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ASU team receives part of $13.9M grant to aid coastal climate resiliency

A view of seawalls reinforced with sandbags, as seen from the ocean looking toward the land.

In Nelson Lagoon, Alaska, a number of seawalls and other measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change are not holding up. This requires a new approach to solutions. Photo by Chris Maio, director of Alaska Coastal Cooperative

October 13, 2023

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced that it will fund a $13.9 million program led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) — with support from researchers at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change — to help multiple communities respond to coastal erosion, flooding, permafrost thaw and other hazards attributed to climate change.

The four years of funding, awarded earlier this month, is part of the foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) program.

The funding supports AC³TION (Alaska Coastal Cooperative for Co-producing Transformative Ideas and Opportunities in the North), a project led by the Alaska Coastal Cooperative at UAF in collaboration with eight Indigenous rural coastal communities, ASU, the University of Northern Iowa and the University of Texas at El Paso.

According to the ASU researchers, AC³TION is predicated on addressing coastal hazards through the process of knowledge cogeneration, through which understanding and solutions to complex problems emerge based on principled collaboration, and long-term relationships between scientists and Indigenous collaborators alleviate inequities in power dynamics, funding and decision-making. 

AC³TION is an NSF-NNA Collaboratory Grant — one of only two funded by the NNA program. These are large grants designed to support collaborative teams undertaking research and training initiatives that address grand challenges related to the rapidly changing Arctic. In this case, AC³TION addresses the grand challenge of putting the principles and practice of knowledge cogeneration to work and problem-solving rapidly evolving coastal hazards. 

“This award is a culmination of years of hard work and effort by many people at UAF and beyond, including our community and institution partners,” Alaska Coastal Cooperative Director Chris Maio said. “To effectively respond to a rapidly changing Arctic, this project will develop and implement an innovative approach to resilience action that identifies community priorities, advances applied convergence science, and improves communication and synergy across multiple stakeholder groups.” 

ASU has a growing portfolio of research work in the Arctic that is grounded in equity, processes of Indigenous sovereignty and a strong collaborative process. As a reflection of this growing and important work at the university, three researchers from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change have been included in this project: Associate Professor Shauna BurnSilver, Professor Abigail York and Professor Marty Anderies

BurnSilver will serve as lead PI for ASU, and her efforts will focus on transforming aspirational proposal language around collaboration into communication structures and pathways that support processes of cogeneration of knowledge. York will focus on multilevel governance and coordinating analyses of extant, and reimagined governance of coastal hazards and adaptation across the eight communities. Anderies will be contributing to the team developing SETS (social-ecological-technical systems) analyses across communities.

“Well-resourced community partners, a network of community research leads, coastal monitoring, multilevel governance — it’s all there,” BurnSilver said. “But what will make AC³TION truly powerful is following a process for cogeneration of knowledge that is thoughtful, grounded in relationships and equity, and learns from all the work that has come before.”

The participating communities are on Alaska’s west and southwest coasts, on the Aleutian Islands, in the Bering Sea and on the Beaufort Sea coast of Canada’s Northwest Territories: Point Lay, Gambell, Hooper Bay, St. Paul Island, Nelson Lagoon, Atka and the Chignik Intertribal Coalition, which includes Chignik Lake, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Bay, Ivanof Bay and Perryville. The project also includes the community of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada.

The communities “represent geographic, environmental, cultural, socioeconomic and institutional sources of diversity, characteristic of Alaska and the Arctic,” according to the project description.

“Arctic coastal peoples have not created climate change, but they are at the forefront of its effects,” said ASU’s BurnSilver, York and Anderies in a joint statement. 

“As a result of long-term efforts on the part of Indigenous peoples, Western science has begun to recognize that Native science is an innovative and valid way of knowing and understanding the world. And both kinds of knowledge — Arctic Indigenous and Western — are critical to addressing the effects of global climate change. For scientists endeavoring to do research that makes a difference in responding to coastal hazards, this means reckoning with past colonial history and extractive research practices and embracing science done ‘differently.’”

Among the project’s tasks:

  • Identify community priorities for projecting coastal hazard risks.

  • Identify community needs to adapt infrastructure, including communication systems.

  • Integrate local knowledge with multilevel governance processes to allow for an effective response to a rapidly changing Arctic. 

  • Deploy a series of ocean moorings, wave buoys and water-level gauges across western Alaska to provide critical data for the modeling and assessment of current and projected coastal hazards and impacts.

  • Document household-level impacts of multifaceted change on health and well-being.

  • Increase knowledge exchange among communities and among scientists and community residents through various efforts.

The project will also include two science cruises aboard the research vessel Sikuliaq, owned by the National Science Foundation but operated by the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. 

Lucy Apatiki, president of the Native Village of Gambell, said her community on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea appreciates being involved as a co-producer in the groundbreaking research. 

“The data collected will be beneficial to address some of the impacts of the ever-changing climate we face,” she said. “And the early warning system in place will alert us, saving lives and property.”

The collaborators held many in-person meetings and had three years of back-and-forth discussions to develop the project’s research questions, objectives and activities. The collaborative relationships with communities existed from other work, so the relationships are strong at the outset of this project.

“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.

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