Planning for Climate Resiliency Amid Changing Culture, Technology, Economics, and Governance


Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) is one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas. NNA projects address convergence scientific challenges in the rapidly changing Arctic. The Arctic research is needed to inform the economy, security and resilience of the Nation, the larger region and the globe. NNA empowers new research partnerships from local to international scales, diversifies the next generation of Arctic researchers, and integrates the co-production of knowledge. This award fulfills part of that aim.

This project is taking a unique approach to investigating what is needed to enable subsistence communities in the Arctic to remain sustainable in the future: questioning the common assumption that climate impacts and sea ice loss are the most important changes impacting subsistence activities in the Arctic. The group will broadly consider a set of interconnected factors and feedbacks, including changing culture, technology, economics, and governance in addition to climate. The proposal includes clear plans to integrate co-production of knowledge and to capture the linkage between researchers and native communities. This project may lead to a holistic approach to the evolution of subsistence living in the Arctic and to create a community of practice including Arctic peoples with traditional knowledge and university-trained scientists.

This project is exploring a series of hypotheses designed to stress-test assumptions about the role of rapid physical environmental change in disrupting traditional ways of life for Arctic coastal communities. A community of practice composed of academics from various disciplines and residents of the Arctic communities of Utqiagvik and Kotzebue is being established to consider a central guiding question: How can Alaskan subsistence communities best prepare for and adapt to climate change in a world where nothing else is static? The outcomes of this work include tools and methods for understanding motives of climate adaptations in Alaska Native communities and assessing their effectiveness. The project is also coproducing a plan for future research aimed at improving community and individual resilience in the face of impending Arctic changes.

Logistics Summary

This collaborative project between Mahoney (1928248, UAF) and Polashenski (1929275, Dartmouth) is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the effects of change on subsistence communities. We hypothesized that impacts on natural systems, human activities, and built infrastructure in the Arctic come from myriad sources, and many non-climate related changes may be just as disruptive as climate change. Researchers will investigate the adaptation choices of rural subsistence communities in the Alaskan Arctic in the face of all types of change (climate and non-climate related) through discussions with subsistence users. In fall 2019 a field team of 3 traveled to Kotzebue and a team of 4 traveled to Utqiagvik to interview community members in multiple settings, where they developed a more complete understanding of the myriad factors impacting subsistence. The project also plans a 4-day workshop in 2020 with local community members/leaders and academics, in a culturally appropriate setting such as a remote fish camp, to better understand the interaction between environmental and social change and explore ways of assessing the costs and benefits of adaption options in mixed subsistence and market economies. Planning for this workshop has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and although we remain committed to a community-led forum in a culturally relevant setting, we are also exploring interim alternatives relying on remote participation in order to maintain some level of community engagement and continue planning for an in-person gathering. All discussions will be structured around bringing Inupiat and western ways of knowing and values together with the goal of developing hypotheses and plans to test them which can create new knowledge for better navigating change. While we arrive with some questions and hypotheses, we emphasize that these are mutable. It is anticipated that participation of the subsistence users may refocus this coproduction effort on challenges to subsistence which we did not identify or hypothesize in advance. During this project researchers will seek to identify individuals from the coastal communities who can join a follow up team as local Co-PI’s, salary-paid members of our knowledge coproduction team helping guide the application of science to achieve their community’s goals. This project includes a subaward to Huntington Consulting over 2 years for their portion of the research. This will include participation in all travel and workshops and leadership of social science components of the project. Huntington Consulting was selected because of their sole expertise in this field.

Co-Principal Investigators

Project Outcomes


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

Intellectual merit

The principal finding from this research planning project is that, among residents of the Arctic coastal communities of Kotzebue and Utqiaġvik, there is a near-consensus that that environmental change is not necessarily the source of the most pressing challenges they are facing. Through a series of informal interviews with a diverse group of community members, we learned that climate change is disrupting subsistence activities, but most of individuals we spoke with felt confident they could adapt in response. By comparison, problems related to health, wellbeing, cultural vitality and identity, education, economy, infrastructure, and transportation were described as more urgent and troubling.

Related to this finding, we identified a potentially significant mismatch between most community needs and the type of project-level research driven by individual research scientists. For example, a Planning Director in one community identified a number of questions related to permafrost that affect the Borough’s ability to deliver services and to build and maintain transportation infrastructure in the region. Some of these questions probably already have answers within the permafrost research community could therefore be addressed by outreach, not new research. Other site-specific questions might require new collection of new data, but would likely lack the novelty required to attract funding and might be better classified as consulting needs. Lastly, the major climate-scale questions might fall within the domain of basic research, but would likely require an assemblage of funded projects over a long period of time.

 Broader Impacts

As a planning project, our principal goal is develop new research directions. Accordingly, another key outcome of our planning project is the hypothesis that Arctic science can be both more impactful, responsive, and equitable when paired with a dedicated local coordination structure, than when driven by individual scientists. Although there are examples of individual projects that have successfully addressed scientific questions of local relevance, we believe more projects would address more such questions if there was better coordination between projects and a widely used community-led pathway for connecting researchers with local needs. We plan to submit a new proposal to test our hypothesis by establishing a structure for coordinating research in a community or region and evaluating the work it produces.

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Other Research Location(s)
Kotzebue, Alaska
Utqiagvik, Alaska
Project Start Date
Sep 2019
Award Year
Funding Track