UNI arctic research center to help communities in coastal Alaska identify, adapt to hazards from climate change

By: - November 12, 2023 9:00 am

UNI's ARCTICenter will work with Alaskan communities to identify the climate change-caused hazards with the most impact on their lives and how to adapt. (Photo by Chris Maio/The University of Alaska Fairbanks)

University of Northern Iowa researchers are collaborating with universities across the U.S. and indigenous communities to better understand how arctic populations are adapting to climate change and develop solutions in collaboration with them.

The university’s Arctic, Remote and Cold Territories Interdisciplinary Center, also known as the ARCTICenter, is partnering with University of Alaska Fairbanks, Arizona State University and the University of Texas El Paso. The project will identify the most pressing issues faced by communities in Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea and Canada, with people from the areas’ direct involvement.

Established in 2015 by center director Andrey Petrov, the ARCTICenter researches Arctic change with a focus on the perspectives of those who live in the Arctic. Petrov said those in the center have always tried to work with the communities they’re researching, and this project will help create a formal process that they can hopefully apply to other programs.

“Very often researchers come in and say, ‘Oh, we would like to study this and that,’ but that may not be what the community needs right now,” Petrov said. “So that’s where I think the uniqueness of this project is, through listening and building the project collectively with our community partners.”


The four-year project, called AC³TION, is being led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with $13.9 million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation going to the university’s Alaska Coastal Cooperative.

UNI researchers will work with four communities in Western Alaska and Aleutian Islands to document impacts of changing climate on household health and wellbeing, identify place-specific priorities and needs in the face of coastal hazards and develop forecasts for coastal change, community impact and ways to adapt. They will also put efforts toward increasing knowledge exchanges between local groups and scientists to facilitate co-production of knowledge, Petrov said.

“This is an amazing opportunity for Western science and Indigenous knowledge bearers to exchange knowledge, create relationships and work toward a healthier future for all the lands, waters and personnel involved,” said Casey Ferguson, the Alaska Coastal Cooperative’s Indigenous community coordinator.

A couple of the most pressing issues in the communities researchers will work on for this project, which begins this month, are rapid coastal erosion and melting permafrost. However, a driving point behind the work is to help these communities with the specific risks they’ve identified, which include everything from flooding to disappearing salmon populations.

Once the priorities have been set, Petrov said the collaboration will go further to identify specific actions to address them.

“I think the title of the project is AC³TION and it’s not an accident,” Petrov said. “We really would like to make sure that what we do, because we work with the people on the ground, will be actionable so that the communities could have their policies or apply for federal funding or other things to actually address them by building certain infrastructure, or by having programs that will help them to adapt.”

Conducting research alongside Petrov will be postdoctoral scholar Victoria Sharakhmatova and affiliate assistant professor Tatiana Degai, both indigenous scholars, a graduate student and undergraduate geography majors.

The ARCTICenter has worked with communities ranging from Russia, where Petrov is from, to northern Mongolia and St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. While the problems these communities face seem far away from being able to impact the Midwest, Iowa is more connected to the Arctic than one may think. Weather fluctuations and other climate changes can be pointed back to what’s happening in the Arctic, Petrov said.

Even if Iowa never saw impacts from what’s happening to the north, Petrov said there’s much to be learned from seeing how communities living on the front lines of climate change are having to quickly adapt to the shifts happening around them.

“I think the lesson that they present to us, including Iowa, is very important. How do you adapt to things that are really rapidly changing and how do you continue your livelihoods in these conditions,” Petrov said. “I think that’s a really important example for the rest of the earth, and the project that we’re talking about also kind of tries to understand it better and facilitate that adaptation.”


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Brooklyn Draisey
Brooklyn Draisey

Brooklyn Draisey is a Report for America corps member covering higher education. She previously worked for the Quad-City Times and The Gazette covering topics ranging from business to culture.