Annual Report – 2022 Year in Review

This is the web version of this year’s Annual Report 2022 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.

2022 in review

Throughout 2022, the AK CASC strengthened our connection to Alaska agencies, Tribes, and communities through partnerships, actionable research, and effective communication.

In its second year, the Alaska Tribal Resilience Learning Network has expanded its capacity to support Alaska Native Tribes and Indigenous communities. This included hiring former Alaska Fellow Megan Pittas as a Research Associate and Assistant Coordinator and an additional Tribal Liaison, Justin Leon, through a host agreement with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. The Network hosted a variety of events including two immersive workshops and seven climate adaptation informational sessions, with participation from 42 Alaska Native Tribes, and 11 Alaska Native Tribal regional non-profit organizations.

Led by Deputy University Director Jessica Garron, the AK CASC Fellows Program has become a community of co-learning established for early career researchers to dive into questions about coproduction, research integrity, and professional development. The Fellows Program supports specific training objectives, identified by the Fellows, through invited speakers, workshops, and resources.

The AK CASC is home to several outstanding science communication and outreach programs in Alaska. The Alaska Voices podcast, which records and shares stories among Alaskans about the environment, is developing a second season to follow their widely popular series in 2020 and 2021. The AK CASC-supported Inspiring Girls Expeditions of Alaska navigated a successful return to hosting in-person immersive field science and art-based backcountry expeditions for girls and gender-expansive youth, including 27 participants from communities across Alaska.

New partnership increases CASC capacity

Part of the mission of the national network of Climate Adaptation Science Centers is to provide climate science to federally recognized Tribes. The CASC’s Tribal Climate Resilience Liaisons step in to provide a two-way communication between climate scientists and Tribes in support of adaptation, planning, and decision-making.

Malinda Chase, the first liaison to serve in this role for the Alaska CASC, has worked with individuals and organizations across the state. “The work that is being done is great, but there’s so far yet to go. More Indigenous voices in climate science is crucial to make the science better and for it to work better for the communities that need it.” Whether a non-profit wants to communicate their work in a supportive co-learning environment, or a community needs support with data in the development of their adaptation plans, liaisons are there to help.

Headshot of Tribal Liaison Justin Leon.
Justin Leon – Native American Fish and Wildlife Society Tribal Liaison

The support necessary to grow this Tribal network arrived as the newest Tribal Liaison Justin Leon joined the network this April, and as the CASC established a new host relationship with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. “It was wonderful meeting such an energetic team and to be brought in to support such awesome work being done right here at UAF.” Justin received his M.S. in fisheries at UAF before spending 10 years as a fisheries biologist from Northwest Alaska to the Aleutians. The opportunity to work with the CASC aligns well with his experience matching science to community needs.

Justin joins the CASC with a strong network of relationships across Alaska, and is working to build more. Critically, each liaison is hosted both by a regional center and a Tribal organization. Justin’s work with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society represents an opportunity for growth and learning both for the CASC and for NAFWS. “We couldn’t ask for a better representative of NAFWS in Alaska” says April Richards, the public information officer for the society. “As an organization we’ve been working to promote conservation and enhancement of Tribal fish and wildlife resources for nearly 40 years. Hosting Alaska’s Tribal Liaison is just one more opportunity for us to support and uplift our communities’ already immense capacity to face the adaptation challenges of a changing climate.”

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Training: Wellness in Climate Adaptation Planning

On a grassy lawn two women stand, one behind the other, as the woman behind holds up a single feather.
Participants in the August Wellness Training in a session led by Shasta Gaughen.

Alaska’s climate is changing rapidly with Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples experiencing the effects firsthand. Climate conditions are significantly impacting community wellbeing, local livelihood, lands, and futures, creating an increase in climate related emotional stress, anxiety, trauma, grief and loss. Learning from traditional stories about how Alaska Native peoples adapted to changing climates in the past can promote resiliency among the people and the communities they serve.

This training supported climate adaptation planning in nine Alaska Indigenous communities through collaborative discussions. Topics included applying local cultural knowledge and practices as well as how to pair local expertise on trauma and wellness with frameworks which have seen success with other Tribes.

After the training many participants summarized their experiences and take-home messages from the event, emphasizing that both Indigenous knowledge and climate science are crucial to preparing future generations to adapt to climate change. Participants reported that the workshop increased their understanding of how trauma and stress impact decision-making as well as how to integrate health and wellness into climate adaptation vulnerability assessments. Participants also identified a number of areas for future training including climate projections, leading community discussions, accessing federal and scientific resources, and involving youth in adaptation planning.

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Northern notes

AK CASC WELCOMES NEW FACES- Justin Leon was appointed as the newest AK CASC Tribal Liaison.
Former Alaska Fellow Megan Pittas was hired as Research Associate and Assistant Coordinator for the Alaska Tribal Resilience Learning Network. Former Co-Investigator Allison Bidlack rejoined the AK CASC family in Juneau as Research Associate Professor.

New Logo- The AK CASC developed a new logo that emphasizes Alaska’s iconic imagery and ever-present position at the forefront of climate change.

The CASC logo redesign incorporated a lot of feedback and went through many iterations before landing on a new hexagonal design which incorporates elements of our center’s unique science and landscape.

PACIFIC ISLANDS-ALASKA CASC COLLABORATION WEBSITE- The Pacific Islands-Alaska CASC Collaboration launched a website to highlight cross-regional research and activities at piak-collab.org.

PROJECT EXPLORER – The Alaska CASC and Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning assisted with the redesign and launch of the Climate Adaptation Science Centers Project Explorer. Check out the new site at cascprojects.org.

INTEGRATED ECOSYSTEM MODELING TOOL- The AK CASC’s IEM project has released a beta product. Explore the product and provide feedback at northernclimatereports.org.

DRONES FOR SCIENCE- Deputy Director Jessica Garron and collaborators at the Native Village of Unalakleet and the Model Forest Policy Program wrapped up U.S. Coast Guard funded research on drones for local decision-making this year. Learn more at bit.ly/AKCASCDrone.

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Citizen Scientists Team up to Uncover Alaska’s Berry Future

A close-up shot. A child (face obscured) holds a petri dish in their hand while wearing a warm winter coat.
At UAF’s Museum of the North Family Day, students collect data on their local berry microbiomes.

The Microberry project may be a new initiative for the AK CASC, but the team are no newcomers to citizen science efforts. Christa Mulder and Katie Spellman have spent the past ten years working with youth groups and community members to better understand how earlier springs, warmer summers, and more variable falls across the state of Alaska affect the berries that so many of us enjoy. 

Their most recent project, called Winterberry, was funded by the National Science Foundation. The project has been a huge success – engaging over 1500 youth and adults in the process of data collection, monitoring, and analysis across the state. For the Winterberry team it was all part of the process. “During the Winterberry project we heard so many people express concern about the future of berries. For this new Alaska-CASC project, Alaska’s Berry Future, what we really are trying to do is achieve two things. First we want to know what questions people have about the berries in their community. Second, we want to answer those questions to the best of our ability, and identify gaps in our knowledge.” says Christa Mulder, a faculty member at the Institute for Arctic Biology who has spent nearly 18 years studying Alaska’s berries. It’s in identifying those gaps in knowledge that new research often takes root.

From Pilot Point to Anuktuvuk Pass citizen scientists involved in the Winterberry project have been making weekly visits to field sites, and counting the number of berries that fall into the categories of ripe, unripe, rotten, dried out, damaged or gone over time. As patterns of temperature and precipitation change over the state it’s important to understand how berries are reacting, particularly in the timing of when berries ripen. But many community members were also curious about the cause of rotten berries, a question the team of scientists had to admit that they couldn’t readily answer. 

A group of children (faces obscured) in winter coats gather around instructor Katie Spellman in front of a small wooden hut at the edge of the forest to learn about berries.
Students from five schools across the state have signed up to participate in the Microberry project and collect data.

That’s where the new citizen science element of the Alaska Berry Futures project, Microberry steps in. The Microberry project launched with their first data collection exercise on September 25th as part of a Winterberry event at UAF’s Museum of the North Family Day. In spite of an early first snow in Fairbanks many local youth and their families took part in art projects based on past data with Christi Buffington, Chris Villano and Laura Weingartner; went on a berry walk with researchers Katie Spellman and Christa Mulder; and started their own Microberry cultures with microbiologists Mario Muscarella and Elena Sparrow and UAF BLaST Scholar Jill Jacobs. “The students roll the berries on these prepared Petri dishes to spread the microbes onto the plates.” explained Muscarella as he walked participants through the process. “They’ll then be sealed up and incubated to see what microorganisms are present on the outside of different berries.” As the samples grow, kids and families can check in on the progress through photos regularly posted to UAF Museum of the North’s social media.

Collecting Microberry cultures on UAF’s Troth Yeddha’ campus is just the first step of the project. Currently five schools across the state have signed up to participate in the Microberry project and collect data on their local berry microbiomes. Students will use two types of pre-prepared Petri dishes to grow their samples, one designed to promote bacterial growth and another which is designed for fungal samples. Some schools will also receive their own Mobile Molecular Labs with all of the equipment needed to perform Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). This is a process which amplifies DNA signals in the bacteria and fungi. Working with researchers at UAF, the youth will use those amplified DNA to sequence the genes needed to identify the species which grew on the Petri dishes.

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On the Forefront of Fire: AK CASC Fellows Study Wildfire in the Boreal Forest

After spending years in the densely populated urban environment of European cities, Chris Waigl found a new and interesting perspective on research in the remote, forested landscapes of Interior Alaska. Waigl has a background in physics and operational software and first arrived in the state as a research professional with the UAF Geophysical Institute supporting a climate research station on the North Slope of Alaska. While taking a remote sensing course, her expertise in physics and working with large databases came together, leading her to complete a doctoral degree focused on remote sensing and wildfire in Alaska and the North American boreal forest.

Now an AK CASC postdoctoral fellow, Waigl works to produce high-resolution climate information from global climate models in order to look at what drives different fire behaviors on a landscape scale. She also uses her remote sensing experience more broadly across the circumpolar north, including on river ice forecasting for spring breakup events.

Working closely with the fire managers and weather forecasters to contextualize the applications of her research is a central aspect of Waigl’s efforts. Through the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, Waigl has been able to integrate her work with the resource management community to better inform decision-making. “The hardest thing about science is always asking good questions. The fire management community asks the sharpest questions. You have to work at getting their questions and the questions you can answer closer together, step by step,” said Waigl. 

Across the country, AK CASC Fellow Adam Young is approaching wildfire research from another angle. Young is part of a CASC network cohort addressing the future of fire through the Climate Adaptation Postdoctoral (CAP) Fellows Program. At seven regional CASCs, fellows are combining their regional expertise on fire and climate impacts to jointly create a nationwide wildfire management synthesis project, in addition to independent research questions. 

Young studied fire ecology at the University of Idaho, finding an interest in how climate change will affect fire regimes in boreal ecosystems. In his role with the CAP fellows program, Young is now modeling the relationship between fire and climate over the last 40 years to make projections about the area burned by wildfire each year through the end of the century.

In his research, Young is investigating how fires themselves may play a role in offsetting the impacts of hotter, drier conditions on area burned. “After fire occurs, there’s a change in the vegetation of the landscape. That shift in vegetation may lead to a reduced likelihood of burning several decades in the future. We’re trying to incorporate and have a better understanding of how this feedback loop may influence or mediate the direct effect of climate on the area burned,” said Young.

As AK CASC Fellows, Waigl and Young are part of a cohort working across the state and country on CASC research priorities. The AK CASC Fellows program provides support, skill-building seminars, and networking opportunities for early career researchers.

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Bhatt, U.S., Lader, R.T., Walsh, J.E., Bieniek, P.A., Thoman, R., Berman, M., Borries-Strigle, 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

Fresco, N., Bennett, A., Bieniek, P., Rosner, C. Climate Change, Farming, and Gardening in Alaska: Cultivating Opportunities. Sustainability 2021, 13, 12713. https://doi.org/10.3390/su132212713

Lader, R., Bhatt, U. S., Walsh, J. E., and Bieniek, P. A. Projections of Hydroclimatic Extremes in Southeast Alaska under the RCP8.5 scenario. Earth Interactions 2022. https://doi.org/10.1175/EI-D-21-0023.1

Bellmore, J. R., Fellman, J. B., Hood, E., Dunkle, M. R., & Edwards, R. T. A melting cryosphere constrains fish growth by synchronizing the seasonal phenology of river food webs. Global Change Biology 2022, 28, 4807– 4818. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.16273

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