Profiles of Norwegian science: What connects Tromsø and Belize?

A photo sliced in half, one half showing the beaches of Belize and the other showing the coast of Tromsø

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Tromsø and the Caribbean clash but connect.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

As the aurora dances across dim snow-capped peaks surrounding the Arctic Cathedral, many Tromsø residents dream of the tropical Caribbean. They would gladly trade the dark winter days for waves rippling out from azure lagoons to lightly caress the white sand beaches.

Tromsø scientists make this their reality. By dedicating their research to development in Belize, they link Norway with the tropics.

Elin Merethe Oftedal at the University of Tromsø employs Sara Lupini as a researcher. They recently finished a pilot project on “Unlocking Belize’s Potential” to develop higher education in Belize related to energy and petroleum—areas of clear interest to Norway.

“I became interested in Belize 10 years ago when I was invited there as a PhD student,” says Oftedal. “In addition to being a fabulous country with fantastic people,” she continues, “it seemed to be a place where a little effort goes a long way and where we could make an impact.”

Lupini agrees, explaining that “Belize is a country with a small, young population, an immense cultural heritage, and unique environmental resources. This comes with huge responsibilities and requires an effective strategy for sustainably managing the country, striving for harmony and balance between its human and natural components.” Comparing it to Norway, she calls Belize “a living laboratory, which can provide a space to develop innovative solutions tackling climate change and sustainable development challenges.”

They presented their passion and science at a conference in Belize in November. Seeking sustainability leadership, the meeting brought together researchers and practitioners from around the Caribbean. Oftedal and Lupini spoke about sustainable resource management through knowledge transfer, institution building, and developing local businesses.

Their work and insights describe the reality of Belize. It is not just coral reefs, cruise ships, and warm sun. The country faces numerous challenges.

Belize depends significantly on fishing and tourism. Both sectors are highly affected by climate change. If coral reefs die due to higher temperatures and acidity in the ocean induced by greenhouse gases, then a tourist mainstay vanishes. Without the reefs breaking the power of ocean waves, the coastlines of fishing villages might rapidly erode.

Security and disease continue as concerns. When two foreigners, one tourist and one resident, were murdered a year ago, it was a balance between raising legitimate safety issues and blowing isolated incidents out of proportion. Among countries, Belize ranks third in murders per capita—but this rate is equivalent to many American cities.

Belize reported its first Zika case in April after its first Chikungunya case appeared in November 2014. Dengue has long been endemic with period outbreaks, such as in August 2015.

Meanwhile, half the year brings hurricane potential, from May to November. Belize was hit in August by Hurricane Earl, causing power and communications outages along with damaged homes and bridges. These challenges produce opportunities. Due to disaster preparation and response, Belize experienced few reported casualties.

From Tromsø, Oftedal and Lupini set out to work with Belizeans to learn and exchange, to improve the country while contributing to Norway and the world. They are developing a project called “The Ark,” centered on Belize but for addressing climate change and related topics across the Caribbean.

Lupini notes that “Within the actions promoted by our initiative, we embrace the mission of fostering sustainability and resilience in the Small Island Developing States and coastal states of the Caribbean.” They have brought together a consortium of academics, government officials, non-governmental organization workers, and the private sector.

Oftedal describes the need for extensive cooperation because “We believe achieving sustainability and resilience is a process requiring each and every component of our societies, serious commitment, and perseverance. We provide a model to identify and leverage entrepreneurial ideas and innovative solutions targeting climate change challenges.

Lupini indicates the importance of starting in Belize, because the country serves as a gateway to both the Caribbean islands and Central America. Its mish-mash of cultures, with both English and Spanish being prominent, means that it transcends two of the region’s main languages.

The Ark, like its sibling project Many Strong Voices, which connects Arctic and tropical island communities, epitomizes starting locally and expanding globally. Lupini’s vision is “To strengthen local capacities to address climate change challenges and related development issues. We must work with Caribbean communities on their terms for innovative and sustainable programs, testing and improving, to then disseminate and replicate the results worldwide.”

This also means learning from Belize to bring back ideas and actions to northern Norway. From the warm waters to the cold ice, we all can apply science for sustainability.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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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 and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.