Headline: Fostering Synergies to Tackle Arctic Sustainability Challenges

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW) 2015 in Toyama, Japan, organised by the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Science Council of Japan. The event brought together nearly 700 international scientists, students, policy makers, research managers, Indigenous Peoples, and other key players with the goal of “developing, prioritizing and coordinating plans for future Arctic research”. In other words, a massive gathering of the Arctic family, where one is able to meet the same familiar faces that are encountered at each Arctic-related event. As a highlight, Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado (a prominent member of the Imperial Japanese Family) gave a very inspiring keynote speech as part of the opening ceremony, expressing her interest in and hopes for Arctic research. Within the ASSW, we also held the third International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP III), which takes place every 10 years and aims to “identify Arctic science priorities for the next decade and build constructive relationships between producers and users of knowledge” to address major Arctic sustainability challenges. These challenges include water, energy and food security, human health, and the protection of Arctic terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Die Arktis erwärmt sich doppelt so schnell wie andere Regionen der Welt. Unser Bild zeigt die Autorin in Island. © Juan A. Fernandez
Die Arktis erwärmt sich doppelt so schnell wie andere Regionen der Welt. Unser Bild zeigt die Autorin in Island. © Juan A. Fernandez

I also had the opportunity, together with Gail Fondahl from University of Northern British Columbia and Maribeth Murray from the Arctic Institute of North America, to co-organise and moderate the session “Advances in Transdisciplinary Arctic Research: Progress on Building Collaborative Agendas for Research Supporting Solutions for Sustainability”. We organised our agenda with presentations and a debate by an expert panel including an indigenous scholar, an indigenous political leader, political and physical geographers, and the current Executive Secretary of the IASC (a former glaciologist). They presented observations on ways to move toward collaborative research agendas and strategies in the Arctic, particularly on research connected to socio-ecological processes; on the exchange of knowledge among researchers and practitioners; and ways to execute and disseminate research.

Here, I would like to share some relevant observations and recommendations taken from our session, which consider a holistic approach to tackling these challenges that (we hope) will contribute to ICARP III’s main priority:

  • Arctic ecosystems (vegetation, land, marine, socio-cultural systems, economy) are affected by a warming climate, which in turn affects indigenous culture and traditional activities (e.g., reindeer herding). Hence, co-operation among diverse stakeholders is necessary in order to sustain the environment and to harmonise ecological and socio-economic requirements.
  • Learn lessons from the past and other world regions on how to engage and build creative solutions and new opportunities, which can provide effective platforms toward a more resilient Arctic.
  • Knowledge (not only scientific but also traditional) should be more openly shared/transferred/exchanged.
  • We need to co-design research approaches, within which questions are co-defined, the findings co-produced, and recommendations co-implemented.
  • It is important to initiate dialogue and to engage local people in collaboration/feedback early in the process in order to promote sustainability, resilience, adaptation among interested parties, and to achieve win–win outcomes.
  • Desirable and reasonable social and ecological management is a socio-political process, not a scientific decision. Additionally, the implementation of decisions made toward sustainable development is most effective when local administrative/coordination bodies are engaged.
  • Increasing community sustainability will require compiling more data on social conditions in order to tackle challenges related to human health, housing, and food security. Such issues are central to increasing Arctic sustainability (unfortunately, even though these aspects were mentioned repeatedly during the session and the wider conference, I didn’t meet any conference delegates from the fields of medicine, architecture, etc.).
  • Another important point concerns the necessity to hear the voices and ideas from Early Career Researchers (ECRs) in the Arctic. A presentation by a representative of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) emphasised that, in order to maintain motivation among future generations of Arctic scientists, it is necessary to include more training opportunities; to foster networking opportunities for future collaborations in international research communities; and to inform ECRs about a greater diversity in future career opportunities.

Ultimately (and as you probably noticed), these discourses point to a common approach: the need to facilitate synergies among all the parties with a ‘stake’ or a ‘right’ to the Arctic ecosystems, whether communities, scientists, governments, or industry. The most common buzzwords (probably now over-used) employing the English prefix co- (meaning coming together) in relation to transdisciplinary research appeared over and over:


Again, sustainable development to reinforce the resilience of Arctic communities requires holistic strategies for Arctic research, an essential part of which involves finding a common language so that everyone is able to transmit their messages (I remember, myself, jumping from one session to another, where I had to ‘switch’ my brain to ‘tune into’ the terminology used).

Finally, of the several predominant messages that emerged during the ASSW/ICARP, the following one resonated most from a personal point of view:

“There needs to be a greater sense of urgency among decision makers, and awareness by the general public regarding the global importance of changes taking place in the Arctic”. These changes (ecological, social, political) are “challenging our understanding of their consequences and our ability to provide knowledge for decision makers” given that new markets and opportunities to explore Arctic resources and associated activities (e.g., trade, tourism, and transportation) are likely to grow at a faster rate than the necessary infrastructures on land and sea.

I came to realize that — along the lines of the main message from the ASSW — in order to create awareness among the general public of the importance of changes not only taking place in the Arctic but at global scale, we have to nurture that awareness first as individuals, to comprehend and tackle these challenges more easily, so we can contribute (either as natural or social scientists) in a more effective way to society. Having the chance to interact with social scientists during the event — as we do at IASS and particularly working on the SMART (Sustainable Modes of Arctic Resource-driven Transformations) project — was a very inspiring learning experience, where the first step would be to find a common language so that we can first understand each other, exchange our knowledge, work together, and then make this a better world.

Header picture: Karsten Häcker

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