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Symposium looks at Arctic conservation, stewardship

February 8th, 2013 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

Though Alaska's Marine Science Symposium covered dozens of vital ocean topics, a few common threads marked the late-January gathering of scientists. For Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a paramount theme throughout the many issues covered was the high rate of change sweeping through northern ecosystems. Scientific observers have noted this across the board - from the melting sea ice and tumultuous weather, to shifting animal patterns.

"There's so much rapid, rapid change right now (and) in the last decade," Williams said, "and it seems to be accelerating."

Williams is the managing director of the fund's Arctic Field Program, and led a symposium workshop entitled "A Vision of Stewardship in the Arctic." The panel discussion focused on the enhancement of human resilience and ecological well being as parallel goals in Arctic management.

The fund has a presence in all of the Arctic's circumpolar countries except Iceland, where they have an associate. The organization has spent more than two decades in the Arctic, focusing on both wildlife conservation and ecosystem health - including that of human inhabitants.

The method of that conservation is changing though, Williams said. While in the past they were able to focus on preserving present ecosystems, they now need to anticipate the conservation needs of the rapidly developing future.

"The Arctic is just changing so quickly that we have to look ahead," Williams said. "We have to think about, what are the interventions we can make to allow for the ecosystem and the human systems to be as resilient as possible. And we call this approach stewardship."

From the fund's perspective, there are a lot of considerations that come into play with that approach, Williams said, including both ecological and social systems.

"It's not just about saving whales, or protecting migratory pathways," she said. "(It's also) promoting transparency and management framework in a way that allows for adaptation and change."

The panelists included human ecologist Dr. Phillip Loring from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dr. Ryan Wilson from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Phillip Martin from the Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and fund senior conservation scientist John Morrison.

The discussion was well attended, Williams said, and included a Shell Oil representative, Fran Ulmer from the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and regional community representatives.

One of the great elements to come out of the panel, Williams said, was a discussion about the tools scientists are using to both monitor and predict ecosystem changes.

She was particularly interested in a model developed by Ryan Wilson to project human activity patterns in a particular place.

"My hope is to hear about tools that are helping people think ahead," Williams said.

This particular model looked at different scenarios for development of the NPR-A, and how the future of each scenario would look in terms of people, animals and infrastructure.

"It's very useful, it's very defensible and it's replicable," Williams said. "And those are the kinds of tools that can help us all as we think through different scenarios."

This applies to looking at wetlands drying up, increases in ship traffic in the Bering Strait, natural oil and gas development, and countless other changes taking place in Alaska's backyard.

It's a practical tool for planning and understanding our ecological future, Williams said.

From Phillip Loring came some thought-provoking observations and questions about climate change adaptation, Williams said. He noted that part of looking at sustainability in an ecosystem is considering the resiliency of social systems, community health, and vital resources like food, water and energy.

From the attendees there was some concern voiced for a lack of stewardship in the present development of oil and gas resources. There was also a strong defense of the Native Alaskan natural ability to adapt and change with the environment, a process that Inupiaq communities have lived and thrived through for centuries.

The symposium featured a variety of well-known scientists, many of whom took part in the Arctic Stewardship workshop. That included Jim Overland from the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, who is a leader in the study of sea ice. Prominent U.S. ecologist Jacqueline Drumheller also attended, along with biologist George Divoky, who has been studying the birds of Cooper Island for more than 35 years. The diversity of attendance reflected a varied and active interest in Arctic stewardship that crosses many specialties.

The organization looks closely at the "ecosystem services" a specific region provides to its inhabitants, Williams said. That could mean the Himalayan ice cap providing clean drinking water for locals, or healthy soil in the American Midwest creating good growing conditions for farmers. The Arctic has many such examples, Williams said, and stewardship recognizes those services and works to protect them within the human system.

The fund identifies as a science-based, solutions-oriented organization that advocates for a sustainable relationship with the natural world. That sustainability may be for hunters or for energy consumption; for habitat protection or a village's access to clean water.

"We are not, I would say, an animal welfare organization, not anti-hunting or anti-development," Williams said. "We really try to find practical solutions that will (help) people but also help us meet our conservation goals."

More and more, those goals must stray from the model of preserving historic and present ecological standards, and must stretch to accommodate future needs.

"I think about climate change every single day," Williams said. "The rate of change in the last six years is just extraordinary. And there have all been all kinds of models. In the early 2000s some scientists predicted by mid-century we could be facing an Arctic summer free of sea ice."

In the face of such prospects, Williams said, it's time for a shift from a conservation conceptual framework to one of active and dynamic stewardship.

For more information on the symposium visit

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at


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