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Professor Steinberg discusses Durham’s role as an Arctic research hub, some of Durham’s ongoing Arctic research initiatives, and the significance of the UArctic network.

The Arctic is all too often seen as a ‘special’ place, but for all the wrong reasons. Media and even scholarly accounts of the Arctic frequently describe the region as barren, lifeless, hostile, isolated, and remote. And yet the region hosts some 4 million people, about 15 percent of whom are Indigenous. Its snow and ice-covered expanses are crucial for reflecting light that moderates the planet’s climate. The zone where frozen ocean meets open water is a critical area of primary production for algae that underpin the planet’s food web. From historic migrations through the European ‘Age of Exploration’ and on through the Cold War, the Arctic has been less a site of isolation than one of intercultural crossings, both peaceful and hostile. Far from being peripheral, the Arctic is central to the world’s past, present, and future.

The Arctic does, however, present specific challenges. Warming at a rate four times greater than the planet as a whole, climatic, ecological, cultural, and political norms across the circumpolar North are being disrupted in unprecedented, and interconnected ways. Researching and designing solutions for these problems requires an approach that is both interdisciplinary and collaborative with Arctic peoples.

The University of the Arctic (UArctic) has been crucial for facilitating these collaborations, by networking researchers and students, and connecting non-Arctic researchers with Arctic peoples and places.

UArctic was established in 1998 through an initiative led by Gateshead native and 1956 Hatfield College graduate Bill Heal. It now has over 200 participating research and education institutions and is an observer of the Arctic Council, the region’s most significant forum. Durham became the charter English member of UArctic when it joined in 2013, and Durham maintains an active role in the organisation. In addition to Professor Steinberg’s position as UArctic Chair, Durham Anthropology PhD student Giuseppe Amatulli serves as student representative on the UArctic Board.

Several strands of research at Durham have been facilitated through UArctic participation. For instance, the Durham-led ICE LAW Project, sponsored by UArctic’s Thematic Network on Arctic Law, brought together an international team of anthropologists, geographers, legal scholars, and political theorists to consider how legal norms developed for temperate regions, where water is subordinated to the terrestrial spaces that are inhabited by people, require modification to accommodate the people and animals who inhabit this region that encompasses land, ice, and liquid water. The ICE LAW Project’s outputs have ranged from conceptual work on ‘liquifying’ modern notions of territory to practical examinations of the legal mechanisms that could be designed to regulate the ice-breaking vessels that are increasingly damaging northern habitats and threatening the livelihoods of northern peoples.

The Durham Arctic Research Centre for Training and Interdisciplinary Collaboration (DurhamARCTIC) also has strong links with UArctic. Funded by a major grant from the Leverhulme Trust, DurhamARCTIC brings together scholar from across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to develop interdisciplinary approaches to the Arctic. It currently is training 15 PhD students in the departments of Anthropology, Archaeology, Biosciences, Geography, History, Law, and Psychology.

By linking Durham University with researchers, residents, and field sites in the far North, UArctic and Durham University are working together to bring leadership to Arctic research and education.

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