Storm-related data help Bristol Bay communities plan for change

Coastal communities across the Bristol Bay region are facing significant environmental change as the climate warms. For many west and northwest Alaska coastal communities, long, cold winters produce a barrier of sea ice along the coast, protecting against erosion and damage to infrastructure. With a warming Arctic resulting in less solid sea ice and longer ice-free seasons, storms are causing more pronounced flooding and erosion and threatening critical marine and nearshore infrastructure.

Man standing on a metal platform attached to a dock
Chris Maio in Nelson Lagoon inspecting the tidal gauge he and Reyce Bogardus just installed with the help of local tribal environmental coordinator Mark McNeley. Photo Credit: Reyce Bogardus

To help communities adapt and respond to these changes, University of Alaska Fairbanks Associate Professor Chris Maio and PhD student Reyce Bogardus are collecting baseline terrestrial and oceanographic data at Dillingham, Naknek and Nelson Lagoon to quantify and improve understanding of the changes happening to their coastline.

“We are working to improve the documentation of storm events in these places so that long-term trends in the frequency and extent of storm-driven erosion and flooding can be analyzed,” explained Bogardus. Coastal erosion threatens roads, buildings, water lines and sewer facilities in Bristol Bay. Quantifying the extent and rate of erosion will help communities develop effective mitigation strategies.   

The research uses land and ocean-based instruments such as wave buoys, tidal gauges, Real-Time Kinematic GPS, drones, and time-lapse cameras to map and model coastal hazards. The resulting data are designed for integration in each community’s hazard mitigation plans. Tribal environmental coordinators and other local stakeholders are participating in the research and provide feedback to ensure the data aligns with each community’s specific planning needs.

Man on a boat holds a GPS and a large plastic object.
Reyce Bogardus with a GPS and a wave buoy in Nelson Lagoon just before deploying the buoy with the help of local resident Darren Johnson. Photo Credit: Chris Maio

Residents, including Alaska Native elders, have observed the environment for generations and have valuable knowledge about coastal changes. This project supplements that knowledge to provide communities in the Bristol Bay region specific data that are needed to inform engineers’ build solutions and to budget and apply for grant funds. 

Alaska Sea Grant’s education specialist, Leigh Lubin, is working with Maio to develop educational materials to involve middle and high school students in collecting and analyzing their local storm data. “An important aspect of the project is to increase coastal science literacy through place-based K-12 education and citizen science training,” said Bogardus. This will prepare local residents to continue to collect data needed to make decisions about the future of their communities.

Alaska Sea Grant has produced a new video highlighting this project work in Dillingham.

Man on beach holding a long pole with a camera-like instrument on top
Reyce Bogardus in Naknek holding a GPS rover in the exact spot that the bluff was located 4 years before the photo was taken. Notice how much erosion has occurred. Photo Credit: Chris Maio

This research is funded by Alaska Sea Grant, the Bristol Bay Native Association, the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys Coastal Hazard Program, the National Science Foundation, the Native Villages of Chignik Bay Ekuk, Levelock, Port Heiden, and Ivanof Bay, the Curyung Tribe of Dillingham, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.