Addressing Climate Change in the Aleutians and Bering Sea

Author: Aaron Poe | Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative

The Aleutians divide the Bering Sea from the rest of the North Pacific, and together with the Pribilof Islands and St. Lawrence Island, host nine of the most remote communities in the United States. The residents of these communities depend on the region’s rich biological productivity. Changes in temperature, sea ice extent, and storminess will likely affect many key species in this region and the people who rely on them. This begs the question, “What will tomorrow look like in the decades to come given climate change impacts in the region?”

In 2013 the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative (ABSI), together with the Alaska Climate Science Center, launched a partnership with the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) to assess climate impacts on key species and ecosystem services in the Aleutians and Bering Sea.  This project brought together a team of 30 scientists and managers from agencies, tribal organizations, and universities.  The team used results from two recent climate downscaling efforts by the University of Washington and NOAA’s Pacific Marine Ecology Lab, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to guide their assessment.

The scientists worked in five teams to assess potential climate change threats across a broad range of resources, evaluating everything from archeological sites to zooplankton. The largest team combined sociologists and anthropologists to evaluate climate vulnerabilities associated with socioeconomic and cultural resources vital to the region’s nine island communities. Other teams focused on seabirds; marine mammals; terrestrial vegetation; and species important to commercial fisheries of the region. Their combined efforts will help to identify collective future research priorities of ABSI, the Alaska Climate Science Center, and AOOS.

Museum of the Aleutians meeting.

Museum of the Aleutians meeting.

The island communities in this region are a key focus of this assessment. During one community forum in the region’s largest town of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, our team heard about changes residents already see that they attribute to climate change. Changing weather conditions and warmer ocean waters threaten the viability of traditional harvest practices that island tribes have used for generations to survive in this remote region. Residents expressed concerns about climate change interacting with possible impacts from the complex and sophisticated fishing industry that is so vital to the region’s economy—which also accounts for 50% of the total annual U.S. seafood harvest. We hope this session can be the first in a series of discussions about climate change in this region and our team is looking for opportunities to further engage with these nine island communities on this topic.

The final report from this project will be released in spring of 2015 and will include collective future research priorities of ABSI, the Alaska Climate Science Center, and AOOS as we aim to help communities and managers adapt to climate change. More information on this collaboration funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and NOAA is available at www.absilcc.org or by contacting Aaron Poe aaron_poe@fws.gov.

Unalaska_city_centerHeader image: Unalaska city center.

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