INTERNATIONAL SCIENTIFIC COOPERATION IN THE ARCTIC AND ANTARCTIC

 By: Gunter E. Weller, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Global Change Research
NOAA-UAF Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Recipient of the AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Awarded Delivered at the 2000 AAAS CAIP Annual Meeting Luncheon held in conjunction with the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. on February 20, 2000

I am very happy to have received the 1999 AAAS Award for International Scientific Cooperation and to have been asked to talk about may experiences in helping to bring about some of this cooperation. I have spent all my professional career on work in the polar regions, first in the Antarctic for two full years and several subsequent summers, then in Alaska over 30 years. This has involved fieldwork as well as analyzing and synthesizing data and planning additional research efforts.

My talk will therefore focus on the polar regions but obviously cannot cover all aspects of international cooperation there. I will to a large extent relate my personal experiences only. This provides a fairly incomplete picture, of course, but can perhaps shed some light on individual perceptions and the problems faced by scientists trying to cooperate with researchers from other countries in a severe environment.

I’ll start with a historical perspective. The Polar Regions have in many respects been good models for international scientific cooperation: This started with the two so-called Polar Years of 1882-83 and again in 1932-33, during which manynations collaborated in simultaneous scientific measurements at remote polar sites. These investigations focused primarily on the Earth’s climate and its magnetism.

A sequel to the International Polar Years was the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58, which focused on Antarctica and outer space. Despite the cold war there was good cooperation in Antarctica, which continued well after the IGY. In the Arctic, scientific cooperation proved to be quite difficult, however, because of the military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

My personal interest in international scientific cooperation started in Antarctica. There I first me the Russians and was greatly impressed by their polar know-how and expertise acquired in the Arctic. On several subsequent visits to then Soviet Union we planned a number of joint research projects such as the Polar Experiment (POLEX), some of which materialized while others did not.

My more formal involvement in Antarctic international matters was through the working groups of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) which is part of ICSU, the International Council of Scientific Unions. Many scientific projects were planned and executed by these working groups and a plethora of projecs are presently being carried out through SCAR in Antarctica.

In the Arctic, both the US and the USSR had strong scientific programs but military confrontation made cooperation difficult if not impossible. The images of the Arctic during the cold war were those of extensive early warning raiders in both countries stretching across the North, and nuclear attack submarines armed with ICBMs, which made frequent excursions under the sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean.

Nevertheless, at least one US-USSR joint research program in the Arctic did materialize in 1973 under the auspices of the bilateral agreement on joint space investigations. The project dealt with the meteorology, oceanography and sea ice in the Bering Sea. Both nations sent aircraft and ships to the region and provided limited satellite coverage.

This changed after the collapse of the Soviet and the creation of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). The latter, involving all nations doing research in the Arctic, was formed following an International Conference on Research in the Arctic in Leningrad in 1988 which was proposed in a major policy speech by Gorbachev.

An important scientific theme that emerged at that time and that needed international cooperation was research on climate change and its potential impacts. Both polar regions play important roles in global change research. They are early and sensitive indicators of change, they affect the global climate system through several feedback processes, and they store paleoclimatic information in the ice that reaches back several hundred thousand years.

In the Arctic we began to pursue global change matters through IASC, focusing on global change impacts on the environment and on economic sectors and social conditions on two geographically opposite regions in the Arctic, the Barents Sea and Bering Sea. These regions provided similarities as well as differences in their climate, environment and socio-economic and political systems.

In Alaska our two closest neighbors are Canada and Russia. The huge area between the Mackenzie River in Canada and the Lena River in Russia has many regional similarities in climate and the presence of ice, snow and permafrost. We are trying hard to work with both countries, organizing joint meetings and scientific conferences and where possible to do field work together.

The AAAS has contributed much to this cooperation. In Canada we have regular meetings of the AAAS Arctic Division in places like Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. The territory of the Arctic Division includes Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Northwest Territory and the newly created Nunavut. Although, the number of division members is small it is geographically the largest AAAS Division.

One of the greatest challenges was to hold the AAAS Arctic Division meeting in 1994 in Vladivostok, Russia. We made two trips to Vladivostok prior to the meeting and received great support from the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, our local host. Nevertheless the meeting required us to bring everything from $60,000 in cash (we were met by armed guards at the Vladivostok airport) to half a dozen slide and overhead projectors each for the various sessions.

The Vladivostok meeting led, among other things, to close cooperation in a number of research projects, which continue today. For example, we are presently doing cooperative fieldwork with the Russians in the Lena River Delta and its near-shore areas on the impacts of climate change on coastal processes, including erosion and changes in the bio-geochemistry of coastal waters.

We are also working closely with Japan, particularly through a new joint US-Japan International Arctic Research Center (IARC) at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which is presently conducting global change research with investigations at many institutions scattered around the world. Both countries provide funding for the center and its research.

We are also working with China on global climate change problems, including oceanography and permafrost research. The latter is a serious problem in Heilongjiang Province (Manchuria). In 1984 fifteen US researchers were invited by China to visit permafrost research facilities in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia on our private train which stopped whenever we wanted to view buildings, bridges or railway embankments.

More recently we have begun circum-Arctic impact assessments of climate change, which involve all the Arctic nations as well as others doing research in the Arctic. These assessments are now continuing as a joint activity with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMA), and the Conservation of Arctic Fauna and Flora (CAFF), under the auspices of the newly formed Arctic Council.

Perhaps I can end on a personal note. I do admit that I have always been interested in international cooperation and, like many scientists, consider myself an international citizen; perhaps my education and experience in five continents has helped. I was born in Asia and went to grade school there; my high school education is from Europe and my university degrees are from Australia. I did post-graduate work in Antarctica and for the last 30-odd years I have lived and worked in North America.

I am happy to have helped in some of these international enterprises and accept with pleasure and gratitude the AAAS award.