Anchorage, April 8, 2016 – The elevation of understanding to the level of a Noosphere will involve a great deal of cross-cultural communication, and by their nature the cultural boundaries that constrain knowledge from spreading globally are difficult to discern from within them. Creativity in the form of art, drama, songs, stories and such memes as jokes and slogans can illuminate and sometimes penetrate these boundaries. Prolonged exposure of cultures to one another can evolve them. Prolonged is an important word here. The process is slow, and I am not sure what urges it along other than persistence. And urgency.
It’s a little easier to see such boundaries here in Alaska, where the technosphere can be tenuous and the ethnosphere still robust, with some indigenous languages still alive. Our largest city has quietly evolved to have the nation’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods. The boundaries here erode away little by little, particularly over generational time scales. I would love to think that this has given Alaska an opportunity to develop cross-cultural communication skills that could be shared with the rest of the world.
In my time here I have seen Alaska science begin to take leadership in at least two cross-cultural areas – making progress in working with indigenous “traditional knowledge,” and in harmonizing American and Russian research. I should probably add a third – interdisciplinary research, which has a long history here, going back to the years of exploration. But more recently, the ability to truly and constructively work with the culturally very different Russian approach, and the even more challenging complex of knowledge borne by indigenous elders, have developed greatly before my eyes – in just 25 years. Now I have seen the 2016 Arctic Science Summit and can report that while Alaska is indeed ahead in breaking down these impediments, there remain other barriers I hadn’t been so aware of.
The event offered plenty of alphabet soup to swim through – AOOS, SAON, IARC, IASC, ISAC, PRB, USARCM, AMAP, ACOBAR, DAMOCLES and on and on and on. And on. Alongside the Summit was a non-public meeting of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants and a day of public speeches called the International Arctic Assembly. Within the Summit was another Summit on Arctic observing, called to continue a process begun in 2013 after the International Polar Year made it clear that the climate had warmed so much that changes in the Arctic and Antarctic were happening faster than scientists are able to track them, and even while this catastrophe was happening there was no mechanism for any kind of ongoing system of taking measurements and sharing them among those interested and perhaps even able to respond.
You would think that after two summit meetings specifically addressing the issue of Arctic observing, scientists might have been closer to envisioning how to sustain an ongoing observing system. You would think that they might have begun to picture who might have uses for the data that is gathered for their research projects after the project is over and what it might take to continue to gather such data. Some of them do. But many, perhaps most, cannot quite picture such a system.
Still, the third Arctic Observing Summit since 2013 resulted in a statement:
The organizers had a goal in mind, and so did the Senior Officials of the Arctic Council, who were looking for just such a proposal to implement an agreement they are already preparing to sign. So it appears that the handoff will work as anticipated, and maybe the Council in turn will be able to see its way clear to some sort of dues or partnership or payment system to support the observing system to help us be more aware of how our Anthropocene environment is thrashing about and inundating, storming, plaguing, threatening and even at times blessing us.
You can see some urgency in the statement, and that is good. There are also some generational forces at play here, and that is also good. In cross-cultural work, generational forces are almost by definition transformational.
Speakers chosen by the organizers often reflected urgency. “The policy has not caught up with the science,” said Polar Research Board chair Julie Brigham-Grette, co-author of the National Research Council’s wrapup report on the International Polar Year. Konrad Steffen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute spoke of having to rebuild the Swiss ice station on Greenland after it dropped 30 feet in one year. Speakers for each of the breakout sessions continued sounding such notes.
Perhaps it all has begun to come together. As was said, one of the purposes of the breakouts was to make sure every possible concern was brought out in hopes that nothing important would be overlooked. And there has been an evolution over the span of the three summits. The first one gave hardly any consideration to the local people, and now the role of the people who live in the Arctic is seen as central, and terms such as “co-production of knowledge” are used, and used seriously.
Also featured prominently in the statement is a spoonful of alphabet soup called SAON, the “Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks” effort of the European Union’s Group on Earth Observations. I sat in a breakout session with a couple of GEO/SAON people. GEO currently doesn’t really do much in the arctic. SAON seems to exist mostly as a shell, waiting for orders. GEO seems to approach its work on a project basis, and so far it doesn’t have much in the way of projects in the arctic. Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute and the Norwegian Polar Institute do. GEO’s limp participation in the breakout sessions left me scratching my head. I guess I fall on the non-European side of that cultural barrier. As Julie said, the policy has not caught up with the science. Also of concern is the reality that much of the Arctic science being done in the Russian Far East is actually funded by the National Science Foundation because Russia simply has not seen its way clear to paying.
Maybe a window of opportunity has now opened that will allow urgency to power the Arctic observing issue across some political if not cultural boundaries, and some teeth can be put in the scientific cooperation treaty they plan to sign at the next Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in spring of next year. Or maybe we’ll just get more alphabet soup and conferences.