The climate impacts on Alaskan and Yukon rivers, fish, and communities as told through co-produced scenarios


Northern communities in Alaska and Canada rely upon productive fisheries. For many of these communities, rivers are used to access fishing and hunting grounds and to transport supplies during ice-free seasons and over river-ice in winter. As the Arctic and its rivers continue to warm, the ultimate impacts on people, their fisheries and winter travel corridors are highly uncertain. Improved understanding of the ongoing and possible future changes requires close partnership among Native groups and researchers from diverse scientific disciplines. This project is a collaboration among the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) at North Arizona University (NAU), and two major Canadian universities. The YRITWC is a non-profit organization of 74 First Nations and Tribes that conducts monitoring of the Yukon River Watershed. Three Indigenous interns are working with YRITWC and USGS researchers and staff to enhance the community-based and federal river monitoring networks with automated water quality sensors. The new data are being used by researchers to monitor river conditions and change and to improve computer simulations of rivers, ice, and fish. Outreach to Indigenous K-12 students in the communities where monitoring is being conducted will include traveling lectures and an ask-scientists website. A Native Advisory Council will be formed in Year 1 to provide input into research directions and refinements and to ensure the production of useable outcomes. Importantly, the Council will guide the agenda of a two-day Arctic Rivers Summit in project Year 3 and the selection of 42 Indigenous community members to receive a scholarship to attend the Summit. The Summit will bring together Tribal and First Nation resource managers, Arctic and Boreal community members, and academic, federal, state, and provincial researchers to unify the state of knowledge on Arctic Rivers as a community of observers, investigators, knowledge holders, and stewards. Results from the Summit will include a white paper co-authored by all attendees. Researchers from NCAR and CU are conducting computer simulations of weather, streamflow, river ice, and water temperature for historical and potential future climate conditions over Alaska and western Canada. The data are being used by USGS and CU scientists to assess potential risks to Arctic river fish species. The project results will be communicated through co-produced scenarios jointly developed by all investigators and community members and designed to make future scenarios of Arctic change and potential societal impacts tangible and relatable to a broad audience. Thus, the project is assessing how socially important fish habitat and river-ice transport corridors of Arctic rivers may be impacted by climate-driven environmental changes.

Changes in temperature, precipitation, snowmelt and streamflow timing, ice-cover, permafrost, hydrologic connectivity, river geochemistry, and groundwater are poorly characterized in northern regions, and the integrated effects on rivers and fish are critically unresolved. This project is advancing collective understanding of terrestrial hydrologic change and the potential impacts on rivers, fish, and communities in the Arctic. The project facilitates knowledge co-production through Indigenous community-based monitoring of rivers, Native engagement and oversight, ethnographic methods, and advances in climate, hydrologic, and river-ice, and fish bioenergetic models. Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and Western Science (WS) will be used to co-develop scenarios of past and plausible future conditions. An Arctic Rivers Summit co-developed by Tribal Environmental experts, YRITWC, USGS, and a Native Advisory Council identifying IK and WS baseline conditions of rivers and fish. This includes continuous water quality measurements of major rivers to observe hydrologic conditions and guide model development. The Regional Arctic System Model and the Community Terrestrial Systems Model are coupled to simulate river ice and water temperature with a chain of process-based models. Historical reanalysis, verified against baseline conditions, and future climate scenarios are simulated, and a fish bioenergetics model is being used to assess vulnerabilities of co-identified river-run Arctic fish species. Rich scenarios with IK of past events, changes, community challenges and adaptation successes will provide unique context to best communicate future model projections and impacts on the social, built and natural Arctic environment. Combining IK, climate and hydrologic modeling techniques with parallel advances in river ice, stream temperature, and fish models, the project collectively identifies convergent opportunities to monitor, map, model, assess, and communicate climate sensitivities of Arctic and boreal hydrology, rivers, and fish with respect to Indigenous culture, livelihood, transportation, and subsistence.

Logistics Summary

This collaboration between Musselman (1928189, CU) and Newman (1928078, UCAR) will conduct fieldwork measuring specific conductance (SC) and temperature in major rivers throughout Alaska and upstream western Canada. New sensors will be installed on main-stem rivers to permit continuous measurements of SC and water temperature. Plans to start in 2020 were delayed due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19. Starting in 2021 a field team of 6 will travel twice per year, to deploy 20 sensors in Indigenous communities in Alaska and Yukon Territory, and deploy and maintain another 20 sensors at USGS gage and research stations. Independent measurements of SC will be made during site visits to calibrate the sensors. The sensors will be deployed during the ice- free season and retracted before ice-up for each year of the five-year study. Through a subcontract with the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC), one field team member will be responsible each year to deploy during ice-free season and retract before ice upwater temperature and specific conductivity sensors, to ensure data collection for long-term groundwater and surface-water monitoring, at 20 selected sites across the Yukon River Basin over the five-year project period. The researcher will also oversee and facilitate Indigenous Observation Network (ION) environmental technicians’ efforts to guarantee maintenance of the sensors during open water seasons. A second subcontract will be provided to the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) at Northern Arizona University (NAU) to facilitate information exchange between Indigenous community members, the YRITWC, and investigators to enhance project operations and performance outcomes and train investigators on cultural sensitivity of working with Tribes and First Nations. NAU will be responsible for forming a Native Advisory Council in coordination with YRITWC, organizing and facilitating the Arctic Rivers Summit, and facilitating community engagement calls.

Season Field Sites:

2021 Alaska - Beaver Creek

2021 Alaska - Eagle

2021 Alaska - Fairbanks

2021 Alaska - Fort Yukon

2021 Alaska - Galena

2021 Alaska - Hess Creek

2021 Alaska - Koyukuk

2021 Alaska - Pilot Station

2021 Alaska - Saint Marys

2021 Alaska - Tanana

2021 Alaska - Tok

2021 Alaska - Venetie

2021 Canada - Carmacks

2021 Canada - Dawson

2021 Canada - Mayo

2021 Canada - Teslin

2021 Canada - Whitehorse

2022 Alaska - Beaver Creek

2022 Alaska - Eagle

2022 Alaska - Fairbanks

2022 Alaska - Fort Yukon

2022 Alaska - Galena

2022 Alaska - Hess Creek

2022 Alaska - Koyukuk

2022 Alaska - Pilot Station

2022 Alaska - Saint Marys

2022 Alaska - Tanana

2022 Alaska - Tok

2022 Alaska - Venetie

2022 Canada - Carmacks

2022 Canada - Dawson

2022 Canada - Mayo

2022 Canada - Teslin

2022 Canada - Whitehorse

2023 Alaska - Beaver Creek

2023 Alaska - Eagle

2023 Alaska - Fairbanks

2023 Alaska - Fort Yukon

2023 Alaska - Galena

2023 Alaska - Hess Creek

2023 Alaska - Koyukuk

2023 Alaska - Pilot Station

2023 Alaska - Saint Marys

2023 Alaska - Tanana

2023 Alaska - Tok

2023 Alaska - Venetie

2023 Canada - Carmacks

2023 Canada - Dawson

2023 Canada - Mayo

2023 Canada - Teslin

2023 Canada - Whitehorse

2024 Alaska - Beaver Creek

2024 Alaska - Eagle

2024 Alaska - Fairbanks

2024 Alaska - Fort Yukon

2024 Alaska - Galena

2024 Alaska - Hess Creek

2024 Alaska - Koyukuk

2024 Alaska - Pilot Station

2024 Alaska - Saint Marys

2024 Alaska - Tanana

2024 Alaska - Tok

2024 Alaska - Venetie

2024 Canada - Carmacks

2024 Canada - Dawson

2024 Canada - Mayo

2024 Canada - Teslin

2024 Canada - Whitehorse


Climate impacts on terrestrial hydrology and hydrometeorology in Alaska and Yukon River Basin: a modeling effort guided by Indigenous Knowledge
Yifan Cheng, Andrew Newman, Keith Musselman, Nicole Herman-Mercer, Anthony Craig, Joseph Hamman

The freshwater cycle in the Arctic is greatly affected by anthropogenic climate change. To provide “useable” rather than just “useful” climate information, we actively engage Indigenous participation in the research progress. As a foundation of capturing a trustworthy climate sensitivity of the freshwater cycle, we performed a multi-objective optimization on snow and river flow for a state-of-the-science land model, the Community Terrestrial Systems Model.


Institutional Collaborator(s)

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
University of Colorado at Boulder
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Other Research Location(s)
Beaver Creek, Alaska
Eagle, Alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska
Fort Yukon, Alaska
Galena, Alaska
Hess Creek, Alaska
Koyukuk, Alaska
Pilot Station, Alaska
Saint Mary’s, Alaska
Tanana, Alaska
Tok, Alaska
Venetie, Alaska
Carmacks, Canada
Dawson, Canada
Mayo, Canada
Teslin, Canada
Whitehorse, Canada
Project Start Date
Jan 2020
Award Year
Funding Track