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UA Awarded $20 Million

The University of Alaska was awarded $20 million by the National Science Foundation to investigate the effects of climate change on culturally and commercially important marine species in the Gulf of Alaska.

Juneau, Alaska

Date of Press Release: April 16, 2024

Researcher taking sediment sample
Researcher taking sediment sample

The University of Alaska was awarded $20 million by the National Science Foundation to investigate the effects of climate change on culturally and commercially important marine species in the Gulf of Alaska. Led by UAF’s Brenda Konar, the effort unites 23 University Alaska researchers working within eight coastal communities: Seldovia, Halibut Cove, Homer, Cordova, Valdez, Juneau, Haines, and Klukwan.

University of Alaska Southeast Associate Research Professor of Environmental Science and Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center Director Jason Fellman is one of five principal investigators on the project. In addition to Fellman, University of Alaska Southeast researchers include Eran Hood, Sonia Nagorski, and Julie Schram. The research efforts in Southeast will center on the impacts that increasing glacial runoff and atmospheric rivers may have on coastal ecosystems and habitat for marine species such as red seaweed.

“Our focus is looking at the impact of extreme hydrologic forces, understanding glacial runoff, and how these factors influence land to ocean fluxes. In particular, we’re looking at sediment, turbidity, and freshwater impact to nearshore marine habitat where mariculture occurs. As the frequency of these extreme events increases, we can assess how mariculture will be impacted and where the ideal places to focus efforts will be,” said Fellman.

The five-year study is the result of Interface of Change, a multimillion dollar project directed by the Alaska Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, a statewide program funded by the National Science Foundation that has been administered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks since 2001.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski praised the project’s value. “This funding will equip local experts with the necessary knowledge to cultivate resilient business practices, help coastal infrastructure, and will further cement the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a preeminent research institution,” Murkowski said.

Warming temperatures due to climate change are increasing glacial melt which flush large amounts of freshwater, sediment, and nutrients into the Gulf of Alaska altering nearshore conditions of the Gulf’s nearshore coastal environment. Researchers will study how the changing environment is affecting the coastal marine species and the wellbeing of the peoples who rely on them.

“Science, technology, and innovation-based solutions for mitigation, adaptation, and resilience to climate events are increasingly important to our nation’s communities,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “This important EPSCoR award will help build resilience to climate risks unique to Alaska, educate their citizens, protect infrastructure and safeguard these states’ economic futures.” 

The project’s priorities were determined during conversations that took place over a two-year span with tribal entities, shellfish and kelp farmers, among other stakeholders in the coastal region. Community input focused the project on red seaweeds, kelp, oysters, clams, mussels, salmon, and eulachon (commonly called hooligan or candlefish).

Skye Steritz is one of the key community collaborators chosen from each region. “I have been very impressed by how engaged the scientists are with the communities they work in,” said Steritz, owner of Noble Ocean Farms in Cordova. “We need research like this that is grounded in stakeholder priorities.”

“We want our research to be community-driven, addressing locally relevant issues,” Fellman concurred. “By working with the people affected by these issues and establishing partnerships with two-way communication, we hope to develop meaningful knowledge to adapt to climate change and improve food security.”

Davin Holen, one of the project’s five co-leaders, and University of Alaska Anchorage epidemiology researcher Mica Hahn will arrange annual workshops to invite community feedback and discuss progress in group discussions. They will hire local coordinators to facilitate workshops and offer an honorarium for community participants to compensate for the time and the information they're giving.

People interested in project updates will be able to browse online dashboards and databases that will make project data and results publicly available.