Scientists, communities work together to monitor Alaska ice conditions

Students learn in the field on Noyes Slough near Anne Wien Elementary School. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

Fairbanks, Alaska (UAF) – A 1,000-mile snowmachine journey across Interior Alaska is helping the Fresh Eyes on Ice program monitor Alaska’s lake and river ice during freeze-up, over winter and during breakup.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks-led project also uses drone surveys, satellite imagery and citizen science in an all-hands-on-deck approach to making river and lake ice travel safer for Alaskans.

A team that included Chris Arp, the lead investigator and researcher with the UAF Institute of Northern Engineering, completed the statewide snowmachine traverse in stages. In 2022, they traveled from Willow to McGrath, picking up from there in 2023 and continuing to Galena. This March, they began in Galena and ended back home in Fairbanks three weeks later. 

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA and provides critical on-the-ground confirmation of ice conditions. These are then compared to satellite observations or used as inputs into models of ice and snow conditions. Most critically, all observations from the citizen science applications, community teams and scientists are immediately used by the National Weather Service.

“This is unique in Alaska because the data is so quickly used for community safety by the National Weather Service,” said Katie Spellman, one of the project’s leaders. “The NWS Riverwatch program uses these inputs to inform their emergency warnings and flood forecasting across the state, something we’re all paying attention to now during breakup.”

Spellman, a researcher with the UAF International Arctic Research Center, said the most rewarding component is working with community-based monitoring teams of citizen scientists. The 2024 traverse provided a chance for the researchers to visit teams in Tanana and Rampart, among other places. Along the way, they studied ice in remote locations while connecting and sharing knowledge with community teams.

“They’re really engaged with us, attending monthly meetings and sharing information back and forth via social media,” Spellman said. “They also engage the youth in their communities with ice monitoring kits that we send them and lesson plans for the classroom. Ultimately, by learning about ice, they’re contributing to science while keeping their own communities safe.”

Teams take various measurements and are located in communities from Eagle to Nome and Utqiagvik to Igiugig. They usually include an educator, a community member who regularly uses and travels on the ice in winter, and children from local schools.

The community teams often have a lot to teach the scientists about local conditions on the ice around their communities.

“The rural communities usually have the biggest stake in knowing current ice conditions and how they’re changing,” Arp said.  

“Traveling between Galena and Tanana (on the Yukon River) and then upstream to Rampart, we saw some ice conditions we hadn’t seen before. Then folks in Rampart provided amazing insights into how the river freezes through that section of the Yukon and pointed out an open-water zone that only froze a few weeks before we arrived,” Arp said.

The team works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Tanana Chiefs Conference to better understand how ice information might be useful to agencies. Observations also have been used by search and rescue operations in remote communities like Bethel, individuals making decisions about when and where to travel on the ice, and university researchers studying Alaska’s changing climate.

Community teams share information directly with the scientists and the public via a Facebook group, but any Alaskan can use an app to take photos or observations of a portion of river or lake ice and participate in the project. Observations can be submitted online at fresheyesonice.org or via two phone applications: SIKU or Globe Observer.

Both Arp and Spellman will present the work of the Fresh Eyes on Ice team at the Arctic Research Open House this May.

Visit the UAF Troth Yeddha’ campus from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, May 16, to learn more about citizen science and research conducted by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks during its annual Arctic Research Open House.

The team measures the ice thickness. Photo by Allen Bondurant