Many of the scientists working in Alaska waters are in Anchorage this week to share the results of their research at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, according to a story published by KYUK Public Media. Usually the gathering is full of the most recent discoveries and the results of large collaborative efforts to understand the implications of our rapidly changing seas. Climate change has taken center stage for some time now, and this year is no exception.
What’s new this year is that many are worried about what will happen to the data they have gathered because of the political environment in Washington, D.C.
News that the Trump administration has shut down White House websites that many depend on to get information about Arctic research and government policy stunned scientists attending the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. As they listened to their colleagues discuss the impact of warming oceans in the Arctic, many wondered if they would still have a job by the end of the year.
In the midst of this, Nicholas Bond, a climatologist with the University of Washington Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, presented an overview of the impact of the huge bodies of warm ocean waters, known as warm blobs, that have developed in the north Pacific Ocean. He showed maps of them moving from the west coast into the Arctic, and showed one hot spot right off Quinhagak on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Bond described how warmed waters changed the chemistry and habitat, producing smaller and less fatty prey for fish. In the case of walleye pollock, research shows that in these warmer seas, older and bigger pollock were supplementing the lower fat content of the krill they prey on by eating younger pollock.
“There may be a lot of pollock that are hatched, but they get the one-two-punch of both having less favorable prey to consume, and then they are getting preyed upon by their aunts and uncles,” Bond said. “And so ultimately in those cold years, [there is] greater survival.”
In his presentation, Bond, who also works with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, used data from many government researchers from different fields working for a variety of institutions, some sitting in the room. That data was kept on government computers and data archives, and all of it could possibly be targeted by an administration that said it does not see the need to study or respond to climate change.
In her presentation to the conference, Fran Ulmer, who co-chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission that was set up by Congress in 1984, reassured people that much of the information gone from the White House websites shut down by President Donald Trump’s team is still available elsewhere.
“All of that information remains on the Arctic.gov website,” Ulmer said. “So it may have disappeared from other websites, but it’s still at Arctic.gov.”
Many scientists attending the symposium worry that shutting down White House websites is just the beginning. They worry about the Arctic data that has been gathered over decades. The New York Times reports that a group of scientists are working to move data from government sites to university and private archives. No small task, as it’s a huge amount of data in many formats. There are indications that some of the data may end up in safe-havens in Canada and overseas.
Most scientists are more comfortable questioning a research presentation to dig out underlying facts and assumptions or talking about how to cooperate and get the most out of shrinking research budgets. They are not trained to engage in a war over data, so it was not surprising to see a politician, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, sound the alarm.
He was introduced as a politician who, at one time, worked in the research community in Antarctica. Instead of the traditional mayoral welcoming speech, Berkowitz followed a day of scientific presentations with a plea for scientists to speak out. He said for policy makers like himself, there are no alternatives to real facts when it comes to making decisions to better cope with what the future brings. He pleaded with the scientists to speak out and enter the political process.
Research will allow us to develop the policies that will make us a resilient community – speaking at the AK Marine Science Symposium. pic.twitter.com/W6TQxHiBHj
— Mayor Ethan (@mayorethananc) January 24, 2017
“This time, more than ever, you cannot leave your learning in the laboratory. Individuals here have an ability to affect policy,” Berkowitz said, addressing the crowd. “And if you remain silent in the face of ignorance, that ignorance will breed and fester, and cause future problems for us.”
Ulmer hopes that reason will prevail. She points to the support of Alaska’s congressional delegation and industries ranging from fisheries to shippers and oil companies that rely on research and cooperation in the Arctic.
“So I believe our congressional delegation, as well as our governor and our Legislature and the business interests that exists across the Arctic will continue to see value in the United States participating,” Ulmer said.
Most attending the Arctic Science Symposium are hoping for the best and plan to listen to the latest research and try to figure out how to make their own work better and more effective at teasing out what is happening in our rapidly changing Arctic seas.