News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Arctic Initiative Highlights from Arctic Encounter Symposium 2024

Our team just returned from three days at the Arctic Encounter Symposium (AES) in Anchorage, Alaska. It was invigorating to take part in conversations about pressing Arctic issues, draw connections between local global challenges and opportunities, and to facilitate engagement between researchers and practitioners in service of mending the cracks emerging in Arctic governance. From climate science to healthcare to waste management, read on for key takeaways from our team’s activities at AES.

Jennifer Spence
Project Director, Arctic Initiative

The Future of Scientific Research and Innovation in the Arctic

David Hik, John Holdren, Jean-Arthur Régibeau, and Sethuraman Panchanathan at Arctic Encounter Symposium

Panelists at “The Future of Scientific Research and Innovation in the Arctic” (facing camera, left to right): David Hik, Chief Scientist & Executive Director, Polar Knowledge Canada; John Holdren, Faculty Co-Chair, Arctic Initiative; Jean-Arthur Régibeau, Ambassador of Belgium to the United States; (facing away) Sethuraman Panchanathan, Director, National Science Foundation (Photo: Jennifer Spence)

From permafrost thaw to wildfires, various feedback mechanisms are accelerating climate change in the Arctic, yet uncertainties about these phenomena hinder our ability to anticipate the most likely trajectories for global warming - and to develop appropriate adaptation and mitigation responses at all levels of government.

In a plenary session, John Holdren identified several key priorities for research and development to address the challenges of rapid Arctic climate change:

  • Monitoring, Modeling, and Analysis: Increase the comprehensiveness, geographic coverage, continuity, and integration with Indigenous knowledge associated with monitoring all manifestations of Arctic climate change. Improve modeling and analysis to increase scientific understanding of the mechanisms and processes shaping these changes.
  • Health Impacts: Increase investment to better understand and ameliorate the impacts of Arctic climate change on human health, including problems with water quality and sanitation; refrigeration; release of pathogens and toxins; and wildfire smoke.
  • Science and Technology (S&T) for Adaptation: Including community resilience, recovery, and relocation.
  • S&T for Arctic Ocean Issues: Including acidification and freshening; plastic pollution; black carbon; sea ice changes and impacts on biota, coastal communities, and atmospheric and ocean circulation; fisheries; and the impacts of oil and gas production and deep-sea mining.

International collaboration is essential in all of this work, but Holdren noted that tension between Russia and the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stalled Arctic science cooperation. However, without Russia, which represents more than half of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline, getting a full picture of Arctic warming and its impacts on the region and the global climate is impossible. 

Over the coming year, climate science cooperation will continue to be a priority for the Arctic Initiative. Last month, we issued a policy brief with recommendations for reinvigorating climate science cooperation through the Arctic Council. Our team is also committed to helping identify the most urgent knowledge gaps and Arctic research priorities for the next decade through the ICARP IV research planning process, which we helped kick off at Arctic Science Summit Week in early April.

Jennifer Spence, Nikoosh Carlo, Asthildur Sturludottir, Deborah Vo, Evon Peter, Bryce Ward

Panelists at “Building Healthy and Thriving Arctic Communities” (left to right): Jennifer Spence, Director, Arctic Initiative; Nikoosh Carlo, U.S. Arctic Research Commissioner; Ásthildur Sturludóttir, Mayor of Akureyri, Iceland; Deborah Vo, U.S. Arctic Research Commissioner; Evon Peter, Senior Research Scientist, Center for Alaska Native Health Research, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Bryce Ward, Mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska. (Photo: Diane Hirshberg)

Building Healthy and Thriving Arctic Communities: A Discussion with Arctic Mayors and U.S. Arctic Research Commissioners

Arctic communities face a multitude of complex health challenges, from inadequate access to health services and sanitation infrastructure deficits, to food insecurity and behavioral and mental health challenges amplified by COVID-19. Climate change, too, presents new health threats that have not been fully assessed.

During a panel session organized by the Arctic Initiative and Arctic Mayors’ Forum, Jennifer Spence moderated a conversation with U.S. Arctic Research Commissioners, mayors, and community leaders, all of whom play a role in ensuring the delivery of essential health services to Arctic residents.

[On the lack of maternal healthcare services] "When I was pregnant, there was no midwife in my hometown. Maybe 30 years ago, we had a hospital and you could have a baby there, but not anymore. So you have to travel…for four weeks prior to your birth and stay somewhere…If you have complications, like I had, a high risk pregnancy, this is really difficult for ladies in the Arctic. And of course, when you face a reality like that, you want to leave the community." — Ásthildur Sturludóttir, Mayor of Akureyri, Iceland

[On telehealth] "[During COVID], one of the things that was unique is we saw the emergence of telehealth, teledoc options, where you could sit down with specialists from across the state of Alaska, from across the United States…We learned a lot in that period of time about how we can provide a high level of service to many of our rural areas…However, what I've experienced over the last few years is that there's been a significant rolling back of some of those telehealth options." — Bryce Ward, Mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough

Panelists shared personal experiences that illustrated the range and complexity of the challenges facing Arctic communities. The session underscored both the need for a holistic view of health and wellbeing, encompassing not only factors like freedom from illness and access to health services, sanitation, and housing, but also access to traditional foods and the ability to practice cultural traditions and pass on one’s traditional knowledge and language.

[On the impacts of salmon fishing closures] "There’s all this [traditional Indigenous] knowledge that's not being passed on. I think about our younger generation a lot and how they hunger for that knowledge, what it does to their mental health, because they know something is missing." — Deborah Vo, U.S. Arctic Research Commission

[On the importance of gathering with family] "[My ts’ookal’s (grandmother’s) kitchen table] was the place where we gathered as a family, with friends, and celebrated each other and shared food…It was also where she was an artist and an activist. She did her beading at the kitchen table. She wrote a book in longhand on yellow legal pad. It was where she gathered with my grandfather and some of their very close friends and dared to dream big and think about change." — Nikoosh Carlo, U.S. Arctic Research Commission

A silver lining of all this complexity? There are more policy levers and innovation opportunities for improving peoples’ well-being than traditionally thought.

To learn more about the Arctic Initiative’s ongoing health research, check out Dr. Stuart Harris’ policy brief on how rapid warming is exacerbating pre-existing health inequities and introducing novel health risks among Arctic residents.

[On health as a prerequisite] "Our health and wellbeing are central to us being able to address all our other issues. Because when we're grounded and healthy, even on an individual level, we're more effective in the work that we're doing to care for others around us, to care for our community, and to advocate and be responsible people. " — Evon Peter, Center for Alaska Native Health Research, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Nadezhda Filimonova, Lynn Zender, and Evelyn Agnus

Left to right: Nadezhda Filimonova, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Arctic Initiative; Lynn Zender, Executive Director, Zender Environmental Health Group; Evelyn Agnus, Rural Environmental Program Specialist, Zender Environmental Health Group (Photo: Jennifer Spence)

Sustainable Solutions for Waste Management in Rural Alaska

Solid waste management is an unglamorous but life-preserving service, and one that’s hard and getting harder to provide in rural Alaska. Here are some quick facts from Nadezhda Filimonova’s panel session (with nonprofit Zender Environmental Health and Research Group) on the topic:

  • Solid waste management in rural Alaska is highly challenging due to harsh climatic conditions, geographical remoteness, infrastructure deficiencies, inadequate funding for operations and maintenance, and a lack of Alaska-based recycling facilities.
  • Standard waste management practices such as unlined landfills and open garbage burning can impose severe health, social, economic, and environmental costs. These costs are especially pronounced in rural Alaska communities, where many people rely on subsistence-based practices and mixed economies.
  • Rapid climate change will exacerbate waste management challenges. For example, thawing permafrost can destabilize existing disposal sites.
  • Alaska’s current landfill regulations permit great flexibility in waste management strategies but, in practice, fail to guarantee protective design and operational controls. 

Read Alaska News Source's coverage of the session: 'Toxic soup': Experts break down waste management struggles faced by rural communities

A home in Chefornak Alaska with a damaged foundation due to permafrost thaw

Permafrost degradation has destabilized the foundation of this home in Chefornak, Alaska, and created a pond beneath it. (Photo: Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium)

From Local to Global: Navigating the Impact of Thawing Arctic Permafrost on Communities and Climate

Communities throughout Alaska are being forced to make extremely difficult decisions about where and how they can live in order to protect themselves from climate-induced hazards caused by permafrost thaw. These impacts are projected to worsen and become more widespread as the world approaches 2°C of warming.

During a session organized by Permafrost Pathways, experts from the Arctic Initiative, Woodwell Climate Research Center, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, and the Arctic Council shared insights into the effects of permafrost thaw on Arctic communities and ecosystems, community-led adaptation efforts in Alaska, and implications for the global climate system. Key takeaways include:

  • Permafrost thaw, exacerbated by sea ice loss and extreme weather events, is threatening homes, livelihoods, and traditional ways of life in many Alaska communities. When permafrost thaws, it compromises the structural integrity of critical infrastructure, such as health clinics, landfills, sewage lagoons, and airports. 
  • Opportunities to support Alaska communities impacted by permafrost thaw include 1) better tools, such as detailed environmental assessments, to allow communities to make more effective adaptation decisions; 2) holistic approaches to adaptation that incorporate both Indigenous knowledge-holders and Western-trained scientists; and 3) a national governance framework to facilitate the adaptation and resilience response, particularly for managed retreat and relocation.  
  • Arctic climate change is largely caused by global greenhouse gas emissions, and climate impacts in the Arctic - such as accelerated warming from permafrost emissions and sea level rise from shrinking glaciers - also harm southern regions. Therefore, it is both the responsibility and in the interest of non-Arctic decisionmakers and publics to contribute to global climate mitigation efforts and assist the adaptation efforts of Arctic communities, which offer innovations for southern regions.

Jackie Schaeffer

Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, Director for Climate Initiatives at the Alaska Native Health Consortium, introduced findings from the Unmet Needs of Environmentally Threatened Alaska Native Villages report. Alaska Native villages are some of the most underserved areas in the United States. (Photo: Nadezhda Filimonova)

Morten Hoglund

Morten Høglund, Norway's Senior Arctic Official, emphasized during his remarks the importance of regional collaboration in addressing permafrost thaw, as well as the ways in which the Arctic Council is supporting climate research and policy and the adaptation efforts of Arctic communities. (Photo: Nadezhda Filimonova)

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hanlon, Elizabeth and Tessa Varvares. “Arctic Initiative Highlights from Arctic Encounter Symposium 2024.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 17, 2024.

The Authors


John P. Holdren