Building a Human Environmental Observing Network


Scientists usually employ tools like weather stations, ocean buoys and satellites to create an environmental observing system. But there’s one cost effective and plentiful tool that, until now, has been largely overlooked by the scientific community: humans.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Lilian Alessa, along with Victoria Gofman of the Aleut International Association, has spent the last several years tapping the human resources within remote Native communities in Alaska and the Russian Far East to create a network of human sensors gathering data on the environmental changes happening around them.

Alessa is the director of the Resilience and Adaptive Management Group at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where she works to use innovative methodologies to study how humans adapt to environmental changes. And with the Bering Sea Sub Network Project (BSSN), she and Gofman are introducing communities as effective sensors for detecting changes in the Arctic.

“The Bering Sea Sub Network project uses human beings, instead of machines, to monitor for environmental changes. We call this a human sensor array,” Alessa explained. “It’s pretty cool because it relies on people who are very intimately embedded in their physical environments. We call them ‘memory cells’ because they are usually older and immersed in the landscape daily and are engaged in subsistence activities.”

A Grassroots Effort

The BSSN started three years ago as a pilot study to test if such a novel idea would succeed. When community leaders were first approached with this idea, they were more than willing to participate and help drum up local support. Now there are over 14 communities across Alaska and eastern Russia actively participating as scientific partners serving on the project steering committee and designing surveys in Russian and Yupik to collect data. Most are hunters, fishermen or both.

“The communities are amazing! We have residents serving as village coordinators in each community who administer the surveys. It’s really an emergent, collaborative grass roots project by communities for communities,” Alessa said.

The human environmental change sensors have already reported observations on everything from changing weather patterns to troubling signs in key food species like fish and marine mammals.

‘Memory Cell’ Observations

Interestingly, the observations not only shed light on potential environmental changes, but also illustrate how exposure to scientific literature and ideas on climate change can impact what we perceive is the cause of certain changes.

Surveys administered to Alaskan participants came back with reports of weather pattern changes such as more or less snowfall and wind changes.  More often than not the weather variations were attributed to climate change.

In eastern Russia, people reported noticing differences in the health of certain important subsistence species. They indicated seeing smaller fish that yielded poor quality meat and noticed an increase of disease. Most believed the causes of such changes were related to water contaminants and nearby land development projects.

“In Alaska, where the residents are exposed more to the ideas and science about climate change, we tend to hear more about climate change. In the Russian Far East, where residents have not had that kind of exposure, they don’t really refer to climate change. They tell us these things are variable but have always been variable. So it’s actually two different mind sets,” Alessa explained.

Lessons For The Scholar

Over the course of the two-year pilot phase, the human observers have taught Alessa a number of things. She points out that the finer, local-scale environmental changes are much more variable that she had expected. She also notes that unanticipated subtle changes, like decline in fish condition, were recorded at a much higher magnitude. “We really need to know the pattern of these changes from the bottom up. A lot of climate models are so coarse that sometimes they really don’t have much application to everyday life for people on the ground,” she said.

Economies of Information

The community support and participation does more than provide researchers like Alessa with data about small, on-the-ground environmental changes, it also encourages communities to help themselves and their neighbors adapt to conditions that affect their way of life.

At this stage in the project Alessa and her colleagues are working with the groups to discern what’s really a change or a trend versus what may be a slight annual variation. But the ultimate goal of the project goes further than that.

“If one community says ‘hey we’ve made this observation and this was a problem, but here’s how we dealt with it and it worked really well,’ that’s great. The communities have said that’s what they want to do—they want to trade information with each other, as well as hear about what worked and what didn’t work for others so they don’t make the same mistake. They’ll be economies of information,” she said.

The BSSN recently received five more years of funding from the NSF. In that time Alsessa and her colleagues will continue to maintain constant communication with those communities already involved, and reach out to others in Alaska and the Russian Far East to broaden the network of human sensors across the Arctic.

“We can do more with environmental human sensor arrays. And not just in the north or remote places, but in all kind of settings—urban, suburban, rural. People say that is controversial because they don’t want others watching things. But we do actually want people watching things as long as they are things like garbage levels in a community or river status, for example. We really want to improve our ability to use citizen scientists,” Alessa said.  —Alicia Clarke