Adaptive Coupling of Human Environment Linkages in Response to Globally Driven Changes in Subsistence in Rural Alaska

An active and productive subsistence lifestyle is nutritionally and culturally critical to rural communities in Alaska, yet changes in climate and rising energy costs are challenging rural residents' ability to conduct subsistence activities. Changes in climate will alter ecosystem structure and function, affecting the distribution of subsistence resources and access to the areas where resources are harvested. High fuel costs (e.g., heating, transportation) have forced rural households to make economic sacrifices to maintain and use equipment needed for subsistence. To address these issues, this project will: 1) document specific impacts that environmental change and energy costs are having on subsistence, 2) identify and link characteristics of the human (e.g., policy, household economics) and natural (e.g., climate patterns, landscape change) system that influence vulnerability to impacts, 3) evaluate the effectiveness of current responses to impacts, and 4) enhance communication networks among communities and researchers to foster future adaptation to globally-driven changes. Rather than considering global-change adaptation as a set of discrete actions, this research will treat actions as feedback loops that link social and ecological components at community and regional scales and will test the hypothesis that ineffective adaptation to global change results in part from weak or missing feedbacks. The project involves collaboration with local communities as well as with federal, state, and tribal organizations in Alaska to develop and enhance networks that invent, test, and share adaptations at regional and larger scales. It will enhance capacity to adapt to environmental change in Alaska by engaging community leaders and training graduate students, many of whom are Alaska Natives, in an interdisciplinary research process. Of the 14-member project team, 21% are Alaska Native, 50% are women, and 43% are early-career scholars.

This project will develop a novel framework (adaptive coupling) to study adaptation in social-ecological systems. It will integrates vulnerability and resilience science in a systems context. Rather than considering global-change adaptation as a set of discrete actions, it treats these as feedback loops that link social-ecological components at community and regional scales. The project will test the hypothesis that ineffective adaptation to global change results in part from weak or missing feedbacks from impacts on communities back to the local drivers or factors mediating community sensitivity to these drivers. The investigators seek to understand reasons for weak or missing feedbacks. The research will contribute to theory by integrating qualitative insights from the social sciences (especially related to political ecology and adaptive and collaborative capacities) with more quantitative information from ecology, hydrology, and economics within a systems framework. The dynamics and pathways by which adaptation scales from individual communities to a region will be investigated. In contrast to the literature on top-down diffusion of innovation from agencies to local entities, the investigators will focus on the grassroots emergence of novelty and factors that influence its regional diffusion. The focus on the interface between theory and practical application of knowledge in local communities has the potential to transform the western linear (loading dock) model of science to a more iterative adaptive approach that recognizes the intellectual value of local knowledge and the importance of real-world application as a learning laboratory.




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