Interdisciplinary Research in the Arctic

Interdisciplinary Research in the Arctic

We’ve been in Alaska for almost five days now and we’ve learnt a tremendously diverse amount of fascinating information. We started with only a scientific understanding of climate change in the Arctic; rising sea levels and temperatures, melting ice sheets, thawing tundra, and changing migration patterns of ocean mammals. We then built on this scientific knowledge with social, legal and economic information pertaining to the Arctic region. We studied how the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 divided Alaska into 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations that still cooperate on issues like health and finance, and how the act contributed to current social issues like alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide. We’ve experienced first-hand the corporate politics between these native corporations and the extractive industries, and the power struggle that they engage in in terms of land, money and influence. Environmental NGO’s have complained in detail about the lack of accountability on behalf of Alaska’s environmental regulatory bodies. Last but not least, we’ve studied the internal politics of a small town of only 400 people on the North-Western edge of the Alaskan Arctic that has been conflicted and uncooperative in the face of issues larger than themselves – not least of which is a changing environment.

What I personally find so empowering is that we have been able to understand every single one of these topics in-depth and discuss them with all the relevant experts. We’ve continued our discussions meaningfully even when entering the realms of nitpicky legal details; of sea mammals’ biological cycles; of corporate ownership structures; of anthropological analysis of small town governance; of the linguistics of ethnic languages; of the toxicity of POP’s; and of lengthy regulatory requirements. I asked myself – how so?

It’s finally starting to dawn on me how incredibly valuable the interdisciplinarity of our research team has been. Our group’s academic expertise is wide-ranging: Jorge Barbosa has a background in Marine Oceanography & Fisheries Management, Marissa Knodel just completed her J.D., Liliana Davila studies Political Ecology, while Rob Fetter and I are Economists. Beyond this we each have professional and personal experience in many countries and in different fields. In between interviews and in the evenings we’ve debriefed each other on our conversations, and contributed to the discussions with insights and anecdotes from our previous experiences. We have been able to study in-depth not only climate change, but all of its far-reaching implications for social, economic, and political development – just like we had set out to do.

Our combined ability to analyse the implications of environmental change on an entire society is so much greater than what any of us could have done on our own – and it took me a journey through the multi-faceted issues of the Arctic to realise that.

– Susanna Berkouwer