Scientists, policymakers converge in Fairbanks for Arctic Science Summit Week

Julia Gourley
Julia Gourley is the United States’ senior Arctic official on the Arctic Council. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Hotels are booked up solid in Fairbanks this week, and rental cars are hard to find. Over a thousand people from 30 countries are in the Golden Heart City for a meeting of Arctic scientists and policymakers called Arctic Science Summit Week.

One highlight is a meeting of the Arctic Council, a multinational governmental forum created to address the Arctic’s pressing issues.

“Good public policy, including good foreign policy, which is the main work of the Arctic Council, must be based on facts on the ground, which is to say it must be based in reality,” said Julia Gourley, the United States’ senior Arctic official on the Arctic Council.

Gourley said they rely on good, solid science to tell them what is really happening in the Arctic. That science helps shape their recommendations that go to key policymakers in various Arctic nations.

It’s not just environmental science. Gourley said the Arctic Council recently heard about the latest in social science on the economy of the north, living conditions and human development.

“These kinds of social science studies, which have shaped the Arctic Council agenda over the years, really have contributed much to how we decide what we’re going to work on in the council,” she said. “And the social science work in particular has contributed to very real topics in the council such as mental wellness and suicide prevention, reindeer husbandry, the role of salmon as a key food source for the Arctic people, and other sociological aspects of living in the Arctic.”

The Arctic Council includes representatives from eight Arctic member nations and six permanent participant delegations from various indigenous groups. The permanent participants can provide input and advise the council on policy issues. But they do not have a vote.

The Arctic Council’s recommendations aren’t binding on participating governments.

There are nearly two dozen observers from other European and Asian countries, and intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations who are also allowed to sit in on council meetings.

“I would argue that with the Arctic Council there’s a lot more dialogue going on with the nations that are engaged in Arctic dialogue than perhaps anywhere else,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks Vice Chancellor Mike Sfraga.

He’s leading the creation of a new Center for Arctic Policy Studies. Sfraga said the Arctic Council’s work does not seem to be colored by other worldwide conflicts and disputes like Crimea and Syria.

“There are personal relationships, there are nation relationships that still have yet to be damaged by other international issues going on,” he said. “The tensions are there. But in the north there seems to just be a very different dynamic, and it is driven — of course — by resource development. But it is also driven by the fact that we have people reliant on the land, it’s a place where we have traditionally cooperated before, and there just seems to be a willingness in the Arctic Council, a consensus-building body, that we will leave the Arctic alone, as much as you can, from other international dynamics.”

The Arctic Council started its three-day meeting behind closed doors Tuesday at UAF.

Also Tuesday, the Model Arctic Council wrapped up a seven-day meeting. Over 60 students from 13 countries crafted position papers and drafted policy recommendations on cruise ship tourism, managing maritime traffic in the Arctic, improving access to running water and sewer, and reducing suicide among various indigenous groups. Model Arctic Council members were surprised when they learned that their final paper, called the Fairbanks Declaration, will become the starting point for discussions among Arctic Council members next year.

The Arctic Science Summit Week also includes hundreds of scientists from around the world who are coordinating research on the effects of climate change on the rapidly changing Arctic.

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