Researchers and residents share Western Alaska science, art and humanities

Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference and Forum

The 15th annual Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference (WAISC) recently took place at the UAF Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham. This hybrid event had thirty-seven presenters in person and one online. Those fortunate enough to attend in Dillingham received a warm welcome from the community, exemplifying the conference theme, “Reuniting through shared science, arts and humanities.”

The conference kicked off with a presentation on the history of Bering Sea storm conditions by Harper Baldwin, a graduate student with the UAF Arctic Coastal Geoscience Lab. Additional presenters covered topics related to climate change, natural sciences, sustainable energy, education in rural communities, and arts and humanities. They ranged from university students to researchers with more than 30 years in their professions. Some were local, some based in other regions of Alaska, and others traveled from as far away as Washington state and Pennsylvania to share their work relating to Western and rural Alaska. Recordings of the presentations are available through the conference website.

The conference keynote presentation featured Rick Thoman, climate specialist with the UAF Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. Thoman spoke about Alaska’s changing climate, extreme weather events, and climate model predictions in the region. According to Thoman, over time, Western Alaska is anticipated to have shorter fall and spring seasons, while severe storm events and precipitation are likely to increase, largely due to a warming ocean and atmosphere.

Rick Thoman pointing at details on a projected map in front of a room of people.
Plenary speaker Rick Thomas of the UAF Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy discussed weather and climate models and outlook for the Western Alaska region. Photo by Eric Goddard/UAF Bristol Bay Campus.

The conference field trips included a sustainable energy tour of the UAF Bristol Bay Campus, which included a new solar array installed by a Bristol Bay Campus solar energy training class, and the energy-efficient cold climate Passive Office, after which the world-record-holding energy-efficient Marsik House was modeled.

The conference banquet highlighted Bristol Bay salmon, with a presentation by local author Tim Troll. Troll spoke about the restoration of a century-old Bristol Bay commercial fishing vessel powered by sail and its climactic voyage last year from Homer to Naknek, entitled “Sailing Back to the Bay.”

Peta Noden holding up a certificate award and stain glass artwork, wearing a shirt with the word mission.
Student Petla Noden received the Todd Radenbaugh People’s Choice Award. Noden discussed Coffee Point Wind, a conceptual 8-12 + megawatt wind farm with solar subsidy stretching from Dillingham to Manokotak along the Nushagak Coast. Photo by Tav Ammu/Alaska Sea Grant.

The conference closed with a presentation by Frank Woods, Dillingham resident and forester, who spoke about the Bristol Bay Native Association’s forestry program and their response to wildfire threats. The final evening’s festivities were highlighted by an awards ceremony celebrating outstanding presentations and leadership, with three awards given for excellence in interdisciplinary science (Hannah-Marie Garcia, Aleut Tribe of St. Paul), leadership for sustainable communities (Misa Weber, Bristol Bay Regional Career and Technical Education Program), and the Todd Radenbaugh People’s Choice Award (Petla Noden, Curyung Tribe and UAF Sustainable Energy Program student).

Weather routinely causes travel delays and cancellations in rural Alaskan communities, and WAISC was not spared. A flight set to bring the majority of presenters to Dillingham the day before the conference was canceled, jeopardizing the entire meeting. Alaska Airlines arranged an unscheduled second flight to Dillingham the next day, allowing the conference to be held.

“Through all the changes, presenters and participants were flexible, and maintained positive attitudes,” said conference chair Eric Goddard, assistant professor at the UAF Bristol Bay Campus. “Despite the delays, we wanted to make sure all speakers were able to give their full presentations as planned and have a meaningful experience.”

WAISC was organized by a planning committee led by Alaska Sea Grant and the UAF Bristol Bay Campus, with the support of several financial contributors. The conference committee would like to thank the UAF One Health BLaST Program, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Alaska Space Grant, UAF EPSCoR, and many community members and partners, including the local churches and the Bristol Inn and Diner.

During the opening remarks, Goddard held a moment of silence in recognition of the late Todd Radenbaugh, a member of the Bristol Bay Campus faculty who was instrumental in the creation of WAISC. Dr. Radenbaugh’s vision of an interdisciplinary gathering of scientists, educators, and artists with a focus on the issues important to Western Alaska is still going strong after 15 years.Planning is underway for the next Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference scheduled for Spring 2024. If you are interested in hosting a conference in your Western Alaska community, contact Tav Ammu or Eric Goddard.