Alaska World Affairs Council Presents “The U.S. & Norway in the Quest for Arctic Knowledge”

As part of the itinerary for an official state visit to Alaska, King Harald V provided introductory remarks—entitled “Looking North Together”—for several keynote presentations featuring Craig Fleener, Harald Steen (Director of the Center for Ice, Climate & Ecosystems at the Norwegian Polar Institute), and Børge Ousland (a polar explorer).


In his speech, the king emphasized the ties between Norway and Alaska in that they are populated by peoples of the North who have a love for nature and the outdoors, and who “never complain about the weather,” he joked.  He said the experience of visiting Alaska “feels very much like coming home.”


King Harald V said the world is increasingly looking to the north.  Climate change has made the Arctic Council more relevant than ever.  Alaska’s voice is an important and necessary guide “for your great nation in its approach to this region.”


The king paid tribute to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundson, the first man to visit both poles.  King Harald V visited Norway’s Antarctica research station in February.  He said polar research and accurate data is critical for understanding climate change, one of the biggest challenges of all time.  “Unless we deepen our knowledge, we will never understand the complexities of our region.”


Craig Fleener began his speech by describing his hometown of Fort Yukon in Alaska’s interior.  For thousands of years, this location provided indigenous people with everything they needed to sustain themselves.


Fleener said this illustrates the need to “humanize the Arctic” by telling the world why the region is important to the people who live there and how they take care of it.  “If you don’t put a human face on it (the Arctic), people won’t understand it.  They’ll think it’s a block of ice.”


To overcome the lack of attention, Fleener said the Arctic needs a new national imperative.  Examples of national imperatives are the Alaska-Canada Highway, built as a World War II supply line; the 1960s infrastructure boom, to replace and repair facilities destroyed in the 1964 earthquake; and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, built in response to a national energy crisis.


Fleener called for a unified international approach because no single nation can take care of the Arctic in the way it requires.  Resources must be pooled together to solve the problems the region faces.


“We have to get word out that Alaska cannot be simply treated as jewel, something to be set on a shelf,” but also must have the ability to develop its resources and build its economy.


Harald Steen showed photos and described a scientific expedition that used an Arctic-equipped vessel—frozen into the ice—as a research station for measuring Arctic sea ice.


Working in an area north of Spitzbergen, the six-month Norwegian Young Sea ICE cruise of 2015 collected data on the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice.  Steen’s observations and findings included the following:

  • The jet stream has slowed resulting in different weather patterns.
  • The Arctic used to have only multi-year ice, but that is being replaced by one-year old ice.
  • The sea ice is thinner, reduced from an average of 3½ meters in the 1990s to two meters today.
  • Ocean water is now three to four degrees warmer. It used to stay at lower depths, but is now surfacing and melting the sea ice.


Steen said the research is important in that the ability to understand the world and its natural conditions is based on how it is modeled scientifically.  He also mentioned that National Geographic journalists joined the expedition at one point, so future issues might include coverage.


Børge Ousland spoke to the luncheon just days after finishing an expedition on the Stikine Icefield.  He recounted some of his experiences from a lifetime of adventure, including crossing Greenland’s ice cap, solo skiing expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole, crossing Antarctica, crossing the Arctic Ocean, a North Pole winter trek, exploration of Franz Josef Land (a Russian archipelago), and a four-month circumvention of the Arctic Ocean in a sailing catamaran.


Ousland said he has found few places as stunning as Alaska.  For next year, he is planning an expedition to Saint Elias Icefield.


With his own eyes, he has observed that polar ice is thinning.  Ousland’s expeditions have highlighted why glaciers and polar ice are so important to the climate as they reflect heat back into space.  Unfortunately, almost all of the glaciers in the northern hemisphere are shrinking.


He said if all of his expeditions “help just a drop” in bringing attention to Arctic conditions, then they were worth the effort.


Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic, said that on this trip he was able to visit the Anchorage Museum, where he was drawn to the exhibit on “Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage.”


Adm. Papp said he began his career in the U.S. Coast Guard in Adak in 1975.  Reflecting on the challenges that Capt. James Cook and his crew faced in 1778, Adm. Papp said there is no place in the world that teaches a person more about being a sailor than the Bering Sea.  He also noted that indigenous people had inhabited this region for thousands of years.


“The Arctic represents a change in the way we view the world,” he said.


As he attends Arctic meetings around the world, Adm. Papp noted that China and Singapore are always represented.  Though far from the Arctic, they recognize the opportunities.  Changing transpolar conditions may open entirely new maritime routes.  And with the new routes come opportunities, challenges and responsibilities.


Adm. Papp said the Arctic represents opportunities for prosperity, but its very sensitive environmental habitat needs to be protected.  The world is losing predictability in weather conditions, and that is most evident in the Arctic.


The U.S. has a balanced and ambitious program for chairmanship of the Arctic Council, focusing on safety for Arctic activities, the living conditions of Arctic residents, and the impacts of climate change.  Adm. Papp encouraged everyone to attend Arctic Council events.  “This is our chance to draw attention to this great state,” he said.


Introducing the program, Fran Ulmer, Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, said the Arctic is a special place, “both valuable and vulnerable.”  She said Norway and Alaska share many aspects including tourism, oil & gas development, and indigenous populations.  They also differ in some ways in that Norway has Vikings, mythical trolls, and a permanent fund that is ten times the size of Alaska’s permanent fund.


The Alaska-Norway partnership “allows us to reflect on our stewardship responsibilities.”


To conclude the luncheon, Ulmer urged all of the attendees to discuss two topics at their tables and to take those thoughts home with them:  (1) What kinds of Alaska-Norway partnerships occur to you as appropriate?  (2) What can we as Alaskans do to educate people about the Arctic?