WWU’s Mike Etnier Receives $100k NSF Grant to Research Climate Change in the Aleutians

Western Washington University’s Mike Etnier, a research associate in the Anthropology department, traveled to Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian island of Unalaska in August to continue his research into how climate change has affected the marine environment over the past 4,000 years at this remote location.

“In Dutch Harbor, there is a series of archaeological sites that are showing major evidence of climate change, specifically in the animals that formed the basis of the ancient subsistence economy there,” said Etnier.

The primary animal being studied is the ringed seal, which shows an adaptation to living in icy areas – even though Dutch Harbor is largely ice free today.

“We are able to analyze the bones of the seals from thousands of years ago and can sometimes determine a lot about the animal,” said Etnier. “ If I get a seal jaw bone, I can figure out the gender, age, diet, and theoretically tell how many pups a female had all from the jaw.”

Learning about the ringed seals 4,000 years ago and comparing that information against similar data from the present seal population gives insights into the changes that have occurred over that period that otherwise would be difficult to quantify.

Another factor in Etnier’s research is looking at the ocean’s water temperature from the past 4,000 years to help determine climate change at these sites.

“The ocean is such a huge heat sink, that the changes in the terrestrial climates might be massive, but changes in the ocean may be minor,” said Etnier.

Knowing the importance of how the oceans temperature affects the animals, Etnier and his colleges are also analyzing the chemistry of fossilized clam shells to determine past water temperatures.

“Essentially, if we are able to document the changes of the chemistry in the shell, then we can tell if it was colder water temperature at the time we are looking at,” said Etnier. “We can even see individual tide cycles in the growth layers of the clam shells, so we can get an indication of whether or not the length of the growing season was significantly different 4000 years ago.”

Etnier’s research is funded by a three year, $101,645 grant from National Science Foundation. It is a collaborative grant with Catherine West at Boston University and Fred Andrus at the University of Alabama.

Etnier has worked in the Anthropology department at Western since 2005.

For more information about Etnier’s research, contact Etnier at mike.etnier@wwu.edu.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Catherine West of Boston University and Mike Etnier of WWU look out over Dutch Harbor from Bunker Hill. Their research is trying to answer basic questions about how people have adapted to changing climatic conditions in this area (Anna Goldfield photo).