The University of the Arctic has no sports teams. It has no campus and does not grant degrees.
But the institution – which has strong ties to the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George – provides something perhaps more important: a means for people who live, study and work in the North to connect on matters their southern counterparts may not fully comprehend.
“In the circumpolar world, there’s a regional consciousness developing of the circumpolar region as a special place with special needs and a special role in the global system,” says Jim McDonald, a UNBC anthropologist and current chair of the council of the University of the Arctic.
That consciousness touches on complex matters such as geopolitical tensions over Arctic resources and the impact of globalization on northern indigenous cultures. And sometimes it involves something more straightforward, like the best way to build a road.
“It’s just really simple things,” Dr. McDonald says. “The way you build roads in Mexico or California is not necessarily the way that’s going to work here.”
For UNBC, membership in the University of the Arctic is in keeping with the Canadian school’s mandate of being “in the North, for the North.” Founded in 2001 with a group that included UNBC, the University of the Arctic now has more than 150 members. Member institutions do not have to be physically located in the Arctic – the University of Regina is a member, as is Vancouver Island University – but must share an interest in the North.
Lacking a conventional campus, the institution organizes itself along “thematic networks” of researchers and institutions. There are currently networks in Arctic law, engineering and coastal issues and ones focused on issues such as northern food security and “world images of Indigenous peoples of the North.”
In May, UNBC will host the annual council meeting for the Unversity of the Arctic. It is part of Dr. McDonald’s job to ensure invitations are extended to the right places.
“We spend a lot of time making sure that we haven’t missed any regions, that there are no gaps and that if there is a university that is quite involved in Arctic work and hasn’t joined us, we introduce ourselves,” Dr. McDonald says.
The rationale for the institution is simple: There is strength in numbers and in shared experience.
“In the circumpolar world, we share a lot of issues, a lot of challenges,” he says. “And we can share solutions to those. So this notion of a circumpolar region, and the infrastructure around it, helps us to look east and west for understanding where we live. And to break the cycle of always looking south for southern models of how we live in the North.”
UNBC has other Arctic connections. It belongs to the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies, which funds Arctic-related research. UNBC faculty member Gail Fondahl is president of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, a group that has more than 600 members and will hold its once-every-three-years congress in May in Prince George, back to back with the council meeting of the University of the Arctic. For the past three years, UNBC has held an annual Polar Day to celebrate teaching and research in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Last year, two Canada Research Chairs were appointed at the university: one specializing in Arctic law and governance and the other in glacier change.
Brian Menounos, UNBC’s Canada Research Chair in glacier change, has studied glaciers wherever he can find them, including in Patagonia. Much of his time is devoted to studying how glaciers expanded during the Younger Dryas, a period of rapid, intense cooling that occurred about 12,000 years ago.
“The more examples we have of how these glaciers responded to abrupt climate change in the past, the more we have an understanding of how they will change in the future,” he says.
His work focuses primarily on B.C. and Alberta, where glaciers are a source of runoff for watersheds and provide “thermal buffering” in years when snow pack is low, serving as a kind of thermostat that helps keep water in lakes and streams at stable temperatures. Glaciers cover about 25,000 square kilometres of land in the two provinces and serve as frozen, freshwater reservoirs for rivers that generate electricity and sustain plants, crops and animals.
Over the past couple of decades, glaciers have been retreating at an alarming rate. B.C.’s 17,000 glaciers are losing about 22 billion cubic metres of water a year.
“I can tell you, for many of the smaller glaciers – it is a bad-news story for them,” Dr. Menounos says. “We always talk about natural resources. And right now with all the interest in economic development and things like [liquified natural gas], the oil sands, we have to not forget that we have other natural resources as well. Glaciers are one of them.”
His work has some connection to the Arctic, in that runoff from some of the glaciers he studies makes its way into the Mackenzie River system. Researchers at other Canadian institutions, including the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba, are doing extensive research into polar sea ice.
UNBC researchers are also looking to the other end of the world for insight into cold climes. Patrick Maher, an associate professor in Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at UNBC, was part of a Students on Ice expedition to Antarctica that wrapped up earlier this month.
With Canada serving as the chair of the eight-member Arctic Council, UNBC and its membership in the University of the Arctic are part of what Dr. McDonald describes as an emerging infrastructure – both physical and virtual – for the region.
“UNBC is so embedded in the North that I think our northern focus will continue,” he says. “ And we have been so important to the University of the Arctic that I hope we will be able to continue that role.”