NSF's Navigating the New Arctic Program: Projects Funded in 2020
Editors: ARCUS Staff
Navigating the New Arctic (NNA), one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas, has supported fundamental convergence research across the social, natural, environmental, engineering, and computing and information sciences since 2017. A wide range of topics and regions is represented in the 21 Arctic research projects that were funded in 2020.
A list of the 2020-funded NNA projects, with brief descriptions, is available below. More information about the entire suite of NNA projects is available at the Navigating the New Arctic website, hosted by the Arctic Research Consortium of the US (ARCUS).
The NNA Projects Funded in 2020 Include:
Foundations for Improving Resilience in the Energy Sector Against Wildfire on Alaskan Lands (FIREWALL)
Destructive wildfires in the Arctic, which are projected to grow in increased frequency and magnitude, are driven by multifaceted factors such as environmental change, expanded wildland-human interface, and lack of models to integrate natural, engineering, and social sciences to help coordinate response and recovery decisions. Through the lens of energy resilience, this project supports building stronger ties and facilitates a two-way dialogue among researchers, local communities, and stakeholders to provide solutions for emergency preparedness, operational endurance, and enhanced resilience to wildfires.
The Arctic is the most rapidly changing environment in the world. People living in the Northern Hemisphere are now experiencing the consequences of a changing Arctic, including abrupt shifts in weather patterns, altered availability of natural resources such as fish, minerals and water, and threats to Indigenous cultural heritage and economies. Anticipating and adapting to these changes requires exploration and understanding across environmental and social systems spanning from the Arctic to lower latitudes, raising the need for new approaches to train future Arctic scientists. This project will address this demand by training graduate students in the interdisciplinary field of Arctic systems science.
A Purpose-Driven Merger of Western Science and Indigenous Knowledge of Water Quality in Alaskan Communities
The well-being of Alaskan Indigenous communities depends on access to safe drinking water. However, water pollution has remained a reality for many of these communities due to naturally occurring and anthropogenic pollutants. As the climate warms, environmental changes will likely exacerbate water contamination problems. While Alaskan communities are highly vulnerable to such changes, they also hold valuable Indigenous Knowledge about their water resources. This project aims to merge western scientific knowledge with Indigenous Knowledge of water to better understand these changes in water quality over time.
This project will use Indigenous approaches to transform graduate education programs in fields that tend to lack cultural diversity within academia, as well as the workforce, such as fisheries and marine science. The Tamamta (a Sugpiaq word meaning "all of us") project seeks to broaden and diversify graduate training to successfully engage Indigenous students, to center Indigenous knowledge systems in current and new curricula, and to reach widely across the university and partner organizations toward larger system change.
Seismic Resilience and Adaptation of Infrastructure and Social Systems to Changing Arctic Environments
Alaska experiences thousands of earthquakes every year, including historical major events that have disrupted and severely damaged infrastructure and lifeline networks. Given the accelerating environmental, ecological, and social changes as the Arctic climate warms, it is critical to understand how infrastructure and society respond to seismic events. Seismic assessments of infrastructure, post-earthquake recovery, and future planning must simultaneously consider natural environment, built infrastructure, and social systems. This project will engage Indigenous communities through surveys, local tribal conferences, and public forums as an important way to increase public awareness and involvement in the decision-making process.
Arctic communities currently face environmental and economic changes that threaten their way of life. New ways of designing and building electric power systems might help these communities meet these challenges now and in the future. The goal of this research is to address these challenges by bringing together researchers, rural Alaska energy experts, and local people living in the Arctic. The adaptable microgrid designs from this work have potential for application in other remote places around the world.
Navigating Impacts of the Arctic Tourism Industry on Nature, Commerce, and Culture in Northern Communities
This project is advancing understanding of convergent challenges in the Arctic and subarctic by systematically analyzing the impacts of the rapidly growing regional tourism industry. While there may be economic benefits to the destinations visited, including seasonal employment, private sector investments, and increased tax revenue, more tourism may also bring other outcomes. These include air, water, and noise pollution, environmental degradation, and cultural effects such as the overcrowding of ports and adjacent areas and a sense of being overwhelmed by tourists among local populations.
Few transformations are as dramatic or as complex as those occurring now in the Arctic. There are rapid changes in climate and the environment, in international treaties and regulations, in national security, and claims for territory. At the same time, Arctic communities and Indigenous Peoples are looking to find their place in a changing global economy. This convergence of changes and aspirations is leading to questions about what kinds of infrastructure are needed, where it should be located, and how this may impact Arctic people and environment. This project is using a combination of observations, satellites, maps, and models to identify where useful and viable locations for new development might be located.
Water Infrastructure in the Arctic: Vulnerabilities at the Intersection of Social, Natural, and Physical Systems
Even when it exists, formal water infrastructure in rural Alaska often fails to provide an adequate level of service to Alaskan households and communities. Operating water infrastructure in the Arctic is particularly difficult due to the unique coupling between the engineered systems and the unusually extreme challenges from social and natural systems. The small and remote nature of communities present unusual logistical, financial, and workforce challenges, while an extreme and changing climate further complicates the technical work needed to operate and maintain the systems. This project integrates knowledge of the water service challenges, data needs, and workforce issues experienced by Arctic communities and develops approaches to address these challenges and needs with appropriate strategies.
Global Impacts and Social Implications of Changing Thermokarst Lake Environments Near Yukon River Watershed Communities
Observations and modeling suggest the globe is standing on the inflection point of abrupt permafrost change. Increased methane emissions from newly formed lakes in melting permafrost regions likely play a major role in global climate. Reduction in permafrost and associated landscape change increasingly place Arctic and global communities at risk. Hence, improved forecasts for planning are critically needed. This project brings Alaskan communities together with social and natural scientists to examine changes in permafrost thaw lake environments, including the effects on Yukon River watershed villages and global climate.
Interaction Between Coastal and Riverine Processes and the Built Environment in Coastal Arctic Communities
Alaskan communities and their built environment are affected by permafrost thaw, coastal and river erosion, flooding, and other natural processes altered or accelerated by environmental changes. Arctic coastal communities, in particular, face compound threats from riverbank erosion, permafrost thaw, and increasing coastal storm impacts. As data collection campaigns in the Arctic are costly and often limited to periods of the year when weather affords access to sites of interest, significant gaps in data and information can result. This NNA planning grant employs workshops designed to discover gaps in knowledge and develop associated research questions and hypotheses to address issues affecting coastal Arctic communities in Alaska.
Arctic telecommunications has emerged as a key tool in responding to the unprecedented changes being experienced in the region, from environmental shifts to globalization. Unfortunately, small rural and Indigenous communities are seldom included in discussions of telecommunications, leaving them underserved and incapable of leveraging technology advances to ensure their own resilience. This project is developing a model that small Arctic communities can use to design and implement community technology infrastructure to support their unique needs.
Groundwater is a key drinking water source in Alaska. However, groundwater in Alaska is commonly contaminated with naturally occurring metals including iron, manganese, and arsenic. When these contaminants are present in drinking water, they pose a serious health threat. Water treatment systems in many rural communities are not always able to remove these contaminants. This situation endangers the well-being of the community, diminishes trust in the treatment system, and reduces use of the treated water. The goal of this project is to address challenges involved with treatment, delivery, and use of drinking water in rural communities, with a special focus on Indigenous residents.
Significant progress has been made to improve the accuracy both of short-term weather forecasts and longer-term climate, sea ice, and other environmental forecasts. Nevertheless, there remains a forecasting gap on the scale from two weeks to a few months, especially in the Arctic. This subseasonal-to-seasonal (S2S) scale is important for planning subsistence hunting, commercial fishing, hazard response and risk mitigation, and other activities. This project supports development of improved S2S prediction capacity through a collaborative design process and workshop, PredictFest, that engages Arctic stakeholders to identify needs and applications for such predictions and provide an opportunity for Arctic residents and scientists to work together to develop applications for seasonal forecasts of sea ice, precipitation, and other environmental factors, which support traditional and commercial uses of marine and coastal regions.
Exploring the Potential of Digital Education Frameworks to Build Understanding of Socioecological Impacts of Alaskan Environmental Change
As the Arctic warms, social and environmental changes threaten the Arctic, its inhabitants, and their ways of life. Mitigating the effects of these changes must include educating young people about the complex interactions involved since their generation will experience the growing impacts over time. Many science concepts, such as rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, are challenging to teach and understand because they are literally invisible, while their effects, such as salmon killed by the heat stress of warming water, are all too visible. This project is exploring effective ways to teach challenging issues of social and environmental change, and potential mitigation solutions, through interactive educational game play with embedded assessments that are evidence-based and culturally responsive, rooted in Alaska Indigenous knowledge and values.
Most of Greenland is covered by the expansive Greenland Ice Sheet, which, if it all melted, would cause sea level to rise by more than 20 feet. Greenland has been losing ice at a particularly rapid rate since the mid-1990s, with impacts for local and global fisheries. This AccelNet project (GRISONET) is designed to facilitate rapid and effective collaboration-building and foster discovery about the Greenland ice sheet, the ocean, the marine ecosystems, and their interactions. GRISONET will address current knowledge gaps and community-identified needs by establishing international and interdisciplinary collaborations to assess, plan for, and accelerate ice-ocean-ecosystem research.
Arctic communities are experiencing unprecedented transformation due to environmental changes and expanding and intensifying economic development. For example, as the climate warms, sea ice becomes thinner and less extensive, which enables the expansion of global trade and more shipping traffic with larger ships. This project is investigating the impacts of rapidly changing sea ice conditions on Arctic communities, how these changes interact with social and economic threats, and how the socio-economic and other contexts of the communities affect their vulnerabilities to both.
Atlantic cod has been an important resource for coastal and inland communities throughout the Atlantic world for at least 1000 years. Management decisions made about existing cod populations are based on scientists' ideas of what a baseline "normal" or "natural" cod population is. This baseline for cod is mostly based on data from the last 100–150 years. A variety of techniques from marine biology, archaeology, and history now allow us to track changing marine ecological conditions as well as relative population size over the last millennium. By creating a deeper record of cod populations over the last millennium, this project contributes vital data that will improve understanding of the cod fisheries as they reacted to climate, political and economic change in the past, and how the Icelandic fishing communities of today can adapt and remain resilient as the fishery changes with warming Atlantic waters and new political and economic drivers. The project uniquely involves international and transdisciplinary research between the natural environment and social systems including archaeology, ecology, history, fisheries, and oceanography.
Integrating Novel Greenhouse Gas Sensor Technology with Mechanistic Modeling to Improve Projections of Arctic Soil Responses to Climate Change and Fire
The Arctic contains the largest amount of stored carbon of any habitat type. It is also the most rapidly warming global region. Warming temperatures, along with increasing fire frequency and extent, may amplify global climate change by increasing carbon-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Arctic soils. This cross- disciplinary collaboration will advance soil sensor technology, generate novel Arctic system data, and improve models of how the Arctic is responding to fire and warming. The proposed project will be incorporated into teaching activities and through integration with the Polaris Project, an NSF-supported Arctic undergraduate research program that prioritizes recruitment of students from underrepresented groups.
Planning for Infrastructure Resiliency and Adaptation Amid Increasing Mass-Movement Risks Across the Cryosphere
Changing climate conditions have increased the occurrence of mass-movement hazards in the cryosphere, such as landslides, debris flows, and slope failures resulting from thawing of ice-rich permafrost. Mass-movement hazards across the cryosphere pose a significant risk to people and infrastructure, such as highways and pipelines. This project brings together experts from diverse backgrounds, including engineers, geoscientists, computer scientists, and officials from a variety of academic institutions, public and government agencies, and industry, to discuss key challenges and formulate research priorities.
Understanding the Changing Natural-Built Landscape in an Arctic Community: An Integrated Sensor Network in Utqiaġvik, Alaska
Arctic communities face many challenges as they grow and develop in the context of a rapidly changing environment. These challenges include coastal erosion, permafrost thaw, and ecosystem change. Arctic cities need to prepare for critical decisions in the future, which traditional scientific approaches alone are unable to address adequately. Instead, an interdisciplinary, community-based approach is necessary. Utqiaġvik, the northernmost urban center in Alaska, is facing many of these common challenges and provides a model for other Arctic cities. This project is developing and deploying a network of environmental sensors collecting continuous information over a five-year period in terrestrial and aquatic locations within the community of Utqiaġvik. Community members are deeply involved in the planning process for placement of the sensors, ongoing maintenance, and interpretation of the data.
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