Building an Arctic Atlas

Using maps to tell the story of a place is an inherently difficult task. You must first understand the place, and you must then translate your understanding into a shared visual language spanning audiences. Either of these hurdles, individually, is daunting. Together, they raise a series of interrelated questions that border on intractable.

At Audubon Alaska, our goal is to clear these hurdles, and to do so in an environment with unprecedented challenges in both arenas. Thanks to generous support from the Moore foundation, we are in the process of creating the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. The study area is massive in scale, complexity, and ongoing changes. The final product must speak to diverse audiences in a language that fosters a fledgling interest, nurtures deeper understanding, and guides management actions. Our five-person team—Max Goldman, Erika Knight, Ben Sullender, Daniel Huffman, and Melanie Smith—works together to answer each of these challenges.

The Audubon Alaska marine atlas spans the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.

The Audubon Alaska marine atlas spans the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.

“One of the most difficult parts of this process is switching between very different topics at a moment’s notice to glean the maximum amount of information from experts while you have their attention,” says Max Goldman, Arctic Marine Ecologist and project manager for this atlas effort. “If you’re stuck thinking about walrus, you’ll miss critical information when talking to a waterfowl biologist.”

Max is tasked with negotiating the expansive scale of the marine atlas. The three seas covered by the atlas span nearly 2 million square miles—about half the size of the entire continent of Europe—and three countries. He is the lead point of contact for researchers and domain experts whose integrated knowledge covers this massive area. The scale of the atlas’s content means that Max must be comfortable and proficient discussing community subsistence, ocean current dynamics, or spectacled eider migration routes, often over the course of a single meeting.

The complexity of this expansive system is not lost on Erika Knight, the project’s GIS/Data Analyst. Erika’s job is to curate the massive quantity of spatial data gathered largely from primary scientific research, and pull together structure from datasets which come packaged in myriad formats and must be standardized to be useful. This enormous and still growing geodatabase is the backbone of our work.

For Erika, the interconnected ecological aspects of the Arctic form the central story: “One of the key challenges of mapping Arctic marine habitat for specific species—say, for example, Pacific walrus—is that the location of said habitat is constantly shifting as the sea ice margin advances and retreats over the course of a year. Walrus tend to follow the ice edge as it moves throughout our map area.”

Add to that the rapid recession of overall sea ice extent from year to year due to climate change, as well as advances in scientific knowledge of the region, and the task becomes even more difficult. Erika brings together the best available knowledge while keeping a sharp eye on the cutting edge of science. Three weeks ago, scientists simply didn’t know where beluga whales overwintered in the Bering Sea. Now, as a result of a long-term collaborative effort between 15 researchers scattered across five American states and three countries, we can show polygons highlighting winter core areas for five distinct stocks of Bering Sea beluga.

Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) have a wide geographic distribution and undertake long-distance migrations. Recent research efforts have identified key seasonal habitats for distinct subpopulations of beluga whales, such as overwintering sites in the Bering Sea and summer feeding areas further north in the Arctic Ocean.

Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) have a wide geographic distribution and undertake long-distance migrations. Recent research efforts have identified key seasonal habitats for distinct subpopulations of beluga whales, such as overwintering sites in the Bering Sea and summer feeding areas further north in the Arctic Ocean.

Even as we start to unravel the mysteries of the Arctic marine ecosystem, we’re seeing fundamental tenets of natural history altered on a dramatic scale. For example, we’re seeing more and more terrestrial walrus haul-outs, a major shift from the previous ice-floe based foraging tactics that they’ve utilized for millennia. Climate change is the most likely culprit, as it creates changes throughout environments and food webs.

Human systems are also responding to these broad-scale changes. Ice-free Arctic waters open up economic opportunities for tourism and new prospective shipping routes. Ben Sullender, Audubon Alaska’s GIS Biologist (and UW-Madison Nelson Institute alumnus), dives into these worlds using geospatial modeling techniques to quantify emerging ecological impacts, most recently focusing on describing the marine soundscape. As vessel traffic increases, key areas for migrating marine mammals are subject to heavier sonic disturbance. For vocal cetaceans like the bowhead whale, elevated noise levels are inescapable and directly interfere with vital behaviors such as communication, navigation, and prey detection.  By quantifying the soundscape visually, we can begin to highlight areas that may benefit from amended management strategies and vessel traffic regulation.

Bowhead whales follow a lead in the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Amelia Brower, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries Service (public domain).

Bowhead whales follow a lead in the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Amelia Brower, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries Service (public domain).

Results of preliminary soundscape analysis, modeling the effects of vessel traffic on underwater noise levels.

Results of preliminary soundscape analysis, modeling the effects of vessel traffic on underwater noise levels.

Once these data have been collected and analyzed into cohesive results, Daniel Huffman—a UW-Madison Cartographer In Residence contracting with Audubon Alaska—symbolizes, smooths, transforms, and otherwise coerces messy output into a compelling visual story. Daniel works with Max and Erika to capture key elements of the topic and creates instantly approachable content. His work is equal parts science, geography, and art: he captures the whole story, distills its essence, and depicts it in a way that creates connections with the ultimate audience.

Translating messy raw input data into a cohesive and coherent final product requires ecological knowledge, technical expertise, and artistic vision.

Translating messy raw input data into a cohesive and coherent final product requires ecological knowledge, technical expertise, and artistic vision.

Here, a wide expanse of the best available walrus data, ranging from points to polygons to lines, is crafted into a much more accessible representation of the key features of walrus biology.

Here, a wide expanse of the best available walrus data, ranging from points to polygons to lines, is crafted into a much more accessible representation of the key features of walrus biology.

After the maps have been completed, Melanie Smith’s work has just begun. As Audubon Alaska’s Director of Conservation Science and the Arctic marine atlas project leader, Melanie is fluent in all the languages necessary to create and communicate scientific output with far-reaching implications. Melanie is equally comfortable briefing Congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., discussing gravel road siting with oil company executives, and delving into seaduck migration with wildlife biologists. She shares data, key findings, and conservation recommendations with a wide range of stakeholders and decision-makers, and has carried the momentum from the recently completed Ecological Atlas of Southeast Alaska northwards into the Arctic.

The Arctic marine system faces enormous change ahead, from development, oil extraction, climate change, and increasing vessel traffic. By synthesizing what we know and highlighting the connections we all have with this unique place, we can identify the conservation priorities in the region and raise awareness about the challenges facing the Arctic environment.

The Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas is anticipated to be released in July 2017 and will be available on Audubon Alaska’s website.

Featured image: Floating iceberg in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska. Photo by Milo Burcham (copyright; used with permission).

Ben Sullender is a graduate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison and departed the Driftless for the more prolific glaciers of The Last Frontier. He is the GIS Biologist with Audubon Alaska and works on a variety of conservation-related issues, from logging in Alaska’s temperate rainforests to Arctic oil development. Website. Contact.

Max Goldman is Audubon Alaska’s Arctic Marine Ecologist. His ecological work has taken him from South Africa to the Gulf Coast, although he’s now migrated to more northern latitudes. Website. Contact.

Erika Knight is the GIS/Data Analyst with Audubon Alaska. She tackles mountains of geospatial data at work and mountains of various geological origins after work. Website. Contact.

Audubon Alaska’s work on the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas would not be possible without input from a much broader team, including Oceana, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Alaska, Oceans North Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and the Moore Foundation, along with many other collaborators.

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