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Join us this summer in Alaska as we engage in a series of field studies in one of the most remote wilderness areas on earth. Our journey will take us from marine mammal and whale watching along the coast, to flower identification in alpine meadows to hiking on glaciers. Through meeting local communities, and formal and informal lectures, we will learn about the unique traditions and ways of life of the Native Alaskans. We will evaluate how the imminent effects of climate change will impact the people and wildlife of this stunningly beautiful place and the consequent economic challenges faced by local people. This is a field studies filled with learning and exploration, ecologically and culturally, as we traverse the state from coast to mountain peaks.

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Background Information

Renowned for its formidable peaks and vast wilderness, for centuries Alaska has drawn explorers from all over the world with its high mountain ranges, glaciers and ice fields. And our team is no different. This is a rare place where nature can still roam free, and where wolves, bears and moose often outnumber humans. From its rich coastal waters, where orcas patrol for otters and sea lion pups, to its glacier-fed rivers where pink salmon run and its vibrant alpine meadows where grizzly bears search for berries, the wildlife in Alaska is unparalleled.

However, with its long harsh winters and short summers, Alaska is a challenging place for life to survive. Through a number of case studies, both terrestrial and marine, we will investigate the unique survival strategies and adaptations that species have evolved to inhabit such variable environments. Climate change poses significant threats to both the wildlife and people of Alaska and is already beginning to upset this delicate balance of nature. We will explore the consequences of increasing temperatures, such as range shifts, altered resource phenology and novel interactions among species. Furthermore, we will see first-hand the preventative measures local communities are taking in order to protect themselves from rising sea levels and other environmental changes. By understanding these imminent challenges, we hope to inspire practical solutions that will promote the conservation of Alaska’s ecosystems for generations to come.

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Program Goals and Activities

In Alaska students will study the main principles of habitat specialization and climate change, learn ecological field sampling techniques and experience the unique culture of native Alaskans. Teaching will be done through field work, lectures and seminars by visiting scientists, and through participation on research projects. The beginning of the course will focus on the geography and climate of Alaska, providing students with a strong background of the local natural history. We will then use this new knowledge to examine how species have adapted to their specific environments and discover how climate change impacts our focal species.

Habitat specialization and ecological adaptation:

As one of the last great frontiers, Alaska offers a wilderness and remoteness unlike anywhere else on earth. The state’s vast national parks and protected areas provide refuge for a multitude of wildlife: Bears, wolves and moose roam across the expansive mountain ranges and forests, and whales, sea lions and otters reside in the icy waters close to shore. The severe winter and short summer seasons provide a challenging environment for even the hardiest animals to survive. Through our field studies, we will examine a number of different habitats, including marine ecosystems, intertidal zones, boreal forests, alpine meadows and high elevation mountains. We will explore how the biota has adapted to the different environments and the survival strategies they adopt. We will focus on a number of species as case studies, including otters, orcas, bears, salmon and wolves, as well as look at whole communities and their interactions, such as the coastal intertidal zone and the pollinator community.

Climate change:

The effects of climate change are especially visible in Alaska and have started to impact local people as well as wildlife. Rising sea level and ice melt has caused villages to relocate, and changes in temperature is causing range shifts for many species. We will investigate in detail how climate change is affecting the native people and the wildlife. We will discuss the effectiveness of current policies and protective measures and options to minimize future damage. We may also have the opportunity to participate in current conservation initiatives.

The final part of our program will focus on the rich and unique culture of native Alaskans. We will learn how the local people have lived for millennia in some of the harshest environmental conditions on earth, discovering how they interact with the land and sea. We will gain insight on how the traditional way of life is intertwined with nature, living closely with the environment.

Our planned itinerary starts with an initial few days just outside Anchorage, providing students with a background of the unique habitats found in Alaska. We will then travel to Kenai Fjords National Park where we will learn about the natural history of this great state and begin our initial exploration into habitat specialization. Here on the coast, we will study the marine environment and learn the community dynamics of kelp forests and intertidal zones. It is common to see whales, sea lions, otters, star fish and bald eagles in this part of Alaska, granting us the perfect opportunity to understand the interactions of these species with the community and how they have adapted to their environment. Next, we will travel to a boreal forest where we will discuss carbon dynamics, experiencing first-hand how global warming is resulting in the melting of permafrost, causing a release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Next we will travel to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Here we plan to embark on the first of two four-day backpacking field studies. Through our time in the remote backcountry, we will study the alpine ecosystem and species adaptations including pollination ecology, plant diversity and specialization, bird population dynamics and home range size and movement of large mammals such as bears, fox's and moose. Here we will also learn about glaciers and ice fields and how they shape the landscape and species composition that is seen today. Our final destination will be Denali National Park where we will undertake research projects designed to provide insight on the scientific process from project planning to data collection and analysis. Our final backcountry field study will be based out of Denali State Park where we may gain a glimpse of some of Alaska’s larger mammals. We will end the program with a visit to a remote fishing village to examine first-hand how climate change and the rise in sea level is uprooting communities.

By the close of the program students will have first-hand knowledge of the ecosystems that make up southern Alaska and the challenges they face due to climate change. Our team will have a better understanding of community dynamics and how specialization and adaptation equals survival in these harsh conditions. Ecological sampling and monitoring techniques such as scientific observations, ecological transects and biological surveys will be hands-on takeaway skills. Additionally, students will appreciate the socioeconomic and cultural challenges that native Alaskans face in the current political climate.

No prior field research experience is required. All field methods and skills for data acquisition will be taught on this course. We expect students to have a positive and engaging attitude throughout the course. In exchange, they will be rewarded with an incredible experience, exploring a vast wilderness, a place that is considered to be the last frontier. Teaching will be done in the outdoor setting, through hiking, extended backcountry field studies, visits to national parks and student-led independent research projects. Seminars will be led by Wildlands Studies staff, local conservation organisations and researchers.

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Academic Credit

Students will receive 15 quarter credits/10 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in three courses:

ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

ESCI 437B, Environmental Field Survey (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

ESCI 437C, Wildlands Environment and Culture (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

Students will be evaluated on the basis of: 1) active participation in all scheduled class and field activities; 2) examinations and quizzes; 3) field journals; 4) independent research papers/essays; and 5) the design, implementation and presentation of a mini-group project.

Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety, or welfare of any course participants. We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.

 

Team Logistics

Participants will fly into Anchorage and meet at Anchorage Airport. If you are traveling in advance of the program, you can arrange to join the group at Anchorage Airport when the recommended flight arrives at the airport. At the end of the program, you can decide whether you want to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in Alaska to travel on your own.

All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our program in Alaska, travel arrangements can remain tentative until the traveling actually takes place. Weather conditions and road closures may affect our plans. Wildlands Studies has put together an innovative, unique program in Alaska, and team members need to be flexible, patient, and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments. Participants are required to provide their own tent and camping gear, including a mattress pad, appropriate sleeping bag, cooking equipment and water filter.

 

Accommodations

Primarily camping, occasional youth hostel or rural lodge.

 

Official Documents/Visa/Insurance

American citizens need USA-based identification to travel to Alaska. Non-USA citizens will need a valid passport and meet USA entry criteria.

 

Language

The course will be taught in English.

 

Pre-Program Mailings

Detailed information regarding travel and visa information, equipment requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical and vaccination recommendations, and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about 10-12 weeks before the program initiates.