The Arctic – A UK Science Perspective

I have just enjoyed my first in-person Arctic conference since the onset of the pandemic. The UNESCO world heritage site Durham with its prestigious university hosted the UK Arctic Science Conference 2022, with funding from the Arctic Office of the Natural Environment Research Council, NERC.

Why Durham?

Durham, a picturesque town in north-eastern England, with a spectacular cathedral and a castle which houses some of the university institutions these days, seems like an unlikely spot for an Arctic research hub. In fact there is a range of experts here from a wide spectrum of disciplines engaged in research relating to the Arctic. Bob Baxter, Professor of Plant Ecology at the Biosciences Department of Durham University, who organised the conference, told me the diverse group had got together a few years ago and put in a bid to the Leverhulme Trust for funding. Now they have 15 special PhD positions and a DurhamARCTIC hub.

Durham Castle, home to the city’s university (I.Quaile)

‘From that original meeting of geographers, biologists, mathematicians, sociologists, lawyers, this grew’, Baxter told me: ‘Each of these people within DurhamARCTIC are multidisciplinary in their supervision and outlook, and what they are actually producing’, he adds.

Drawing the threads of science together

Professor Baxter, who works mainly in the Arctic, volunteered to organise the conference back in 2019. It had to be postponed because of COVID, but could now take place as an in-person event, with some additional participants joining online. Chatting in a quiet corner in a rare, short coffee break, I asked Bob about the background to the event, which normally takes place every second year, with the years in between devoted to UK Antarctic Science:

‘It’s really important to draw together a wide range of people of very different interests, but all focussing on aspects of the Arctic’, he told me, ‘to keep the whole of the UK Arctic comunity together. We are very disparate, ranging from environmental-DNA all the way to things like permafrost and snow. So physical, biological, geographical topics, it really pulls everthing together.’#

Professor Bob Baxter eyes up a project poster at the Durham conference (I.Quaile)

The UK and the Arctic

Baxter and his colleagues feel Arctic science is very important for the UK, which has had observer status at the Arctic Council since 1998. He describes the UK’s role as a ‘watching brief’.

Following on from a long, historical interest in exploring and seeking to understand the northern regions, the country’s universities and other institutions of learning have a lot of expertise relating to Arctic topics. These days, the emphasis is very much on working together, cooperating with scientists from other countries, and with Indigenous communities in the Arctic region. That was a topic that came up frequently in the meetings here this week. Baxter stresses how much this has changed in recent years. He and his colleagues here refer to the ‘co-creation’ of science.

Inclusion and partnership

‘We’ve seen a lot this week that we now have a lot of First Nations information that we simply could not get over many generations. That is turning out to be fundamentally important’, he says. He acknowledges that scientists have not always dealt with Indigenous communities on an equal basis in the past. Now, he says, there is a strong interest in redressing the balance and making good some of the mistakes made in the past.

‘I think in the last 12 or 24 months in the UK, we’ve moved with the USA, Canada and others to seriously integrate our research with First Nations and not just be ‘dictatorial’, in terms of what often gets called ‘helicopter science.’ This was a timely move, the British Arctic expert is convinced. ‘We’re all going to benefit, move science ahead much quicker.’

Science and communities work better together (Greeland, I. Quaile)

The Russian Ukraine invasion

The current political situation caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is making research conditions and cooperation difficult for many of the scientists I spoke to here in Durham. With sanctions in place, the activities of the Arctic Council, currently chaired by Russia, on hold, and access to many key locations for Arctic research blocked, researchers are on tenterhooks, hoping for a return to peace and the scientific cooperation that has developed over many years, as quickly as possible.

Some of Bob Baxter’s current work is on hold:

‘We’ve done work with people looking at forest fires and tundra fires, and we were supposed to be out there working this summer. But of course that has now been stopped.’

Russia, with its huge Arctic territory, is key in researching the Arctic. The conflict has interrupted research cooperation at a time when there is an increasing interest in a circumpolar approach.

‘There are still big gaps in that system’, says Baxter. ‘Some of them are very remote areas, and they do lie in the east.’

Personal ties and building trust

However he, and many of the researchers I spoke to, feel that individual links may be able to keep some work going:’Obviously many institutions within the United Kingdom and other western countries have taken a stance in which there will be suspended institutional relationships. There are many single science relationships and I am encouraged that the UK – in terms of its published response in recent weeks – has said it really does recognize that we’ve got very benign, very positive scientific interactions at an individual level’. The challenge will be to navigate to maintain some of those links built on trust over many decades, says Baxter. At the same time, he accepts that ‘the nation takes a stance – and we have to work within that framework.’

Some of the academics I met in Durham told me, though, that they were worried about their counterparts in Russia, and wary of causing them any problems with their government through too obvious links with the West.

The Arctic and the public

One of the recurring themes at the conference was how to communicate Arctic science to a wider audience. I was happy to be a part of that. Very specialized, often highly technical work takes a lot of translating for most people. Scientists are increasingly making use of social media to interest a wider public in their work.

Conference session on communicating Arctic science (I.Quaile)

General interest in the Arctic appears to have risen in recent years. One driving factor here is climate change, Baxter is convinced. Increasing media coverage of that issue has added to the interest that was already in the background, in learning about a remote, little-known region, where most people would not venture. The exotic and distant is transforming into a region that plays a key role in how the future of our planet and those who live on it develops.

Measuring emissions from permafrost at Zackenberg, Greenland (I.Quaile)

From minutiae to the bigger picture

Understanding how climate change affects different aspects of life on earth, with all the complex interactions, requires both research looking into the tiniest aspects in detail, on the one hand, and bringing the pieces together, Baxter stresses.

This year’s conference had a strong focus on the natural sciences, from the species of plants springing up in Siberia’s Noril’sk, on land polluted by mining and other activities, to how climate change is affecting the times when species become active in spring, or changing the distribution of species or methane release from thawing permafrost. Wider issues, such as who and what will decide the future of the Central Arctic Ocean or the overreaching issue of how ‘research co-development’ can evolve given the contrasting geopolitical contexts across the Arctic, helped to broaden the picture.

I asked conference chairman Bob Baxter whether he was worried about the future of the Arctic:

‘Yes, in a sense I am, because I think lots of things are happening rapidly. I think temperature changes are faster than probably anywhere else on earth. It’s obviously a situation where much of the Arctic is frozen, and we have that state change from frozen to ‘melted’ – in the broadest sense. How that big, fundamental change – which we’ve heard about in a lot of the talks here as well as elsewhere – plays out, is going to be very important in the next few decades. So I am hopeful in the sense that we are understanding more. But I am pessimistic that change is still happening.’

I’ll leave you with that food for thought and get back to processing some of the wealth of information I have picked up here this week. More to come.

Springtime in Durham. (I.Quaile)

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