A Tale of Two Villages

Jon Rosales and his students study climate change where the impact is great

By Mark Mende

When Jon Rosales decided to conduct research in the tiny Alaskan village of Savoonga, he was doing so not only because it was an excellent location to track the impact of global climate change. He was also repaying a debt to his wife’s family.

Rosales’s wife, Matilda Larson, comes from Savoonga, and village tradition holds that a prospective husband has to work for his future wife’s family to prove his value before being allowed to marry her. While Matilda’s family told him he didn’t have to fulfill that requirement, he felt obligated to uphold their traditions.

The ties that connect Rosales, associate professor of environmental studies, to the region don’t stop there:

--Savoonga is on a Bering Sea island whose name is St. Lawrence.

-- Shaktoolik, his other research site, on Norton Sound in the Bering Sea, has experienced more intense fall storms due to climate change, with the last three such storms all occurring on November 9–Rosales’s birthday.

“I knew climate change was happening faster in Alaska,” says Rosales, making it an ideal research site. Accompanied by students, he has been doing research there since 2009. He has been supported mainly by St. Lawrence’s Crossing Boundaries project, which is funded through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. University Fellowships have helped support the students. “St. Lawrence has been great that way,” Rosales comments.

 He and his students have been interviewing residents for videos (see www.aksik.org). Since there is not a lot of measurable physical evidence of the impact of global climate change on Savoonga and Shaktoolik, they instead rely largely on stories that the residents tell.

While gaining the trust of the villagers in Savoonga was not a problem for Rosales because of his ties to Larson’s family, it was more of a challenge in Shaktoolik. He hired a village coordinator there to help ease the way.

“They look at you with a little suspicion,” Rosales explains. “They want to know, ‘are you going to take our fish, our uranium, our artifacts’?”

Now that Rosales and his students have been accepted, he plans on narrowing his focus to better document and eventually quantify the growing ferocity of the fall storms, and their impact.

“I want to come up with a way to measure local traditional knowledge. If we can, then we will be filling a scientific gap,” Rosales says.

Rosales, who addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on Earth Day 2013 and has been active as part of the Climate Action Plan at St. Lawrence, is hoping that his research might lead to action at the government level to help the people of Savoonga and Shaktoolik deal with their changing environment.

Undoubtedly, his efforts have satisfied his wife’s family.

For more information about Jon Rosales’ research, visit www.aksik.org.