Ask a Climatologist: Traditional knowledge is critical to climate research

Pacific walrus. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Pacific walrus resting on sea ice. Traditional knowledge and community observations are used to inform the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook.  (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)

Scientists use lots of expensive sensors and satellites for studying climate change in Alaska. But more and more, they’re also relying on something that’s a lot more low tech — traditional ecological knowledge.

Brian Brettschneider, with our Ask a Climatologist segment, says traditional knowledge involves getting out into communities to ask residents for their climate observations and experiences.

He says in Alaska it’s considered best practice to use traditional knowledge in climate research.

Interview highlights:

I like to think of the climate system as a puzzle and we have lots of pieces to the puzzle. Some of those pieces are thermometers, satellite images and river gauges. When we put those pieces together in the puzzle and we can start to get an idea of what the system looks like. But there are more pieces. So if we go to the communities and ask where do ice jams form? And when did the brush start to move in? And when did the permafrost thaw out? Those are more pieces of the puzzle.

A really good example is up on the North Slope, there was a time they thought bowhead whales were critically endangered. But the local Inupiat hunters really had a better feel for what those whale populations were like and they worked with, say, US Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with a new way to track populations. And it turns out they were correct.

It’s really transitioned over the last 20 years or so where it was viewed at one time as an afterthought or an add on. But it really has become an integral part to studying remote areas in Alaska and all of the Arctic North. There’s a lot of benefit to using this data to better understand the world we live in.

Brian Brettschneider is a climatologist based in Anchorage, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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