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Arctic Circle Conference

Arctic Circle Conference 2014

By Samuel Wright

October 31st saw the start of the second Arctic Circle conference at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. Attended by 1400 delegates, the annual event seeks to increase participation in Arctic dialogue and “strengthen the international focus on the future of the Arctic”. As part of this internationalisation, countries are invited to bring formal delegations to present their own involvement and interests in the Arctic region. After a low key presence in 2013, a formal British delegation attended this year which included political, legal, business and academic representatives. Three members of this delegation were from the University of Leeds: myself, William Davies, and Jane Francis, Visiting Professor of Palaeoclimatology (and Director of the British Antarctic Survey).

As the conference coincided with the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, the number of British attendees (estimated at around 60) was immediately noticeable through glimpses of poppies in the crowd. Two heavily Great Britain branded sessions further demonstrated how important the visibility of the United Kingdom’s engagement in the Arctic was. It was a clear answer to the Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s earlier question of “Where is Britain?”, and was certainly eye-catching.

Despite talks covering everything from British Arctic history to investment opportunities, a recurring theme throughout the delegation presentations was the world-class contribution that the UK is able to make to Arctic research. In the plenary session Jane Francis spoke of the significance of Arctic science, drawing attention to large regions in the High North where no data is available, and how international collaboration outside of politics is needed to correct this deficit. Will and I took the opportunity to discuss our own research topics developed within the Sustainability Research Institute. William’s talk drew from the geographical literature on scale in human-environment interactions, exploring the role of ‘scale’ and ‘complexity’ in Arctic offshore development as a means to better understand the dynamics of this contemporary issue. After returning just week before the conference from a month of fieldwork in Greenland, I was able to discuss some early thoughts on the difficulties of engaging Greenlandic communities with a presentation on The complicated role of science, trust and the extractives industries in a developing Greenland.

Although the delegation was primarily there to demonstrate Britain’s contributions, one of the greatest personal benefits was the opportunity to meet other researchers who work on Arctic issues. There are not enough events for social and natural science postgraduates to meet one another, and so this one was greatly received.
What will be interesting to see is what happens next. After flying the flag (and quite a large one at that), will the UK be happy to return to a more sedate presence in future years, or will this be the start of a more active engagement with the Arctic region?

As a final note I would like to express both my and Will’s thanks to James Gray MP and Jane Francis for our invitation to join the delegation, to Rosemary Fisher for her hard work in organising the trip, and to Dr Frederik Paulsen for the delegation dinner.
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