Northern Test Case

mapThe Northern Test Case focused on Nuiqsut, a 400-person Inupiaq village located 18 miles from the Arctic Ocean (map) that relies heavily on traditional subsistence resources. Nuiqsut faces change on multiple fronts: first, Arctic Alaska communities are experiencing the strongest climate signals in the United States, with increases in average surface temperature and fire frequency, thawing permafrost, changes in terrestrial hydrology, reduction of sea ice, increased storm surges, changes in vegetation, shifts in seasonality, and resultant changes in several important ecosystem services. Second, Nuiqsut is increasingly surrounded by oil and gas development.

As a result, Nuiqsut is subject to substantial amounts of land cover-land use change, as well as social changes. The consequences of hydrological and landscape change have already affected subsistence harvest patterns and heightened safety concerns for traveling for traditional harvests. Research objectives of the Northern Test Case were to:

  • Understand how hydrological, landscape, and land use changes are affecting ecosystem services.
  • Understand the consequences of changes on a village cash-subsistence economy.
  • Evaluate the capacity of North Slope households and communities to respond to changes.

Northern Test Case researchers studied hydrologic and ecological implications of thawing permafrost in tundra polygons, and regime shifts in bedfast and floating ice lakes and their implications to ecosystems and ice roads. Researchers refined a Terrestrial Ecosystem Model (TEM), which predicts emerging plant assemblages in the test case region, and used it to study the relationship between vegetation change and historic caribou populations. Researchers analyzed data on shrubs and browsing along an Arctic transect to understand changes in moose habitat and model future moose distribution. They also developed a prototype social-ecological systems model that examines the implications of climate change scenarios on moose distribution and abundance and local subsistence hunting of moose.

The test case recruited two cohorts of Nuiqsut hunters to use camera-equipped GPSes to document change they see as important. These data were entered into a StoryMap program to illustrate observations and hunters’ comments, and project input resulted in a follow-up study in which audio recorders were used to record soundscape disturbance from aircraft.

The test case also developed an instrument to measure indigenous perceptions of risk and local control over risk-limiting mechanisms, and administered it to tribal council members in six communities. A student undertook a case study of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Subsistence Oversight Panel, evaluating the effectiveness of federal arrangements to incorporate traditional knowledge and shape decisions to meet community interests.

Research by the test case's Faculty Team and participating researchers resulted in more than 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals and books. Test Case researchers also held workshops in Fairbanks and Nuiqsut in 2017 and 2018 to discuss research with local residents and to share findings through a series of presentations. The test case produced a Community Report detailing its study of Nuiqsut residents' perceptions of climate change and how they compare to scientific data. Another noteworthy NTC product is a PDF map of river depth on the Colville River, enabling improved navigation of the important Nuiqsut-area waterway.