Regional conference on sharing science and knowledge held in Nome

Organizers of the 11th Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference say turnout and quality of presentations this year were outstanding.

Creedence Ongtowasruk (L), 7th grader from Wales, and Janelle Trowbridge, UAA student, with Tinsel the gyrfalcon. Trowbridge won the best poster award at the conference

Held in Nome March 28-30, the conference drew more than 130 people from Alaska, the Bering Strait region, and beyond. This year’s theme was “Sharing Science and Knowledge.” It was hosted at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus and organized by UAF faculty members Claudia Ihl and Gay Sheffield.

“The plenary talks were awesome,” said Sheffield, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent in Nome. “They really set the tone for the conference and all the good discussions that followed.”

Carolina Behe of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, along with Raychelle Aluaq Daniel (Pew Charitable Trust) and Julie Raymond-Yakoubian (Kawerak Inc.), launched the conference with their keynote on the Co-production of Knowledge in the Arctic. The topic of sharing different knowledge systems (indigenous and Western-based) provided an educational experience for more urban-based participants, said Sheffield.

Gay Sheffield (L) introduces speaker Karen Pletnikoff.

Rick Thoman, from the National Weather Service, spoke about the unprecedented lack of sea ice in the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region of Alaska. He confirmed that some areas, including Gambell, currently have no sea ice for the first time in 150 years of written record-keeping. Thoman, who has lived in Nome in the past, gave serious warnings to residents.

“Every individual and every community should get prepared for the effects of sea ice loss and sea level rise such as erosion and potential for storm damage,” Thoman said.

One of the favorite talks was by the Seward Peninsula’s master falconer John Earthman, who brought two live gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) to the meeting room. After his presentation the crowd wanted to stick around and talk with Earthman. “We got a little off schedule then but everyone was very interested to see Arctic falcons up close and learn more about them,” Sheffield said.

Poster session at the 11th Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference in Nome.

Sheffield gave a talk on a collaborative response to the summer 2017 walrus and seabird die-off in the Bering Strait region. She noted that a large number of walruses and seabirds washed ashore, and later four walruses tested positive for algae biotoxins.

Davin Holen, Alaska Sea Grant coastal community resilience specialist, and Ed Plumb of the National Weather Service, co-led a workshop on weather forecasts for western Alaska communities. Retired Alaska Sea Grant seafood specialist Brian Himelbloom won the “best local application of sharing science and knowledge” award for his talk on seal oil rendering.

On the last day of the conference, Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle of Arctic Geopolitical Consulting spoke about Place-based Knowledge and Decision Making, including the tumultuous history of King Island peoples and the importance of culture and language in knowledge and decision making.

Conference sponsors were UAF Northwest Campus, Alaska Sea Grant, Norton Sound Health Corporation, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Sitnasuak Native Corporation and City of Nome.

The Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference is held every spring, rotating among Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Nome and Unalaska. The spring 2019 location has not yet been announced.