Disciplines and Institutions in Denial: The Case for Interdisciplinary/Interagency Research/Mitigation on Climate Change Impacts

By Don Callaway
A group of about 40 people pose in front of an


Today, advocating for use of interdisciplinary research to address issues associated with climate change seems almost rhetorical. For example, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S.’s major source of funding for scientific research, states:

With respect to climate change NSF places a high priority on research that integrates behavior and life sciences, earth and atmospheric sciences, social sciences and mathematical, physical, engineering and informational sciences.

Interdisciplinary priorities for NSF and other agencies will not achieve all they could achieve if the institutional practices within the research and education communities are not adapted to facilitate interdisciplinary action (Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education 2009).

Echoing this position, the National Park Service Climate Change Response Strategy incorporated six principles from a 2009 National Research Council report “to provide a framework for building the collaborative and flexible response capacity that the NPS needs to effectively address climate changes.” Of particular interest to the thesis of this article is Principle 4: building connections across disciplines and organizations.

To ensure that the best information is available for decision makers as knowledge about climate change and effective responses increases, significant effort must go into building networks that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among people with a wide range of technical expertise within the bureau and the department as well as across other agencies, partners and stakeholders (emphasis added) (National Park Service 2010).

Despite the self-evident nature of this proposition NSF added the following caveat:
Current practices in academic and government institutions, with their traditional disciplinary funding and evaluation mechanisms, often inhibit the truly innovative and integrative science and education the nation needs. NSF should adopt organizational and review strategies that promote interdisciplinary innovation and ensure that programs funded for interdisciplinary activities have the longevity necessary to attract scientists to work collaboratively across the disciplines (Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education 2009).

This article reflects NSF’s concern by providing a brief description of long-term difficulties in building this vision of multidisciplinary research into subsistence issues in the Alaska region. In contrast to this disappointing precedent we will next describe a very solid interdisciplinary effort to produce sub-regional climate change scenario planning documents for Alaska. Finally, we end with a more sobering tale of the difficulties of inter-organizational coordination and cooperation in responding to climate change impacts to rural coastal communities in Alaska.

The preceding paragraph highlights the terms “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary.” We suggest that “multidisciplinary” efforts are research projects where separate disciplines each write their own proposals, set their own budgets and research designs, and collect and analyze their data independently. What ties a “multidisciplinary” effort together is that the outcomes of their research share a topical link, e.g., caribou—their biological status and their human harvest and cultural uses. In addition, the findings of these independent research efforts are produced within a short enough temporal window that both types of data can be used to inform management decisions. In contrast, “interdisciplinary” research often shares a common funding “pot” (a useful but not essential condition) and a coordinated and collaborative overall research design. Such a research design has milestones whereby the products of one discipline; for example, geophysics/climate modeling, is a necessary input for other disciplines, e.g., biology/ecology, to conduct their own analysis. All disciplines perceive that their research and/or analyses are critically integrated in the production of a final report containing a shared vision.

People seated around a table

Coordinating Disciplinary Research in Subsistence Management: The Regional Studies Plan Proposal

In Alaska, the Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) manages eligibility, access, and harvest of wildlife resources on federal lands through a regulatory system that emphasizes “seasons and bag limits.” The regulations that they promulgate state when (season) and how much (bag limit) of a species can legally be harvested. Most of the FSB decisions revolve around linking two facts: (1) the population status (health and number) of a wildlife species, e.g., caribou, which is linked to additional information and analysis on which rural residents are eligible to harvest caribou (based on their residence and cultural uses), and (2) how much of a species is traditionally harvested, consumed, and shared as needed. A number of disparate professional disciplines, from biology, ecology, and anthropology, are employed to provide this information.

However, it has often been the case that the requisite data for an FSB management decision was missing. Often there were no data relating to a specific issue, or there could be recent social data available without recent biological data on the status of the resource, or vice versa. Thus, often there was no data, or the simultaneous provision of both sets of data was serendipitous.

Between 1995 and 2009 numerous proposals were suggested to rectify this situation, most often in the form of an integrated regional studies plan. Within NPS, research proposals were (and still are) submitted by park and regional personnel to two overarching deliberate panels: the Natural Resource Advisory Council (NRAC) and the Cultural Resource Advisory Committee (CRAC). These two panels were later supplemented by a third panel, the Subsistence Advisory Committee (SAC).

Selected NRAC and CRAC proposals for research were supported by national funding “pots” allocated to regions, e.g., the Alaska Region. Advisory panels would review proposals for technical merit, keeping in mind an equitable distribution of funds between parks over time and perceived need. The concept of a regional studies plan was that a regional panel of resource managers, including superintendents or their designees, creates a top-10 list of existing or expected resource management issues (e.g., the perceived decline of a caribou herd). These 10 issues could then provide general overall guidance on upcoming research needs to the advisory committees—for example, biological research on the caribou herd in question along with social/cultural information on the communities that harvested from that herd. There was no expectation that all the research monies from these funding sources would be applied to issues identified in the regional studies plan, but that at least some priorities submitted for consideration by more than one advisory committee would be coordinated among multiple disciplines, i.e., multidisciplinary research.

Why, over a span of nearly 15 years, did multiple proposals and multiple presentations to both groups, with support from the associate regional director, fail to be adopted? There seem to be two key dimensions that contributed to this failure. The first dimension is the structure, organization, process, and allocation of research funds, which have been, for the most part, “stove-piped” along disciplinary lines. The second dimension, recognized by NSF, relates to how incentives and rewards are distributed. Broad divisions between the physical, biological, and social sciences are organized in NPS to mirror their organization in higher education. Research universities organize their incentives and rewards along strictly disciplinary lines. Higher rewards, such as tenure, are offered to researchers who publish along disciplinary lines. Senior authorship or co-authorship of a peer-reviewed journal article or book counts much more towards tenure than does the contribution of the sixth of 12 authors on a larger multidisciplinary research effort.

Also, a multidisciplinary research effort can create the specter of turf battles. Researchers tend to protect disciplinary pots of money within their own control, and resist dividing funds to support research expenses in other disciplines.

Finally, it warrants mention that the above-mentioned regional studies plan proposal was advanced only within NPS. A truly integrated regional studies plan should of necessity involve all the federal agencies within the FSB and similar agencies within the state, e.g., the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As the NPS climate change response strategy noted, “as well as across other agencies, partners and stakeholders” (National Park Service 2010).

The fact that such an integration of research resources was not even suggested speaks volumes.

Climate Change Research: the National Park Service’s Scenario Planning Initiative

As already mentioned, the proposals for multidisciplinary efforts to coordinate biological and social sciences on subsistence issues have been slow to take hold. A contrasting example is provided by the NPS Climate Change Response Program’s funding for a large ($600,000) interdisciplinary effort for climate change scenario planning across multiple large areas of Alaska.

Five climate change scenario planning workshops were conducted for geographically associated park clusters within Alaska. We will refer to three of those workshops in this article. One workshop included Southeast Alaska Network (SEAN) parks and coastal Wrangell-St. Elias. Another included all of the Southwest Alaska Network (SWAN) parks, the Kenai Peninsula, and Bristol Bay region. The third focused on coastal northwest Alaska, while two others focused on interior arctic Alaska and on central Alaska. Brevity precludes a detailed discussion of the scenario planning process, which is described in each of the reports generated by these five workshops (Winfree et al. 2014a, 2014b, 2014c, 2014d, and 2014e). However, it is key to the thesis of this article to note the close coordination demonstrated among a variety of disciplines in researching and producing these workshops.

The scenario planning process began with elicitation of several focal questions about uncertainties that have important long-range strategic consequences for NPS. A focal question at each workshop was: How can NPS managers best preserve the natural and cultural resources and values within their jurisdiction in the face of climate change?

Workshop participants were then asked to evaluate driving forces that affect these focal questions. Driving forces are key processes that influence or shape the focal questions in fundamental ways. The University of Alaska Fairbank’s (UAF) Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning (SNAP) provided a set of “driver tables” for each workshop.

As you can see from the SEAN example driver table (Table 1), each row contains one climate variable (e.g., temperature), the modeled specific changes expected in this variable (e.g., an increase of 2 degrees Centigrade by the year 2050), the pattern of change (more pronounced in northern latitudes), and the confidence associated with this prediction.

Table 1. Southeast Alaska Network Climate Drivers (Fresco et al. 2014:55)
Climate VariableProjected Change by 2050Projected Change 2100ConfidenceSource
Temperature +2°C ± 1.5°C +4°C ± 2°C >95% chance of increase IPCC (2007); SNAP/UAF
Precipitation (rain and snow) Increased precip (10%-20%), possible decrease in winter snow Increased precip (20-40%), possible decrease in winter snow High uncertainty in timing of snowmelt AMAP/SWIPA; SNAP/UAF
Freeze-up Date 5-10 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas 10-20 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas >90% SNAP/UAF
Length of Ice-free Season 7-10 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas 14-21 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas >90% IPCC (2007); SNAP/UAF
Sea Level 3-24 inches 7-72 inches > 90% chance of increase IPCC (2007); SNAP/UAF
Water Availability (soil moisture = precip minus PET) decrease of 0-20+% decrease of 10-40+% >66%; varies by region SNAP/UAF; Wilderness Society
Relative Humidity 0% ± 10% increase or decrease 0% ± 15% increase or decrease 50% = as likely as not SNAP/UAF
Wind Speed 2-4% increase 4-8% increase >90% chance of increase Abatzoglou & Brown
Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) Uncertain effect of atm circulation anomalies on Alaska's climate Uncertain effect of atm circulation anomalies on Alaska's climate High degree of natural variation Hartmann & Wendler (2005)
Extreme Events: temperature 3-6 times more warm events; 3-5 times fewer cold events 5-8.5 times more warm events; 8-12 times fewer cold events >95% Abatzoglou & Brown; Timlin & Walsh 92007)
Extreme Events: precipitation Change of -20% to +50% Change of -20% to +50% Uncertain Abatzoglou & Brown
Extreme Events: storms Increase in frequency/intensity Increase in frequency/intensity >66% Field et al. (2007)

SNAP also provided maps depicting baseline (recent historical) climate and modeled output for future change to key variables, including monthly mean temperature, monthly mean precipitation, date of freeze, date of thaw, summer season length, and mean annual ground temperature at just over a yard (1 meter) depth (Figure 3).

Composite image of three temperature maps of Southeast Alaska.
Figure 3. Mean annual ground temp. at one meter depth. Based on Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning climate data and Geophysical Institute Permafrost Lab permafrost modeling, these maps depict projected ground temperature conditions. Extensive permafrost thaw is likely by the end of this century.

What is crucial to recognize is the large number of disciplines involved in the production of these climate drivers. Principals in SNAP included PhDs in forest ecology, botany and plant ecology, science communication (and rural development), programmers, software engineers, statisticians, geophysicists, and so forth. In essence, multiple disciplines coalesced to provide high-resolution climate modelling output for sub-regions within the state of Alaska.

Another critical step in the process was that these climate drivers were evaluated by a whole host of other workshop participants, having expertise in a wide range of disciplines—ecologists, biologists who specialize in land or marine mammals, mycologists, hydrologists, anthropologists, economists, and—just as important—a host of local residents, hunters, and others, each bringing a lifetime of experience on the land observing both the landscape/habitat, and the activities, behaviors, and life cycles of numerous species.

Keeping in mind the effects tables that had been developed in webinars and discussions prior to the workshop, all workshop participants voted on what climate drivers they thought and felt were both important (in terms of impacts) and highly uncertain as to their outcomes. Table 2 from the SEAN workshop shows the ranking outcomes of workshop participants.

Table 2. Rankings of climate drivers for the Marine work group of the Southeast Alaska workshop. Group members discussed the impact and uncertainty of each potential driver.
    High Uncertainty  High Confidence  High Impact
  Temperature   X   X   X

  Timing & magnitude of stream flow (added)

  X     X
  Freeze-up date      
  Length of growing season     X   X
  River/stream temperatures     X   X
  Sea level rise     X   (Isostatic rebound?)
  Water availability (soil moisture)   X   X  
  Relative humidity   X    
  Wind Speed       X
  PDO   X   X   X
  Extreme events: higher temperatures   X   X   X
  Extreme events: precipitation   X     X
  Extreme events: storms       X
  Ocean temperature increasing (added)     X   X
  Ocean acidification     X (but not degree)  

Participants in the coastal subgroup of the Southwest Alaska workshop considered a very similar set of drivers, ultimately choosing two as the most critical, uncertain, and likely to affect their region in the next 50-100 years: ocean acidification and water availability (a combination of storms and precipitation). Potential impacts to park resources and infrastructure were identified and analyzed by considering a matrix of four plausible combinations of these two drivers. Based on this local climate drivers matrix, each workshop also developed several scenarios to explore potential impacts of climate change to park resources. The biophysical climate scenarios were also nested within a social/institutional framework. A dimension of social concern strongly influenced the potential outcomes for several climate scenarios. For example, people who were broadly informed and shared a heightened sense of urgency about climate impacts could be expected to respond differently than if there was widespread indifference to climate change and its impacts.

As mentioned above, prior to each workshop, participants helped to flesh out a climate effects table (Table 3). These tables organized potential effects to resources, operations, and people that might accrue from changes in the climate drivers mentioned above. Brief descriptions of the potential effects were collected and assessed by project team members with diverse disciplinary backgrounds.  For example, anthropologists helped to identify potential impacts to subsistence, wilderness, tourism, economic development, and social and cultural impacts. As an illustration, we provide one brief write-up from the northwest Alaska workshop report (Winfree et al. 2014b), which describes the potential effects of community relocation resulting from storm surges, coastal erosion, flooding, thawing permafrost and other climate drivers:

Relocating indigenous communities represents a large social burden, not just financial cost for governments, but also impacts to the communities themselves, potentially resulting in loss of integral cultural elements such as access to traditional use areas for subsistence activities, loss of history and sense of intact community, and potential loss of social networks and extended kin support. Significant increases in social pathologies such as alcoholism and domestic violence may also be anticipated. Tremendous stresses may also be placed on traditional means of conflict resolution. In addition multiple strains will be placed on local governance and delivery of services. Finally, state and federal governments will have huge additional burdens placed on them as they try to provide relief from the impacts of climate change.

Table 3. Southeast Alaska Network Potential Effects (Fresco et al. 2014:57-58)
SectorSubsectorPotential Effects to Resources, Operations, and People
ATMOSPHERE Greenhouse gases
  • Increased carbon storage where forestes spread; decreased where drought causes loss of forest or where fire and permafrost release methane and C02.
  • Shrub expansion into deglacieated areas and new vegetation = carbon sequestration.
Air Temperature
  • Air temperature increases ~1°F per decade; greatest change in the north and in winter.
  • Average annual temps shift from below freezing to above freezing, changing freeze/thaw balance.
  • Average annual precipitation increases. Relative amounts of snow, ice, or rain change.
  • Many areas experience drying conditions despite increased precipitation.
  • More freezing rain events affect foraging success for wildlife, travel safety, etc
  • Avalanche hazards increase with rising precipatation and rising winter timeps.
  • Lightning and lightning-ignited fires continue to increase.
  • Storm and wave impacts increase in northern Alaska where land-fast sea ice forms later.
Air Quality More smoke from longer and more intense fire seasons.
Contaminants ul>
  • Increased contaminants and shifting contaminant distribution.
  • Later onset of freeze-up and snowfall + earlier spring snowmelt and break-up.
  • Arctic snow cover declines with higher air temperatures and earlier spring thaw.
  • lack of snow cover leads to deeper freezing of water in the ground or rivers.
  • Cultural resources are exposed as snow and ice patches melt and recede.
  • Most glaciers diminish as warming continues, though a few are still advancing.
  • Glacial outwash affects aquatic productivity and forms deposits in shallow water.
  • Glacial lakes fail more frequently, creating risk of flash floods and debris flows.
  • Surging glaciers could block rivers and fjords, resulting in severe flooding.
Sea ice
  • Less sea ice complicates travel, impacts ecosystems, and adds energy to storm surges.
  • Seasonal reductions in sea ice increase the risk of spills contaminating coastal resources.
Ice roads
  • Reduced winter transportation affects opportunities for travel and subsistence.
  • Mercury and other pollutantas are released into aquatic enrionments as permafrost thaws.
HYDROSPHERE Greenhouse gases  
Sea level
  • Global average sea level is predicted to rise 1-6 feet by the end of the 21st Century
  • Increased storm surges and permafrost erosion compound effects of change in sea level.
  • Some coastal villages rapidly lose ground from storms, erosion, and subsidence.
  • Increasing sea surface temperature affects fish, seabird, and wildlife populations.
  • Falling global phytoplankton could reduce ocean productivity and CO2 sequestration.
  • Freshwater influx from thawing glaciers dilutes marine waters, stressing animals
  • Toxic marine algae & shellfish poisoning attributed to changes in water conditions.
  • Ocean acidification affects food sources of fish, marine mammals, and birds in the Arctic.
  • Ocean acidification reduces sound absorption (by40% mid-century?).
  • Coastal erosion and sea level rise increase the frequency of saltwater flooding.
  • Some shallow water areas convert to terrestrial ecosystems with post-glacial rebound.
  • Stream flows from melting glaciers increase and then decrease over time.
  • Ponds shrink as ground ice thaws or themokarst drainage occurs in permafrost areas.
  • Drainage from thawing waste and sewage dumps contaminates rural water supplies.
  • Ground water supplies dependent on seasonal glacial recharge become less predictable.
LITHOSPHERE Ground level
  • Ground level rises in recently de-glaciated areas because of Isostatic rebound.
Ground Stability
  • More roads and infrastructure fail or require repairs due to permafrost thaw.
  • Landslides and mud flows increase on steep slopes. Rapid glacial retreat and permafrost thaw leave steep and unstable slopes in valleys.
  • Earthquake activity increases in recently deglaciated areas due to isostatic rebound.
  • Large and small tsunamis could result from collapse of unstable slopes in fjords.
  • Coastal erosion claimes both natural and cultural resources and constructed assets.
  • Burials and other remains are exposed as cultural sites thaw and erode.
  • Soil moisture declines due to rising soil temperature, thawing permafrost, and drainage.
BIOSPHERE - vegetation and fire General  
  • Average number of frost-free days for the Arctic could increase 20-40 days by 2100.
  • Increased agricultural production in Alaska because of longer growing season.
  • Potential large-scale shift of tundra to shrubs, to conifers, to decidulous forests or grass.
  • Atypical outbreaks of pests and diseases affect native species and increase fire hazards.
  • Invasive exotic plant species and native species from other areas expand their ranges.
  • Vegetaion expandes into deglacieated coasta areas, less into higher elevation areas.
  • Tree species and vegetaion classes shift as species of lower latitudes and altitudes expand.
  • Black spruce may expand with warming - or contract as permafrost soils thaw and fires increase.
  • Mature forests and "old growth" cecline because of drought, insects, disease, and fire.
  • Mature yellow cedars decline across southeast Alaska, possibly due to lack of insulating snow.
  • Models show a warmer climate leads to larger, more frequent and intense fires.
  • Wildland fire hazards increase, affecting communities and isolated property owners.
  • Fire-related landcover and soil changes result in vegetation shifts, permafrost thaw, etc.
BIOSPHERE - wildlife Wildlife
  • Changes to terrestrial and aquatic species occur as ranges shift, contract, or expand, affecting visitor experience and subsistence.
  • Parks and refuges may not be able to protect current species within their boundaries.
  • Animals and plants expand into landscapes vacated by glacial ice.
  • Some species will suffer severe losses. So far, the greatest losses across all parks have been rodents, bats, and carnivores.
  • Predator-prey relationships may change in unexpected ways.
  • Migratory routes and destinations will change (e.g., wetlands, open tundra, snow patches).
  • Arcitic and alpine birds' breeding habitats reduced as trees and shrubs encroach on tundra.
  • Kittlitz's murrelet populations decline with loss of important nesting and foraging habitat.
  • Waterfowl shifts occur as coastal ponds become more salty.
  • Productivity of nesting shorebirds may increase if schedules change to coincide with insects.
  • Predation on ground nesting birds could increase if prey (lemming) abundance declines.
  • Coastal seabirds (e.g., Ivory Gull and Aleutian Tern) are vulnerable to climate change.
  • Population cycles of birds and their prey could be out of sync due to higher temperatures.
Marine Mammals
  • Arctic marine mammals (e.g., seals, walrus, and whales) are affected by sea ice decline.
  • Less sound absorption (ocean acidification) affets marine mammals that rely on echolocation.
  • Polar bears may have increasing difficulty accessing prey and finding shelter.
  • Caribou and reindeer health are affected by changes in weather, forage, insects, and pests.
  • Earlier green-up could improve caribou calf survival because of more available forage.
  • Caribou may suffer heavy losses if rain events prevent successful feeding during cold weather.
  • Shifts in forests could mean less habitat for caribou, but more habitat for moose.
  • Climate change could hinder moose calf birth success and moose calf survival.
Small Mammals
  • Fire may create new burrowing habitat and forage growth to help vole populations.
  • Less snow cover reduces survival of subnivian species, due to increased predation & cold stress.
  • Commercial fisheries are affected by changes to ocean communities in the Bering Sea.
  • Some marine plant and naimal populations may decline with ocean acidification.
  • New stream habitats become available for fish and wildlife as glaciers decline.
  • Some salmon waters may become unsuitable for migration, spawingin, and incubation.
  • Fish diseases increase with rising stream temperatures.
  • Fish habitats in permafrost areas are degreaded by slumps and sediment input into rivers.
  • Ice worm populations decline locally as glacier habitats melt.
  • Marine intertidal environments change, may become more susceptible to exotic marine species.
  • Exotic pests expand from warmer areas, and endemic pests expand as host species are stressed.
  • Altered animal migration patterns make subsistence hunting more challenging.
  • Sea ice changes make hunting for marine mammals less predictable & more dangerous.
  • Managing new species and intensified management of native species may be needed.
OTHER Tourism
  • Longer summer seasons increase tourism. Some visitor activities increase, others decline.
  • Landscape-level changes affect visitor experiences and access, visitor use patterns shift.
  • Large-scale physical and biological changes across broad landscapes affect abundance and condition of wilderness- associated resources (e.g., glaciers, wildlife, access routes, etc)
  • Changing biophysical landscape affects key wilderness values such as naturalness, wild-untamed areas without permanent opportunties for solitute, etc.
  • Uses of traditional ecological knowledge become less predictive and less reliable.
  • More natural resource development in Alaska with increasing global demand.
  • Fuel and energy prices increase substantially with carbon mitigation measures. Transporting fuels to remote locations becomes more challenging and costly.

Research and Mitigation of Climate Change Impacts at Various Scales

The NSF advisory committee recognized the necessity of moving beyond researching issues to help develop mitigation strategies to aid communities suffering the consequences of climate change:

Environmental science must move beyond identifying issues and toward providing sound bases for the development of innovative solutions, effective adaptation, and mitigation strategies. To accomplish this goal we urgently need to expand our capacity to study the environment as an integrated system that includes the human dimension. Humans are inextricably embedded within supporting environmental systems. To understand this coupling of natural and human social systems, we must advance general concepts such as ecosystem services and describe the processes that link natural systems, from local to global scales, with human systems from individuals to collectives. (Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education 2009).

One of the communities currently at risk from the large environmental changes brought about by climate change in the Bering Sea is Newtok. The difficulties Newtok has experienced serve as an exemplar case study as to what may await numerous other rural Alaska coastal and riverine communities. Floods, erosion, and the complete encirclement of the community by the Ninglick River have turned Newtok into an island. Newtok is faced with:

  • Flooding that has eroded the community’s dock and crane—bulk shipments of fuel can’t be delivered
  • Flooding that is causing problems with sewage disposal and may have serious health consequences
  • Solid waste disposal that can only be accomplished by boat
  • Complete community infrastructure—school, homes, diesel storage, and clinic that are eroding

As bad as the problems presented by the physical environment are, much worse is the frustration experienced by residents as they try to adapt and move their community to higher ground (the community was originally situated in this location by edict of the BIA in the 1950s against the objections of indigenous families).

Stanley Tom of Newtok stated that one of the biggest obstacles they face in trying to relocate is the lack of a single agency or group in charge of planning and/or response. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities can’t build an airstrip unless there is a post office; there can’t be a post office without a school; and the school has to have at least 25 students. But the structures needed to house 25 students can’t be built without the airstrip. These and numerous other Catch-22 situations impede an integrated, flexible, and timely response. In addition, obtaining funding for relocation has been difficult and frustrating.

A multitude of state, federal, and regional entities are responsible for delivering services to rural Alaskan villages, but specific program policies and regulatory constraints produce circumstances for conflicting directives, resulting in bottlenecks in the ability to achieve a coordinated delivery of vital services and outcomes that will enable villages and traditional culture to adapt in the face of climate change. Therefore, there is a concrete need for establishing a coordinating entity with the ability to advocate and navigate these multiple bureaucratic entities and to leverage their resources to support rural villages in emergency response, relocation, subsistence concerns, and other priorities.

For instance, in order to facilitate a possible migration to higher ground, the Newtok Traditional Council has to interact with a large number of bureaucratic entities—13 State of Alaska agencies, 10 federal agencies and over five regional entities. This is a severe burden for a small community of 300 inhabitants.


The NPS scenario planning initiative in Alaska serves as an exemplary model for interdisciplinary research on climate change. Single-source funding for interdisciplinary cooperation is rare. Nevertheless we must recognize and continue to advocate, as the NSF Advisory Committee (2009) notes:

Incorporating the human component will require long-term, regional-scale research that addresses how individual behavior, demography, and social systems respond to changes in the functioning of environmental systems. While scientists from every discipline can make significant contributions, studying the components of environmental systems in isolation from each other is neither adequate nor meaningful. To address the environmental challenges that confront us we must find ways to integrate and synthesize data from diverse fields into a whole-systems perspective, taking into account the complications of interactions occurring on different spatial and temporal scales.


Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and
Education. 2009.
Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems

National Park Service (NPS). 2010.
National Park Service Climate Change Response Strategy. NPS Climate Change Response Program. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service. 

Winfree, R., B. Rice, N. Fresco, L. Krutikov, J. Morris,
D. Callaway, D. Weeks, and J. Mow. 2014a.
Climate change scenario planning for southeast Alaska parks: Glacier Bay, Klondike, Sitka, and Wrangell-St. Elias. Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR—2014/831. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service. 

Winfree, R., B. Rice, N. Fresco, L. Krutikov, J. Morris,
D. Callaway, D. Weeks, J. Mow, and N. Swanton. 2014b.
Climate change scenario planning for southwest Alaska parks: Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Alagnak Wild River. Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR—2014/832. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service. 

Winfree, R., B. Rice, N. Fresco, L. Krutikov, J. Morris,
D. Callaway, J. Mow, and N. Swanton. 2014c.
Climate change scenario planning for northwest Alaska parks: Cape Krusenstern and Bering Land Bridge. Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR—2014/830. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service. 

Winfree, R., B. Rice, N. Fresco, L. Krutikov, J. Morris, D. Callaway, J. Mow, and N. Swanton. 2014d.
Climate Change Scenario Planning for Interior Arctic Alaska Parks: Noatak, Gates of the Arctic, and Kobuk Valley. Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR—2014/833. National Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service. 

Winfree, R., B. Rice, N. Fresco, L. Krutikov, J. Morris, D. Callaway, J. Mow, and N. Swanton. 2014e.
Climate Change Scenario Planning for Central Alaska Parks: Yukon-Charley, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Denali. Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR—2014/833. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service. 

Part of a series of articles titled Alaska Park Science - Volume 14 Issue 1: Resource Management in a Changing World.

Last updated: November 25, 2015