The Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network started as a grassroots Alaskan movement by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) with funds from the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in 2009. ANTHC, in consultation with Tribal Leadership and environmental staff, developed a tool to document and share environmental observations recognizing the value of traditional knowledge and local knowledge.

LEO Network is a network of people, local observers and topic experts who share knowledge about unusual animal, environment, and weather events. The web-based platform with an original concept, where first person observers submit news articles, and make observations about unusual events and a changing environment. The entries include a description and a photo presented on a map. The focus is on specific, geolocated events which are considered symptoms at the local level and signals of potential trends regionally. The LEO Network is open for anyone and encourages inclusion of traditional knowledge and local knowledge. This way LEO has grown to over 3000 members. In practical terms, LEO members have recognized observed changes based on local knowledge and traditional knowledge and have been able to connect with other knowledge experts. As a result, remote communities have increased awareness of vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change.

Communities in the Arctic states with registered LEO members (as of 1 January 2021).

During the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2015-2017), the Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) and its Expert Group, the Indigenous Peoples’ Contaminants Action Program (IPCAP), worked to expand the LEO Network and create the new initiative Circumpolar Local Environmental Observer (CLEO) Network to be used by and benefit communities across the Arctic.

Circumpolar LEO Initiative partners have been working to build on the achievements of the LEO Network in North America and to connect Arctic communities and observers. During 2016-2019, six workshops on CLEO were conducted in Finland, Sweden and Norway. The first two workshops held in Anár/Inary, Finland (June 2016) and Giron/Kiruna, Sweden (January 2017) resulted in the development of the Framework for the Circumpolar Expansion of the LEO Network, a ministerial deliverable to the Arctic Council in 2017, which committed ACAP and LEO partners to continue to expand and develop the network. To follow up, the initiative partners from Finland, Norway and Sweden reached out to their Arctic academic and indigenous institutions, other observation networks, and Sámi communities across Sápmi.

Sápmi. Map by GRID-Arendal

During the CLEO workshops, opportunities for collaboration and sharing have become clear. Among these are: joint monitoring of climate change by reindeer herders and researchers (Laevas Reindeer Herding Community and Tarfala Research Station); joint management of protected areas by local Sámi communities and state authorities (World Heritage Laponia); environmental observations and waste monitoring in a Kiruna school project; community-based water quality observations (Finland); Snowchange Cooperative established in late 2000 to document and work with local and indigenous communities of the Northern regions. Some impressive follow up activities have occurred as a result.

CLEO Workshop in Anár/Inari by Vigdis Johansen
CLEO Workshop in Giron/Kiruna by Patrick Huber

Environmental observations systems existing in the Nordic countries were presented at the workshops, potential synergies with the LEO Network were examined, and national projects for CLEO development in Sápmi were initiated. In general, all nationally initiated CLEO associated projects from Finland, Norway and Sweden revealed that different nature observations systems in these countries could benefit from interlinkages with the LEO Network because of the opportunities it provides to use and document indigenous knowledge.

Cooperation with Arctic academic and indigenous institutions has provided an opportunity to increase Circumpolar LEO activity, to engage students, and explore research opportunities. Many of the projects within the CLEO Initiative in Finland, Sweden and Norway have been focused on youth and educational institutions of different levels (schools, vocational schools, colleges, universities). These activities are also in line with the Ottawa Traditional Knowledge Principles, especially the Fundamental Principle 13 [12].

A Reindeer Herders Arctic Council CLEO Hub was established in Guovdageaidnu/ Kautokeino in September 2019, financed by Norway. By use of the LEO Network and participation in the CLEO Initiative, the project partners aimed to build capacity and awareness of Sámi youth of environmental and biodiversity changes in the Arctic. Community-based workshops on environmental changes and the LEO Network with indigenous herders and youth were organized at the hub. They followed up on the initial surveillance, with monitoring in the field, by starting a simple monitoring procedure for snow.

Snow observations, photo by Katherine I. Johnsen
CLEO Youth workshop by Katherine I. Johnsen

In autumn 2020, under the Icelandic Chairmanship and with support from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Saami Council joined CLEO Initiative in Sápmi. The Saami Council has been encouraged by the various CLEO Initiative efforts in the Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian regions of Sápmi.

In Alaska, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) has continued to improve on the features in the LEO Network platform, including translations to more languages spoken in the Arctic (Skolt Sámi, Unangam Tunuu, Yupʹik). This has enabled better circumpolar participation and helped spur the CLEO initiative. Monthly LEO Alaska Webinars continue as an important forum that brings hundreds of LEO members in Alaska together to share observations, and learn new observational skills. Additionally, the on-going quarterly One Health Group Meetings, a joint initiative between ANTHC and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) Arctic Investigations Program, provide a regular opportunity for reviewing important One Health related events using LEO Network [20]. ANTHC developed the Northern Climate Observer (NCO) e-journal to supplement information gathered in the LEO Network, as well as an Alaska LEO almanac and calendar. Together with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, ANTHC initiated the LEO Kiosk Project. The concept was to develop physical Kiosks in different locations where local community members could gather to view LEO maps and data relevant to their culture, climate, and community issues.

Since 2019, over 900 posts from the North were shared through the LEO Network, with new observations being posted daily. The overarching themes that have emerged have included observed changes in seasonal timing, extreme temperatures, and unusual range sightings of plants and wildlife in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

Information sharing has been a critical component of the LEO Network. Though sharing of all information remains a challenge to fully utilizing LEO in some Arctic regions due to several factors: protection and security of culturally, economically and otherwise sensitive information; being overwhelmed with addressing rapidly accelerating climate changes on the ground and with actions toward meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and the need for training and relationship building.

Across the different regions of the Arctic and sub-Arctic, the experience of using the LEO Network has been diverse. The LEO Network is a unique tool that all Arctic residents, scholars, indigenous leaders and other potential members are encouraged to join and contribute to, in order to further enrich the observational field and to strengthen bridge inter-disciplinary, diverse cultural dialogues about environmental changes. Based on the collective experiences, partners in the Circumpolar LEO initiative had identified the following ways forward in community local observations with the hopes of incorporation of indigenous knowledge and local knowledge:

  • Bridging observation systems: Engagement with other observation and community-based monitoring systems would enhance common goals and objectives and create new partnerships in the Circumpolar Arctic.
  • Respect for intellectual property, indigenous knowledge and sensitive information: Information derived from the LEO Network should be used with care. Users of the LEO Network should keep in mind that the information submitted to the Network is intended for sharing broadly with the membership, so contributors should avoid submitting information that they consider culturally, ethically or otherwise sensitive.
  • Education and outreach: Knowledge sharing through workshops and educational events is important. The LEO Network has a good potential for diverse engagement with people having varied interests and expertise.
  • Youth engagement: Investing in youth through training, dialogue and engaging in observation platforms is important to build capacity for addressing impacts related to climate change.
  • System enhancements: Continued refinement and development of the LEO Network would help to ensure that Arctic residents can continue to actively contribute knowledge about climate change and related environmental impacts.

Observing the Chukchi Sea by Mike Brubaker