Scientist Spotlight: Ryan Toohey & the Remote Communities of Changing Arctic Landscapes

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Learn about the work and research of hydrologist Ryan Toohey, Science Applications Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. 

Ryan Toohey at the Active Layer Network grid near Hess Creek, Alaska.

Ryan Toohey at the Active Layer Network grid near Hess Creek, Alaska. Credit: Ryan Toohey

“The state of Alaska has all these untouched landscapes that we fly over and travel through—everything from majestic mountains to these incredibly flat plains where it feels like you are standing on the edge of the earth. The uniqueness, beauty, and remoteness of it all: those are all things that really attract me to it,” says Ryan Toohey of the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. “I love the snow and the ice, but those things also make research up here very challenging.”    

Temperatures close to minus 40 degrees, expensive tools and instruments that are prone to breaking under harsh weather conditions, close contact with potentially dangerous animals like bears and moose, and the general inaccessibility of remote locations are just a few of the challenges Toohey faces as he studies Alaska’s frigid landscapes.  

“Climate change in Alaska has many different aspects,” says Toohey. “There’s a lot happening up here and it’s changing twice as fast here as anywhere else.”  

Toohey, a hydrologist by training, first developed an interest in climate science while conducting research on hydrological impacts of land use change in Costa Rica, where he lived for several years. Toohey then followed his wife to Alaska after she accepted a position at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He applied for a job with the CASC network while working for the Indigenous Observation Network at the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, an indigenous grassroots non-profit organization. For the last six years, Toohey has served as the Science Applications Coordinator for the Alaska CASC, a role which connects his expertise in fieldwork to collaborative team-based research with Alaska’s indigenous peoples.  

“I've been to upwards of 50 different Alaskan native communities, all the way from the Yukon First Nations in the Yukon River headwaters to the mouth of the river near Kotlik. It’s been a really great way to see Alaska,” he says. “With the connections developed through our citizen-science projects, we’ve been able to design much more specific community-based research projects where the questions are coming directly from the indigenous communities.”  

Arctic tribes often face unique challenges related to climatic and environmental changes. Many of Alaska’s tribal communities fish, hunt, and gather various berries and grasses for subsistence, but a changing environment means many of these natural resources are also changing with some becoming harder to access. For example, some of the types of vehicles that are commonly used by these communities for travel, such as snow mobiles, have much more limited use in some areas due to decreased snowfall.  

“One important element of my work at the Alaska CASC is helping the CASC network develop community-based research projects that integrate many of the Alaskan Native and First Nation concerns with western scientific questions,” says Toohey. “Indigenous communities are definitely observing a lot of changes in their environment and they’re trying to figure out how to adapt to these changes.”   

The Yukon River near St. Mary’s, Alaska.

The Yukon River near St. Mary’s, Alaska. Credit: Ryan Toohey

One of these concerning changes is permafrost loss. The thawing of permafrost affects the integrity of any infrastructure it supports. Some tribal communities facing this issue must elevate their houses two to four times a year to protect their homes from sinking into the tundra. Permafrost loss can also lead to road and runway damage in these communities. Unfortunately, construction materials, equipment and their transportation are costly and difficult to deliver to these off-the-road-network remote locations.  As a result, more tribes are engaging in small-scale relocations in which up to 20 houses at a time are physically moved to safer locations via skid or backhoe.  

“Within the Yukon River Basin, permafrost thaw over the last 40 years has been dramatic.  We have a new project that is looking at how permafrost degradation may be affecting water chemistry and fish habitats,” says Toohey. “There’s a lot that takes place beyond what you read about in the news. These Arctic areas are challenging places to live in.”  

Alaska is about four times larger than the state of California, and is home to 229 tribal nations with different climate-related concerns. “You can’t say Alaskan Natives as a whole are experiencing one thing or the other because each region is experiencing climate change differently,” says Toohey. “There are differences, and there are similarities, between what the tribes are noticing. That heterogeneity has a lot to do with where the community is located.”    

On the western coast, communities are experiencing a loss of sea ice, meaning these tribes are losing access to important cultural resources such as seals and walruses. Loss of sea ice combined with increased storminess and permafrost thaw sometimes allows ocean surge to travel inland over the already flat topography for 30 miles or more, raising concerns about salinization (i.e., increasing saltiness of the soil) and flooding. The interior of Alaska has seen an increase in the intensity and frequency of wildfires over the last several decades, which can decrease air quality and negatively impact regional community health.      

Toohey and colleagues like the Alaska CASC’s tribal liaison, Malinda Chase, participate in tribal community discussions to develop highly targeted research questions based on the individual concerns of each tribe. Toohey, Chase, and other scientists travel to different villages to attend community meetings, conduct interviews, lead focus groups or workshops, and implement participatory mapping in which community members pinpoint the location of observed changes on a map. These maps will be combined with historical location data to look at climate projections for the area of interest for each tribe.   

A graphic overlay of the Yukon River Basin in Alaska as compared to the size of the continental United States.

A graphic overlay of the Yukon River Basin in Alaska as compared to the size of the continental United States. Credit: Laris Karklis (public domain)

Toohey also noted the challenges that come with communicating research findings and data in ways that are relevant to each tribe. As a result, Toohey and his colleagues make an effort to revisit the communities they work with to personally deliver their findings, usually in the form of community meetings, reports, conference presentations, workshops, and occasionally interactive databases which include videos and maps.    

“In the research process, we call this step validation. It’s a really integral part of the process because you don’t want to be seen as crafting some narrative,” says Toohey about personally revisiting the tribes once research is complete. “There is a lot of diversity of opinions within these communities. You want to be as representative as possible, which is why we check back in to make sure we recorded things correctly.”    

Toohey’s ultimate professional goal is to better understand how frozen Arctic ecosystems are changing and how those changes impact the human communities within those ecosystems. He is thankful for the opportunities offered by his position at the Alaska CASC to collaborate with Alaskan tribes during all facets of his research.   

“It’s a rare and lucky circumstance to be surrounded by a population that’s interested in the research that we do, and to have opportunities to work together to try to understand that research. I think that interest provides us with the emotional and intellectual nourishment to keep working together and asking important questions,” said Toohey, who hopes to continue trying to connect climate and landscape changes to Alaskan communities, Anchorage and Fairbanks included. “Hopefully, our research will provide some answers and adaptations for these people in the future.”     

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Ryan Toohey grew up hiking the streams of southwestern Pennsylvania with his dad and brother. His mother cultivated a love of story-telling and different cultural perspectives. His interests in water quality led Toohey to pursue an environmental science degree from Huxley College at Western Washington University. He graduated with an environmental science degree in the year 2000, having focused on water quality and Geographic Information Systems. In 2012, Toohey received an interdisciplinary joint Ph.D. in environmental science with a focus in both hydrology and agroforestry from the University of Idaho and the Centro Agronómico  Tropical de investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) in Costa Rica. In addition to his position at the Alaska CASC, Toohey serves as an Affiliate Research Assistant Professor for the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he mentors several graduate students. Toohey believes working with students is a highly rewarding part of the research process, and is consistently involved in gathering funding for student internships and producing publications, community reports, and conference presentations with undergraduate and graduate student co-authors. 

Check out some of the photos from his adventures below!