziel, R. Emerging Anthropogenic Influences on the Southcentral Alaska Temperature and Precipitation Extremes and Related Fires in 2019. Land 2021, 10, 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/land10010082

Kienholz, C., Pierce, J., Hood, E., Amundson J., Wolken, G., Jacobs, A., Hart, S., Wikstrom Jones, K., Abdel-Fattah, D., Johnson, B., and Conaway, J. 2020. Deglacierization of a marginal basin and implications for outburst floods, Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. Frontiers in Earth Science. https://doi.org/10.3389/feart.2020.00137

Littell, J.S., Reynolds, J.H., Bartz, K.K., McAfee, S.A., and Hayward, G. 2020. So goes the snow: Alaska snowpack changes in a warming climate. Alaska Park Science.

Herman, Mercer, N., Loehman, R.A., Toohey, R.C. and Paniyak, C. 2020. Climate and disturbance driven changes in subsistence berries in coastal Alaska: Using Indigenous knowledge to inform ecological inference. Human Ecology, 48: 85–99, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00138-4

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Alaska CASC Directors
Stephen Gray, USGS Director,
Scott Rupp, University Director,

Alaska CASC Institutional Partners
United States Geological Survey
Department of the Interior
International Arctic Research Center
University of Alaska Anchorage
University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of Alaska Southeast

UA is an AA/EO employer and educational institution and prohibits illegal discrimination against any individual: www.alaska.edu/nondiscrimination