Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Spring Festival: “Why the Arctic Matters? Applying a ‘Human Perspective’ to Understanding Arctic Change”

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) began its Arctic Spring Festival on the National Mall with a panel discussion on “Why the Arctic Matters: Applying a ‘Human Perspective’ to Understanding Arctic Changes.”


Dr. Igor Krupnik, Director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), moderated the panel, which offered a great introduction to those less familiar with Arctic policy and also presented new ideas on how to present Arctic policy to the public.


Keynote Address


Heather Conley, Senior Vice President of Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (featured in the 4th Edition of the Arctic Report), delivered the keynote address, entitled, “Is the Arctic the New Mecca of the North?”  The title referred to a comment by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, that the Arctic is “a Russian Mecca” because of the region’s status in Russian geopolitics (see the Washington Post article from April 20).


Aiming at people less familiar with the idea that the U.S. has long been an Arctic nation, Conley quickly reviewed Alaska’s strategic importance.  When the territory of Alaska was purchased in 1867, Russia’s presence in the Western Hemisphere was greatly reduced.  It contains valuable natural resources of all varieties, and its location proved crucial in World War II and the Cold War.


“What is new is the changing environment of the Arctic,” Conley said, summarizing the effects of ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, thawing sea ice and permafrost, and a dryer and warmer land climate.  She described how these changes may impact global trade, national security, and resource extraction, and may bring more human activity to the region.


Conley reminded the audience of former Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 speech at Murmansk, in which he referred to the Arctic region as a “zone of peace.”  This led to the formation of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy of 1991, a precursor to the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996, which has become increasingly complex with more forums for consensus.  Conley described the council and the goals of the U.S. chairmanship for 2015-2017.


The world has changed since 1998, when the U.S. last chaired the Arctic Council.  Conley said Arctic sea ice has decreased from 12 million to 5 million square kilometers maximum, the U.S. now has only “1.5 icebreakers” instead of three fully functioning Arctic vessels, the council has significantly more observers (most notably China, which is building six icebreakers), and all of the Arctic Council nations have imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and tensions in Ukraine.


These changes suggest the U.S. chairmanship could pose opportunities for both solutions to old problems and heightened conflict over new situations.


Conley dispelled some myths about the Arctic, pointing out that the Eurasian Arctic is densely populated with sophisticated infrastructure, and the underdeveloped North American Arctic is not representative of the entire circumpolar region.


Conley said the U.S. and other nations had taken cooperation in the Arctic for granted since the end of the Cold War, but now they’re caught up in the response to Russia’s aggressive actions and the reopening of its Arctic bases.  Conley suggested the U.S. can use the Arctic Council chairmanship as a way to maintain multilateral cooperation in the region, and enhance coordination and cooperation with Russia before larger problems escalate.


Conley concluded with an Inuit proverb: “Only when the ice breaks will you truly know who is your friend, and who is your enemy.”


A member of the public asked, “When was the Arctic last ice-free?”  Dr. John Farrell of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and Dr. Stephanie Pfirman of Columbia University—both slated for the following panel presentation—said scientists are still constructing this answer as some areas of the region have been under ice for longer periods of time at different stages in the Earth’s history.


Mead Treadwell, also on the panel, asked Conley: “What can we expect to remain constructive with Russia?”


Conley said the fact that “nobody knew” about Russia’s recent military exercises of over 40,000 air and maritime land components is a great example of how the U.S. does not know how to react to Russia.  In the last year, a number of Russia fighter jets turned off their transponders and were not responsive to communications, “which is a total reversal of their code of conduct of notifying the U.S. of military exercises.”


Conley said the U.S. should be aware of changing force structure and posture in Russia’s Arctic, and be careful not to miscommunicate “as Russia has 60 percent of the Arctic coastline” and easily has a leg-up on the U.S. in this region with an ambitious economic agenda.


While the members have agreed not to use the Arctic Council to address national security issues, the U.S. can still use the chairmanship as a way to maintain coordination and communication to avoid future problems with Russia, particularly with regard to search and rescue, and oil spill response agreements.


A Greenland resident asked, “Greenland has already claimed the North Pole, we need to make sure people know we want peace in there.  How far did the U.S. come with claims to North Pole and the Arctic?”


Conley said the U.S. has unresolved border issues in the Arctic.  Under UNCLOS, Arctic coastal states can present scientific data to the United Nations to extend their offshore continental shelf (OCS).  Several Arctic countries have already submitted scientific data to prove their claims for economic development and preservation purposes.  While the U.S. Senate has not ratified the UNCLOS, Conley said the U.S. is still actively collecting OCS data in coordination with Canada.  Conley said the Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean is a great example of the multiple conflicting claims that are being negotiated in the UNCLOS forum.  And while the U.S. and Canada are working on their Beaufort Sea claims, they are working within a cooperative framework.


Panel Discussion


Dr. Igor Krupnik, the panel moderator, was born in Russia, has conducted extensive research on St. Lawrence Island and the Seward Peninsula, and was a visiting professor at UAF in 1991 (more here).


The panel included the following participants (brief biographies can be found here):

  • Margaret Beckel, President and CEO Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada
  • Nikoosh Carlo, Senior Advisor to the SAO Chair, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC
  • John Farrell, Executive Director, U.S. Arctic Research Commission, Arlington, VA
  • William Fitzhugh, Director, Arctic Studies Center, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution
  • Craig Fleener, Arctic Policy Advisor, Office of Gov. Bill Walker, Anchorage
  • Stephanie Pfirman, Co-Chair, Environmental Science Department, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York
  • Mead Treadwell, President, Pt Capital, former Lt. Governor of the State of Alaska, Anchorage


Simon Stephenson, IARPC Executive Director and OSTP Assistant Director for Polar Science, ran into flight delays and could not make the event.


Panelists were first asked to respond to Dr. Krupnik’s question, “Why do we need a human perspective in addressing Arctic change?”

  • Beckel said visitors need to relate to the content presented at the museum, now and in the future, and that the global implications of the changing Arctic are bigger than they understand. The Canadian Museum of Nature uses permafrost to explain how the Arctic is changing. People can relate to how methane releases and ground shifts can affect air, infrastructure, vegetation, wildlife migration, and other significant factors.  Her museum “tells the story of the Arctic through the people who explore and study it.”
  • Carlo described her experience growing up in the village of Tanana, and the role the rivers play in transportation and subsistence. The changing Arctic affects how people live in the sub-Arctic as well, she explained.
  • Farrell said the rapid atmospheric change is an “uncontrolled experiment humans are imposing on the planet. The human perspective is central to causing the changes.”  He added that while the science is debated, climate change is happening. “For me the science and physics are settled.”  Pope Francis recently discussed the “morality of climate change,” in that people are responsible and have “slapped nature in the face.”  Dr. Farrell said people must take responsibility and consider the financial, economic, environmental and cultural reality of climate change and how it will change their world.
  • Fitzhugh said the issues of health, food security, and pollution in the Arctic have been happening for at least 40,000 years, and archaeology can tell us how people lived and adapted. He noted the variability in the Inuit people’s hunting skills across the Arctic and how they have adapted to fish and game changes over generations, even learning to domesticate reindeer.  “The human perspective about addressing the changing Arctic is about cooperating, not just about research,” he said.
  • Pfirman said when she first started to study Arctic sea ice in 1980, the ice was at least 11 feet high, and has since lost 70 percent of its volume, with changes happening faster and with greater impact. She said these rapid changes will result in more polar and grizzly bear interbreeding and other big alterations in flora and fauna.
  • Fleener said, “People often forget about the people of the Arctic,” and quickly described the Gwich’in people, who live in a 450,000 square mile area between Alaska and Canada. With the seats of power far from the Arctic, lawmakers rarely have the opportunity to ask Arctic people what matters to them.  “We know the changes, we can help you make decisions. Just ask us,” he said.  He also noted not all changes are bad. “Like no more 84 below temperatures—nobody misses that.”  Fleener said Arctic peoples are “not cavemen.  We are dynamic, involved in policymaking, and many manage multimillion dollar companies.  Strengthen your focus and go to the Arctic.”
  • Treadwell said people must pay attention to the Arctic so the U.S. can get the investment it needs. He described the Arctic as a region that feeds the world through fish and game, fuels the world through natural resources and renewable energy, provides for the world with rare earth minerals for technology, and protects the world through albedo solar energy.  “Humans can only protect and take care of the needs in nature, but the challenge in the Arctic is to take care of new opportunities through stewardship of a new ocean,” he said. “If we don’t do it right, we don’t deserve to be there.”


Dr. Krupnik presented the panel with a second question: “What can we do to strengthen public focus and research on people and human well-being in the Arctic during the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council?”

  • Beckel said museums have the ability to touch millions of people each year through programs—such as the Arctic Spring Festival—that can bring Arctic art, science and culture to the public so that it can be better appreciated and understood. The Canadian Museum of Nature will celebrate the 150th birthday of Canada in 2017 with the opening of a permanent gallery of the Arctic to educate more people about the role the Arctic plays in Canada’s history and culture.
  • Carlo discussed the U.S. goals for the Arctic Council chairmanship, as noted in previous issues of the Arctic Report. She said Arctic communities must adapt to rapid changes and described how everyday life will be impacted as the region opens up to more human activity.  The Arctic Council will improve public engagement through social media, public education, events, spreading and sharing news stories, and other activities.
  • Farrell said the U.S. must strengthen public focus by getting the public’s attention and “make people care about the region. Scientists focus on the reason why the Arctic is changing. If we focus on reason, we can go for the gut with people.”  He said the movie Frozen sent people’s attention northward, and the increased news coverage is a good thing.  Dr. Farrell said the public needs to understand there are people who inhabit and make their livings in the region.  He also said people can “follow the money” and see there is not a lot of funding behind the U.S. chairmanship. “I venture that in one year, the National Science Foundation budget for Arctic research should be five times more than what the U.S. will utilize on all other issues.”
  • Fitzhugh said the U.S. can continue the strong level of cooperation among scientists and focus on public outreach and education during the chairmanship. He encouraged getting Alaska Native arts more in the public eye, as well as into school exhibits.
  • Pfirman encouraged more hands-on activities with more innovative approaches to education and research, and make adult education engaging too. She appreciated the Smithsonian’s card game that shows how sea ice changes.
  • Fleener reiterated that Alaska is far removed from the rest of the nation. “Put a human face on the Arctic,” he said.  “Say ‘Alaska’ and think about Alaska, start education and humanize it.  Don’t only think about ice.  Alaska is not only about ice and polar bears. There is a lot of diversity in what it means to be Arctic and to live Arctic.”  He stressed the need for the public to think about Alaska as a real place and be clear about where the state is geographically located.  Alaska again needs a “national imperative,” such as its strategic importance during World War II.  He said this could be in the form of commercial shipping, or perhaps in response to the Russian buildup in the Arctic.
  • Treadwell responded with his own stark question: “How to mess up this new ocean?” To do that, he said, “don’t accomplish what we need,” such as search and rescue protocol, oil spill response, shipping regulations, and culture and language protection. Treadwell also stressed knowing the difference between “climate vanity and climate reality.”  He supported improving the shipping regime, saying “We should make sure Russia isn’t a troll under the bridge.” Further, the Arctic Economic Council can provide a venue for private and public investment in science and shipping.


Linda Priebe, a DC attorney with expertise in Arctic compliance, asked if Alaska is able to learn from Norway about how to adapt to the changing Arctic.


Fleener responded it is not fair to compare Alaska to Scandinavian countries. “There is a divide between people of the Arctic and their governments,” he said.  “Scandinavia is more advanced with developing roads, schools, communities in the Arctic to provide the revenue needed there. Compare that to northern Alaska with very little investment.”


With regard to food security, Alaska differs greatly from the Saami people because they raise their own food while most Alaska Natives hunt, Fleener said, elaborating that Alaska Native people have been “required to live in communities, and are not allowed to be as highly migratory as they used to be.  Sitting in one spot makes it difficult to hunt and fish where you would normally.  If your community is falling in the ocean, one thousand years ago you would’ve walked away, but we can’t now because of land ownership concerns, hunting and fishing season regulations, and more.”  He said to meet the needs of food security, the state and federal governments should allow for a higher quality of adaptation.


A member of the public asked, “What is the best one-liner to show the rate of change in the Arctic?”

  • Pfirman said that while no one-liner will resonate with everyone, she found talking about the crossbreeding of grizzly and polar bears has affected a lot of people’s understanding of the changing region.
  • Treadwell responded, “How many times has human history given us a new ocean?”
  • Fitzhugh responded, “Methane is 14 times more powerful in affecting climate change than carbon dioxide.”
  • Beckel said one could tap into natural curiosity and inspire the love of nature and beauty of the Arctic. “We can’t just scare people,” making reference to Treadwell’s concerns about losing opportunities in the Arctic.


Other Activities


Dr. Kirk Johnson, NMNH Director, provided the introduction for the keynote address and panel discussion.  NMNH is working with the Anchorage Museum, NOAA, and natural history museums from other Arctic Council countries to spread the word about why the Arctic matters.  NMNH receives seven million visitors each year, contains over 28 million objects, and employs over 400 scientists working behind the scenes to preserve the earth’s cultural and geological history, including that of Arctic peoples.


Before the panel began, the Smithsonian presented “Echoes: Sounds of the Arctic” by Charles Morrow, featuring Arctic images set to sound by Meghan Mulkerin.  More information on the piece can be found here.  Immediately following, the Smithsonian presented a short award-winning animated film, Tupilaq, by Greenland artist Jakob Maque, which portrayed the cultural alienation of Greenland’s Inuit people and regional struggles with alcoholism.  A preview of Tupilaq can be found here.


The pre-panel program concluded with a performance by the Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble from the Children’s Home in Uummannaq, Greenland.  The Children’s Home is one of the oldest and northernmost residential treatment facilities for youth; more information can be found here.