Southeast Test Case


Southeast Alaska (map) encompasses the state’s panhandle and is primarily a coastal mountainous region composed of extensive temperate rainforest and permanent ice fields. Glacial recession is the area’s predominant driver of environmental change.

This glacial retreat strongly affects water discharge, which will in turn alters the properties of hydrological systems and has consequences for stream and estuarine ecosystems that serve as reservoirs of biological productivity, especially for bellwether resources such as salmon and plankton. Glacial retreat also accelerates forest succession, which alters carbon sequestration potential, the structure of riparian corridors, and the flux of organic biomass to streams. These glacier-driven processes have the potential to radically alter access to and availability of key resources, such as salmon and the forests and other habitats which support tourism.

The Southeast Test Case focused on patterns of key variables - including ice, freshwater, alluvial forest, estuaries, salmon, and plankton - to better understand the consequences of changing environments. Researchers evaluated community-level social consequences as well as the adaptive capacity of tourism businesses and resource managers to respond to projected changes to these variables. The objectives of the test case were to:

  • Understand how climate dynamics influence the spatio-temporal variability of key ecosystem indicators: ice, freshwater hydroecology, estuarine productivity, and floodplain forest.
  • Understand the values of, and consequences for, the ecosystem services associated with these indicators.
  • Evaluate the capacities of resource managers and nature-based tourism operators to perceive, project and respond to changes in these services.

Test case researchers collected over 30 types of data from 14 different instruments in Berners Bay. They also collected data from 70 regional streams and conducted transboundary research with partners in British Columbia. Researchers processed oceanographic datasets and analyzed the coupling of these marine patterns to hydrological, glacier, and meteorological data. They analyzed environmental data to complete climate downscaling and derive future scenarios of hydro-ecological variability.

Junior faculty collected interview and survey data from resource managers, tour operators, and resource users, and used this data to assess perceptions of, and responses to, environmental change, and to assign economic values to ecosystem services. This data was incorporated into scenarios of future icefield conditions. SETC held stakeholder meetings for glacier and marine tour guides and for tour operators and resource managers. These events engaged stakeholders to share results, solicit feedback, and enable collection of data on decision-making practices under uncertain environmental conditions. The test case developed an integrated-ecosystem model (IEM) of the icefield-to-estuary ecosystem, which is linked to agent-based modeling, economic valuations of ecosystem services, and stakeholder-derived adaptive capacity data to assess local adaptive capacity.

Research by the test case's Leadership Team and participating researchers resulted in more than 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals and books. The test case also produced an award-winning poster describing its research area, and provided the poster to tour guides throughout Juneau for use as an educational tool. It's also the centerpiece of a "From Icefield to Ocean" pamphlet that was provided to tour guides and which provides a good overview of the test case's mission. The pamphlet is also available on Issuu.