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LEO Network Helps Residents of Alaska's Bush Monitor Health, Environmental Problems

Circumpolar citizen scientists keep watch on the environment …

“People are very tuned in to the food that they eat, the time of year that they harvest. What the weather conditions should be,” says Mike Brubaker. He was referring to the people who live in remote areas around Alaska who know their environment better than just about anyone.

And that’s why the Local Environmental Observer, or LEO, Network, has become such an important tool for detecting emerging health threats in those areas.

“They’re the front line to understand what’s going on,” he said.

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Brubaker says he and his staff with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium launched the LEO Network – a sort of online crowd-sourcing organization – after site visits in 2011 with Bush residents who’d been reporting environmental anomalies, usually involving wildlife.

“And,” he said, “we realized there wasn’t just a few things – there was a lot of things going on.”

Things like animals sickened by disease, parasites or poisoning, or changes in migration or behavior. Things that could threaten the food supply of the mainly indigenous peoples who depend on wildlife for subsistence.

Brubaker cites the example of a 2012 case in which residents of three western Alaska villages reported harvesting salmon that smelled and tasted like diesel fuel.

Credit LEO Network
Reports from remote Alaskan communities are posted to the LEO Network website to both inform and solicit additional reports.

“As it turned out, there wasn’t ever any specific spill that was identified that could be associated with any kind of contamination or odor in the fish,” he said.

Brubaker, who directs the Consortium’s Center for Climate and Health, posted a request on the LEO Network website asking whether any others knew anything about the problem.

“One of the observers did some research on his own – he was a tribal environmental manager from that area – and he found a paper that had been published by a Japanese research team, and they had associated that kind of a phenomenon with algal blooms,” he said.

Bob Gerlach, the state veterinarian who worked with Brubaker on that and many other cases, says the LEO Network helps tribal and other government experts monitor emerging around Alaska.

“When you think of the size of the state … there’s just no way you could actually cover, and have eyes on all those areas,” Gerlach said.

We’ll have more on the LEO Network in next week’s Changing Arctic.

Next week: An LEO Network observer and a scientist talk about the importance of the program. 

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.