Arctic Frontiers conference takes place in Tromsø

Profiles in Norwegian science

Tromso

View to Tromso city in Norway from Storsteinen peak, a mountain ledge about 420 m (1378 ft) above sea-level, on a sunny winter day

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

What frontiers remain in the Arctic? After all, people have lived around the region for thousands of years. This question is perhaps then for the Arctic Frontiers conference, held since 2007 in Tromsø, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. This year, it runs for four days starting on Jan. 29.

The conference brings together scientists, policy and decision makers, businesses, and nonprofits to exchange ideas, knowledge, and plans about the Arctic. From internationally renowned invited keynotes to students at their first meeting, crowded, buzzwordy plenaries vie for attention with more realistic breakout rooms, community venues, and side events.

The theme for 2024 is “Actions & Reactions,” examining the world influencing the Arctic as the Arctic influences the world. “big picture” sessions are separated from the “science,” as if research lacks depth and breadth about the Arctic. Meanwhile, side events include meetings, panels, and workshops while other sessions highlight early career professionals and youth, giving them opportunities to shine. Public events are held around Tromsø in English and Norwegian, while each conference engages schools and children in the area.

To attend the conference in person, the regular fee weighs in at a hefty NOK 2,470 Norwegian (about $230) per day for the first three days. The fourth day costs NOK 2,220 (about $207). Morning and afternoon coffee break and snacks are included, but not lunch. Do you want to attend the conference’s closing reception? Add another NOK 370 (about $28).

Early registrants, early career professionals, students, and people attending all four days, among others, receive discounts. For those staying at home, online attendance is available for a flat fee of NOK 2,000 (about $187).

Is it worth it? Norwegian prime ministers, other politicians, and company CEOs have been regular attendees, with strict security in place. This year, Norway’s prime minister is on a “big picture” panel with Indigenous leaders, an oil-company executive, and a mayor from northern Sweden. It generates huge media interest.

What does it mean for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Arctic peoples trying to relish quality lives and livelihoods while far-away businesses salivate over fossil fuels and shipping? It varies. Many Arctic residents welcome the attention and enjoy reaping the rewards of resource extraction and transportation. Others are devastated at the rapid changes wrought by human action, from dams to climate change. Whether an elected politician or appointed/hired official, leaders are venerated and vilified by the people they do or do not represent.

The scientific talks and posters can be just as political, presenting and debating new data and understandings. Topics encompass sustainable development, artificial intelligence, glaciers, Arctic citizens in decision-making, health, ice-ocean-atmosphere interactions, and many more. The conference encourages interdisciplinary approaches, helping scientists and professionals to share and exchange.

And it is fun! One evening is given over to a “Pecha Kucha” science communication event, offering speakers the chance to present 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide, anchored by free pizza. Plus, a free science reception provides food, drinks, and music.

Yet Arctic Frontiers is just one of many large Arctic conferences. Researchers, businesses, nonprofits, and governments can choose the Arctic Circle Assembly in Rey­kjavík in October. Or the Arctic Encounter Symposium, with the next one in Anchorage, Alaska, in April. For this year only, Bodø (over 2 degrees latitude south of Tromsø) hosts a combined extravaganza from May 29 to June 3 of the International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences, the University of the Arctic Congress, and the High North Dialogue. Add in all the Arctic Council meetings for complete, annual exhaustion.

With so many options, does Arctic Frontiers really push frontiers for and with the Arctic? Who from the Arctic chooses not to attend because they feel it does not represent them and who is unable to attend, because of time, affordability, and access? This year’s theme of Actions & Reactions might certainly represent what Arctic Frontiers attendees seek. Whose Actions & Reactions remain outside the conference’s frontiers?

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.