Ikaaġvik Sikukun: Bridging the Scientific and Indigenous Communities to Study Sea Ice Change in Arctic Alaska

by | Jul 20, 2023 | Climate Change, Polar Research

Christopher J. Zappa, Lamont Research Professor
Collaborating Team: Andrew R. Mahoney, Sarah Betcher, Donna D.W. Hauser, Ajit Subramaniam, Alex V. Whiting, John Goodwin, Cyrus Harris, Robert J. Schaeffer, Roswell Schaeffer Sr., Nathan J. M. Laxague, Jessica M. Lindsay, and Carson R. Witte
6 March 2021

Introductory slide show (pptx) (pdf)

Taking its name from the Iñupiaq phrase for “ice bridges,” the Ikaaġvik Sikukun project has successfully built bridges between a diverse team of scientists and Indigenous Knowledge-holders to study the changing sea-ice environment of Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. We have broken new ground by co-producing our hypotheses in partnership with an Indigenous Elder advisory council to develop research questions that cut across disciplinary boundaries and address the needs of both the local and scientific communities. To share our story broadly and in a way that respects the oral traditions of Indigenous Knowledge, our team also includes an ethnographic filmmaker who has been documenting each step of our unique research journey.
Over the past three years, with continued guidance from our advisory council, we have designed and carried out a research plan to observe the sea ice and marine mammals in Kotzebue Sound and how these come together as habitat and hunting grounds. Using satellite data, unoccupied aerial systems (UAS), oceanographic moorings and on-ice measurements to address our research questions, we have witnessed two exceptional years (2018 and 2019) with unprecedentedly low sea ice extent and the earliest start of ugruk (bearded seal; Erignathus barbatus) hunting in recent memory – contributing to a broader trend towards shorter spring hunting seasons, which have been recorded in Kotzebue since 2003.
We also observed the thinnest landfast ice likely in over 70 years, a strong vertical ocean heat flux into the ice that impacted the thickness of this ice growth, and the widespread flooding of the landfast ice, possibly caused by relatively high snowfall on top of thin ice, as well as the breakup, detachment and fragmentation of large sections of landfast ice recently occupied by natchiq (ringed seal; Phoca hispida) pups, adults, and their lairs. Having integrated Indigenous Knowledge throughout our approach, we are now in a unique position to turn these interrelated observations into answers to our research questions. Here, we describe an overview of what, to the best of our knowledge, is a precedent-setting approach to co-creating research questions and hypotheses that integrate indigenous knowledge and interdisciplinary scientific methods

Additional links:

Scientists and Native Peoples Jointly Study Sea-Ice Declines Threatening Seal Hunts

Ikaaġvik Sikukun Kotzebue Alaska Project Website:


Ikaaġvik Sikukun Short Films (15):   



Ikaaġvik Sikukun Presentations (7, so far): 



Twitter:    @TheZappaLab, @IkaagvikSikukun



Chris previously shared his research about “OASIS—The Observatory for Air-Sea Interaction Studies” in the 21 April 2018 E2C Workshop.

Other examples of indigenous community knowledge and climate change:


Native Americans and a Changing Climate