UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Climate change in the Arctic is becoming evident as temperatures soar and Indigenous communities on the Alaskan coast face severe, urgent, and complex social and infrastructure challenges. A Penn State collection of research in the region, driven by social science and in collaboration with engineering and science, will address these challenges.
Strengthening the Arctic’s infrastructure and social resilience
The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Navigating the New Arctic program recently awarded a $3 million grant to researchers at Penn State and the University of New Hampshire to study the impact of earthquakes on public welfare, awareness and preparedness to check for potential earthquakes.
“More Arctic research is needed to inform society and ensure the safety and resilience of the entire region and the world,” said Guangqing Chi, senior researcher at Penn State, professor of rural sociology, demography and public health in the Department of Agriculture Economics, Sociology, and Education and Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) co-funded faculty member.
Chi, who leads the social science aspects of the project, will focus on societal changes and community preparedness due to the earthquakes, while Majid Ghayoomi, associate professor and senior principal investigator at the University of New Hampshire, will look at the impact on infrastructure becomes .
The new funding will leverage an existing $3 million Pursuing Opportunities for Long-term Arctic Resilience for Infrastructure and Society project, or POLARIS, also funded by NSF.
“POLARIS brings together researchers from diverse fields with local community members to study demographics, sociology, economics, environmental sciences, anthropology, indigenous knowledge, nutrition and ecology to create innovative partnerships and discussions,” said Chi, who also serves as the director of the Population Research Institute and SSRI Computational and Spatial Analysis Core at Penn State.
In another project funded by the NSF America’s Infrastructure Strengthening Program, Chi studied the importance of bridges to the well-being of remote Alaskan communities and developed a protocol for these and other communities to fund, build, monitor, and maintain bridges .
After conducting a series of surveys, the researchers summarize their findings on policy recommendations for bridge life cycle management that are transferrable to other rural, indigenous and vulnerable communities in the US and other Arctic countries.
Other Penn State researchers on this project include Rebecca Napolitano, assistant professor of architectural engineering, Megan Mucioki, assistant professor of research at SSRI, and Heather Randell, assistant professor of rural sociology and demography and a faculty member co-funded by SSRI.
“The Bridging the Arctic project is unique in that it brings together the social sciences, engineering and education to understand the impact of bridges on many facets of life in rural Alaska, from access to health care to food security,” said Mucioki. “Ice-dependent transportation is becoming increasingly dangerous in Alaska and this project is an important aspect of the community’s adaptation to these changes.”
According to Rebecca Napolitano, the theoretical framework and recommended adaptation strategies will enable Alaska Natives to address social and infrastructure challenges. “This project integrates perspectives from the social sciences, bridge building, and local and traditional knowledge, making them interdependent for this challenge. This project will provide a novel way to understand the importance of bridges for remote Alaskan Native communities.”
Impact of COVID-19 on Arctic communities
The research team is also addressing other issues affecting communities in the Arctic, including COVID-19. One of these projects looked at the impact of pandemic lockdowns on the world’s largest salmon harvest in Bristol Bay.
Chi formed a small team, which received an NSF grant, to study the trade-off between economy and health and the risky behaviors of local residents and seasonal migrant workers. Over 1,000 online surveys were collected and the team presented the results to local communities and received community recognition and constructive feedback for future research.
Another NSF-funded project is examining cellphone data to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Alaskan food aid utilization. Researchers are examining patterns of mobility to food supply locations before and during the pandemic, examining demographic and socioeconomic profiles of food supply customers, and assessing the functions and distribution of food supplies that support household food security in Alaskan communities. Mucioki is also participating in this project along with Junjun Yin, Assistant Research Professor at SSRI.
In another project, The research team examines food, energy, and water in rural Alaskan communities to identify unidentified safety issues, potential solutions, and data gaps before and during the pandemic. The researchers, led by Somayeh Asadi, Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering, will also consider the influence of local demographic and socioeconomic factors.
“Basic knowledge of food, energy, and water security in remote rural communities is necessary to assess the availability and affordability of traditional and non-traditional food, the quality and quantity of available water, and the costs and options for energy production, conservation, and to support usage. ‘ said Asadi.
“Times of disaster like the pandemic are increasing the need for food, energy and water security in affected households,” Chi said. “This project will uncover problems and limitations in access to food, energy and water, determine factors contributing to food, electricity and water insecurity, and build a partnership with the community to contribute knowledge to community-based decisions and actions in Alaska. “
Findings from these projects will not only identify climate change and other challenges affecting Alaska, but also address how disasters affect other regions of the United States, particularly in areas where underlying populations are difficult to reach.
“Penn State’s interdisciplinary research institutes provide the resources and infrastructure needed to ensure these visionary, transdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary professionals are able to lead these efforts to address the complicated social and infrastructural issues posed by climate change said Deborah Ehrenthal, director of the SSRI.
Additional support for these projects is provided by the Penn State Social Science Research Institute, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences, and the College of Agricultural Sciences, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the College of Engineering.