Student Perspectives on Fieldwork in Siberia

During the Summer of 2017, the PIRE team made a research trip to the Russian cities of Salekhard and Vorkuta. Here we present some of the student descriptions of the trip. 

July 9:

Anna Zhu

Of the 11 glaciers that previously existed in the region, only 2.5 remain. Today, we journeyed to the Ray-Iz glacier and plateau region of the Polar Urals. Formed during the Jurassic Era by active volcanic fissures and surface lava flow, the region and its glaciers are extremely important indicators of glaciation evolution and climactic changes. The glaciers are unique as they are located at an elevation of 1,200 meters, which is below the snow line of 1,800 meters, and are formed solely by wind redistribution of snow from plateaus to cirques. This dry region was widely

T. Henning

glaciated in the Pleistocene Era and is characterized by rare mineral resources in rock formations. We also observed many periglacial features, such as kettle and tarn lakes along with avalanche cones and talus.

Unfortunately, our hike was cut short when we reached frozen and icy conditions on the way to the glacier and it was too dangerous to proceed. From a distance, we learned that the glacier is receding and degrading. We then continued to observe the landscape, studying the varied ground patterns characterized by slopes, frost boils, and pingos. An earth covered ice mound, pingos are usually located in drained lakes where they have access to moisture. Groundwater moment and top down freezing combined with increased pressure forces water to move upward in the path of least resistance, raising the ground into a mound that creates the pingo formation. After learning about the landscape, we arrived at a river and completed our day with a picnic with a picturesque view.


9 июля:

Claire Franco

Сегодня мы поднимались в горы, чтобы посмотреть известный ледник в массиве Рай-Из, который находится на Полярном Урале. В 1960-ом году ученые нашли 11 ледников в этом районе, на сегодняшний день осталось только 2-3. По дороге на ледник мы проезжали поселок Харп, где находится “Полярная сова” – исправительная колония особого режима для пожизненно осужденных. Там заключенные собирают мебель. Вдоль дороги почти не встре чалась растительность, кроме некоторых видов трав. Но когда мы поднялись по склону, открывшийся вид с гор был похож на пейзаж Марса. На склоне горы, Валерий Иванович показал нам, как вода размывает горные породы, в результате чего образуются горные долины. К сожалению, дальнейший путь был опасен и наше профессора показали нам образование бугров пучений вместо этого.

T. Henning

Мы обедали рядом с горной рекой. Никита, один из русских студентов, показал мне основные типы облаков в небе. Тереза из Германии научила нас пускать блинчики на воде реки.Наш прибрежный пикник закончился и мы поехали домой. Вечером в гостинице мы слушали студенческие доклады о Арктике.


July 12th

Nina Feldman

A. Sumi

The day started off a bit fishy. An aroma of excitement and curiosity filled the air as the students loaded the bus. We were off to visit a local fish factory in Salekhard. After being kindly greeted by the Director and Head Engineer of the factory, we were fitted with the appropriate factory attire. Sporting thin white coats and blue hair nets, we followed our hosts through a thorough tour of the production facilities. We saw how the workers canned, labeled, smoked and tested various types of fish. At the end of the tour the Director took us to a conference room that had a large spread of all the fish they sold at the factory ready for us to sample. The factory’s hospitality made for one of the most unique and exciting parts of the trip, and one I will remember.

Following the factory fish feast was a day of museum touring. We started with the Craft Museum in Salekhard where we saw various artifacts carved by the indigenous people of Siberia. Intricate tusks displayed detailed carvings depicting different beliefs and stories of these people. Next was the Geology Museum in Labytnangi. This museum

U. B. Shpak

was definitely a diamond in the rough. The halls were filled with a large collection of minerals and stones extracted from around the area, as well as drilling samples and interactive exhibits that explained how they were able to find what they have found. We ended with a tour that took us back in time, following the lives of indigenous people throughout history. We learned how the Komi people used Birch bark to build their canoes and huts, and how the Khanty considered themselves to be descendants of bears and had a sacred bear festival every time one was killed.

What was great about this day is that through it all we were able to capture the historic, geologic and local feel of the region. As a result, we were able to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the community we were living in.


July 13th

Anna Sumi

U. V. Shpak

I’m one of those college students who got through my hard science requirements my freshman year, in a hurry and with my eye lids half open. So I think it’s fair to say I had no clue what it meant when we were told we would be “in the field” for the day. I nodded along in feigned understanding and put on my olive green farm boots as instructed before settling into the bus with a false feeling of preparedness.

That day we were in the Tundra measuring active layer thickness and temperature. That day also presented the added challenge of pretending to act naturally as two Russian TV crews followed us around with their cameras. While I may have never felt completely prepared for the Tundra, at least I was not wearing a skirt and brocade tights like one of the journalists, who had clearly not thought through the landscape she would find herself in. I watched with a look of sympathy as she attempted to take a shower in bug spray.

U. V. Shpak

Somehow that ill-prepared TV anchor survived her day in the Tundra and later that night we gathered in Abby and Anna’s hotel room, crowding onto the two twin beds. The box of a television, sitting in the corner broadcasting the local news, held our full attention. After an hour of bated breath and hasty translations from the two of the group who had a light grasp on Russian, we realized they were not using our feature that night. Luckily, two minutes later, Luis walked into the room with his computer queued up to the broadcast from another channel. We huddled around that computer and giggled and gasped with recognition as our faces appeared on the screen. It was yet another once in a lifetime experience on our trip to Siberia.


July 18:

Claire Franco

In the morning, we collected our things and prepared for a 10-hour train ride west across the Polar Urals toward Vorkuta. At breakfast we learned that our train left two hours later then we had planned because all trains in Russia operate on Moscow time rather than local time. I used this extra minutes to finish some letters and send them through the local post office. Stamps for these two letters, one to California and one to Belarus, together cost less than $2.50 and I’ve made bets on how long each will take to reach its recipient.

Once our train was on its way, the usual rounds of card games and crossword puzzles began. The day before, I had expressed interest in Russian music to one of our GW professors, Nikolay Shiklomanov. In preparation for our long journey by train, he made a playlist of songs which loosely chronicle Soviet and Russian history from World War II until the 1990s. It began with war ballads made popular by Soviet

C. Franco

films, such as Two Soldiers (Два бойца, 1943) and Belorussian Station (Белорусский вокзал1971). Then came the bards like Vladimir Vysotsky (Владимир Высоцкий) whose music was typically self-published and consisted of only a single voice accompanied by a guitar. This genre is called bardovskaya (бардовская) or avtorskaya (авторская) music. The playlist included a song about Soviet-Jewish emigration to Israel and another about the human expense of the gulag system. The final decades of the USSR  were represented in the selection by the bands KINO (КИНО) and DDT (ДДТ), among others. This historical narrative in songs was supplemented by an MSU professor, Nadezhda Zamjatina, who wrote me her own list of significant music, films, and literature, focusing on those related to the Arctic territories.

The train was extremely warm and we were all grateful to arrive in Vorkuta, where the night time hours were only slightly darker and the city’s European orientation was immediately more evident in the architecture.


July 19:

Anna Zhu

The professors organizing the trip have long collected ice data in Siberia as part of a project known by its acronym CALM. Located approximately 10 kilometers outside of Vorkuta, CALM Site 2 rests in a typical southern tundra landscape. Established in 1996, this CALM site collects active layer depth, temperature, and soil moisture data and monitors the spatial variation of landscapes. Taller shrubs, dwarf shrubs, and willows characterize the typical southern tundra landscape. There exists no permafrost under taller shrub vegetation, while there is extremely shallow permafrost under dwarf shrubs. Observations of the extremely dry landscape show that the south-facing slope exhibits colder conditions with a shallower active layer. The north-facing slope, on the other hand, exhibits warmer conditions and a deeper active layer. This difference in conditions is largely due to winter snow and wind redistribution following typical wind patterns. The permafrost in this region is highly sensitive to local environmental conditions and anthropogenic impacts, resulting from former agricultural and railroad use. We collected some active layer and vegetation data around CALM Site 2 so that we did not disturb the actual CALM site. Then we all participated in a tundra “polar plunge” to end our day, finally refreshed from a long, hot day in the field.

A. Sumi
A. Sumi


July 21st:

Nina Feldman

C. Franco

Today we spent the day walking around Vorkuta. After having lived here for a few days, exploring allowed us to feel closer to the people and their community. We traveled around, noting buildings with unique architecture as well as the significance they held. One building that stood out to me was the “Дворец культуры шахтеров” or the “Miners Culture Palace”. With numerous large columns at its entrance and an elegant metal statue placed above at its center, it truly demanded attention. After the day of touring, we were able to have a sit down meeting with the city managers of Vorkuta. We talked about their challenges, strategies and thoughts on planning and organizing such a unique city. With changing extreme climates, fluctuating populations, and a sense of consistency needed in the community, it takes a keen sense of creativity and meticulous thought to develop a city like Vorkuta.

C. Franco

Out of the entire day, my favorite moment would have to be when Moscow State University Professor Valeri Ivanovich took us to his childhood bakery shop, “Лакомка”, where he treated us to pastries and tea. This shop definitely stood the test of time, running for over 40 years with its delicious eclairs, donuts, and cookies. This being our last day in Vorkuta, there was a bittersweet feeling. However, I wouldn’t want to spend it any other way then surrounded by friends and colleagues in a cute little pastry shop talking about our time in Vorkuta over some tea and delicious desserts.


July 23rd:

Anna Summi

Maybe it’s because just a few days ago we spent over 10 hours in a train compartment that doubled as a sauna. Or maybe it’s because no one thought that travelling to Siberia in July could’ve easily been mistaken for a trip to the tropics if you closed your eyes, if only for the high temperatures and constant bug buzzing halo. But the feeling of relief and refreshment that swept through the group as we realized the train that we would attempt to call home for the next 40 hours was air-conditioned was instantaneous and all encompassing.

The entirety of today will be spent zooming, at the hyper-speed of around 50 mph, toward Moscow and the reality of the lives we left in America for the past month. Throughout the compartment, over meals in mess kits of bread and cheese and maybe the odd cup noodles, conversations of reflection and fond memories of the trip have begun. I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect when we all met at Dulles nearly three weeks ago, but without a doubt, this experience will stick with each one of us for a long time to come.

L. Jongejans
T. Henning


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.


The Link Between Urban Density and Sustainability

The city center in Luleå, Sweden, is a tree-lined pedestrian- and bicycle-only thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants. The city buildings are, with few exceptions, only a few stories tall. At the periphery stand a few apartment buildings, each four to five stories tall, and most in the same iconic colorful batten on board construction as the houses in the surrounding neighborhood. On a weekday, the city hums with life: commuters headed to work on city buses, shoppers with their pull-behind wheeled carts, young parents following toddlers on stride bikes, and a gaggle of middle-school-aged girls headed to the beach. Gingerbread rooflines and lush green spaces throughout and surrounding the city lend a quiet storybook charm to the city.

Luleå is a low-density city, and many of the city’s residents live in neighborhoods well beyond the city center. The sprawl of Luleå is partly due to the topography—the coastal city encompasses a number of islands and peninsulas and has developed around the numerous inlets and lakes, but increasing the density of the city center would decrease the breadth of sprawl and concentrate a greater percentage of the population in the city. Would increasing the density of Luleå’s city center, however, decrease the quality of life for the city’s residents? Does an increase in density necessarily decrease green space, community space, or other spaces that contribute to the well-being of a city’s residents? These are important questions to consider, as density is a key quality for sustainability in terms of resource use in urban centers, but excessively high density or poorly managed density can negatively impact the health and social sustainability of a city.

Satellite image of Luleå, Sweden

Poorly managed density leads to overcrowding. There may be a minimum threshold of square footage of dwelling space per person required to not be considered overcrowded, but generally overcrowding is linked to management and perception. Population density in a stadium is not perceived as problematic, but a much lower level of density feels intolerable in highway traffic. The perception and tolerance for density or overcrowding is informed in part by cultural factors: levels of acceptable density are perceived differently in Kolkata and Stockholm. Overcrowding can be thought of as the stress experienced because of too high a population density in a given set of circumstances (Kutner 2016). Overcrowding, rather than population density, can lead to increased tension between residents and sometimes result in violence. From a management perspective, overcrowding is the result of inadequate management and provision of resources such as water, electricity, and housing.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, high population density has led to overcrowding because of inadequate infrastructure (IRIN 2010; Hamer 2014). Without sufficient clean water sources, adequate roads and transportation networks, or sewage treatment, the quality of life for residents is extremely low, and the city has been ranked as one of the worst in Asia for ease of doing business. Recent efforts to improve transportation through increased rail transit has thus far been stymied by lack of funding and poor coordination between levels of government (Hamer 2014).

High-density, low-rise development is the ideal for urban layouts, striking a balance between efficiency and quality of life, but small dwelling units are required to adequately increase urban density (Patel 2011). High-density development increases the efficiency with which municipal services can be provided, creates economies of scale, and preserves the surrounding natural environment. High-density urban development is also a prerequisite for effective public transportation networks, an important component for achieving urban sustainability. A 1977 study by Boris S. Pushkarev and Jeffery M. Zupan shows that public transit works best where residential density exceeds 4200 persons per square mile.

High-rise buildings and vertical cities (high-rise buildings with other self-contained municipal functions such as water treatment and power generation) offer one potential solution to increase density in cities and maximize efficiency in transportation, infrastructure, and service provision. But high-rise living is not without its drawbacks. First, not everyone is interested in this type of lifestyle- young, single men are generally the most amenable to the idea. Second, high-rise living can present some health challenges: children’s physical development may be stifled by the constraints of available play facilities; respiratory infections are more prevalent among women and children living in high-rise buildings; and high density developments can have a negative influence on mental health by reducing community interaction and increasing tensions (Wong 1998; Young 1976).

Population growth, migration, and urbanization in Arctic cities mimics global urbanization trends. With two-thirds of the world’s population predicted to live in cities by the year 2050 (UN 2014), it’s important to consider urban density and management to increase sustainability, improve quality of life, and decrease the negative effects of overcrowding.

The Importance of Public Transportation for Sustainability in Arctic Cities


Public transportation is an important contributing factor to urban sustainability. Effective transportation networks that incorporate public transit help lower a city’s per capita carbon footprint, and make cities more livable by easing commute and transportation needs and increasing accessibility. But the mere presence of public transportation—the number of buses, trains, trolleys, and trams available—does not paint a complete picture. The Sustainable Cities Institute names five principles of sustainability for municipal transportation: accessibility; affordability; connectivity; holistic transportation and land use planning; and planning with the environment in mind.


Holistic transportation, land use planning, and planning with the environment in mind means that transportation systems include many elements including streets, sidewalks or pedestrian networks, transit, bicycle routes, plus private and public fleets. Those elements interface effectively with both the physical geography and commercial and residential development, and account for other environmental factors such as seasonal trends and extreme weather.


Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a development approach that focuses on land use around a transit hub or within a transit corridor. The Sustainable Cities Institute describes TOD as characterized by mixed use land, moderate to high density, pedestrian-oriented, reduced parking, and multiple transportation choices. The definition may be relatively new, but the fundamental idea of development built around transportation is ancient. Cities have always sprung up alongside rivers not only for the water source for personal and commercial consumption, but especially as modes of transportation for people and cargo, facilitating trade. The oldest known human civilization, Mesopotamia, developed in a river valley, along with settlements along the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow Rivers. In the U.S., historically industrial cities like Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Cincinnati, Ohio, are clustered around rivers.


Though an ancient idea, TOD responds to modern calls for sustainable urban development in response to climate change, increased urbanization and demand for walkable cities, rising energy prices, and increased road congestion with increasing urban density. TOD can address some of the environmental, social, and economic challenges in implementing sustainable transportation networks including fuel sources including fossil fuels and resultant greenhouse gas emissions, and renewable energy; funding challenges; commuting costs; and human health.

Anchorage City Bus “People Mover” (photo credit: Mel Green)

In May 2017, Arctic PIRE researchers travelled to Anchorage, AK, where many civic and community leaders expressed that one significant sustainability challenge that the city faces is a poor relationship between the physical layout of the city and the transit network. The city is low density, sprawled over quite a large area, and was not developed around a transit corridor, nor has the transit network been adequately developed to connect the city. This has resulted in reliance on personal automobiles, low ridership on city buses, and poor accessibility for those who rely entirely on public transportation. The bus system was also not particularly accessible to tourists- as visitors, the system seemed labyrinthine and service was too infrequent to be functional for our needs. Forthcoming changes to the system (planned for October 2017) promise a more sustainable transit system with streamlined service, bus stops in closer proximity to people and jobs, and increased frequency of routes particularly during weekday commutes.


Some cities in Sweden’s Arctic demonstrate more sustainable transportation systems. At a national level, Sweden has committed to a fossil-fuel independent public bus fleet by 2030, already resulting in a 43% decrease in public bus emissions between 2007 and 2014 (Xylia and Semida 2017). These gains have been more pronounced in southern counties, while in the northernmost counties of Norrbotten and Västerbotten, buses still rely overwhelmingly on fossil fuels. At a municipal level, both Umeå (in Västerbotten) and Luleå (in Norrbotten) are making strides towards decreasing their bus emissions. Umeå has recently begun transitioning their bus fleet to battery-powered buses, a move that has been a proof-of-concept of the suitability of battery-powered vehicles for cold environments. Luleå’s intent to limit the environmental impact of transportation in spite of continued growth, part of its aspirational sustainable development plan “Vision 2050,” is illustrated in the growing fleet of biogas buses.

Luleå city bus, with real time information posted at bus stop

In addition to high efficiency vehicles, alternative fuel, and TOD, Luleå is also building its sustainable transportation network through demand management, traffic calming, and connectivity between multiple forms of transportation. Systems that use real-time data to provide information for planners on ridership and help manage demand while also providing riders accurate information on bus timetables, routes, and arrival times. Restricted access for vehicles in the city center, designated lanes for bikes and buses, and narrowed city streets act as traffic calming measures keeping the city center pleasant and accessible for workers and residents. The transit hub in the city center is a stop on nearly all local bus routes, and is immediately adjacent to the pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfare. Bicycle parking is plentiful near bus stops, city buses are equipped with bike racks, and regional buses allow bicycles as cargo. A central bus station serves both local and regional buses and is located across the street from the train station, thus providing seamless connectivity for those traveling to and from areas outside the city. These connections, along with a city that has protected pedestrian and bicycle networks, means that individuals can travel easily using a combination of walking, biking, buses, and trains.


Urban transportations that increase affordability, accessibility, and connectivity, while incorporating good land use planning and environmental considerations significantly contribute to urban sustainability. As Arctic cities grapple with increasing urbanization, migration, climate change, and economic challenges, sustainable transportation systems can decrease environmental impact while increasing social and economic sustainability.




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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.




Inaugural Arctic PIRE Meeting is a Resounding Success

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-27-32-pmThis past weekend, we were delighted to host the inaugural annual meeting of the Arctic PIRE: Promoting Urban Sustainability in the Arctic project. Roughly 30 members of our international research network were in attendance, discussing issues including the framework for our Arctic Urban Sustainability Index, the selection appropriate sustainability indicators, and strategies for strengthening the outreach of our important research. We also discussed future research trips to the Arctic, cooperation with media organizations, such as Planet Forward to increase our accessibility to new audiences, and the creation of an educational resource database for Arctic Sustainability issues.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-31-32-pm screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-31-00-pm

The conference culminated with a Public Panel discussion on Friday, October 21st, where over 50 members of the public visited The George Washington University to attend the event. Attendees included professors and students, as well as representatives of the National Science Foundation, embassies, and think-tanks based here in Washington DC. As our project builds momentum we will continue to look for more opportunities in research cooperation and outreach, in order to maximize the outreach and accessibility of our project. A full meeting report including notes and results will be published soon!


Shaky Foundations: Urban Areas built on Disappearing Permafrost

Last week, three of our distinguished researchers, Dmitry Streletskiy of The George Washington University, Valery Grebenets of Moscow State University, and Oleg Anisomov of Russia’s State Hydrological Institute, were featured in a Guardian article on the effects of thawing permafrost on Arctic cities. The Russian city of Norilsk, discussed a few weeks ago in this blog, stood at the center of attention. This time the focus was on the condition of buildings and the housing stock, which is suffering as a result of thawing permafrost. This issue is well known within Russia with Valery Tereshkov, the deputy head of the emergencies ministry in the Krasnoyarsk region, writing an article a few weeks ago stating that nearly 60% of all buildings in Norilsk have been deformed in some way. Problems caused by climate change and thawing permafrost have also been on the radar of global media, but mostly through the traditional Arctic lens of remote islands and coastal settlements being eroded, or indigenous communities having to move from their ancestral homes. The Guardian article was one of the first times that the global media examined the effects of climate change and thawing permafrost on the scale of a major Arctic city.

Figure 1: Location of Norilsk Photo Credit: BBC
Figure 1: Location of Norilsk
Photo Credit: BBC

Both in terms of population and economic output, Norilsk is one of the most important Arctic urban centers. With local engineers estimating that more than 100 residential buildings, about one-tenth of the housing stock, “have been vacated here due to damage from thawing permafrost,” this city is facing an existential crisis. Thawing permafrost under vital infrastructure is not a new problem for Arctic engineers, who have been building in the Arctic for many centuries with the largest development happening in Russia. Arctic PIRE member Valery Grebenets of Moscow State University regularly lectures his students on these issues, which include buckling roads, soil runoff killing flora and fauna, and the release of toxic substances trapped in the ice. These experts are also familiar with impact of urban areas on permafrost, such as the heat given off by buildings through their foundations. For many decades, engineers have been finding creative solutions to offset these “technogenic factors,” such as placing buildings on stilts to lessen their transfer of heat into the ground. However, none of these engineering plans took into account the effect of global warming, which has deepened the yearly permafrost thaw and significantly increased the speed of natural degradation. With the Arctic experiencing annual temperature increases that far exceed those recorded in the rest of the world, this ongoing crisis looks set to increase in scale and severity.

Figure 2: An example of the effects of thawing permafrost on a news-stand in Norilsk
Figure 2: An example of the effects of thawing permafrost on a news-stand in Norilsk

Unfortunately, when infrastructure and buildings were planned, climate change was not taken seriously enough by city planners and government officials. As Arctic PIRE member Dmitry Streletskiy of The George Washington University told the Guardian, “In most cases the effect of climate change was not accounted for properly or at all, so the story is not about one building falling, even though there are examples of that, but about thousands of people living in buildings which have the potential to fall.” This is a clear example of the unfortunate lack of input that the scientific community often has in terms of planning for sustainable urban development. This issue compounded in the Arctic region due to the high cost of adapting cities to change. Our colleague Oleg Anisomov, Arctic expert and Nobel Prize holder, laments that the high north will suffer from lack of strong support in terms of government funding and strategic investment in adaptive engineering solutions. Our project aims to Promote Urban Sustainability in the Arctic hope to alter this trend and increase the voice of the scientific community in the Arctic through our upcoming Arctic Urban Sustainability Index and by increasing global attention on these important issues. Through continuous engagement and communication with policy makers, urban planners, and Arctic development planners, our scientific network will advise on the effects of climate and socio-economic changes to Arctic cities and help these important communities adapt to their rapidly changing surroundings.

Figure 3: A building is temporarily braced against collapse.
Figure 3: A building is temporarily braced against collapse.