UA Fairbanks leading way on Arctic research

Photo/Dan Joling/AP

FAIRBANKS — What may be the world’s biggest conference on Arctic science will be held next March at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

About 800 to 1,000 scientists and government officials from around the world will be gather on UAF’s campus, said Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Larry Hinzman.

The meeting — actually dozens of meetings and workshops — will happen over the university’s spring break, which means dormitory space will be available with students temporarily off the campus.

The spillover will be a boon for Fairbanks hotels and restaurants.

Hinzman took over management of the university’s research programs, though on an interim basis, after Mark Myers, the previous research chancellor, was named by Gov. Bill Walker as commissioner of Natural Resources. 

He is a veteran on the university’s research establishment who helped set up UAF’s International Arctic Research Center, one of several research institutes operated by the Fairbanks university.

Other institutes include the well-known Geophysical Institute as well as the institutes of Arctic Biology, Arctic Engineering and the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

UAF also operates the new 261-foot research vessel Sikuliaq, which is owned by the National Science Foundation. The Sikuliaq, home-ported in Seward, is in its first year of operations in the Arctic, according to Pete Zerr, UAF’s manager of marine operations.

The vessel conducted two research voyages late last year, one to the south Pacific to test remote underwater vehicles and a second northwest of Hawaii in a study of seamounts.

Early this spring a test voyage to the ice regions of the Bering Sea was done, Zerr said. This summer the ship will work in the Aleutians and in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and will conclude with a northern voyage that will extend into November, Zerr said.

The 2014 and 2015 voyages were done to support research by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, based in San Diego, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research is another client for the 2015 season.

Hinzman said the UAF scientific gathering next spring illustrates the increasing importance of the university in Arctic and northern studies, with its focus on ocean and terrestrial changes that are occurring because of climate change.

This is now more important because the U.S. has assumed, for two years, the chair of the Arctic Council, the eight-nation international body that works to coordinate Arctic policy, including for research, among nations bordering the Arctic Ccean.

The Arctic Council will hold a meeting in Fairbanks during the UAF conference and that will include the chairs of working groups and task forces that function under the council as well as six permanent participants, which include two Alaska Native groups, and 32 permanent “observers.”

Observers include nations with an interest in the Arctic, like the United Kingdom, that do not border on the Arctic Ocean, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental organizations with an interest in the region.

Two other major Arctic scientific meetings will also occur at UAF in the same time, Hinzman said. These include the “Arctic Science Summit,” an annual event held in different northern cities and this year Fairbanks, and the Arctic Observing Summit, an organization that provides coordination and guidance for Arctic observing systems.

“The goals in having these two groups meet is to strengthen international Arctic research collaborations, leverage research partnerships and strengthen the Arctic observing systems,” Hinzman said

Other, smaller-scale meetings are planning including some Asian polar institutes like the Asian Forum for Polar Science and the Korean Polar Institute, the Canadian Polar Commission and the EU-Polarnet and the European Polar Board.

“Many of these research groups have never met each other before,” he said.

Many are also little-known outside the corridors of government and research institutions. The U.S. Arctic Research Commission is well known in Alaska because prominent Alaskans have chaired it, currently former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and previously Mead Treadwell, also a former lieutenant governor.

However, the U.S. also has the U.S. Polar Research Board and Polar Educators International.

UAF, meanwhile, has cemented its role as the leading U.S. Arctic research university and one of the world’s leading scientific research organizations focusing on northern latitude studies. The evidence for this, Hinzman said, is in the number of Arctic-related scientific publications by UAF researchers and the number of citations of its publications.

 “UAF leads all other single institutions in the number of publications and the number of citations of its publications,” he said.

In the world of research, what is published and cited is important because it reflects the productivity of research teams and the quality of their work in the eyes of peers around the world.

The Fairbanks university scored number one in the world in publications and citations between 2009 and 2014, Hinzman said.

Arctic-related publications in scientific journals totaled over 700 and citations by other scientists of publications of UAF papers totaled nearly 8,000. In publication citings only, the University of Colorado at Boulder came close behind UAF at almost 7,000 citations. Other prominent universities including Canadian and European institutions were at about half the number of citations for UAF publications.

The same was true for the number of scientific publications, about half of UAF’s total, except for the University of Tromso in Norway, which saw about 550 papers published between 2009 and 2014 compared with Alaska’s near-700.

UAF research covers a broad range including changes in sea ice cover and shifts in land ecosystems as well as changes affecting Arctic plants and animal life. Permafrost and its gradual warming has a strong focus.

The Fairbanks university has also been leading the development of new technologies to aid in research including remote sensing and the use of advanced radars in documenting changes in land forms, vegetation and infrastructure due to shifting permafrost conditions.

UAF researchers are also known for their assistance to industry and government agencies. Recently the university has been working with major oil and gas companies like Shell and ExxonMobil on sea ice studies.

Forty-plus years ago Arctic engineering researchers at UAF assisted in the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in permafrost areas, and in the development of design features that preserved permafrost and the structural integrity of the pipeline.

11/20/2016 - 4:56pm