An Arctic University on the Brink

The University of Alaska – Museum of the North on the UA Fairbanks campus [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
Despite recent calls in Washington for an increased presence in the Arctic, albeit one more heavily focused on the development of US military and hard power interests, American Arctic research stood poised to take a giant step backward this month in the wake of deep funding cuts to financial support for the University of Alaska (UA) by the state government. These austerity measures, in addition to threatening the future of the university itself, call into question what sort of role the US will play in Arctic research as the region comes under greater international attention as a result of climate change and emerging economic potential.

The threat to UA’s financial situation came at the beginning of this month after planned cuts to the university by the state government totalling US$5 million as part of the 2020 budget were suddenly altered by Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy, via the use of a line-item veto, resulting in a 41% budget reduction to the university system, representing more than US$135 million.

The decision immediately threw UA’s budget into turmoil, with likely closings of some smaller campuses as well as layoffs and cancellation of some programs, in addition to an eventual exodus of staff and students, given the lack of comparable alternative employment options in the state. An editorial by UA President Jim Johnsen, called for an override of the veto, stating that in addition to the immediate effects of the funding losses, ‘ripple effects’ would appear which would further damage the post-secondary educational system in Alaska, as well as the economy of the state itself.

The University of Alaska system, which includes campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, along with satellite campuses and community centres elsewhere in the state, has over 26,000 students enrolled, employs twelve hundred faculty members, and is a centre for Arctic research, including indigenous studies, local language courses, geo-physical and environmental sciences and general northern studies. UA’s Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses are also members of the UArctic research network, which brings together academic and research institutions from across the circumpolar north and internationally to share research on Arctic studies.

In a stinging critique in The Guardian, it was suggested the negative effects of the cuts and the precarious economic future of UA would be especially felt in more isolated communities, including those with indigenous student populations. There was also the question of long-term harm to needed US Arctic research, including on climate change at a time when its effects are starting to become ever more visible in the Arctic, (Alaska itself has been beset by wildfires this summer, coupled with record high temperatures), and an administration in Washington which continues a policy of overt climate change denial. UA is now facing a potential brain drain as a result of layoffs and the shutting down of programmes and possibly entire campuses, which would adversely affect not only Arctic research in Alaska but also partnerships with other global institutions.

Governor Dunleavy entered office in December last year with a promise to begin austerity measures in Alaska in the wake of the longest recession in the state’s history, sparked by the rapid drop in oil prices since 2015. He has also been adamant about providing Alaskans with a larger share of the state’s Permanent Fund, which had been set up in 1976 to manage the state’s oil and gas revenues, while at the same time reducing public services. Critics, however, have argued that such sharp cuts, including to UA, would likely push the state into an even deeper financial morass.

Alaska state flag hanging at the UA Fairbanks campus [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Nonetheless, an attempt in mid-July by members of the Alaskan legislature to override the veto as well as the dozens of other line-item vetoes implemented by Governor Dunleavy failed due to inadequate support and the cuts are scheduled to come into force this month. UA is now facing the difficult choice of calling for ‘financial exigency’, a step short of announcing bankruptcy, but would entitle the university to begin fast and draconian measures which would include dismissing tenured employees and closing campuses and programmes. The decision to go that route has been postponed until the end of July, but at present there appear to be few other options available.

It was also announced this week that the credit rating of UA had been reduced three levels from A1 to Baa1 by the fiscal services firm, Moody’s, reflecting concerns about the university’s ability to meet its financial commitments, thus making the institution the lowest rated of its type in the United States. According to a new press release from UA, the ratings situation may improve should financial exigency measures be undertaken.

At a time when the United States appears to be drastically redefining its Arctic policies, the looming financial crisis at UA, which is now questioning whether its academic accreditation can be maintained under current circumstances, would be a major blow not only to US Arctic research but also to the reputation of the country as an Arctic actor. Washington has also shown signs of deviating its policies from those of its Arctic neighbours, as evidenced by recent condemnations of Russian and Chinese policies in the region, as well as its steadfast refusal to view climate change as an environmental and human security emergency. The possible marginalisation or even loss of the UA system would send out another signal that the United States is retreating from the Arctic at a time when, as the line goes, attention must be paid.

Addendum: On 22 July, the University of Alaska’s board of regents voted 10-1 in favour of declaring financial exigency, with some of the regents noting that unless serious actions were taken to reduce costs, UA will be out of funds by February 2020.

极地独行狐:76天的北极远征 A Lone Arctic Fox’s 76-Day Expedition

安装了卫星追踪项圈的北极狐 (Elise Strømseng摄于斯瓦巴尔群岛的Fjortende Julibukta冰川,[图片由挪威极地研究所Norsk Polarinstitutt提供] The fox getting fitted with a satellite collar at the Fjortende Julibukta site in Svalbard [Photo by Elise Strømseng/Norwegian Polar Institute]

北极狐,也叫雪狐 (学名 Alopex lagopus) 是北极地区土生土长的小型食肉目犬科动物。虽然名叫北极狐,但是北极圈以下受到海洋暖流影响的冰岛也有它们的踪迹。北极狐皮毛厚实保暖性强,春夏时节呈灰褐色、秋冬时则雪白,身手矫健、反应敏捷,既是天生的猎手,也是更大型动物,比如北极熊的猎物。北极狐一般以旅鼠、鱼类、鸟类、野兔为食,也吃浆果。北极狐们超强的耐寒抗冻能力使得它们在零下50摄氏度的低温下也能生存,冰渣迷蒙的雪原似乎丝毫不影响其超凡的意志,在雪地上发现疑似旅鼠的踪迹后,飞身一跃至空中、猛速扑下,对准目标使劲刨,但是再高明的捕猎者也会失手,有时候判断不准,旅鼠没抓着反而摔跟头。

目前,北极狐在国际自然保护联盟濒危物种红色名录 (IUCN) 属于“无危(LC)”,然而在挪威、芬兰和瑞典,一些特定的种群被列为“极危(CE)”。

这只极地独行北极狐的远征故事得从挪威极地研究所 (Norsk Polarinstitutt) 讲起。该研究所成立于1928年,现在隶属于挪威气候与环境部,主要为南北极地环境管理服务。研究员们在一只年轻的北极狐身上安装了卫星追踪项圈,2018年3月底将其在靠近北极极点的斯匹次卑尔根岛东岸(Spitsbergen,斯瓦巴尔群岛 Svalbard中最大的岛屿) 放回野外。斯瓦巴尔群岛位于北极海盆中部,由于海面季节性结冰,因此理论上,岛上的北极狐有可能踏着海冰一路到达格陵兰岛和北美洲。


21天后,她抵达格陵兰岛北部。格陵兰是世界上第一大岛,位于北美和北欧之间,四面都是一望无际的茫茫北冰洋。以格陵兰为中转站,开始了第二段行程,到达加拿大的埃尔斯米尔岛(Ellesmere Island)。埃尔斯米尔是加拿大北极群岛中最北的岛屿,与东边的格陵兰隔着一条海峡对人类来说,跨越海洋、从一个岛屿到另一个岛屿并非难事,但对体型较小、光靠四条腿的北极狐来说,需要的不仅仅是体力。76天的旅途中,她曾有两次较长时间的停留,研究人员也不能确切得知到底发生了什么事,猜测也许是天气原因,使得她不得不放慢脚步耐心等待。

其实,当研究人员们得知北极狐到达埃尔斯米尔岛这一结果时大吃一惊,研究员Eva Fuglei表示,一开始难以置信,以为她已经在途中死去、被带到了船上,但这个假设不成立,因为这个地区根本没有船只。



Path of the fox between March and July 2018 [Map via Polar Research Journal/Norwegian Polar Institute 上图显示北极狐76天的旅行踪迹。图片由Polar Research Journal/挪威极地研究所(Norsk Polarinstitutt)提供]
这并非人类第一次留意到北极狐令人惊叹的迁徙能力。1885年,挪威探险家 Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) 曾提到自己在冰雪上看到北极狐印迹时内心的激动和惊讶,对这个生灵的活动非常感兴趣。



挪威极地研究所(Norsk Polarinstitutt)为本文写作提供了宝贵协助,在此表示感谢。


欲了解更多关于本次北极狐旅程研究资料,敬请阅读由Eva Fuglei 以及 Arnaud Tarroux 撰写的《Arctic fox dispersal from Svalbard to Canada: one female’s long run across sea ice》 一文。 Polar Research 39(2019),


小时候看过简写版的童话故事《动物远征队》(The Animals of Farthing Wood),这部童话讲述因为森林遭受人类开发,一群动物为了生存不得不离开家园,团结协助排除万难,抵达动物保护区的故事。那时候以为陆地动物“远征”只是故事,后来发现这种事确实是存在的。

How long does it take to travel from Norway to Canada? 76 days, via an epic walk by a one-year old female Arctic fox. 

The fox, outfitted with a satellite collar by the researchers Norwegian Polar Institute / Norsk Polarinstitutt, began her travels on 26 March 2018 in Spitsbergen, the main island of the Norwegian islands of Svalbard. She arrived in Northern Greenland after twenty-one days and continued her trek westward to Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada by June of that year. 

The cumulative travelling distance of the vulpine wanderer was 3506 kilometers in seventy-six days, and 46.3 kilometres per day at an average rate, which made the researchers marvel at not just because the length of her walk, but also the speed of which she covered both difficult terrain and dividing waterways.

Further reading: ‘Arctic Fox Dispersal from Svalbard to Canada: One Female’s Long Run Across Sea Ice’ by Eva Fuglei and Arnaud Tarroux, Polar Research 39(2019),

[Over the Circle would like to cordially thank the Norwegian Polar Institute / Norsk Polarinstitutt for their invaluable assistance in the writing of this post.] 




Sun Voyager (Sólfar) sculpture in Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
A look at Arctic news from around the region.

Melting Ice May Be a Boon for Some Arctic Whales- Then a Bust,‘ [National Geographic]

The Arctic is “No Longer a Buffer Zone”,’ [Cryopolitics]

Melting Greenland Is Awash in Sand,‘ [The New York Times]

Climate Change and the Arctic on Finland’s Plan for the EU,‘ [Barents Observer]

Welcome to the Fastest-Heating Place on Earth,‘ [The Guardian]

The Arctic: A Region in Our Blind Zone,’ [High North News]


Plastic Waste in the Arctic: Northern Threat, Global Solutions?

A display of microplastics at Polaria, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The danger posed by plastic waste has begun to gather a high level of international attention in the wake of alarming data about plastic products, many of which are ‘single use’ items, damaging the environment, including the world’s oceans, and presenting a health risk to both humans and wildlife. Currently, only about nine percent of plastics are recycled, with the remainder adding to the waste build-up in many parts of the world. It has been estimated that eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, mostly from land-based sources and transported by rivers.

The Arctic Ocean, despite its remoteness, has proven not to be an exception to this growing crisis. Not only have regular castoff plastic items found their way into the region, but also ‘microplastics’ which are much more difficult to detect and remove are present. Moreover, much of the plastic found in the Arctic did not originate in the region, but rather was transported there via ocean currents from the south.

Scientific analyses released in 2018 suggested that in some parts of the Arctic Ocean, over twelve thousand particles of microplastics could be found in a single litre of sea ice. A similar study by UiT: The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, released earlier this year found evidence of microplastic contamination in remote waters off of north-eastern Greenland as well as within two local varieties of fish with widely different eating habits, namely the polar cod and a bottom-feeding species known as the bigeye sculpin. So not only is the Arctic not immune from the scourge of plastic waste being generated elsewhere, the region is becoming a way-stop for plastics dumped in the ocean and carried north.

The threat of plastic waste to delicate ecosystems, including the Arctic, has prompted numerous countries to implement campaigns to discourage and eventually eliminate single use plastics in the coming years. For example, the Justin Trudeau government in Canada announced that the country would attempt to ban all such plastics by 2021, and in Iceland, single use plastic bags are to be eliminated by January of that year. The Finnish Environment Ministry released a ‘roadmap’ for the reduction of plastics in October last year, which included calls for greater education about the danger of plastic waste, support for alternative products, and more effective recycling and reusing practices. Norway already has an aggressive plastic recycling program in place, and according to 2018 figures, 97% of the country’s plastic beverage bottles are now recycled.

The government of the United States, by contrast, has appeared to be significantly less interested in addressing the single use plastic issue in a rapid fashion, as illustrated during a UN conference in Nairobi on the issue, where the US delegation pushed for a final text from the meeting calling for the significant reduction of single use plastics, rather than an outright ban, by 2030. This followed an unwillingness by the US government to support an Ocean Plastics Charter put forward at last year’s Group of Seven (G7) conference in Charlevoix, Canada. Five of the G7 governments, (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom), agreed to sign on to the pact, but the US and Japan declined.

Washington also found itself playing the role of spoiler after it declined in May this year to join with over 180 other governments in supporting global-level restrictions on plastic waste transport over borders, in the form of an addendum to the 1992 Basel Convention [pdf], originally drafted to reduce [pdf] the international transfer of hazardous wastes, especially to developing regions. Adding plastic waste to the list of materials covered by the Basel Convention was originally proposed by the government of Norway in recognition of the threat from plastics to marine ecosystems and pressures placed on developing countries to accept such waste, especially in light of recent new laws regarding waste imports implemented by China.

As part of China’s ongoing environmental reforms, the country has been seeking to better control its plastic recycling policies by addressing its domestic stockpiles and beginning to interdict shipments of plastic waste from other countries, including the United States. Following its announcement in July 2017, a Chinese government policy, somewhat grandiosely named ‘National Sword’ [In Chinese] (guomen lijian 国门利剑), brought an end to decades of importing plastic and other recyclable waste for processing and repurposing within China.

Beijing’s unhappiness with being the destination point for so much of the word’s castoff waste for recycling had been building for several years before the current restrictions, as evidenced by the February 2013 ‘Green Fence’ (lüse weilan 绿色围栏) initiative which sought to restrict the influx of poor quality, unclean and unsorted recyclable waste from foreign sources. In addition to these rules being set up to improve China’s own domestic recycling needs and encourage better recycling habits in the country, environmental and sustainable development concerns also prompted the bans.

[Photo by Pixabay]
In September 2017, Beijing informed the World Trade Organisation of its intention intending to halt imports on environmental and health grounds of twenty-four types of recyclable products, including types of plastic waste. This announcement created shockwaves in North America and Europe, forcing them to find alternative options for handling their plastic recyclables. By the end of 2018, plastic exports to China had fallen 99.1% compared with the previous year, and many exporting countries in the West are now hurriedly weighing a variety of policy choices to handle their growing plastic waste backlogs. Unfortunately, in the case of the United States, one option for many municipalities has been simply to avoid recycling altogether in favour of dumping and burning.

China is hardly alone in rethinking its plastic waste import policies, as this month a container vessel filled with sixty-nine shipping containers of garbage arrived at Tsawwassen terminal in British Columbia from the Philippines, ending a six-year diplomatic incident between Ottawa and Manila after it was discovered that the garbage, which had been labelled as plastic waste, was contaminated with other waste products when it was shipped to the Philippines during 2013-4, prompting an angry reaction from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and a downgrading of diplomatic relations with Canada.

Other Asian states which had previously accepted foreign plastic waste, including India, Malaysia and Vietnam, are also implementing controls on future imports. This has meant that many Western countries which have long relied on developing states to quickly and cheaply take in plastic waste, are now having to look closer to home for solutions.

With the Arctic facing a variety of pressing climate change challenges, including recent reports of drastic changes to Arctic coastlines caused by melting permafrost, having the potential to affect the environment and human activity well beyond the confines of the circumpolar north, the issue of local plastic contamination has now moved away from being a fringe issue to one which is standing alongside other threats to the Arctic which are in need of swift resolution.

Addendum: It has recently been announced that the Government of Iceland, in collaboration with the Nordic Council of Ministers, will be hosting an International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region in April 2020 at Harpa in Reykjavík, in association with Iceland’s Chair of the Arctic Council which began this year.

New Article: ‘The Changing Shape of Arctic Security’

Russian and NATO flags [photo via Wikimedia Commons]
This week, a new article Marc Lanteigne, editor at OtC, was published in the online magazine NATO Review, on the subject of the changed security conditions in the Arctic, especially as a result of emerging greater power policies and strategies which appearing alongside human security challenges such as the effects of Arctic climate change.

During the 1990s, the Arctic had entered a period of (real or perceived) exceptionalism given that the region was seen as separated from many of the security challenges of the post-cold war era. With the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996 and the regional focus on the effects of climate change and other ‘non-traditional’ security issues such as socio-economic development, the Arctic was mostly left off the proverbial map during studies of emerging security issues.

However, with concerns over Russian military activity in the European Arctic, the arrival of non-Arctic states in Arctic affairs, especially China, and the recent attempts by the United States to inject military security concerns into Arctic discourse, the region may be going ‘back to the future’ in terms of how local security is perceived.

The Changing Shape of Arctic Security,‘ by Marc Lanteigne, NATO Review, 28 June 2019.