PDRF Studies Climate Change and Costal Ecosystems in Alaska

Ryan Choi

Whether it’s working as a fisheries observer on the Bering Sea during the winter in 15-20 foot seas or taking a 100-day hike through the deserts from the Colorado Plateau to Zions National Park, Ryan Choi seems drawn to adventure.

The last three years Ryan has spent 5 months out of the year in a remote area of Alaska at a location that is a three-hour boat ride away from civilization. While there he has been working on an ongoing research project for Utah State University. This project focuses on how climate change affects the ability of the coastal ecosystems to store nutrients and how that impacts migratory birds (specifically geese). Ryan says that most of the winter is spent planning and preparing for the expedition. Because the location is so remote, everything the team of four will need to live for the five-month trip needs to be taken in via snow machine. This includes food, fuel, propane, renewable energy systems, weather ports, equipment and their boat.    

When asked how he prepares mentally for these trips Ryan says that his long hikes and other trips have prepared him for long stretches in seclusion. He says he has always appreciated experiences that require self-reliance and enjoys the time away from society.  “It’s also something I’ve always gravitated towards…being in these really wild places. [It] allows you to experience aspects of the world that you wouldn’t be able to when you’re closer to society.” 

While in Alaska Ryan spends his time artificially accelerating the growing season on small plots of land using open-top chambers. Plant growth is carefully controlled and then exposed to geese that have migrated to the area. The team used spring traps to capture the geese, clipped their wings and kept them in pens where they were fed and watered. The geese would then be released on specific plots until molting season when their feathers grew back and they could fly away. Measurements Ryan and the other researchers are taking include carbon dioxide exchange with the atmosphere, nitrogen content, root counts and biomass. “On paper it seems almost an impossible thing to try and go out and do,” Ryan said, “But it was really satisfying being able to have this plan and then go out and execute it.”