St. Lawrence received three NSF grants this year. A professor and student will use a $78,872 grant to travel—twice—to the Arctic’s Bering Sea Region and study the traditional ecological knowledge of the Siberian Yupik tribe.
Jon Rosales wants to know which way the wind blows on St. Lawrence Island.
The St. Lawrence University professor of environmental studies has been researching climate change on the Arctic island for more than a decade. Working with members of the island’s native Siberian Yupik tribe, Rosales has found a clear indicator of the region’s profoundly changing climate: tundra grass.
“For thousands of years,” Rosales says, “the tundra grass would lay to the south-southeast. And that’s consistent with colder winds coming out of the north. Over the past 20 to 30 years, though, climate change allows weather systems to migrate farther north, pushing the grass in new directions.”
Also called “grass lay,” it’s now so erratic that it can no longer be used by the Siberian Yupik for orienting hunting parties traveling across the tundra.
“This was their compass,” Rosales says. “It was their way-finding mechanism. If you got lost on the tundra—say on a foggy or snowy day—some tribal elders told me that they were taught to dig down into the snow and look at the direction of grass lay. It reliably pointed southeast for millennia, but now it’s flipped. So, their compass is broken. From the Yupik perspective, the grass lay now is just wrong.”
The tribe’s understanding of natural features like grass lay are also called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). For scientists and researchers, TEK can offer a storehouse of information and perspective on the environments of indigenous people.
Ice is another example. The Siberian Yupik members’ detailed knowledge of ice goes far beyond that of the established scientific community. According to Rosales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—the source of weather info and data used by millions of Americans—tracks about six different words for ice; the Siberian Yupik have more than 100.
“We need to learn these traditional methods of assessing the world,” Rosales says, “because they are scientific. They’re observational and repeated. That’s really valuable in remote places like St. Lawrence Island. We can’t just haul instruments out there. Satellites aren’t refined enough to measure the kinds of data we get from the TEK of the Siberian Yupik.”
This summer, Rosales and one of his students, Amanda Barreto Salguiero ’23, will travel to St. Lawrence Island to research grass lay and the TEK culture that surrounds it. The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded Rosales the $78,872 grant to support this work for two years. That means next year he’ll make the trip again with another student.
“This is what the NSF calls a planning grant,” he says. “We’ll use the money to go to the Bering Strait, learn all we can, and gain as much TEK from the Yupik as we can. Next year, I’ll be applying for a larger grant that will enable me and at least one other St. Lawrence student to return to the island and do more—and more in-depth—research.”
Professor Rosales received his first NSF grant for Bering Strait climate research from 2016 to 2018. Funding for this project exceeded $90,000 and helped Rosales explore the possibility of using traditional ecological knowledge to reduce scientific uncertainty of storm trends in the region.
For nearly 10 years, Rosales and 10 students have worked on the AKSIK Project, documenting changes in climate and indigenous culture in the Bering Sea. AKSIK is an acronym for Alaskans Sharing Indigenous Knowledge. “Aksik” is also a Siberian Yupik word, often used by seafaring captains when boat crews need to turn their craft quickly, as if to avoid danger or move in a new direction. To date, Rosales’ students have produced four documentaries and even more research papers detailing the Arctic climate and lifestyles of the Yupik.
For more information about supporting the research projects conducted by St. Lawrence faculty and students, please contact Associate Vice President for University Advancement Kim Hissong '94, at (315) 229-5837 or email email@example.com.