UNH joins University of the Arctic to focus on polar education and research

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Members of the UArctic Council and some of the New England members at the UArctic meeting in Stockholm,Members of the UArctic Council and some of the New England members at a UArctic meeting in Stockholm, 2019.

The University of New Hampshire has joined the University of the Arctic, marking an official pledge to continue and expand on its polar expertise.

UArctic is an international network of universities and organizations dedicated to education and research related to the Arctic. By joining UArctic, UNH faculty, scientific staff and students will have the opportunity to more closely connect with scientists and Indigenous peoples who study or live in the Arctic — a region which is experiencing rapid transformations due to climate change.

“For decades UNH faculty, staff and students have engaged in a range of diverse Arctic-focused projects and being part of the UArctic network will broaden collaborative opportunities for our community,” says UNH President James W. Dean, Jr. “We strongly believe that addressing the grand challenges presented by a rapidly changing Arctic requires much deeper collaboration on research and education so that we can better serve our constituents and our respective regions to promote sustainable communities.”

More than 50 UNH faculty are currently involved in some aspect of Arctic research, along with additional scientific staff and students. “UNH brings a lot to the table: We are an R1 institute with lots of scientists, and we have a long track record of successfully competing for funding for research in the Arctic,” says Ruth Varner, UNH professor of geochemistry, who has conducted much of her recent research above the Arctic Circle. “Being involved with the UArctic will give us a more holistic view on the impact of climate change on Indigenous communities.”

UNH professors discuss their research at a meeting in Stockholm.
Ruth Varner and Cameron Wake discuss UNH's strengths in Arctic Research at a recent UArctic meeting in Stockholm.

Varner and Cameron Wake, UNH research professor of climatology, recently attended a two-day meeting of UArctic members in Stockholm, Sweden, where UNH and other institutions were officially accepted into the organization, joining the more than 200 institutional members of UArctic. Attendees had the opportunity to listen to members of Arctic Indigenous communities speak about the climatic challenges they’re facing and opportunities for improved collaboration with scientists.

“Indigenous cultures look to their elders as repositories of knowledge,” Wake says. “Any research done in the Arctic needs to truly value indigenous knowledge in the same way we value western scientific knowledge. We have to start by building relationships and mutual understanding, not just research programs.”

Conversations between the scientists and Indigenous peoples at the meeting showcased the importance for all parties to connect long before a research project has begun. Coproduction of knowledge, where everyone is involved in discussions about research and educational needs before and throughout a project, will help ensure that the science more closely matches the priorities of the Arctic communities. UNH has recently delved into knowledge coproduction with N.H. communities, but Wake and Varner are eager to extend that endeavor to the northern latitudes as well.

More Than Just Alaska

Alaska and the Pacific Northwest have traditionally been considered the frontline of U.S. Arctic research, but New England is quickly gaining ground. The numerous universities from New England represented at the meeting highlights the region’s growing interest in filling critical roles that will emerge as the Arctic warms. For example, as new shipping routes begin to open, deep-water ports in the North Atlantic (including Portland, Maine) will likely need to expand, and that brings with it a host of new impacts for which to plan.

“For reasons related to security, economics and global environmental change, the U.S. needs to be focused on the North Atlantic Arctic sector — not just Alaska,” Wake says. “The New England states are closest, and we have a wealth of financial and human resources, and economic interest to do that research and be engaged.”

"For reasons related to security, economics, and global environmental change, the U.S. needs to be focused on the North Atlantic Arctic sector - not just Alaska."

Katharine Duderstadt, a research scientist in the UNH Earth Systems Research Center, has led that charge for the last few years. With seed funding provided by the UNH Collaborative Research Excellence (CoRE) Initiative and the National Science Foundation, Duderstadt organized a seminar series focused on the Arctic, which culminated in a regional workshop. Discussions among the workshop participants evolved over time, and those involved decided to form the New England Arctic Network (NEAN). Duderstadt says that NEAN places emphasis on convergence research that overlaps multiple disciplines — infrastructure and coastal processes are among their myriad focal points – and explores strategies that lead to solutions. This approach is necessary to address large societal issues (like climate change) that touch on many different aspects of life, she explains.

Three graduate students collect data in Arctic permafrost.
UNH graduate students collect data from arctic landscapes in abisko, sweden.

And NEAN is not just composed of scientists in well-established careers; students are involved in all aspects of the organization. “Students have been involved in all our seminars, helping to develop our Arctic strategy, getting involved in the research — there’s a lot of opportunity for students in these Arctic initiatives,” Duderstadt says.

UNH’s Educational Gateways to the Arctic

In addition to NEAN, UNH’s membership in the UArctic will open up even more avenues for students to engage in Arctic research and education. Wake says that UNH is in the process of developing an Arctic minor that will be open to all undergraduates. This interdisciplinary focus will provide students with a background not just on the environmental aspects of the Arctic, but also the cultural facets of that region.

Varner is also setting the wheels in motion to get UNH involved in the UArctic’s North 2 North program – an exchange program that offers students the chance to study at universities located in the Arctic.

“It’s important for our students to leave what’s comfortable, to immerse themselves in another culture, because it expands their concept of the world,” Varner says. “The universities located in the Arctic really give students a very different environment; they’ll see the climatic changes that we aren’t seeing quite as drastically down here in the lower latitudes.”

Overall, Varner and Wake are enthusiastic about helping UNH students incorporate polar science and culture into their research from the earliest stages in the process.

“It’s exciting for faculty and students to now come together under the Arctic umbrella and talk more broadly about their work,” Varner says. “The connection with UArctic will provide the opportunity for our grad students to place their Arctic research with the framework of change within the larger Arctic region. It will help put their work into a larger context and make vital connections.”

The Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) is UNH’s largest research enterprise, comprising six centers with a focus on interdisciplinary, high-impact research on Earth and climate systems, space science, the marine environment, seafloor mapping, and environmental acoustics. With more than $43 million in external funding secured annually, EOS fosters an intellectual and scientific environment that advances visionary scholarship and leadership in world-class research and graduate education.