Week of the Arctic: ‘Very important’ event showcases concerns, interests in region

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, shown here at a recent meeting in Moscow, both are scheduled to attend Thursday’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Fairbanks. (PBS photo)

The Week of the Arctic gets under way today here on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Dozens of Arctic science- and policy-related events will be held throughout the week, culminating in Thursday’s Arctic Council ministerial meetings, when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will hand over the council chairmanship to his counterpart from Finland.

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Mike Sfraga is a top Week of the Arctic organizer and former University of Alaska Fairbanks vice chancellor who now directs the Polar Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a series of very important meetings,” Sfraga said. “It’s also a very serious and important signal to the rest of the globe about the very particular place Fairbanks is, and the role that Alaska has in the global dialogue about the Arctic.”

“All eight Arctic foreign ministers will be here,” Sfraga continued. “We’ll discuss Arctic issues. We’ll hopefully sign a binding agreement on science cooperation. We’ll work through the finality of the U.S. agenda. We’ll transition to the Finnish agenda for their chairmanship of the Arctic Council.”

The U.S. term as chair of the eight-nation council will come to an end during the ministerial, which is held every other year in a city in or near the Arctic Circle to pass along the two-year rotating chairmanship to the next member nation. In this case, Finland.

“They’ve chosen to hold the U.S. chairmanship’s final agenda-driving program here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” Sfraga said. “Why? Because Alaska is important and because as we all know Alaska makes the U.S. an Arctic nation.”

Before and after Thursday’s ministerial meetings at the Carlson Center, dozens of related events will be held mainly on the UAF campus. They include conferences for scientists to exchange research findings on the Arctic; and for diplomats, policymakers and members of organizations, like those representing indigenous peoples, to consider responses to those challenges – especially those related to climate-change impacts on the region.

“We’ve designed things so there’s something for everyone,” Nils Andreassen said. He’s executive director of the Institute of the North, the Anchorage-based nonprofit think tank that serves as secretariat for the Alaska Arctic Council Host Committee, created in 2015 by Gov. Bill Walker to help organize council-related events held in the state.

“Whether it’s climate science or reindeer or economic development, transportation – just the diversity of programs that’s really impressive, and gives everybody an opportunity to engage with the Arctic in a different kind of way,” Andreassen said.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel said he’s looking forward to sitting in on some of those events. He’s especially interested in meeting his counterparts during Thursday’s Arctic Mayors Roundtable.

“We want to get the mayors together and start a network of communications so that we can work together and be more effective,” Kassel said. “And in doing so, I think benefit all of the different communities across the north.”

Kassel said he’ll also be interested to hear how other municipal officials around the far north deal with such problems as poor winter air quality.

“Air quality tends to be a challenge in northern communities,” Kassel said. “I’m looking forward to chatting with some of my counterparts to see how they’ve dealt with the situation.”

The Week of the Arctic will enable dialogue over many other issues of common concern around the region. Sfraga said the two-day Arctic Broadband Forum, for example, will address the lack of access to high-speed internet connections around the far north.

“So you have the Arctic broadband group meeting to solve this very important issue,” he said. “Whether it’s tele-health, education, commerce – very important.”

Economic development will be on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the Arctic Economic Council, an offshoot of the Arctic Council. Sustainable development is likely be a common subject for the council’s six working groups, which provide both in-depth study of issues from several perspectives, including those of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

Other events will focus on health, education and environmental stewardship, to name a few. Week of the Arctic continues through the weekend in Anchorage, with events that showcase and celebrate the region’s cultures.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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