The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
The Arctic is changing.
The region is warming faster than any other place on Earth, with serious consequences for local communities and the planet. Unprecedented heat waves, wildfires, permafrost thaw, and shrinking ice coverage are transforming delicate ecosystems and endangering wildlife. The homes, cultures, and subsistence livelihoods of the region’s Indigenous peoples, who have contributed essentially nothing to the emissions driving global climate change, are now at existential risk from its impacts.
What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The rapid pace of Arctic climate change is accelerating warming worldwide and threatens to undermine society’s ability to limit global temperature rise at a level that avoids wholly unmanageable consequences. Arctic sea ice retreat, too, is opening up new maritime routes and easing access to natural resources, leading to increased international attention on potential economic opportunities and security concerns in the region.
Launched in 2017, the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative addresses the challenges and opportunities being created by rapid climate change in the far North. By integrating insights from cutting-edge scientific research, Indigenous knowledge, and policy analysis, we seek to 1) improve understanding of the regional and global impacts of Arctic climate change; 2) work with local, regional, national, and international stakeholders to develop responsive policies and actions; and 3) train the next generation of interdisciplinary Arctic experts and leaders.
Year in Reviews
Check out our past Year In Reviews below for a look back at some of the Arctic Initiative’s most notable events, activities, research, and publications.
Funding for the work of the Arctic Initiative comes from Schmidt Futures, the Gordon and
Betty Moore Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.
The Arctic Initiative is committed to building a group of staff, faculty, fellows, and student researchers that reflects the full diversity of the Arctic region. We endeavor to honor local and Indigenous knowledge by co-creating our research and educational programs with Arctic residents.
Fellows, Affiliates, & Associates
The Arctic Initiative is committed to helping train the next generation of interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented Arctic leaders. Each semester, we host a variety of seminars, workshops, study groups, and other events, giving students the opportunity to hear from and work with Arctic experts from around the world.
IGA 671M: Policy and Social Innovation for the Changing Arctic
The first Harvard course to focus on the Arctic, “Policy and Social Innovation for the Changing Arctic” emphasizes creative thinking about solutions to pressing Arctic issues. The course is taught by Arctic Initiative Co-Founder Halla Logadóttir and supported by Co-Director John Holdren and Senior Fellow Cristine Russell. Students are individually mentored by senior Arctic experts as they research a policy area of concern and develop their own innovative and interdisciplinary solutions. Op-eds written by students about their ideas are regularly published in Arctic Today, and the top students travel to the annual Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik to pitch their ideas in the Arctic Innovation Lab (see below).
The Arctic Innovation Lab
The Arctic Innovation Lab gives students from around the world the opportunity to pitch their solutions to challenges facing a changing Arctic. Founded by Arctic Initiative Co-Founder and Senior Fellow Halla Hrund Logadóttir, the event aims to train creative young scholars to approach challenges in the region and elsewhere with a solutions-focused mindset, while also facilitating dialogue with experienced practitioners to accelerate knowledge transition.
Since the first Innovation Lab in 2014, close to 1,000 people from over 30 countries have participated, including students from Harvard University, Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the University of Iceland, Reykjavík University, UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, Aalborg University in Denmark, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Participating students have just two minutes to convince a diverse audience and panel of judges that their idea can promote a sustainable, prosperous, and environmentally sound future for the Arctic. They then have an opportunity to further workshop their ideas during lively roundtable discussions with audience members.
Previous HKS student participants Allison Agsten and Ulla Hemminki-Reijonen received funding to develop their Innovation Lab ideas into research papers (see “Reforming the Arctic Narrative: Indigenous Storytelling, Journalism, and the Potential of Co-Production in the North” and “Reinventing Climate Change Education”).
Click for a short preview of a past student-created StoryMap
Arctic Data Stories Workshop
Since 2021, the Arctic Data Stories Workshop has offered a fun, low-stakes environment for students with non-technical backgrounds to explore the interaction between geospatial data and policy. Over the course of several weeks, students gain literacy in ArcGIS software and learn about climate science, data management, and mapping from experts at the Arctic Initiative, Woodwell Climate Research Center, and Esri. Students work in small groups to produce StoryMaps, web-based narratives that contextualize geography, that address specific Arctic policy questions.
Northern Lights: An Arctic Initiative Student Podcast
Northern Lights showcases stories from and about the Arctic, as told by students from Harvard Kennedy School and around the world. The project was produced by former Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Sarah Mackie. Since its launch in March 2021, the podcast has featured an eclectic mix of stories, covering subjects such as the use of prawn byproduct in medicine, healing from domestic violence among Alaskan Indigenous women, and the impacts of COVID-19 on Arctic tourism. Throughout, the series has centered the voices of Indigenous people, bringing listeners stories which celebrate the Arctic’s vibrancy.
Current Research Assistants
- Ksenia Acquaviva
- Renata Koch Alvarenga
- Sara Amish
- Mie Dahl
- Windy Dewie
- Vic Hogg
- Gemma Holt
- Craig Johnson
- Isaac Kim
- Sunaina Pamudurthy
- Valerie Van Tran
Permafrost thaw is a critical hazard for both Arctic residents and everyone on the planet.
Globally, greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost thaw will accelerate warming, requiring much greater reductions in human emissions to stabilize the Earth's temperature. However, these emissions are currently not being accounted for in climate policy.
Locally, permafrost thaw results in erosion and subsidence, causing buildings to crack, roads to collapse, and pipelines to fail. For Arctic residents whose homes, livelihoods, and traditional ways of life are threatened, there are no adequate strategies or resources to facilitate adaptation.
Since 2019, the Arctic Initiative has collaborated with Woodwell Climate Research Center and ESRI to elevate the topic of permafrost thaw and increase awareness and action among policy makers. We are working with decision makers to integrate the cutting-edge science produced by Woodwell and ESRI into more robust policy and programs for mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.
In April 2022, the Arctic Initiative, in collaboration with Woodwell Climate Research Center and the Alaska Institute for Justice, launched Permafrost Pathways: Connecting Science, People, and Policy for Arctic Justice and Global Climate. A multipronged $41 million initiative catalyzed through the The Audacious Project, the Pathways project will bring together leading experts in climate science, policy action, and environmental justice to inform and develop adaptation and mitigation strategies that address the local and global impacts of Arctic permafrost thaw.
Permafrost Pathways will focus on three connected efforts:
- Coordinate a pan-Arctic monitoring network and modeling initiative that will fill critical data gaps and improve the ability to track and forecast permafrost thaw and resulting carbon emissions.
- Incorporate permafrost emissions into climate mitigation policy and engage with policy makers to promote understanding of the risks and human impacts of permafrost thaw and increase climate ambition accordingly.
- Work with Arctic residents to co-develop just and equitable adaptation strategies in communities imminently threatened by permafrost thaw.
Featured Insights & Analysis
Arctic Resilience, Infrastructure, and Public Health
The speed at which the Arctic region is changing—primarily due to climate change—is making adaptation extremely challenging. The Arctic Initiative is exploring ways to strengthen Arctic communities’ ability to not just bounce back from stresses and shocks, but to bounce forward, and to learn from and improve with every challenge.
The Arctic Resilience Forum
In 2020, the Arctic Initiative partnered with the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) of the Arctic Council and the Council’s Icelandic Chairmanship to organize the Arctic Resilience Forum 2020 (ARF2020), an event dedicated to taking stock of progress, identifying crucial gaps, and building on the successes of the Arctic Resilience Action Framework (ARAF). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was adapted into a novel series of virtual events held over the course of ten weeks.
Each session addressed a thematic area of concern and included speakers and participants from around the Arctic region. Topics included Indigenous youth leadership, food security, gender issues, renewable energy, human health and pandemics, socioecological systems, broadband connectivity, infrastructure, finance, and Indigenous knowledge. ARF2020 drew nearly 1,500 participants from thirty-nine countries and featured eighty-five speakers from every Arctic state.
Together with the SDWG, the Arctic Initiative co-authored the Arctic Resilience Forum 2020 Report, which was published by the Arctic Council Secretariat and delivered to Senior Arctic Officials. The report highlighted key findings from each session and proposed a series of next steps to build on the momentum of ARF2020.
Siamit: An Academic-Tribal Health Partnership
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring the health and wellbeing of Arctic residents posed unique challenges due to the region’s extreme geographic remoteness, health professional shortages, and lack of cultural and community knowledge among non-Indigenous and itinerant care providers. To address these issues, members of the Arctic Initiative team are learning from and contributing expertise to community care in remote Alaska Native villages.
In collaboration with Maniilaq Association and Harvard Medical School, Dr. N. Stuart Harris, Arctic Initiative Faculty Affiliate and Chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Wilderness Medicine, helps lead clinical, research, and educational efforts serving twelve tribes located in a majority-Iñupiat area of northwest Alaska. The partnership, called Siamit (Iñupiaq for “seed”), addresses health care needs in rural Alaska through physician staffing, clinical education, quality-improvement initiatives, and increased resilience thorough disaster planning and implementation. In May 2021, Siamit published a report in Academic Medicine that details the partnership model developed by the teams at Harvard, MGH, and Maniilaq Association.
Arctic Wetlands Ecosystems: Resilience through Restoration & Stewardship
The Arctic Initiative has been awarded funding from the National Science Foundation as part of a Belmont Forum grant to support wetlands protection and restoration in the Arctic—an issue that links ecosystems, infrastructure, and public health. Our team’s focus is on identifying private and public finance opportunities and developing private-financing models for addressing top-priority wetland stewardship issues in rural areas. In collaboration with local Indigenous leaders, we are studying the challenges surrounding wastewater infrastructure in the Bering Strait region of Alaska. Deficiencies in water and sanitation management not only pollute wetlands but also pose significant health risks to communities forced to live with poor wastewater infrastructure. This research is ongoing and will ultimately create a model for private-sector investment in locally driven Arctic infrastructure projects.
Featured Insights & Analysis
Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean
In recent decades, the amount of plastic debris in the Arctic Ocean has increased dramatically, to the point that in some locations Arctic sea ice contains higher concentrations of microplastics than in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This buildup is raising serious environmental and economic concerns among Arctic residents.
The Arctic Initiative is actively engaged in fostering policy discussions around combating this growing challenge. In 2019, the Arctic Initiative, the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, and the Arctic Council’s Icelandic Chairmanship co-hosted “Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean,” a workshop that gathered over 60 global experts to begin developing a framework for plastic pollution mitigation in the region. The workshop report contributed to the development of the Arctic Council’s 2021 Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter. The report was also featured in the keynote of the 2021 International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region, the first-ever global conference on addressing Arctic marine plastic pollution. The Arctic Initiative served as a Symposium Partner.
Featured Insights & Analysis
Arctic Governance, Cooperation, and Diplomacy
The war in Ukraine has dramatically changed the dynamics of governance in the Arctic. Though necessary, the pause of Arctic Council activities has the potential to stall years of scientific and policy collaboration in the Arctic and demands a renewed focus on finding ways to collaborate on critical issues facing the region.
The Arctic Initiative is committed to building avenues for continued progress on projects related to community resilience, environmental protection, and sustainable development. Through dialogues, convenings, and joint research, we are helping to maintain Arctic cooperation during uncertain diplomatic times and to develop new governance solutions.
Biden Administration Arctic Policy
Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Arctic Initiative prepared—and provided to the White House—recommendations for the Biden administration’s Arctic agenda, including calls to reinstate the Arctic Executive Steering Committee and the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. Initiative senior staff remain in frequent contact with key Arctic officials in the White House and the State Department.
A Strategic Plan for the Arctic Council
The failure of the Arctic Council to reach agreement on a Ministerial Declaration at Rovaniemi in 2019—the first such failure since its creation in 1996— raised serious questions about the Council’s ability to continue to play a constructive role in helping to keep the Arctic Region peaceful despite growing geopolitical tensions among the Arctic states.
In June 2019, Senior Fellow Fran Ulmer and Ambassador David Balton, Senior Fellow of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center, co-authored a major report entitled A Strategic Plan for the Arctic Council: Recommendations for Moving Ahead. The report provides recommendations for how the Arctic Council can continue to be a forum for promoting cooperation in the Arctic.
Featured Insights & Analysis
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