As Bethel Scientist Studies Climate Change, Tradition Is Her Guiding Light

Oct 26, 2017

Note: This article was updated on Friday, October 27 at 3:54 p.m. with further reporting.

Yup'ik leaders and Western scientists are both trying to figure out how climate change could impact communities, but the two groups often struggle to work together. Bethel’s Jasmine Gil is doing her part to bridge that cultural divide.

Gil spent her summers on the tundra. She picked berries at fish camp and shuttled between villages, flying between Bethel and Kwethluk to visit relatives.

"I remember just looking from high up above, down below, and I could see the reflection of the clouds in the lakes," she said. "[I remember] how beautiful it was."

Gil’s family moved to Sitka when she was 10. She graduated with a degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Alaska Anchorage last Spring, and was selected to work as a Research Fellow with the Polaris Project last summer. The program is run by the Woods Hole Research Center and supports young scientists who study Arctic climate change.

In July, the team spent two weeks camping out near Kuka Creek, sleeping in tents and studying the permafrost. KYUK interviewed Gil before she left on the trip. "I didn’t sleep very well before I came here!" she said, laughing. "I was very excited to come back."

But as the team flew into Bethel, Gil said that things didn't look right to her.

"There are not that many lakes out there, and I can't see the reflection of the sky to the land," she said. "That was quite an unnerving sensation."

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s lakes are teeming with fish, and are host to dense flocks of migratory birds. And according to Gil, they’re also disappearing. The lakes freeze and thaw as the weather changes, and as the climate warms, that freeze and thaw cycle is happening more frequently. It’s causing some of the lakes to dry up or drain into nearby rivers. "That could explain why the local people are reporting poor runs or poor harvests," Gil said.

A satellite photo of lakes in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. The lakes bracketed in red are draining into the nearby river.
Credit Courtesy of Jasmine Gil.

So every day for two weeks, Gil woke up at 6:00 a.m., packed her lunch, and searched for signs of missing lakes. She wanted to understand how quickly the water was draining. Gil used satellite images to spot the bright, green patches that the dried-up lakes leave behind. Sometimes she traveled to them via helicopter. Whenever she found a drained lake bed, Gil collected willow samples from the shoreline and studied them for signs of atmospheric change.

According to Gil, not all of her fellow scientists were wild about what she was doing. While the Polaris Project is culturally diverse, Gil was the only scientist on the team who was actually from the Y-K Delta. She said that a few scientists didn’t understand how important these lakes were to communities, and recommended that she study something else.

"I said no, no, no, no," Gil remembered. "This is important to the people here and I want my work here to reflect where I come from; who I am and the people that I care for."

Gil is as dedicated to traditional Yup'ik knowledge as she is to Western science. According to two of her supervisors from the Polaris Project, that’s exactly what makes her so good at what she does. But Gil said it can also cause tension. She said that the Project didn’t allocate as many resources to her research, and she suspects that her work was deprioritized. Gil also said that some people in the Polaris Project resisted the way she embraced traditional knowledge, and that they did not consider Yup'ik stories to be as valuable as scientific fact.

"There was disagreement there," she said. "[They were] saying that's not a reality. And I said, 'well then I live in a fairy tale land, but it sure is more beautiful that than the dry milk you're drinking.' There is magic in the universe. We all create this reality, and what's being taught right now doesn't incorporate native knowledge."

Gil’s mentor, Associate Professor Heidi Steltzer, agreed with her portrayal of the tensions within the Polaris Project. The Project’s Distinguished Visiting Scientist, John Schade, was also on the trip this summer and disagreed with their description. He said that in his experience, the Polaris scientists embraced indigenous knowledge wherever they could.

Schade added that Gil has the makings of a brilliant scientist, and that her grasp of the traditional and scientific world is a part of that.

"My colleagues and I are very grateful for the diverse perspectives our students bring to their work," he wrote by email. "We were particularly grateful for Jasmine's participation, and for her unique insights into this landscape. Her stories of a deep connection to the land through family history and how she interpreted what she was observing enriched the perspectives of the entire team on the nature and consequences of changes occurring here and elsewhere in the Arctic."

Despite the obstacles she faced last summer, Gil encourages Yup'ik people to get involved in climate change research. "I know how important traditional ecological knowledge is," she said.

Gil is still researching the Y-K Delta’s disappearing lakes and is reaching out to villages for help. If you live near Kuka Creek and have observed that the tundra’s lakes and ponds are draining over time, please email Gil a description of what you’ve observed at