NSF Award # SAI-2121909

Bridging the Arctic

Community-Driven Innovation for Resilient Bridges in Rural Alaska Communities: An NSF-Funded Project ($300,000)

Team members: Guangqing Chi, Davin Holen, Megan Mucioki, Rebecca Napolitano, Heather Randell

Continents being analyzed
Long-term, active projects

Bridges have become increasingly critical for remote communities in Alaska.

Their residents frequently need to cross rivers or lakes to hunt and gather traditional foods as well as access schools, healthcare facilities, and other essential services typically available in regional hubs. Travel by boat is common during warmer months, while frozen water bodies serve as transportation corridors during winter. Temperatures in Alaska are increasing at a rate twice the global average, causing rivers to freeze later, thaw earlier, and form thinner ice. Recently, there has been an increase in snowmobile fatalities when the ice is unstable and unpredictable. Reliable bridges connect communities and provide safe transportation corridors to larger settlements, which not only support Indigenous subsistence livelihoods and remote access to goods and services, but also reduce weather-related deaths and injuries.

This project aims to understand the importance of bridges for the well-being of remote communities in Alaska and to develop a protocol for other remote communities to work together to identify and apply funds for, construct, monitor, and maintain bridges.

Given that so much infrastructure in the U.S. is in poor condition, this project will lead to a more streamlined, cost-effective, and efficient way to quantitatively assess infrastructure condition especially in remote rural areas.

Building and maintaining bridges in remote areas of Alaska comes with social science and engineering challenges.

From a social science perspective, it is critical to understand how bridge construction impacts community well-being and how communities can work together effectively to secure the necessary financial resources for bridge construction.

From an engineering perspective, critical infrastructure such as bridges are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including permafrost thawing and increased precipitation that accelerate corrosion, and rising sea levels that correspond with flooding. It is therefore essential to determine effective ways to monitor the stability and safety of a bridge after it is constructed.

We ask three interconnected research questions:

(1) how does bridge construction affect subsistence activities, education, social ties, and health and safety?

(2) how can drones be used effectively to monitor changes on a bridge? and

(3) how can communities effectively work together to identify and apply for bridge construction funding?

This study will be conducted in Aleknagik and Nondalton in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska; the former had a bridge built recently, but the latter has not been successful in securing a bridge despite a strong need that has been identified as a regional priority.

To ensure the success of this project, we will partner with stakeholders in the Bristol Bay region to co-produce knowledge and disseminate and implement study results and recommendations that might benefit future bridge projects in the region. We will collect primary data from in-depth interviews and household surveys to be analyzed with a combination of qualitative and statistical analysis. Drone image data will be collected biannually to monitor and evaluate long-term structural conditions.

This project presents a paradigm shift from disjointed social and engineering efforts concerning vital critical infrastructure.

Accounting not only for the social and engineering factors independently, but also considering how those factors converge, will lead to infrastructure projects that align with local priorities. This alignment of resources becomes an ever-more pressing matter as the effects of climate change continue to cause untimely degradation and failure of critical transportation infrastructure. Additionally, this project will work with local school districts to provide real-world learning opportunities for students and workforce development for teachers.