SIWO Lessons Learned
By Lisa Sheffield Guy
Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS), Eskimo Walrus Commission (Kawerak, Inc.), the National Weather Service Alaska Region, University of Alaska Fairbanks – International Arctic Research Center.
Annually during spring since 2010 when sea ice is present in the Bering Strait. The program is on-going.
The main objective of the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook (SIWO) is to provide Alaskan Native subsistence walrus hunters and Bering Strait coastal communities with weekly reports on spring sea ice and weather conditions to promote hunter safety, food security, and preservation of cultural heritage.
The primary objective of providing weekly reports on spring sea ice and weather conditions has been achieved in each year since 2010 when SIWO began its work. In some weeks, historically, there were no local observations available. During those weeks, our objectives were only partly achieved.
During the 2017 season, 43 reports were received from local observers during the 11-week season. The SIWO website received more than 1,200 visits. SIWO engagement via Facebook is generally higher than website engagement, with more than 700 followers representing 34 Alaskan communities and 39 countries.
The data, in the form of local observations and photographs, weather and sea ice forecast information, and satellite imagery are primarily used by subsistence hunters and others traveling in Bering Strait coastal communities. SIWO information is also used by regional biologists and managers, by weather personnel to validate forecasts with on-the-ground observations, and is freely accessible to others interested in weather and walrus in the region.
The most important achievement to date is the network itself, which includes Indigenous experts, weather forecasters, scientists, and project managers. The relationships built through eight years of collaboration and co-produced outlooks continue to strengthen.
CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS
First, relationship-building in coastal communities, which requires trust, consistent good communication and understanding, and a shared vision and goal can be challenging. The success of the SIWO network is due in large part to sustained financial support from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Arctic Sciences (PLR-1304316). This funding has allowed SIWO to be in operation each year, provided support for the webpage, and most recently has contributed toward stipends for local observers.
Second, the poor internet service in rural areas of Alaska is a challenge. This can make viewing SIWO information and receiving photographs or videos from local observers quite difficult. One solution has been to provide forecast products and images in small, lower resolution file sizes, generally below 900kb.
Third, SIWO is a geographically distributed network and many (perhaps most) of our partners and contributors have never met in person. We hope to address this challenge in the future by finding support for in-person workshops and for local observers to travel to meetings and share their perspectives.
Fourth, a high level of flexibility is required from all partners to undertake SIWO based on the presence of sea ice. For example, the 2018 season began weeks earlier than expected in response to extremely low ice conditions in the region. Good communication and a fine-tuned workflow are required to adapt to the shifting schedule of seasonal ice.
FUTURE DEVELOPMENT: There is great potential to develop SIWO both geographically to areas outside the Bering Strait, and temporally to provide weekly forecasts during other times of the year, particularly during fall hunting and earlier in spring. The SIWO team is seeking additional funding to support a workshop that would give all partners, including local observers, space to discuss the future directions of the program and what is most needed from a safety and food security perspective. We also seek to continue and increase financial support for local observers for their contributions and travel to relevant meetings and workshops.
OTHER POINTS: For any similar efforts, we strongly encourage involvement of local communities and observers from inception of the project. Local observer compensation and travel should be written into proposals alongside support for science and administrative personnel.
For the purposes of SIWO, our flexible format that allows observers to share what they feel is most relevant to safe subsistence travel in their area works well. The program use no manuals and the guidelines are very open. However, an approach with a more structured format for observations (i.e., measurements of temperature, wind, etc.) would prove valuable for other purposes such as validation of weather forecast models.
Flexibility in format of local observation submission has been an important feature of this program. Observers can report via email, telephone, social media, or our online submission form ( Due to rural internet constraints, optional photos and gathering of information via phone have allowed the program to represent more isolated communities.