Report on International Field Course on Permafrost and Urban Sustainability: Salekhard and Vorkuta

During the summer of 2017, the PIRE team made a field trip to Salekhard and Vorkuta in Russia. Here we present a report on the trip from GW Grad Student Luis Suter.

This research trip represented an evolution of a 10-year annual field course, started by the GW-based Arctic CALM project. The field courses were originally focused on educating students on the proper field methods for collecting and measuring permafrost characteristics such as ground temperature, soil composition, and 

Fig. 1

monitoring changes in active layer thickness. With the integration of the Arctic PIRE project, the field course was expanded to include Arctic urban sustainability themes. These included resource-based boom-bust cycles, urban planning and governance, migration-related social issues, and economic diversification. 


The field course also focused on promoting exchanges among the international group of students participating.

Fig. 2

The course included students from the United States, Russia, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland (Figure 1). This group, led by four instructors, visited Salekhard in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Orkrug and Vorkuta in the Komi Republic (Figure 2).

Students spent alternating days conducting fieldwork in the tundra and in these cities, while participating in nightly lectures given by both students and professors. Students learned to consider sustainability in the Arctic as an interdisciplinary issue, related to both physical variables such as climate, permafrost, and geology and anthropogenic factors including economic development, migration, and governance.


Fig. 3

In the tundra, the group undertook the collection of permafrost and active-layer data in a variety of Arctic landscapes. The students learned traditional techniques, as well as modern technologies, used to measure environmental parameters important to permafrost health (Figure 3).

Fig. 4

Aside from these principles of geocryology and how this data can be used in research, students discussed the visible impacts of anthropogenic influence and climate change on the field sites. The impressions of human activity were near-constant, from the scars of old vehicle tracks covered in cotton-grass (Figure 4) to contemporary roads and rail-lines.

While in the urban settings, students engaged with local government officials, urban planners, research centers, museums, and universities to learn about socioeconomic and governance issues in the Arctic. Meetings and presentations with research organizations, including the Arctic Research Center and Center for Economic Development, produced valuable connections for the Arctic PIRE research network. By visiting Salekhard, a city rich with gas resources, and Vorkuta, a declining coal-mining city, students were able to learn about the effects of boom-bust economic cycles through living realities

Fig. 5a: Salekhard
Fig. 5b: Vorkuta

(Figure 5). Discussions with local representatives from both cities allowed this international group to debate concepts and strategies for sustainable development in the region, particularly in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Encouraging the ability to view an issue from multiple angles is critical. The exchange of ideas between this diverse group of students, professionals, and locals promoted the growth of this international perspective through research and education. For many students it was the first time in the Arctic. Through their first-hand exposure to the complex interactions of environment, economics, society, and politics within the region, these students walked away as improved scientists and global citizens.

Yakutsk and Mirnyi Fieldwork Report

July 18-August 1, 2017

Marlene Laruelle (GWU) and Sophie Hohmann (INALCO, Paris)

This PIRE fieldwork was devoted to the study of social urban sustainability in two cities of Sakha Republic (Yakutia): the capital city Yakutsk and the “diamond capital” Mirnyi. Our research focused on demographic, social and cultural changes in Russia’s Far North cities. We collected local statistical data and organized interviews with local diasporas and migrant communities. We also met with officials from the republican-level Ministry of External Affairs, Center for Strategic Studies, House of Friendship, and several scholars from different research centers at the North-Eastern Federal University and curators from local museums.

The “Yakutization” of Yakutsk

Yakutsk is a unique case in the Russian Arctic because it is a city which has been able to avoid massive depopulation. If the republic lost some of its population during the depressed 1990s, the city itself has continued to show a rare dynamism, growing from 196,600 inhabitants in 1989 to 303,800 in 2016. This dynamism is fed by the massive arrival of the titular rural population to the capital city. Such a movement of people is a unique phenomenon: no other city in the republic of Sakha receives a similar influx of rural residents.

Yakutsk is attractive because it is seen as part of a process of climbing the social ladder by the rural population, especially young generations. Several overlapping phenomena explain this attraction:

  • the departure of Russians for European Russia (about 200,000 have left since the collapse of the Soviet Union, or 35% of the Russian population of the city);
  • the promotion of the titular nationality in the republican administration;
  • being the main higher education center in the republic; the local universities and institutes, especially North-Eastern Federal University, the Medical Academy and the State Agricultural Academy, attract mostly young members of the titular nationality.

As Figure 1 shows the number of Russians steadily collapsed after 1989, while the number of Yakuts grew without disruption since the 1950s.

Figure 1. Ethnic distribution of Russian and Yakut population in Yakutia by censuses

Our research also focused on the niches occupied by a third category of the population, that of labor migrants, coming from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. The two main ethnic groups are Armenians and Kyrgyz, representing two different patterns of migration. Armenians benefit from a “pull” factor, that of a small diaspora already present in the city in the 1970s-1980s, while numerous Kyrgyz arrived only in the 2000s. It is difficult to obtain statistics from the Federal Migration Service at the municipal level, and many migrants remain undocumented. However, we know that the city of Yakutsk hosted 2,200 Armenians and 2,900 Kyrgyz with Russian citizenship during the 2010 census.

These diaspora and migrant communities occupy specific economic niches: mostly the construction sector—a booming sector given Yakutsk’s demographic growth—followed by the car repair business, and the shoes repair sector for Armenians. Some other groups such as Uzbeks—mostly from Southern Kyrgyzstan, therefore Kyrgyz citizens—dominate the fruit and vegetable import market, especially wholesale bazaars. Many migrants come only for the summer months (from 2 to 5 months) to make money and spend the winter in their home country.

Diaspora and migrant cultural life is organized around two main institutions: the ethnic associations represented at the House of Friendship (Dom druzhby), in charge of folkloric activities (celebration of national holidays, traditional dances and songs), and the religious buildings. The Armenian community built a church in 2014, thanks to a group of generous Armenian businessmen, and is waiting for a permanent priest. The mosque has existed longer: it was erected in 1997 by some members of the Ingush diaspora, and was totally rebuilt in 2014, to receive a growing number of Muslims, including some Yakuts and Russians converted to Islam. The mosque is multinational, with Ingush, Tajiks and Uzbeks being the most numerous attendees to religious services.

The Armenian Church and the Mosque


Mirnyi offers a totally different outlook of urban development. The diamond capital is a monotown entirely dominated by Alrosa, Russia’s partially state-owned diamond company. Like all other cities of the republic with the exception of Yakutsk, the city is not facing a Yakutization process: Russians remain largely dominant, comprising 24,000 people of 37,000 total inhabitants. There are only 3,600 Yakuts (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Ethnic distribution in Yakutsk and Mirnyi, 2010 census

A large part of the population works for Alrosa and its subsidiaries: over the whole Mirnyi district, Alrosa employs about 40,000 people from a total of 96,000. As the city’s main mine stopped working in 2001, diamond extraction increasingly takes place in other small towns of the district, such as Aykhal and Udachnyi, by long-distance commuting workers based in Mirnyi. There too, migrants are present, with Kyrgyz being the first diasporic ethnic group, working in the construction sector and trading clothes and everyday items, while Uzbeks control the fruit and vegetable kiosks. The city hosts a mosque and veiled women are visible in the streets of the city. A similar trend is noticeable in other industrial cities: in Nenyungri for instance, the second city of the republic with 60,00 inhabitants, between 10,000 and 15,000 residents are Muslim, though there are only 1,800 Yakuts.

The city and the mine of Mirnyi seen from the sky

Housing for long-distance commuting workers in Aykhal

Sakha-Yakutia therefore displays a dual urban development pattern: the capital city of Yakutsk displays rapid demographic growth and indigenization, thanks to a diversified economy and its status as a republican administrative center, while all the other cities (Mirnyi, Nenyungri, Lensk, Aldan), centered on extraction industries, remain demographically stable and dominated by Russians.


What Does a Sustainable City Look Like?

Over the past year, as Arctic PIRE researchers worked to develop an appropriate set of indicators by which to measure urban sustainability in Arctic cities, the team wrestled with notions of “Arctic,” “urban,” and “sustainability,” for none of which is there a single, universally accepted definition. “Arctic” was settled on as being the region above 60˚ North, as a sort of average of the many geographical and geopolitical parameters that are used to define the Arctic. “Urban” is defined functionally as a densely populated area that serves diverse social, cultural, economic, and political functions, and has a minimum population size of 12,000 people. “Sustainability” is perhaps the most difficult to pin down, as noted by the volumes of research grappling with the concept. How should sustainability be defined, particularly as it relates to Arctic cities?

The 1987 Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” has guided research and served as a driver for countless initiatives, though the definition is incredibly broad, and plenty of other definitions have been proposed. In the urban context, the UN Sustainable City Program defined the sustainable city as one that is able to retain the supply of natural resources while achieving economic, physical, and social progress, and remain safe against environmental risks that could undermine development. For Arctic cities, along with others, climate change presents a significant environmental risk to both development and the preservation of natural resources. As the Arctic faces these unfolding environmental changes, Arctic cities are facing similar challenges to other global cities in achieving economic, physical, and social progress. A sustainable Arctic city will be one that can meet its social, cultural, environmental, and political needs, alongside economic and physical objectives, while ensuring equitable access to all services by residents, without draining the city’s resources (Rogers 1997).

Brent Toderian, an urban planner and urban sustainability expert, proposed eight pillars of a sustainable city that represent some of the broader sustainability ideas but also outline concrete representations of sustainability in an urban environment, applicable to all cities, including those in the Arctic.


  1. A Complete walkable community in which mixed use facilities and mixed housing meet the varied needs of residents and various price points to ensure affordability, and the community is designed to protect the natural features.


  1. A low-impact transportation system that prioritizes cycling and walking, and incorporates many alternatives to single-person automobile use.


  1. Green buildings that use green design such as LEED, and include many multi-family dwellings.


  1. Flexible open space that accommodate both community and ecological needs including natural habitat, recreation, and space for growing food.


  1. Green infrastructure that addresses the supply and management of energy, water and waste, and includes innovative and financially viable heating and cooling options.


  1. A healthy food system that includes community garden space and food outlets, as well as preserving social and cultural food celebration, and incorporates other creative food-producing outlets.


  1. Community facilities and programs that support a healthy lifestyle for community members of all ages, that promote safety and well-being, and that foster community connection.


  1. Economic development including opportunities for business, investment, and employment, and includes a range of commercial facilities.


These pillars help to envision what a sustainable Arctic city would look like, and to begin to measure cities’ progress towards these ideals.

Arctic Cities on the Move: Adapting to Environmental Changes through Relocation

At the edge of town, a brand new playground sits unused, the swings perfectly still. The park is eerily quiet, with only a distant excavator piercing the silence. A lone Arctic Hare looks at me before bounding off. A few white wildflowers are blooming along the edges of the wide crushed gravel paths, but otherwise there’s not much in the way of life here. Each of the park’s quadrants are buffered by a low wall made of wire cages containing bits of brick and concrete rubble. Benches are made from the same. Beyond these rubble walls sit a row of vacant brick buildings, the windows removed, and a menagerie of plumbing fixtures on the lawn. These buildings are destined to become nothing but rubble like that which forms this park. A pair of blue banners boast “decommissioning for continued mining” in Swedish and English. Kiruna, Sweden, is slowly packing up and moving the whole city three kilometers east because of destabilization due to iron mining.

These houses too are destined to become nothing but the rubble that fills the wire cages in the foreground. Photo by the author. 

Kiruna is one of many Arctic cities that has chosen relocation as an adaptation to environmental changes. Whether primary human activity, secondary effects of anthropogenic climate change, or other natural phenomena, environmental changes in the Arctic often present cities with limited means of adaptation other than relocation.


In Kiruna, the nearby iron mine is both the lifeblood and the angel of death for the city. The iron ore runs deep, and inconveniently right under the current city center. The choice between ceasing mining and adapting to the destabilization hardly seemed like a choice. While tourism is booming here north of the Arctic circle, this is first and foremost a mining town, and if not for the mine, Kiruna would not exist at all. And so the city is moving. The most vulnerable buildings have already been removed, and just outside of town, a handful of historic buildings sit on trailers, having been liberated from their foundations, and await relocation to the new city site. Eventually the whole city center will be relocated, and buildings that the town has identified as historically or culturally important—the clock tower, the cathedral, iconic “inkwell” houses—will be moved to the new site, while less important buildings such as the 1960s-era brick buildings built as company housing will be dismantled. LKAB, the state-owned mining company, is required by Swedish mining law to replace any housing that is destroyed due to the mine, and so new housing will be built in the new city.

The Kiruna iron mine in the background, and debris from deconstructed city buildings in the foreground. Photo by the author.

Signs around town proclaim that Kiruna is a “City on the Move!” Tour guides who take visitors deep into the iron mine paint a rosy picture of the development of the new city, and indeed the architectural renderings imagine a modern city that reflects that cultural history and the Arctic identity of the city. But walking among the piles of debris, with signs of destruction everywhere, it’s hard not to wonder about what will be lost. While Kiruna adapts to an environmental catastrophe of its own making, it is not the only Arctic city to turn to relocation as a means for adapting to a changing environment.


In 1649, the town of Luleå, Sweden, was moved from its original site because of decreasing sea level. Post-glacial rebound, the process by which land rises after being freed of the weight of a glacier, caused the effective decrease in ocean levels leaving the bay too shallow for ships to enter. These days the old city site, now referred to as Gammelstad (meaning old town), is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and visited mostly by tourists and for special events. The modern city of Luleå still relies heavily on shipping, and continues to face the same challenge of post-glacial rebound and decreasing sea levels as in the past. Old timers remember islands that were previously accessible only by boat, but are now separated instead by mud bars, allowing people to wade between the smaller islands. The municipality of Luleå plans to deepen the port to allow bigger ships, but even if not for this multi-billion kronor project, the city would have to continuously dredge the harbor just to continue to allow ships that are currently using the port. Modern technology that makes dredging an option means that for now, Luleå won’t have to resort to relocation as the only method to preserve the city’s viability.

A row of wooden church cottages lead to the cathedral in Gammelstad, Luleå. Photo by the author.

While in Kiruna, the decision has been made to continue the activity that necessitates relocation, and in Luleå alternative measures can be used to adapt to environmental changes, coastal and island towns in the Arctic such as Shishmaref, Alaska, have fewer options and much less influence over the changes that affect their towns. Sea level rise threatens to overtake the barrier island on which Shishmaref is located. Investing in sea walls and coastal barriers help mitigate the effects of rising sea levels in the short-term but in the long-term, leaving is the only viable choice. While climate refugees in Louisiana and the Carteret Islands were resettled in other communities, the village of Shishmaref plans to relocate the whole town. Relocating a whole community may help preserve some community social networks, but comes at no small price. The relocation of Shishmaref will cost an estimated US$180 million, and so far the source of that funding is uncertain. Shishmaref is one of 31 villages that the Arctic Institute estimates will need to be relocated on account of rising sea levels due to climate change.


The residents of Shishmaref voted 89 to 78 in favor of relocation, with opinions largely split among age groups. While some voted against the move because of trepidation of the new site that was chosen, many of the older residents see the island as their home, and though they might retain their families, neighbors, and social networks in the move, the places that have framed their lives- their house, the school, the land itself- would be lost. It’s hard to tell whether relocating an entire town helps to preserve social capital more effectively than resettling individual residents. Relocating an entire town or city is an extreme measure for adapting to environmental changes but as climate change progresses causing thawing permafrost and rising sea levels, many Arctic cities will face few options other than to pack up and leave.


Reflections on Fieldwork in Yakutsk

By Ksenia Mokrushina – SKOLKOVO Center for Urban Studies, Moscow

The coldest city of its size or larger on the planet, Yakutsk is impressively vibrant and rich in cultural and urban life. Over the past 50 years it experienced an explosive population growth of 300% and is still actively attracting people from neighboring regions. Today, the city is home to over 325 thousand people. Situated on continuous permafrost, Yakutsk has a long-standing experience of design and construction in extreme weather conditions. The city is cut off from the rest of Russia: located on the west bank of the Lena with no bridge, so the city is only accessible for its own citizens, visitors and goods by air, ferry or over the frozen river in the dead of Siberian winter. Although not strictly an arctic city, Yakutsk is the capital of the vast Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), 40% of which lies beyond the North Polar Circle (Figure 1). Five mono-settlements are located in the region, including Mirny on the famous Mir diamond mine and the shrinking coal-mining city Neryungri, second largest in the Republic. The population of the once prosperous northernmost port city of Tiksi has shrunk almost threefold after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost 0.5 mln of indigenous people live in Yakutia, out of which 93% are Yakuts, whose well-being and position is the region is continuously improving.

Figure 1: Yakutsk under the Midnight Sun

It is the extraordinary nature of large Russian northern cities and their intrinsic relationship with the Artic that brought Brent Ryan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Ksenia Mokrushina of the Center for Urban Studies SKOLKOVO to Yakutsk to begin their research on innovation in urban sustainability policy in arctic cities. Brent and Ksenia studied Yakutsk’s experience in urban planning and design, mass housing maintenance and construction in permafrost conditions, and the context, policies and challenges of Yakutian monocities development. An important task of the mission was to identify sources of policy innovation, evaluate the level of accessibility of quantitative and qualitative data, build partnerships with local organizations and institutes to include them in the PIRE network, as well as research educational outreach efforts later on. They held over 20 meetings with people from the regional government and municipal administration, research institutes and think-tanks, local universities, , representatives of local business and creative industries, and civil society organizations. Among them are the State Commission for the Arctic, Institute for Permafrost Studies, the Center for Strategic Studies, North-Eastern Federal University, Association of Reindeer Herders, etc.


Figure 2: Meetings with representatives from Yakutsk

The team has found out that negative effects of climate change are taking their toll on Yakutsk. Thawing permafrost causes visible deformation of buildings, road surfaces and pavement. The city increasingly suffers from the vagaries of the Lena river, which make the ‘northern delivery’ of food and energy supplies completely unpredictable for Yakutsk and the remote settlements in Arctic Yakutia. The economic losses arising from climate change are becoming evident, although not evaluated by the municipality.

Figure 3: Aged Housing Units in Yakutsk

Upgrading of dilapidated housing stock and ensuring systemic deployment of affordable, energy efficient, solutions in new construction, energy, heating and other municipal services poses a significant urban sustainability challenge for the city. Yakutsk is one of the few large Russian cities that is still struggling to solve the problem of urban slums with absent or poorly functioning heating, water, waste management systems, as well as inadequate transport, food and services access. There are still a lot of run-down wooden barracks built back in 1950-60s as temporary housing for builders of ‘khruschevki’. They are being slowly replaced with new mass housing projects of questionable quality and a lot of people are still trapped there waiting for private developers or the municipal government to relocate them within the framework of federal dilapidated housing relocation program. Effective institutional engagement mechanisms to ensure faster and better quality renovations are clearly missing. Without municipal services and housing policy change the city is unlikely to break the vicious circle of local budget deficits and excessive dependence on federal donations and centralized decision-making.


The city is tackling the challenge of unwelcoming public spaces, streetscapes exacerbated by ubiquitous empty spaces of the khruschevka mass housing design pattern, the sight of worn-out external piping, frightening vacuums in-between stilts under houses, lack of trees and greenery. Local design and architecture companies encouraged by the chief architect of Yakutsk and supported by experts from around Russia including the successful local IT company SINET volunteer to develop design projects for abandoned places, disused park territories and canal embankments. A number of these projects will be financed and implemented as part of the federal government driven program “5 Steps towards a more сomfortable city” that is criticized for a standard beautification approach to local urban design problems in Russian cities.


The same urban beautification program is implemented in monotowns and settlements around Yakutia following federal policy requirements. Planning and realization is hindered though by the lack of local capacity and understanding of the need for better urban environment. The Fund for Monocities Development has been recently established to coordinate federally driven local economy diversification programs, including the establishment of ‘zones of intensified development’ offering advantageous conditions for doing business and investing in monotowns,. Whether the new federal monocity development program will bear fruit, remains to be seen. What’s obvious, however, is that there is not enough locally driven strategic planning and policy innovation, community engagement and proactive approaches to local problem solving.


The team was lucky to visit a village 130 km away from the capital, which gave them a unique opportunity to see the other side of the urbanization challenge in Yakutsk. The village is struggling to retain its younger residents, develop local eco-tourist and farming businesses. However their entrepreneurial spirit is still dominated by the habit of relying on support and directions from the government.


Yakutians see the preservation of their unique local arts, culture, and spirit as the key prerequisite of sustainable development. Indeed, Yakutsk boasts a large number of theaters, museums and art galleries that are well-known in Russia; and the Yakutian film industry has established itself globally. The development of local creative industry is one of city’s strategic goals. Almazergienbank, the largest bank in Yakutia, has made the creative cluster project one of its strategic investments and is actively promoting the themes o around the Republic in cooperation with Calvert 22. The State Arctic Institute for Arts and Culture was established in 2000 with the aim to preserve and develop local cultural heritage. Aysen Nikolaev, the Mayor of Yakutsk, believes creative industries will be the main driver of the city’s economic development.


Everything seems to be taken to the limit in Yakutia: from the seasonal temperature differences of over 100°C to the warmth and hospitality of the northern people. This calls for unconventional, locally sensitized approaches to urban sustainability. Thorough research into sources, drivers and prerequisites for locally grown creative potential is required to make arguments and give recommendations regarding the needed policy action.


Figure 3: Workshop with Local Representatives

A Visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center

On the far east side of Anchorage down a long and windy drive sits the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The large wooden structure is built on Dena’ina land, and has a low profile, the roofline sweeping from a shallow peak in the center nearly to the earth on either end, and blends in well with the natural surroundings. When we arrived, four youth were performing story songs and dances on a stage in the center of the building for a small but captive audience. We were given a private tour of the center by Yaari Walker, a St Lawrence Island (SLI) Yupik and Cultural Program Specialist who had been working at the center for nearly two decades. Behind the center is a tiny placid pond, reflecting the distant mountains and surrounded by several traditional structures representing the homes traditionally built and occupied by Alaskan Natives. In each, Yaari shared the cultural heritage of Alaskan Natives, as well as her own personal experience. She described the importance of family, community, and subsistence. The structures illustrate a rural, traditional lifestyle that is hard to find in modern times, but also cultures that are thriving and well.

Yaari Walker speaking with members of Arctic PIRE at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (photo credit: Carly Giddings)


Looking over the bucolic scene, it seemed an unlikely place to learn much about urban sustainability in Alaska. But 50% of Alaskan Natives live in the city of Anchorage, where they make up 14% of the urban population. Understanding urban communities therefore requires understanding the culture and experience of indigenous peoples, and understanding the importance of history and cultural heritage.


In Alaska, like many places in the lower 48, throughout the first half of the 20th century, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and sent to boarding schools run by missionaries where they were barred from speaking their native languages, banned from any other form of cultural expression including traditional dress and other customs, and in many cases experienced horrendous physical, sexual, and emotional violence. This was but one example of the systematic attempt to extinguish the culture of Native Alaskans. Fortunately, many Alaskan Native groups survived this trauma and actively engage in ongoing expression and preservation of their traditional cultures and languages, but the violent interruption impacted families and communities, and created a legacy of generational trauma. Children who spent their formative years in abusive boarding schools without the opportunity to bond with their parents and families became adults who were deeply scarred, often unable to form healthy bonds with their own children, and in many cases turned to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. The era of boarding schools in Alaska led to the loss of languages, and the destruction of childhoods and created conflict for children who were taught to be ashamed of their culture and identity. The damage done by this and other anti-indigenous policies and practices continues to impact Native Alaskan communities who experience significantly higher rates of poverty, addiction, depression, and suicide than non-native Alaskans, both in urban and rural areas.


Subsistence activities continue to be an important part of both livelihoods and culture for native Alaskans, even those who live in Anchorage and other urban areas, something that was demonstrated by both Yaari Walker at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and by Dawn Biddison of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage museum. Native peoples still identify with their ancestral home villages and regions even if they have never lived there themselves, and when possible, will return home during harvest seasons. Whaling continues to be an important part of life for northern coastal communities such as Nuiqsut and Kaktovik. Whales provide food, clothing, oil, and tools. But just like traditional practices in the past, whaling has come under attack by those who fail to understand either the cultural history and importance, or the sustainability of this type of whaling.


In cities throughout the circumpolar region, ethnic identity and the expression of that identity is important to both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Though difficult to quantify, cultural history and identity are important pieces to consider in measuring the social component of urban sustainability.

Kayaks built as part of a summer youth program at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (photo credit: Carly Giddings)

Meeting with Community Stakeholders in Anchorage, Alaska

Last week, the Arctic PIRE team gathered in Anchorage, Alaska, to share ongoing research, to continue developing the Arctic Urban Sustainability Index (AUSI), and to meet with community stakeholders to gain a better understanding of what is important to consider when evaluating urban sustainability in the Arctic, and also to understand what the most important information or metrics that researchers can provide to policymakers and community leaders. Below are some of the highlights of meetings with stakeholders in Anchorage.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz (second from right) speaking with members of Arctic PIRE (photo credit: Carly Giddings)

Mayor of Anchorage Ethan Berkowitz defined sustainability for Anchorage as a city that is ready, connected, and inclusive, but also as an ancient idea that has long been practiced by Alaska Natives. For Alaskans, both native and non-native, self-sufficiency is an important aspect of sustainability and a point of pride, but also a real challenge- Alaska relies on a colonial model of exporting its raw materials and importing much of its work force. Mayor Berkowitz emphasized the need to invest in human capital, to increase local (renewable) energy as an opportunity to create self-sufficiency and also create local jobs. Finally, Mayor Berkowitz highlighted the need for more data, and more metrics, saying that there is a dearth of good city-level data that can inform good policy and practice.

Dr. Mara Kimmel, the First Lady of Anchorage, shared her aspirations and ongoing work in building resilience in Anchorage. Dr. Kimmel talked about creating a resilient city, but also one that is welcoming and inclusive for both indigenous peoples and immigrants. Dr. Kimmel suggested that policymakers and planners must work more directly with scientists who can provide the data for better decision-making, and that research questions should come from the communities that need the data.

Andy Baker, engineer and owner of Your Clean Energy, shared his experience working on renewable energy projects in the Anchorage area over the last ten years. Baker talked about the importance of the 2010 net metering policy in spurring renewable energy development in Alaska. Baker also highlighted his work on the Alaska SeaLife Center heat pump system that uses Resurrection Bay to heat both the aquariums and the space at the Center. Baker echoed others when he highlighted the importance of investing in education in Anchorage and beyond, particularly at a university level,

Steve Colt, a professor of economics at Alaska Pacific University, has a background in electric utilities and working on renewable energy and distributed energy systems in Alaska. He talked about some of the challenges of renewable energy in Alaska related to policy, infrastructure, and implementation, including multiple energy players in Anchorage and Fairbanks and the resultant fractured system that requires coordination. Colt also emphasized the need to expand the energy discussion beyond electricity generation to include heat and transportation, and suggested that the transportation sector may present the best opportunities for gains in sustainable energy.

Kirk Rose, Executive Director of the Anchorage Community Land Trust, talked about working on revitalization, particularly in the Mountain View neighborhood of Anchorage, where homes were built originally to accommodate temporary pipeline workers, and are now home to many of the city’s low-income residents. Rose emphasized the important role of the private sector in sustainable community development in Mountain View and beyond. The Anchorage Community Land Trust has worked with the local community on planning and development, and has also worked to purchase some of the most blighted properties to redevelop for businesses and enterprises that benefit the community. Rose emphasized that this is not charity work, but rather illustrates the opportunities for the private sector, which to date includes a credit union, health clinic, and office space for NGOs and community groups.

Yaari Walker, Cultural Program Specialist at the Alaska Native Heritage Center led a tour of some of the traditional structures used by Alaska Natives, while sharing some of the cultural history and her own personal SLI Yupik heritage. Walker leant important perspective to the culture and identity of Alaska Natives, and the importance of considering the way culture impacts Alaska Natives living in urban areas such as Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Dawn Biddison, Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center gave a brief history of the experience of Alaska Natives under colonialism first by the Russians and later by the Americans. Biddison particularly highlighted subsistence as both a practical way of life and an expression of culture and history, and a thriving practice even among urban Alaska. She then led us through the new Arctic Studies hall which displays cultural objects that were carefully curated and informed by Alaska Native elders. The Center also allows primary research by Alaska Natives, has several interactive video displays to explain objects in the exhibit, and has created a series of instructional videos demonstrating traditional method for things like basket-weaving and sewing with sinew.

Debating the Future Development of Arctic Resources

Robert Orttung, Tromsø, Norway

Should Norway continue to develop its Arctic oil and natural gas resources or would Arctic communities be better off focusing on renewable energy? This was the hot topic of debate at the opening session of the 2017 Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway in January.

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs made the case for leaving resources in the ground. He praised Norway for its green domestic policies, which are a model of sustainability that he frequently holds up to countries around the world. However, he warned that continuing to extract oil and gas from the Arctic for export markets would ultimately tip the planet into irrevocable climate change.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Figure 1) defended the ongoing drilling for oil and gas. She noted that Norwegians have used ocean resources sustainably for 10,000 years and emphasized the on-going cooperation with neighboring Russia on managing fish stocks in the Barents Sea. Solberg highlighted a difference between CO2 emissions and fisheries in explaining why it was hard to solve the energy problem even as the country was able to address the fish issues. The emissions are a global problem while the fisheries are a regional problem. She stressed the need to place a global price on carbon that would make it possible for the best producers to survive and eliminate less efficient ones.

Figure 1: Norwegian PM Erna Solberg

Russia is also committed to developing its Arctic resources since exploiting these hydrocarbons is necessary for Russia’s development. Ambassador Vladimir Barbin, Russia’s Senior Arctic Official, noted that the Arctic provides 10 percent of Russia’s GDP and 20 percent of its exports, and these figures are only likely to grow. Russia intends to use the Arctic as a resource base, developing its fossil fuel reserves and the Northern Sea Route. Russia’s environmental initiatives focus on preventing the pollution of Arctic shipping waters and introducing nuclear ice breakers, which have zero emissions.

Nevertheless, Sachs stressed that the science is clear – we need to dramatically reduce emissions of CO2. He stressed that it is not realistic to think that the US can continue fracking oil and gas while drilling continues in other countries without severe consequences. Even as Norway focuses on decarbonizing domestic policies, it is expanding fossil fuel exports to the rest of the world. Canada has the same problem. World leaders have adopted goals to reduce carbon and these countries are serious about their domestic situation. But they continue to sell to the world market. If all countries do this, climate change might be irreversible. Sachs stressed that “I am not a pessimist.” Science shows us that it is possible to replace fossil fuels and that we must do it.

Sachs stressed that the world’s low-cost supplier of hydrocarbons is Saudi Arabia and that the Middle East and Russia should run down their low-cost reserves before extraction begins in more remote areas. We should not invest billions in new developments, he said. Investing in hydrocarbons means that either you wreck the Earth or waste money since there is not a case for additional investment now. The problem is to figure out how to work with Middle Eastern producers like Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is geopolitically complicated. Sachs advocated turning Norway’s StatOil, which bills itself as the world’s largest off-shore operator, into StatWind.

Prime Minister Solberg responded that in terms of per barrel emissions, Norway outperforms oil production in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. She also warned that the security problems associated with the Middle East were significant, which is why the US is now heading toward energy independence. Approximately 80 percent of energy consumed in the world is fossil fuels and Norway feels that it can make a contribution to addressing this demand.

Sachs noted that if climate change goes past certain thresholds it is irreversible and could leave to global disaster. At the same time, the Norwegian leader pointed out that we can’t make the Arctic a museum. Similarly, Alaskans often feel like sustainability policies are put in place to create a “snow globe,” a beautiful bauble, but one with little practical value. People live in the Arctic and they have to have jobs.

This debate is unlikely to be resolved any time soon given the various interests involved. However, at least one of the young people at the conference pointed the way forward. Ingrid Skjoldvaer, Head of Nature and Youth, Norway, which is the country’s largest youth environmental organization, noted that there was a test drilling rig in the Tromso harbor during the conference and it was destined for farther north. She stressed that it was necessary to ask those currently in a position to make decisions: What kind of development do you want for your children? Will you build Arctic communities that are based on renewable fuels or continue to invest in polluting fossil fuels which are depleting? In her opinion, it was necessary to say no to fossil fuels and yes to renewable resources in the Arctic. She noted that Norway’s politicians needed to think beyond the four years of the parliamentary term. She also stressed that usually when the Arctic is discussed, it is without young people. “Today I speak to you, two years ago I was outside the conference doors with a banner.”

Besides young people, pressure is likely to come from another source as well – China. The country has realized the advantages of alternative energy and is rapidly making strides in an effort to end its reliance on fossil fuels.

Tundra to Table: Vertical Farming in the Arctic

The vast Arctic territory is rich in resources including minerals, hydrocarbons, and wildlife. However, high latitudinal regions receive little sunlight for several months each year, which severely limits the region’s ability to grow fresh produce. Many Arctic urban centers rely on long, complex supply chains to receive shipments of fresh fruits and vegetables from their southerly neighbors.

Alaska imports about 95% of its fresh produce, moving about $2 billion per year of grocery spending out-of-state. Produce destined for the Arctic has to be picked early and ripened in-transit to minimize rot during the long journey from farm to table. Such practices affect the quality of produce polar consumers can buy and drive up prices. Arctic residents often pay exorbitant prices for items as simple as a head of lettuce.

Figure 1: Lettuce and herbs being grown under strings of LED lights Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics
Figure 1: Lettuce and herbs being grown under strings of LED lights
Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

These problems have spurred interest in alternative farming methods in the Arctic, such as indoor farming using hydroponics and artificial lighting systems, sometimes called vertical farming (Figure 1).

In recent years, the use of vertical farming has grown in many urban areas, where land is scarce and people have become more aware of the environmental impact of long-supply chains. Urban indoor farms, or ‘plant factories with artificial light’ (PFAL) are expected to play a large role in agriculture during the coming decades, garnering interest from countries around the world. Recently a team of Japanese and American researchers published a comprehensive 400-page volume on the benefits and limitations of indoor farms in different climatic and economic environments.

The ability of PFALs to produce quality produce has been proven in a low cost and resource effective manner. For example, low-heat light emitting diode (LED) fixtures have been around since the 1980s, but recent studies have shown that advances in this technology have enhanced their brightness and energy-efficiency to the point where they are viable in commercial crop agriculture. As these global investments in urban farming continue, the resulting technological innovations could have a revolutionary effect on how Arctic communities source their fresh produce.

The unique environmental and economic conditions of the Arctic make it an attractive region to develop PFALs. Prices for imported fresh produce are high, while environmental conditions for local farming are poor. Moreover, communities in the Arctic are usually isolated, and their inhabitants tend to welcome innovations that increase self-subsistence and decrease reliance on imports.

Figure 2: One of Vertical Harvest Hydroponic's Arctic-ready containerized growing systems being loaded onto a truck for delivery. Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics
Figure 2: One of Vertical Harvest Hydroponic’s Arctic-ready containerized growing systems being loaded onto a truck for delivery.
Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

Several start-ups have begun to fill this niche in the North American Arctic, among them Vertical Harvest Hydroponics. This company, founded in 2011 and based in Anchorage, Alaska, has designed and developed a “Containerized Growing System” in repurposed shipping containers using cutting edge technology (Figure 2). These containerized systems cost about $110,000 each to build and deploy. They are designed to withstand the harsh Arctic conditions, and are mobile—giving Arctic communities the ability to grow produce anywhere with potable water and power. Each unit can produce about 23,000 to 39,000 heads of lettuce per year.

Another Alaskan company, Alaska Natural Organics,has retrofitted an old dairy in Anchorage to house an indoor farm, which can produce up to 20,000 plants per month. The potential for expansion seems strong, as these companies are still young and operate on a relatively small scale compared to the mega-PFALs running in Japan, which can produce up to 10,000 plants a day (Figure 3).

Figure 3: An employee tending plants at Japan's mega-PFAL, capable of producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. Source: National Geographic Magazine
Figure 3: An employee tending plants at Japan’s mega-PFAL, capable of producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.
Source: National Geographic Magazine

Vertical farming in the Arctic has gained recent media attention due to its success. In 2016 several mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, local CBS news stations, and farming magazines featured articles on indoor farming in the Arctic. Unfortunately, there is a lack of academic literature analyzing the practicality of PFAL systems and vertical farming in an Arctic-specific context, a subject which should be explored given the massive potential applicability of this technology in the region.

Interest in biological preservation and the development of agriculture in the Arctic is nothing new. In Svalbard, the Global Seed Vault is safeguarding a repository of all global plant seeds in an attempt to secure the genetic diversity of flora on this planet in case of a devastating disaster. The Norwegian government, which runs and administers the storehouse, has also taken steps toward increasing the study of sustainable agriculture in the region through the year 2021 with the BIONAER program. In Kirovsk, Russia, the Polar-Alpine Botanical Garden has been active since 1931, as a nursery, biological research institute, and tourist attraction. Interest in these new techniques is growing, with representatives of the city of Murmansk, Russia citing a planned project to convert abandoned industrial buildings into hydroponic farms during an interview. The Russian Arctic has many relatively isolated industrial and post-industrial urban centers, where the development of efficient PFAL systems could usher in a new era of sustainable agriculture. In all of these Arctic regions, the interest in using PFALs to increase the local quality of life is high, however there has been a lack of project feasibility studies and academic literature which could validate increased policy support for PFAL and urban indoor farming methods.

An employee waits outside an indoor vertical farm in Kotzebue, Alaska. The unit provides kale, various lettuces, basil and other greens for the community of nearly 3,300. Source: Will Anderson via AP
An employee stands outside an indoor vertical farm in Kotzebue, Alaska. The unit provides fresh kale, various lettuces, basil and other greens to a community of nearly 3,300.
Source: Will Anderson via AP

Given the interest in indoor-farming across the circumpolar region, PFAL systems could play an important role in the future life of Arctic communities. The success of the Alaskan start-ups shows the potential for the organic growth of the industry. These systems have the potential to benefit Arctic communities by cutting out expensive and unreliable supply-chains and increasing self-reliance. Indoor farming greatly improves the quality of life for Arctic residents by giving them a realistic path towards regular access to fresh high quality produce. Additionally, localized food production and research in PFAL technology has the added benefit of creating jobs and opportunities for innovation in the region. Nevertheless, the PFAL industry faces significant challenges, including high initial investment costs, which could hamper growth in the coming decades. Hopefully, this hurdle will not be insurmountable.