Arctic Observing Open Science Meeting Brings Early Career Scientists to Seattle

Last week in Seattle, the Arctic Observing Open Science Meeting (AOOSM) convened for the first time in seven years. The meeting was organized by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS), with meeting funded awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Arctic Observing Network program. Approximately 200 scientists gathered to discuss research advances made by Arctic observing projects primarily funded by U.S. local, state, and federal agencies.


Panel Discussion: “Achieving an Interagency Arctic Observing System.” Photo: Mia Bennett

The agencies themselves were well represented, too. A panel discussion on the first day brought together representatives from seven government agencies with Arctic science objectives including the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and NSF, who all expressed a variety of motivations in studying the region. William Ambrose of NSF explained that his agency’s goal is to “understand the Arctic on a regional scale and its relationship to the global system during a period of rapid environmental change,” while Martin Jeffries of the Office of Naval Research stated, “Where the Navy sees open water, it sees a responsibility to operate.” The link between the two, as AOOSM demonstrated, is that operations in the Arctic need robust networks of observations in order to proceed in a well-informed manner.

The meeting’s many parallel sessions covered a wide range of topics including the terrestrial Arctic, maritime ecosystems, the fate of sea ice, community-based monitoring, and human dimensions. As two examples of the interdisciplinary nature of the talks as a whole, Ben Fitzhugh (University of Washington) examined how archaeological sites can serve as “distributed observation networks” of past Arctic and subarctic ecological conditions, while Alek Petty (NASA Goddard), an Early Career Travel Award Winner (see below), discussed how NASA Operation IceBridge data can be used to estimate sea ice topography.

One of the key features of AOOSM were the robust, hour-long discussions that followed each parallel session, centering on three key questions about the past and future of Arctic observing networks. Discussants reflected on the advances that have been already been made by these networks and on the future opportunities for enhanced collaboration and interagency observing system. The AOOSM Organizing Committee (full disclosure, of which I am a member) is considering publishing a special issue with articles reviewing these advances and opportunities in Arctic observing science so that they can reach a wider community.

A number of early career scientists participated in AOOSM, with six receiving Early Career Travel Awards. Applications were evaluated by the US Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (USAPECS) and sponsored by NSF and NASA. During the closing plenary, Hajo Eicken, Chair of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH, which also helped sponsor the meeting), stressed the importance of early career scientists’ participation in AOOSM, as it offers them an opportunity to extend their research networks and connect with some of the chief Arctic science funding agencies at a formative stage in their career.

The award winners were:

  • Jennifer Watts, Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, University of Montana.“Integrating Tower Eddy Covariance, Satellite Remote Sensing and Ecosystem Modeling to Identify Changes in Hydrology and Carbon Fluxes Across the Alaskan Arctic”
  • Elchin Jafarov, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado.“Sustainable Permafrost Observing in Support of a Permafrost Forecasting System”
  • Anne Gaedeke, Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.“What Role do Glaciers Play in Subarctic Hydrology?”
  • Alice Bradley, University of Colorado.“Near-surface Temperature Gradients Detected by Microbuoys in the Arctic Ocean”
  • Victoria Herrmann, Scott Polar Research Center, University of Cambridge/The Arctic Institute, Washington D.C. “Frozen Assets: On the Evolution of Risk in Arctic Oil & Gas Development”*
  • Alek Petty, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland.“Characterizing Arctic Sea Ice Topography Using High-resolution IceBridge Data”
  • Matthew Druckenmiller, Rutgers University and the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado Boulder.“Sea Ice Matters: Science Communication through the SEARCH Sea Ice Action Team”



The sun rises in Seattle with Mt. Rainier in the background the day after AOOSM wrapped up. Photo: Mia Bennett

Moscow: Where Polar Bears Stalk the Streets


Photo Exhibit: “The Russian North.”

This summer in Helsinki, I found token signs of the country’s Arctic identity, which I discussed in a post called “Finland: An Eastern Arctic Nation.” There was a street called “Auroragatu,” market booths selling reindeer hot dogs and fried fish from Lapland, and a tourist agency advertising trips to the Arctic.

But when I arrived in Russia, I realized that it was another northern beast altogether. Especially – or perhaps even – in the capital of Moscow, the country’s Arctic identity was hard to forget.

St. Petersburg has long been the country’s northern capital, and it was from this former imperial seat that many northern expeditions were planned and launched. The city is farther north than Moscow and experiences the phenomena of White Nights thanks to its high latitude. But Moscow, the beating heart of modern Russia, is where the contemporary Russian national identity is forged and displayed. President Vladimir Putin has emphasized the Arctic dimension of Russia’s identity, remarking in 2010, “To be honest, Russia is a northern country.” And it is in the streets of Moscow where the Kremlin’s increasing propensity to look north shines through in the state-sponsored public art.

The icons of Russian propaganda

Propaganda has a storied history in Russia, most famously under the Soviets. Lenin launched a strategy of “Monumental Propaganda” to instill revolutionary, communist ideas in the Soviet people. Enormous banners were unfurled on the sides of buildings and statues were erected to figures like Fyodor Dostoevsky, the celebrated author, and Alexander Herzen, the “father of Russian socialism.” While Lenin’s plan was not entirely a success due to a lack of funding in the 1920s, large-scale, publicly accessible and viewable art, whether or not you want to call it propaganda, is still important today. For instance, since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Soviets’ victory in World War II, the state has paid for banners to be erected everywhere commemorating “70 Years of Victory.” Such decorations can be found in roadside cafes in the middle of nowhere and on the main boulevards in Moscow. Russia is a huge country, but one shouldn’t discount its ability to propagate a specific iconography across its territory. On a smaller (and more edible) scale, I even came across an ice cream brand called “Victory.”

Arctic street photography

So how does the Arctic figure into contemporary public art scene in Moscow?

While walking the city streets under the blazing August sun, I came across two different photo exhibits, one which was specifically dedicated to the Arctic. Located a few blocks from the Kremlin, this exhibit (called “The Russian North”) was sponsored by National Geographic Russia, the Russian Geographical Society, and the Republic of Sakha, which is located in the Russian Far East. Sakha is Russia’s largest subnational unit (about equivalent to India) and contains a large amount of territory north of the Arctic Circle. Sakha has also been trying to develop its northern activities and policy; last year, the President of Sakha even gave a speech at the Arctic Circle forum in Iceland. The RGS, for what it’s worth, is an organization of surprising national stature. It has sponsored exploration of the Arctic and other parts of Russia since its inception in 1845, including Putin’s recent journey to the bottom of the Black Sea. Various high-powered oligarchs sit on its board, and Putin is – surprise, surprise – the head of the RGS.

Russian families out for a stroll, ladies in summer dresses, and young people all stopped to consider the photographs of the Arctic. Ample descriptions were interspersed between some of the photos, reminding people that Russia was a northern nation and has been so for centuries. All of the images were scenes of Arctic nature at its purest and most stereotypical: polar bears, beluga whales, walruses, and muskox. There were no photos of cities like Murmansk or Arkhangelsk or of nuclear icebreakers or oil platforms.



Historical photographs of the Northern Sea Route from 1900-1915.

The second photo exhibit, sponsored by Russian Railways (RZD), was outside the Kazansky train station. The station is named after the city of Kazan, which Ivan the Terrible laid siege to in 1552, opening the door to Russia’s conquest of the Tatars. From Kazansky train station, trains come and go to Russia’s southeast, namely the cities of Kazan and Yekaterinburg (the trans-Siberian railway) and Ryazan. Trains to Central Asian cities like Tashkent and Bishkek also terminate at Kazansky. Given the constant flow of people from the Russian steppes and Central Asia through this station, it is a logical place to locate a photo exhibit on the monumental territory of Russia. The micro-geography of Kazansky train station encapsulates the enormous geography of the country as a whole.


Kazansky Railway Station.

The first photo in the exhibit was an aerial shot of the Crimean peninsula. There was no commentary about how Russia had recently annexed it. To an outsider like myself, the remarkable thing about its inclusion was perhaps how unremarked it was. It reminded me of how many Russian exhibits sponsored by the government are accompanied by a very small icon of a map of Russia, which now unfailingly includes Crimea. This sort of banal nationalism, as the social scientist Michael Billig terms it, is subtler than Lenin’s “monumental propaganda,” but perhaps more effective in the way it slips into the subconscious without asking the viewer to bow down in awe.

In the context of the whole exhibit, it seems no more remarkable that Crimea belongs to Russia as does Franz Josef Land, or any other Arctic locate featured for that matter. Unlike in the photo exhibit near the Kremlin, there was no sense of history or time with these photos: Crimea and Franz Josef Land appear to have been part of Russia since time immemorial, even though Crimea was only most recently incorporated in 2014, and Franz Josef Land not until 1914. Through this exhibit, in effect, the nation state projects itself both backwards and forwards across space and time, to paraphrase the historian Prasenjit Duara.


A polar bear near Franz Josef Land.

All of the photos in the RZD exhibit featured stunning landscapes, but not all of them were entirely natural. Strangely (to an American, at least), one featured an open-pit diamond mine in Sakha. Rather than being considered a blight on the landscape, in Russia, such enormous sites of extraction symbolize the country’s successful transformation and conquest of a most formidable nature – an accomplishment to be admired rather than hidden from sight.

Ultimately, these two photo exhibits demonstrate the Russian state’s tendency to champion exploration. Statues, monuments, and metro stations celebrate pioneers and explorers in a way that far outdoes America, which might be more commonly thought of as a country that encourages its citizens to set their sights on the next horizon. One evening in Moscow, I came across the monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space. In the gardens in front of the Kremlin, I found a tree planted on the day Gagarin flew into space. Later I explored the VDNKh, an open air exhibition originally designed under Stalin as a monument to the diversity of the Soviet Union. It includes enormous pavilions for places like Karelia, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, along with the Buran space shuttle (which to some might symbolize the end of the USSR, as the program was terminated after the country collapsed). Right outside VDNKh is Cosmonaut’s Alley, where an enormous bolt of steel rises into the air with a rocket at the tip. In front is a statue of the formidable Soviet rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and next to it are the busts of the Soviet cosmonauts who made it to the final frontier.




A tree named “Cosmos,” planted on April 14, 1961 – the day Gagarin became the first human (and first Soviet) in space.

All of these photo exhibits, monuments, and statues are ultimately testaments to national exploration and conquest. They celebrate the forging ahead of a single country rather than mankind as a whole. In the wake of the tragedies in Paris and Beirut, it is worth remembering that exploration is at its best when it helps to forge a global consciousness that unites people rather than a national consciousness than divides. I think this cartoon by Zen Pencils, inspired by U.S. astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, sums it up pretty well.


Iceland’s President: Arctic is like “discovering a new Africa”

The Arctic Circle Singapore Forum convened yesterday in the hot and hazy tropical megalopolis. The forum is an offshoot of the Arctic Circle Assembly, which is the brainchild of Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. The assembly’s third annual meeting took place in Reykjavik last month. In the capital of the North Atlantic island, Grimsson welcomed the audience of over 1,500 participants from over 50 countries by stating, “It is indeed your Assembly, and hopefully it will continue to be a joint endeavor in our common journey towards not only a more responsible Arctic but also a sustainable world.”

Speaking in Singapore yesterday, however, Grimsson was blunter in his assessment of the Arctic. He cast aside discussions of a “common journey” by saying that the Arctic “is like discovering a new Africa,” mentioning the North’s wealth of natural resources. Grimsson’s comparison of the Arctic with Africa conjures images of European explorers alongside narratives of a “great game,” “scramble,” or “race for resources.” His comparison also puts the Arctic in a colonial light, alluding to the region as a land of plenty whose natural wealth is just lying in wait to be siphoned off by foreign states and corporations. Such a mentality pervaded 19th century European views of Africa. In 1886, the Reverend Davies wrote in his Illustrated Handbook on Africa:

“The favorable solution of the African question depends very largely on the further question, whether or not the listless carelessness of the natives can be so far overcome as to enable them to develop the resources of the land about them: nor is this entirely hopeless. Already all along the chief rivers the pursuits of trade are overcoming the natural indolence of the chiefs and of other unofficial traders; and the twin passions, avarice and love of display, are producing their natural results in the form of productive industry” (p. 35).

A map of Africa from 1805 with

A map of Africa from 1805 with “Unknown Parts.”

Davies, like many other Europeans of his time, did not think that the “listless” Africans could be entrusted with developing their own continent. Colonial views of Arctic indigenous peoples were also similar, seeing them as lazy or indolent. Part of this apparent listlessness stemmed from the fact that first, the extraction and export-based mode of resource development was completely foreign to peoples who led subsistence lifestyles. Second, neither pre-colonial Africans nor Arctic peoples yet possessed the skills necessary to participate in industrial resource extraction even if they desired such an economy. To remedy the apparent underdevelopment of both and the Arctic in either the 19th or the 21st century, foreign expertise is critical.

Today, of course, corporations and governments know better than to call native peoples lazy or listless. They now also recognize that “Unknown Parts” on maps such as the one of 19th-century Africa above or the 19th-century Arctic below, where Greenland is only half outlined, can be more easily filled in by working with native populations who already know the lay of the land. What’s more, President Grimsson and almost all others who speak about the Arctic note that the region’s development will differ from other eras and places in history. Unlike in colonial times, Northern development will be responsible, and it will involve consultation and cooperation with indigenous peoples. This represents one a key difference between development of the global Arctic and colonial Africa, where foreign countries like Belgium turned the Congo into a hellish rubber plantation, to name one example of exploitation colonialism.

Yet there is parallel between the two regions, and perhaps this is what President Grimsson was subconsciously suggesting apart from the mere resource richness of both Africa and the Arctic. Just as in Africa a century ago (and, in fact, still today), even though Arctic residents and nations can and do profit from Arctic development projects, the primary beneficiaries are the powers that are directing Arctic development. Sometimes they happen to be Arctic governments like Iceland, sometimes they happen to be an Asian island-state lying on the equator, and sometimes they happen to be a private investment firm in California with $240 billion in assets under management. To circle back to Grimsson’s words in Reykjavik, Arctic development may be a “joint endeavor,” but the stakeholders participating in that endeavor comprise a very select group.

The stakeholders at the nexus of Arctic development

The Arctic Circle Assembly had seventy breakout sessions on topics ranging from “Nordic Nexus: Nordic Connections and Solutions for a Developing Arctic” to “Beyond COP21 – The Arctic and Global Climate Diplomacy.” In Reykjavik, Grimsson expressed that the variety of talks demonstrated that “the Arctic Circle truly has become a multidimensional platform of wide-ranging global cooperation.” Those dimensions largely encompass various investment opportunities: oil and gas development, shipping, and ports, for instance, in which international stakeholders with a wealth of capital, expertise, and technology are working together to better integrate the Arctic into the global economy.

The smaller and more specialized forum in Singapore floated four main themes: new sea routes, infrastructure investments, science, and Arctic governance. The first two themes made particular sense given Singapore’s status as a global shipping hub and emergence in recent years as one of the leading Asian states involved in Arctic affairs. The Singapore Maritime Institute sponsored the event, which is interesting given that the Korea Maritime Institute also sponsors many Arctic conferences and workshops. Together, these activities demonstrate the prominent role that Asian maritime expertise is already exercising in developing the Arctic.

The program for the one-day forum in Singapore sheds light on the movers and shakers of Arctic development. The president of Iceland participated again, as did prominent members of the Singaporean government, the country’s Maritime and Port Authority, and Singapore-based Keppel Offshore & Marine Technology, an industry leader. Chief investment officers and company chairmen chimed in on how best to develop the region. Law professors and diplomats provided legal and policy expertise, coast guard representatives promoted safe Arctic shipping, and scientists provided the information necessary to plan for the region’s changing environment.

Glaringly, despite Singapore’s professed concern for the Arctic environment and for the well-being of the region’s indigenous peoples, the program did not contain a single representative for the environment and had only one indigenous representative: Thomas Mack, president of the Aleut Corporation, an Alaska Native regional corporation. It is not surprising that the indigenous representative came from a business-minded entity in Alaska, where resource and infrastructure development enjoy wide support across the state. Aleut Corporation is keen to work with Singapore, as the country is interested in investing gateway ports to the Arctic in the Atlantic in Iceland and in the Pacific on Adak Island, where much of the land belongs to Aleut Corporation. Singapore wishes to invest in these northern ports in order to stay ahead of the curve of global shipping, as the equatorial port city could fall out of geographic favor if Arctic shipping were to take off. Aleut Corporation sees a chance to take advantage of its status near the North Pacific Great Circle shipping route and the Bering Strait. It is also simply being entrepreneurial, for in Alaska, Congress’ 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act helped pave the way for unobstructed capitalist development by turning many indigenous peoples into businesses. The Act endowed them with a huge degree of self-determination, as the CEO of the Cook Inlet Region writes, but it also made it easier for capitalist development to proceed, as the regional corporations could directly profit from its expansion. They therefore now play a willing and crucial role in Arctic industrial development.

An obligation to develop the Arctic


A map of the Arctic from the late 1800s by George Parry, with many parts still unknown and undeveloped.

Two hundred years onward from the Great Game in Africa, the process of development has undoubtedly changed. Developmental states like Singapore, Arctic nations like Iceland, Californian investment funds, and Alaska Native regional corporations all form part of the machine that pushes forward the construction of Arctic infrastructure and the development of the region’s natural resources.

Distinctly from the 19th century, the impulses behind northern development are no longer colonial. Instead, the nearly unstoppable force of the market is pushing countries northward. Now that many northern stakeholders can profit from capitalist development, they are hard-pressed to resist the market’s expansion and, from certain angles, exploitation of their homeland.

Improved technology, transportation logistics, and, of course, climate change are also facilitating the poleward move. Scott Minerd, Guggenheim Partners’ Chief Investment Officer, expressed in Singapore: “The average economic annual rate of growth in the Arctic region is the highest in the world relative to any country or any economy…For investors, there is an opportunity here to take advantage of the impact of climate change.”

But more than an opportunity, there is also almost a sense of obligation to develop the Arctic. A tweet from @ArcticAssembly during the Singapore forum is eye-opening in this regard. During his talk, Minerd presented an infrastructure inventory that highlighted “what needs to be built.”

The infrastructure inventory implies that the Arctic is missing something: roads, pipelines, shipping routes – all the transportation corridors that will hasten the movement outward of the region’s bounty of resources. For a region like Africa in the 19th century or the Arctic in the 21st to remain undeveloped and cut off from the rest of the world would represent a failure on behalf of stakeholders, whether they are in the East, West, North, or South, to fulfill their apparent “responsibility to develop.” One key difference between the 19th and 21st century is that the “responsibility to develop” has become “the responsibility to develop responsibly.” But the underlying idea of an obligation to advance and industrialize a faraway region remains the same. Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, The White Man’s Burden – so often mentioned in discussions of the colonization of Africa – could easily be mentioned in forums about Arctic development today.

“To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain
Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward.”