How to Survive in the Arctic

$3 million grant from the National Science Foundation will expand research on urban sustainability in extreme climate conditions.

November 30, 2015


Russia's city of Norilsk. Photo courtesy of Robert Orttung.

Russia’s city of Norilsk is home to nearly 180,000 people. It has shopping complexes and supermarkets and even nightclubs, and it almost seems like any urban center—except that it’s located in Siberia and is built on permafrost.
As climate conditions change and melt parts of the Arctic, areas in the far north may experience higher levels of human activity, including more resource development, freight traffic, and tourism. A new $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is enabling a group of researchers from George Washington University to study Arctic cities like Norilsk and develop an index to measure sustainability in these communities. 
The index will look at environmental issues, such as thawing permafrost, and social factors, including economic and labor cycles, to improve urban planning. 
The project is an example of cross-disciplinary research and convenes experts from several disciplines—geographers, political scientists, migration experts and other researchers. Together, scholars from different fields will examine how lessons from the Arctic can be applied to other parts of the world.
“Understanding how people survive in the Arctic might give us insight into how people live in hot places, too. It will be significant in terms of looking at life in extreme circumstances,” explained Elliott School Associate Research Professor of International Affairs Robert Orttung, the project’s principal investigator. 
Dr. Orttung, a political scientist, said the grant gives GW professors an opportunity to work together and leverage the university’s strong Arctic research capacity. The project brings together geographers in the Columbian College, who will study changing climate conditions and thawing permafrost, and migration experts, who will focus on how resource development in the high north affects labor patterns.
Additionally, the project will include outreach and educational opportunities for students.
Assistant Professor of Geography Dmitry Streletskiy is planning trips to contrasting areas of the Arctic—Siberia and Alaska—with students from GW and School Without Walls. The students will be able to reflect on the differences in both natural and urban environments while studying the way people adapt to changing climatic conditions in cold region environments. In the Russian Arctic, for example, cities have historically relied on centralized infrastructure, like power plants that supply heating to entire communities. Alaskan cities, on the other hand, are developing on a smaller scale and utilize mostly privately owned energy systems. 
“The groups of students will look at various aspects of sustainability systems and visit various settlements to see how different practices are being introduced,” he said.
The project builds on a previous NSF grant of $524,086 that the GW professors received in 2012. Under that project, Dr. Orttung; Dr. Streletskiy; Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies Associate Associate Director Marlene Laruelle; and Associate Geography Professor Nikolay Shiklomanov hosted conferences and meetings to create networks of international scholars and policymakers to collaborate on issues of Arctic sustainability. International partners are critically important because the Arctic region stretches across many countries, including the United States, Norway, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and it affects the interests of trading states like South Korea, Japan and China.
Dr. Orttung points out that international partners will be an integral part of the team, contributing research and lessons in Arctic sustainability. He visited northern Norway recently and observed that cites there have balanced environmental protections with the need to develop and provide energy resources. Sustainable methods will be different throughout the world, he said, but trying to understand context-based solutions is critical for the index.
“If you look across the Arctic, some places are getting hotter, and some places are getting colder. The first thing to know is that is not a uniform process—different things are happening in different regions at different times,” Dr. Orttung said.
Coming up with an index that measures various levels of sustainability will not be easy, he said. Some physical environmental components lend themselves to straightforward measurement, but social variables will be harder to quantify. Collaborating with multiple scholars may offer a way to overcome these difficult hurdles.
“We can do a lot more to promote sustainability by bringing together all the incredible resources at GW and finding ways to collaborate that go far beyond what individual professors can do by themselves,” Dr. Orttung said. “This grant could be the beginning of numerous new projects, and we need to be thinking about how we can all build on what we have already achieved.”