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November 28, 2022

Over a decade ago, USGS Research Social Scientist Nicole Herman-Mercer embarked on a journey to study how Indigenous Alaskan populations were experiencing climate change and explore what Indigenous Knowledge could tell us about climate change in the Arctic and Subarctic.  

Over a decade ago, USGS Research Social Scientist Nicole Herman-Mercer embarked on a journey to study how Indigenous Alaskan populations were experiencing climate change and explore what Indigenous Knowledge could tell us about climate change in the Arctic and Subarctic.  

Herman-Mercer wanted to include Indigenous Knowledge with Western scientific models in her research in a way that reflected and upheld the integrity of the interviews she’d conducted within numerous Indigenous Alaskan communities, without merely assimilating Indigenous Knowledge into Western science.  

After learning the observations of Indigenous hunters and elders in rural Alaska Native villages in the Lower Yukon River Basin, Herman-Mercer explored commonalities in Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge systems. Unlike some forms of Western science seeking to develop universal truths about the world, Indigenous Knowledge tends to be place-based, providing a more holistic understanding of a given problem in its cultural and social context. This can offer a long-term understanding of a specific environment based on people’s interactions with that environment and has the potential to alert a community to changes before scientific monitoring and data become available.  

Since her initial research published in 2011, Herman-Mercer has had the honor of conducting multiple research projects with Indigenous communities in Alaska, focusing upon different climate related topics. Her initial work catalogued a large volume of first-hand observations provided by Indigenous community members who dedicated countless hours in relaying their knowledge, perspectives, and experiences, often welcoming Herman-Mercer into their homes, leading to a series of studies with Indigenous communities across the Arctic and Subarctic that conveyed the impacts of climate change on social systems in the region. For example, reports by subsistence fishers reflected declines and disease in salmon populations within the Yukon River and their impacts to household economies, food security, and culture. Other observations, such as those of an 83-year-old elder Herman-Mercer interviewed from the village of St. Mary’s, provided insight into the thinning ice of the Yukon River and the threats it posed to the safety of travelers who use these frozen pathways for transportation.  

The greatest challenge of Herman-Mercer’s work is also its most gratifying aspect: the weaving together of both Western Science and Indigenous Knowledge through a process known as knowledge co-production. The term refers to the collaborative process of bringing several sources and types of knowledge together to address a defined problem and build an integrated understanding of that problem.  

One particular 2014 project, Strategic Needs of Water on the Yukon (SNOWY), demonstrates how USGS science and Indigenous Knowledge can complement each other in the coproduction of knowledge. One of the project’s outcomes was to combine Indigenous metrics and indicators with USGS data collection to research a problem, providing a reminder that the environment and the people that reside in it are not separate.    

“Ultimately, we attempted to match the scale of environmental data collection with the Indigenous observations of the environment in order to produce a holistic understanding of the issue, integrating two ways of knowing and observing,” Herman-Mercer recounted of her work on the project. 

Another more recent example was a project published in 2020, in which Herman-Mercer and her colleagues examined climate and disturbance-driven changes in subsistence berries in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska. Although vegetation changes had been documented for the subarctic coastal region of Alaska, information on berry-producing landscapes underlain by permafrost was limited. To fill this gap, Herman-Mercer and her colleagues administered surveys within four Indigenous communities within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to identify observations of changes in berry resources and integrate Indigenous Knowledge of drivers of changes with climate projections.  

While Herman-Mercer and her colleagues were able to identify some local scale drivers of berry abundance such as high winds and summer rainfall, many drivers identified by community members were consistent at the regional scale.  This local and Indigenous knowledge of drivers of berry abundance and distribution at the regional scale provided the researchers helpful indicators of how climate change was affecting local berry abundance. 

Herman-Mercer explained, “Regional consensus can be used in combination with climate projections to forecast potential future impacts to berry resources while distinctions at the community level can help us to untangle local scale disturbances.”  

Herman-Mercer continues her research in the field of Indigenous Knowledge working in a knowledge co-production framework with communities. Currently, she is Co-Principal Investigator on the National Science Foundation funded Arctic Rivers Project, that involves a team of scientists and an Indigenous Advisory Council. The goal of the project is to improve understanding of how Arctic rivers, fish, and communities along the Yukon River might be impacted and provide insights that can help local communities adapt to climate change.  

The project is a collaboration with Indigenous communities and organizations like the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, an Indigenous organization that represents nearly all the Tribes and First Nations in the Yukon River Basin. The ultimate goal is to develop useful and useable data and information for Indigenous decision-makers and community members to adapt to myriad climate impacts, including changing fish populations and river ice transportation corridors.   

“Over the years working at the intersection of natural and social science, Indigenous Knowledge, and environmental data, I have learned that the goal is not necessarily point by point integration but instead understanding and working in areas where these two ways of knowing complement one another,” Herman-Mercer reflects.  

“Finding these complementary areas can help to tell the story of climate change in the Arctic and Subarctic. Listening to the needs of our community partners can help produce science that is meaningful and useful for the communities we seek to serve. In this way, we may be able to move towards a holistic understanding of climate impacts on Arctic social systems and environments that will allow us to support resilient communities.”  

The USGS and Herman-Mercer acknowledge that this research would not be possible without the Indigenous community members who took the time to invite Herman-Mercer into their homes and share their experiences, perspectives, and knowledge with her over many years.