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Local Observers Track Environmental, Health Trends

A surge of unusual weather and animal sightings prompted the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to set up a system to get local observations online and out to experts for feedback. Now the Local Environmental Observer Network is under development for expansion across the Arctic.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

When researchers came across hundreds of dead salmon strewn across a dry riverbed near Seldovia, Alaska last summer, they filed their observation with the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network, an online tool created and managed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. An unusually warm winter, followed by a hot spring and summer had left the river the salmon used to access their spawning grounds without water.

The LEO network encourages Alaska residents – sometimes living in remote locations – to log unusual animal, weather and environmental events, so that they can be studied and made sense of in the context of environmental change. Sea otter strandings, early ice thaws, off-season sightings of black bears and beluga whales, and sea bird die-offs are among the notes uploaded by citizens, which are later commented on by topic experts. LEO sees itself as the “eyes, ears and voice of [Alaska’s] changing environment.”

Arctic Deeply spoke with Michael Brubaker, director of community, environment and safety and director of the Center for Climate and Health for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium about LEO and its role in understanding the Arctic environment and the health of its residents.

Arctic Deeply: Why did you develop the Local Environmental Observer Network and what are its aims?

Michael Brubaker: I work for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the statewide arm of the tribal health system in Alaska. We have a responsibility to assist regional tribal organizations in performing public health outreach, including epidemiology and community health, and we co-run the largest native hospital in the state in Anchorage. We also do design, construction and assistance with operation of water and sanitation infrastructure.

Looking back about a decade or more, we started hearing more and more about unusual events – weather, seasonality, storm events, changes in winter conditions, extreme heat, unusual species – all these different things that we’re tracking now around the circumpolar north. The leadership for the tribal health system asked whether there might be implications for community health and if we should be doing anything differently. There were a lot of questions.

We started by going to communities to have listening sessions, and to find out from knowledgeable people what significant changes they were seeing. We started scanning through news for events that looked like they might be related to climate change and put them on Google Maps and published them in an e-newsletter that was sent out to a wide variety of people in and around Alaska – and, later, beyond – who we felt should be informed and who we realized could help us make sense of this puzzle and how it affects health.

As we started doing these assessments, we realized that they weren’t just isolated events, but they were happening all over the place and it was affecting food, water security, and infrastructure. There were new types of illness and new ways for people to get injured. There was a lot going on, and we realized that we needed a way to track the information to get help and, more importantly, to connect people in communities with topic experts and resources so they could begin to work on these problems themselves.

There are some existing professional networks in Alaska that include community health aids, water operators, people who work on natural resource management, and tribal environmental leaders, those of us in the tribal health system.

If we built a tool, they could send a signal when they see something significant happening. We could track it on a map and connect them in an email with people who are topic experts. We gave people a tool so that they could share an observation, get answerS to inform their community – is my food safe to eat, for example – and help us assess the bigger trends that were happening.

Arctic Deeply: It’s not only about what people are seeing, but how they value what they are seeing and whether they think it is important?

Michael Brubaker: We focused on a question that is simple to ask, but complex in its processing. It requires someone who is incredibly familiar with their local environment to make the judgement and it requires someone who is engaged with their community to know what is appropriate or inappropriate to share from a social standpoint. We told the communities that whatever they shared would be public and that they had to decide within their communities what met the criteria of being unusual, unprecedented and significant and worthwhile to share. It’s worked really well.

Arctic Deeply: How does it work?

Michael Brubaker: When a post comes in from a local observer, the geographer who works on the map reviews it and then passes it to an editor. There may be some follow-up communication with the observer. Then we send an email to an expert who will know how to respond to the observation. We ask them to review it and provide a consult. People know how it works now – we’re trying to keep it as an email, not a major research project. A final approver makes the decision to post it publicly. We don’t post everything and we don’t refer everything for consults.

If it looks like a trend, we add it as an additional case study to a trend map or a trend post. For example, we have 15 different sea bird die-off observations, and on that report we have all the observers as co-authors, and all the consultants that participated.

We see ourselves as pre-monitoring and pre-research. We’re the observers: Here’s the observation and the initial statement. We see this as a way to bring together people who have local and traditional knowledge with those who have a science background – and who might have never otherwise had a chance to work together.

Arctic Deeply: How quickly are you able to turn these observations into posts?

Michael Brubaker: So far, we don’t really market ourselves as an alert response type of service. If there is something major going on, we’re not saying “Call us.” But we’re good at getting stuff on the map. Usually, if it is something that is low risk, I see a new bug, I see a new this, I see a new that, sometimes we’ll get it up right away, but a consult might take a little longer.

We want to be as responsible as we can in trying to allow the traditional knowledge and local knowledge keepers to engage with the scientists and together to figure it out. The conversations that start are really interesting.

Last summer we had a tribal environmental manager in Seldovia post an observation about a huge die-off of pink salmon in the river because the river was drying up. The fish and game officials responded and said, the die off was probably due to the huge run of pinks that were entering the system. But the community head responded that the town was seeing a 100 percent die off and there was no water at all – the river was dry. At that point, the fish and game official said he was going to come out and take a look.

Every system is different. But together they figured it out.

Arctic Deeply: How do you monitor trends?

Michael Brubaker: When we see a series of posts coming in that seem to be related, we link them together to form a trend. It lives on the map like that. You can search for the word “trend.” If you use the “Explore” feature of the map, trends will pop up. But it is something that the hub creates by bundling the posts together.

We have a trend on sea mammal die-off over the past year. We also have a sea-bird die-off trend, an unusually warm weather trend, and we have a harmful algal bloom trend. If you look at the marine mammal one, what’s really interesting, is that it offers an ecological view. You get a view from the community about what they think is important.

We’ve had the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Lab from Madison, WI – the leads for following this bird die-off – and we’ve had them come up and show us their comprehensive map of where the bird die-off is occurring – and it turns out the local observations coming in about high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning, about the marine die-off, about the bird die-off – it’s all happening in the same part of Alaska. It’s not a smoking gun, but it does help you ask questions and it does help to track the problem.

We also hold a quarterly meeting called the One-Health Group with people who are interested in wildlife health, human health and environmental health. We look at the trends being reported by the observer network and look for emerging threats: Avian cholera or avian influenza, wildlife die offs – the things that are going to threaten people’s food security or water security.

Arctic Deeply: How has it changed since you started it?

Michael Brubaker: Now we have an app so that people can put it on their phones. It used to be select group, but now we’ve opened it up. We want good observers in Alaska. Whether you work in a tribal government as an environmental manager or whether you are a commercial fisherman or a bush pilot. If you are a good observer and you know some place really well, and you are seeing change that you think is significant, you can post an observation, too.

Arctic Deeply: Can the system expand beyond Alaska?

Michael Brubaker: The ANTHC built the system, but we also wear the hat right now as the only hub in Alaska. The whole system is developed around the idea that to make it all work, everyone has to share and be cooperative. Now we’re hearing from places outside of Alaska that want to develop their own programs. For it to work, it requires someone who has a good relationship with the communities in the area and who knows who the players are.

We hope to see other hubs develop in different places where people are applying the tool. In the long run, we may build the software so that it is robust enough to help the users find consults and maybe even crowdsource some vetting of the posts automatically. But you still need people involved to do the analysis and identify trends – and initiate some kind of action when it’s needed.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation has contacted us to translate the app tools into French and Spanish and to add a handbook to the website so they can create regional hubs and run pilots in Mexico and Canada.

LEO has also been recognized as one of the projects the U.S. will focus on during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council. There’s a meeting in Finland later this year that will introduce the concept of a circumpolar LEO network and give representatives a chance to kick the tires and see how it works.

Arctic Deeply: Where do you hope this will go?

Michael Brubaker: It’s a great example of how one community can help another. This is a moment in time when we’re seeing all this global, dramatic and rather frightening change. And we’re also at a point where communication systems and technology provide opportunities to work together more effectively than we ever could before. There is a whole lot of hope and potential.

Top image: A growing number of dead whale sightings are being added to the Local Environmental Observer Network. The die offs are part of a 2015 Gulf of Alaska Large Whale Unusual Mortality Event. This June 2015 photo shows a fin whale carcass found on Whale Island, Alaska in the Kodiak Archipelago. (Dr. Bree Witteveen/Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program via AP)

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