Origins:  How the Arctic ICCE Project came to be

Nobody Stumbles Upon the Arctic

The Arctic isn’t like Omaha, a place you drive through on the way to somewhere else. Unless you were born there, people go to the far north either because they are looking for or running from something. I went for both reasons. After college I needed a job and wanted more adventure than I could find in recession-ridden New England.

So in 1978 I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska and at the age of 21, with a degree in biology and absolutely no television experience, became the farthest north TV anchor woman in America. I got the job at KTVF-TV in Fairbanks because I met all the criteria for the position: I was a woman, I had all my teeth and I could form a complete sentence. The program of  KTVF-TV you can watch on  stream box tv. And all sarcasm aside, I had worked as a reporter on my college newspaper and radio station and done a bit of freelance reporting before I left New England.

Whaling Captain and Visionary

The best part of that job (and the subsequent news work I did over the seven years I spent in Alaska), was the opportunity to learn and write about Alaska Native issues. For example, my job allowed me to meet a remarkable man named Eben Hopson as he was making history.

Hopson was a visionary whaling captain from Point Barrow, Alaska. In the late 1970’s it occured to him that while the Native peoples of the Arctic were spread over seven nations and spoke dozens of languages and dialects, they had one very important thing in common — the frozen, desolate north, a land under almost constant pressure from outside influences:Whaling companies, oil companies, military waste, air and water borne pollution. In 1979, Hopson brought Inuit representatives from Canada, Alaska, Lappland and Greenland together to establish a united, pan-Arctic front against those pressures. That gathering, held in Barrow, created the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) , a non-governmental organization that has become the go-to institution for the world’s Inuit. For many years, each meeting that the ICC has held since 1979 included an empty chair, a symbolic gesture in honor of the Siberian Inuit who were, until recently, prohibited from attending.

I mention the ICC for two reasons. It was because of the Conference that, for the first time, I saw the north through eyes of the Inuit. I loved what I saw. Which is why even today, almost thirty years later, I keep going back to the far north as often as I can. The other reason the ICC is worth noting is that the organization endorsed this project in 2005, providing the effort with credibility as it was getting started.

Facilitating a Knowledge Exchange

The first time I noticed changes to the Arctic environment was on a trip to Greenland and Baffin Island in 2002.  It was hard to put my finger on initially. Icebergs the size of city blocks drifted silently, seemingly weightless in the turquoise waters of Disko Bay. Fuzz balls of Arctic Cotton floated on the summer breeze. And the mosquitos were maddeningly thick and blood-thirsty. For all appearances, things were normal. Yet as I climbed the hillside overlooking the Jacobshavn Glacier in Illulisaat, I felt some mild anxiety that I couldn’t put my finger on. That anxiety was well-founded.  

Between 1998 and 2008, the Illulisaat glacier (known as Sermeq Kujalleq in Greenlandic) the rate of glacial recession increased by 300%. As a result, the only way to see the Kujalleq today is by flying inland in a helicopter. The IPCC says that this glacier is melting 10 times faster than it did one generation ago.

Shortly after visiting Greenland and reading some of the initial IPCC reports, I also read a book called, The Whale and the Super Computer, by Alaskan writer Charles Wohlforth. The book extolls the value that traditional Inuit knowledge offers to climate scientists. Traditional knowledge has helped scientists better understand shifting ocean currents in northern Alaska and helped them more accurately identify changes in the ice. After reading the book, I thought about ways to bring traditional knowledge and climate science together. In spite of the growing threat to the polar regions, grants for Arctic research remain limited and I couldn’t find any that allowed for study of the people most affected by Arctic warming. Almost all the scientific research involved the “hard” sciences, like meteorology, glaciology, geology and physics.  

Since no one was systematically studying the impact of warming on the people, culture and environment of the region, I thought I may lack academic qualifications, but perhaps even my unscholarly attempts are better than no attempts at all.   

The project’s scope, focusing on 3 communities in northwest Greenland, is limited by funding. I’ve paid for it entirely myself, sometimes working two jobs to reach the Thule region of Greenland.  Would it be easier to fly north for three days on someone else’s dime?  Of course. But the relationships I’ve developed with the hunters and their families are based almost entirely on trust.  I don’t want that trust compromised by having to conform to an organization’s editorial agenda.  I also don’t want the hunters to think I’m making money off their crisis.

The good news is that the ICCE Project has begun to reach a wider audience. The Conversation Science Institute gave me a non-financial Fellowship. And in addition to increased readership of this website, I’ve been invited to give several talks on the subject, including a discussion held prior to the COP 15 Climate Change Summit held in Copenhagen. I’ve also discussed the project on CNN, the BBC, at the World Bank, American and Johns Hopkins Universities, as well as a conference on climate change refugees.