Wednesday May 24, 2017

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Arctic denominators

Dig beneath the surface and you’ll find that that the Arctic has a lot more than than just ice. People, for example
It’s -20, it’s snowy and we’re wearing sealskin. Does life get any better than this?

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Ask most people to name something about the Arctic – even those from the region – and they will tell you it is cold and there is snow there.

Beyond that, there are significant differences among the eight countries that can claim Arctic territory. And finding a denominator when seeking to address the challenges the region faces, admits, Carl Bøggild, the head of the Arctic Technology Centre at the Technical University of Denmark, can be difficult. Differing administrative systems, languages and cultures, he points out, all make the region as varied as western Europe or any other broadly defined geographic region.

Nevertheless, Bøggild, who recently hosted a three-day conference in Sisimiut, Greenland, focusing on urban development in the Arctic, maintains that communities of the region face a lot of the same challenges, and given their differing approaches to solving them he fears many places might be trying to “reinvent the wheel”.

“People in these places have a lot of good ideas, and they could help each other. We’re just not talking about what we’re doing with each other.”

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Among the common threads during the conference were things like single-focus economies – typically based on a natural resource – and isolation from major population centres.

Arctic communities, Bøggild adds, are also by and large isolated from each other. And that, he felt, was a  significant barrier to regional integration.

“Whether it is Alaska, Nunavut, Greenland or northern Norway if you want to travel someplace else in the Arctic, you have to go south first. Coming to a conference like this might take a week or more if you’re coming from Arctic Russia or northern Canada. I think that is a shame at a time when we need to be sharing experiences.”

Among the topics Bøggild says communities need to be sharing are ideas about social issues like healthcare, unemployment and education. Climate change, he points out, got left off the official conference programme, but he says the issue, whether formalised or not, was ever-present in the Arctic.

“Our discussions haven’t intentionally ignored climate change, but climate change – including the possible benefits it brings – is a fact of life and it’s been an underlying theme in everything we’ve talked about. But there are a lot of human issues that affect people right here and now that we need to address and we need to address them first.”

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Much of the discussion during the conference focused on the basics of life in the Arctic – housing, roads and other structures – and how to make them suitable to the region’s conditions. Bøggild, though, says that just because it is cold, doesn’t mean that all life needs to take place inside.

“People want to gather outside. That’s universal. It’s not just true of the Arctic.”

Almost as proof, Sisimiut had hosted a cross-country skiing event that ended during the weekend prior to the conference, and during the event many from the town of 5,000 were to be found outside cheering on the participants. That despite temperatures sometimes as low as -20C.

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Other ideas from around Sisimiut include its efforts to make outdoor facilities useable year round. For example, the town has created a number of open spaces that in the summer can be used as greenspaces but also had a winter whitespace use.

That, according to Bøggild, only makes sense in an area where the last snow sometimes melts in July.

“We need to see more examples like that in the Arctic. We need to start working with the climate we have, not against it.”