Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cod and climate

This is a big deal in Kodiak.

The Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska, which supports a very important fishery, appears to more or less have collapsed. The quota is down 80% for next year.

One of the big causes of the collapse appears to be the failure of young fish to survive to adulthood. The reasons for this failure are an active area of research, by myself among many others. But the leading hypotheses at this point focus on the 2014-2017 marine heatwave. During that time, large areas of the North Pacific were warmer than had ever been observed before.

Every year, a group of scientists from the NOAA agency in America evaluates the role that climate change played in extreme climate events.

The latest report just came out. And for the first time, that group has found that some extreme events meet the strictest standards for attribution to human causes changes. Basically, there were three events in 2016 that were so extreme that they were, practically speaking, impossible in the pre-industrial climate. And one of those three events was the marine heatwave in the Gulf.

I think this is very big news for Alaska. The conditions that we're experiencing have blasted through to a state that is uniquely human-created. The livelihoods of a number of my fellow Kodiakers are being affected in as direct a way as you could imagine. So what will our collective response be?

In Australia, where I did my PhD, science denialism is much less established than in the US. As a result, adaptation to climate change is big part of the public discussion in Australia.

In the US, though, denialism is much more important, and adaptation isn't part of the political discourse at all. I'm not a sociologist, but I think this has tremendously interesting implications for that old trope about big parts of the US electorate acting against their own self-interest. Presumably farmers in the US would be up in arms about climate change? My impression is that this isn't the case.

Similarly with fishermen in Alaska. I know there is a strong conservation strain in the commercial fishing community in Alaska. But quite a number of my fishing friends are actually ex-fishermen at this point, so I don't have a real feel for the pulse of that community.

Commercial fishing is a big enough part of the Alaskan economy that fishermen speaking with a coordinated voice on any issue could wield tremendous political influence in our little state.

But, there are always the immediate problems that anyone has to deal with that inevitably dominate fishermen's attention, just like anyone else's. And the disconnect between action and payoff on slowing climate change is a big negative when any individual is considering how they might allocate their limited time and energy.

But, with the heatwave and Pacific cod, climate change has apparently become an immediate problem. I can tell you with great authority that fisheries scientists can't predict what the next climate-related surprise will be in Alaskan fisheries. But we do know with quite a bit of confidence that more surprises will be coming over future decades, and coming more and more often.

Some kind of coordinated adaptation effort, I imagine, will start to come together in coastal Alaska as a result.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Starting with this little dream...

Let's see. Since July, we've...
  • Got a job.
  • Bought a car.
  • Bought a house.
  • Watched the kids sail into school with nary a look back, and barely a hiccup along the way.
Things seem to be going just about as well as we could wish for in our re-introduction to land life after 10 years away.

True, my job has been more or less eating me alive. That will get better in time, I trust, and I hope that the University of Alaska will eventually be a great place for me to practice my science. But for this winter, I am laboriously laying the foundation for that hoped-for future.

So science demands have completely overflowed into the discretionary time that I was used to having on the boat. But more than this (hopefully temporary) time poverty that I find myself living through, I think that it's just the nature of the transition that has kept me away from this blog lately.

This was so much the place for sharing my impressions of family life afloat. Which, after all, was my life, and our life together, for these last ten years.

As our life turns into whatever shape it will take back here in Alaska, I don't think it's unreasonable to hope that I'll end up with some new sort of stories to fill these pages.

I'll make a nod towards that new beginning with these pics of the boys learning to ski.

I had a go at learning to surf when we were in Australia. It was fun, but trying to learn a new sport in my 40s mostly just left me yearning to do something I already knew how to do. Which, for me, is Nordic skiing.

I'm not a particularly good skier, but I am very comfortable on the boards, and Alisa and I got up to all kinds of long trips back in the old days, skiing for days along frozen river valleys and over mountain passes, camping each night in the snow.

And, for all these years that we were away from Alaska I had this little dream in the back of my head about how wonderful it would be to teach the boys to ski. I loved the idea of passing along this thing  that has given me so much pleasure through the years.

My parents came up to share the holiday with us, and they gave the boys skis for Christmas. A few days later we finally got some snow on the local golf course (it's been a terribly warm winter) and the whole family went out to have a go.

And well. The boys loved it, and are crazy to go as often as our paltry snow will allow. And not incidentally, they're pretty good at it to.

Mark it up as another part of life in Alaska that is suddenly that much richer for being able to share it with the boys.

Friday, November 17, 2017


Here, and below: there appear to be quite a lot more bears on the Kodiak road system than there were ten years ago.

So. After ten years of wandering, this is what we've chosen; home.

As I've noted before, from a work perspective it would have made more sense for us to settle down in Juneau, where a strong community of academic and agency biologists would have given us access to the personal interactions and collaborations that make for a successful scientific life.

Alisa and I are prime examples of the willingness of Americans to be rootless. We both moved to Alaska as young adults, and made our lives here, separately and then together, thousands of miles from our families.

But we took the opportunity of our return to take a stand, not quite consciously, against being forever on the move. In the US, home for us could only be Alaska. And in Alaska, the place we are at home is Kodiak.

Eric, moving off of Galactic
Living in a town of about 10,000 people without road access to other towns implies a very different social life than the one we might lead in a more cosmopolitan place. 

In most of the US, we would interact with a much more homogenous group of people. Our friends would tend to have similar levels of education as us, would work at similar jobs and have the same narrow interests and outlooks of our particular slot in the US socio-economic world.

In Kodiak, that is not the case. We have friends from many walks of life. Fifty years ago, when America was more rural, I think this would be pretty unremarkable. But now I think it's fairly unique.

By coming back to this town where we have already lived for seven years, the place where we got married and had our first child, we also avail ourselves of a much deeper social life than we would have in a new place like Juneau. In either Kodiak or Juneau we would have a group of close friends. But in Kodiak we also have a large group of acquaintances, people we know well enough to say hello to at the grocery store. That I think is a powerful antidote to the estrangement that marks so much of modern life.

The boys in our new house, after our household goods arrived from storage in the Lower 48. Most of these boxes were packed when Elias was 9 months old, and before Eric was born.
Ptarmigan hunting.
So that is the upside, as far as I can see it.

On the other side, we are coming back to a world that we do not quite understand at all.

The complete saturation of everyday life into the internet, and the products of the net state, happened in these ten years that we were away. Of course there was internet in Australia and Chile and South Africa, and of course I kept this blog going for the ten years that we were away. So it's not like we were unaware of the existence of the internet.

But the degree to which people actually lead their lives through small interactive screens just completely beggars the imagination of someone who has been more or less on the periphery for the last decade. It all looks quite dystopian to me. Consider the state of right-wing politics, if nothing else, and what computers have done with that. I feel myself settling into something of a self-defined museum of a life, apart from what I see as the mass hysteria of our times, and knowing that I also bypass whatever good might come from participating in this new sort of life.

And then there is the historical moment that we chose for our return.

My boys will come of age, politically, in this world. Where we can see how precious these trappings of democracy might turn out to be that we so blithely cast away.