Alaskan villages imperiled by global warming need resources to relocate

By Victoria Herrmann, Fulbright Student 2013-2014
Posted originally on The Guardian, Monday 27 July 2015

The Arctic is warming at a rate almost twice the global average, making climate change’s effects there far more intense and rapid than any other ecosystem in the world. While nature photographs of polar bears and melting ice dominate media narratives, the top of the world is home to 4m people who face an uncertain future.

 Delaying the relocation of villages now will put families at risk further down the road. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Delaying the relocation of villages now will put families at risk further down the road. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Coastal erosion, forest fires and storm surges are threatening the physical and economic safety of settlements across the Arctic Ocean shoreline. Further inland, thawing permafrost is compromising the stability of transportation, sanitation and public service infrastructure built upon once-sturdy foundations. In Alaska alone, 31 villages face imminent threat of destruction from erosion and flooding. Many of these villages have 10 to 20 years of livability before their streets, schools and homes become uninhabitable. At least 12 have decided to relocate – in part or entirely – to safer ground to avoid total collapse.

This week, the United States approaches the First Hundred Days mark of its leadership of the Arctic Council, a high-level governmental forum for the world’s eight Arctic nations to act on circumpolar challenges. Leadership gives the US a two-year opportunity to lead the international community in confronting climate change there. Though the US, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, has seen some successful polar initiatives implemented in the past few months, there is much more work to be done.

In early 2015, President Obama proposed $50.4m in federal spending to help Native American communities adapt public infrastructure to the effects of climate change. That is less than half of what the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates to be needed to relocate just one Alaskan town. Moving an entire community to a safer location mere miles away can cost anywhere from $80m to upwards of $250m.

Currently, federal programs for disaster assistance are limited and mostly unavailable to villages that require relocation. Relief programs focus on sudden natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy at the expense of financially supporting the adaptation and relocation of towns facing dangers from gradual natural processes. Because of this, communities in Alaska must rely on ad hoc federal and state grants to build single buildings, in hopes of relocating in full before an emergency evacuation is needed.

To truly lead in meeting today’s most pressing Arctic issue and help safeguard the wellbeing of northerners, Secretary Kerry must take seriously the issue of climate relocation. This means working towards the creation of a legal and financial structure that can adequately respond to communities in need today.

Defining a new governance structure and making the necessary financial resources available to deal with climate relocation will take hard work and a determined commitment by Secretary Kerry and his Arctic team. The structure must be built through engagement at all levels of government, which is largely lacking in America’s current national Arctic framework. That means not only being inclusive of tribal, local and state stakeholders in Alaska, but also engaging the many federal agencies involved in relocation activities, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the newly formed Senate Arctic Caucus.

A first step towards this ambition is simple: convene a relocation policy meeting in DC with vital local, state and federal policymakers and stakeholders within the year to draft a strategic plan. The plan’s components must be actionable, with further steps to be taken over the US’s two-year chairmanship transparent and deliverable. Debate over who will fund relocation and which agency will lend technical assistance during the meeting will be intense. But the meeting, debates and eventual outcomes are essential for protecting the lives of our northernmost citizens.

Secretary Kerry concluded his first Arctic Council meeting in April by stressing the importance of acting quickly. “We all know the clock is ticking, and we actually don’t have a lot of time to waste.” This is most evident today in the Arctic, but the clock is also ticking for communities in New Jersey, Louisiana, California and other coastal states.

Alaskan villages may be the first to be forced into climate-induced relocation, but they certainty won’t be the last. Creating a framework for relocation can establish an important structure for vulnerable towns across America to use in the decades to come. To make America’s next hundred days leading the council more impactful than the first, Secretary Kerry must inaugurate the process to build a deliverable policy to help not only Alaskans, but citizens on all American shorelines, before times runs out for us all.

Fulbright Arctic Scholars Collaborate for One Arctic

Posted by Steve Money originally on the U.S. Department of State Official Blog
July 16, 2015

Scholars from the eight Arctic countries gathered in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada for their first official meeting as participants of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative
Scholars from the eight Arctic countries gathered in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada for their first official meeting as participants of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative

The United States and other countries are placing more attention on the Arctic as global climate change opens the region to navigation and commercial exploration. During his remarks at a State Department celebration marking the beginning of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May 2015, Secretary Kerry noted that, “We want a region where people can live with hope and optimism for the future, where strong measures are being taken to mitigate environmental harm, where natural resources are managed effectively and sustainably, and where the challenges of economic development and social cohesion are being addressed in a creative, sensitive, responsible way.”

As Secretary Kerry made these remarks, 17 junior scholars and established experts from the eight Arctic countries, including Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, gathered in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada for their first official meeting as participants of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative. For 18 months, the Fulbright Arctic Scholars will be working with governments, NGOs, businesses, and Arctic communities to research innovative solutions to impacts of climate change in the Arctic, particularly on the issues of water, energy, health, and infrastructure.

While in Iqaluit, the scholars informed and shaped their individual and group research projects by forming partnerships with local leaders, policymakers, and researchers of the Arctic region. They met with community leaders Peter Taptuna, premier of Nanuvut; Ekho Wilman, mayor of Iqaluit; and Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. U.S. Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries Dave Balton, U.S. Senior Arctic Official Julie Gourley, and CanNor President Janet King discussed U.S. and Canadian government priorities for the region. Arctic researchers, including Gwen Healy, director of the Qaujigiartiit Heath Research Center, and Mary Ellen Thomas, senior research officer at the Nunavut Research Institute, talked to the group about the particular challenges of conducting research in the Arctic.

This inaugural meeting followed the transition in April to the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which will seek to focus more attention on Arctic issues and foster increased international scholarly collaboration with the United States.

Dr. Ross Virginia of Dartmouth College and Dr. Mike Sfraga of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, are the Co-lead Scholars of the Initiative. On the outcome of the opening meeting, Dr. Virginia said, “The Fulbright Scholars came to Iqaluit as individuals and left as a team. Their commitment to conducting research that is relevant to Arctic communities, policy makers, and the broader public is impressive. We expect great things to come from the Initiative.”

As Arctic nations take steps to work together on shared challenges, the Fulbright Arctic Initiative offers a collaborative model for scholarly exchange to help translate theory into practice.

About the Author: Steve Money is a Program Officer in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Academic Exchange Programs.

The Fulbright Arctic Initiative: Opportunity and Responsibility

By Dr. Greg Poelzer, one of three Fulbright Arctic Scholars from Canada

The challenges facing the people and lands of the Circumpolar North are huge.  So, too, are the opportunities.   Coming to grips with the sheer breadth and complexity of interdependent issues ranging from energy to water, and from infrastructure to health, requires problem-oriented, multidisciplinary research teams, drawing on diverse experiences from around the Circumpolar North.  For scholars who have dedicated their life’s work to research, teaching, and community engagement in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, the Fulbright Arctic Initiative represents a once-in-a-life time opportunity.


Photo by Acacia Johnson

The Fulbright Arctic Initiative was publicly launched through a panel discussion on the ‘Challenges of Conducting Research in the Arctic’ in Ottawa, Canada on April 22, 2015.  A launch is an exciting affair.  A launch bursts with anticipation of the new possibilities and partnerships, and of life-long working relations among new colleagues and soon to be new friends.  A launch also marks the significance of the event.  In the case of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, the significance is a public declaration by the participants of their professional commitment to devote their research energies to a greater public good, namely, toward the betterment of the lives of residents of the Circumpolar North.  As one of the panelists on that day, it was impossible not to be struck by the tremendous opportunity and the important responsibility that the Fulbright Arctic Initiative represents.  The launch of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative itself could not have been better timed.  The launch preceded the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, with the handing of the chairmanship from Canada to the United States, but it also took place on Earth Day.

DSC00614The Earth Day panel opened with a welcoming ceremony by Inuk Elder Sally Kate Qimmiunaaq WebsterDSC00643

Opening remarks were given by U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman


Dr. Michael K.  Hawes, Fulbright Canada CEO introduced  the Fulbright Arctic Initiative and the Arctic scholars


Panelists included Ross Virginia, Director of the Institute of Arctic, Dartmouth College, and Co-Lead of the Initiative; myself, one of the three Canadian scholars selected to participate in the endeavor; and Tracy Coates, a Mohawk scholar working at the University of Ottawa, who brought important insights and reflections on the role of Indigenous knowledge in contemporary research.  Ross provided an overview of the Initiative itself, and the scholars involved, as well as his perspectives on the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Ross and his Co-Lead, Michael Sfraga, Vice-Chancellor, University of Alaska Fairbanks, bring tremendous leadership experience to guide this international endeavor.


A few weeks prior to the launch, the Fulbright Arctic Initiative Scholars had an opportunity to meet one another via webinar. Although we are diverse group with unique life experiences and different research career paths, we quickly discovered that we were fundamentally united in a commitment that our research should, first and foremost, emerge through partnerships with Northern communities and, equally as important, serve the betterment of the peoples and regions of the Circumpolar North.


But, perhaps one of the most rewarding moments of the event was when an Inuk young man asked how we can connect Northern youth with our research, and Northern research in general, and how we can build capacity in Northern communities through research.  He reached out to us, underscoring a core value of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative.  We can do tremendous things working together and harnessing all of our talents, energies, and visions.  The future of the Arctic has never looked brighter!

IMG_2429Dr. Greg Poelzer, Michèle Phillips, Program Officer for External Relations at Fulbright Canada, Acacia Johnson, Photographer and Fulbright Scholar, and Dr. Ross Virginia, Co-Lead Scholar of Fulbright Arctic Initiative – Being silly at the vernissage

From Elevator to Fulbrights: A Friendship of Two Countries and Two Cities

By Viva Dadwal and Michael O’Shea, two Fulbright Award winners

We met in an elevator. She was wearing a bright orange beanie, and I a black suit. It was the 20th floor of Constitution Square in Ottawa, Canada. It had been a long day and I was looking forward to the walk home. The doors opened, and we stepped on together. I said, “going down, right?” She said, “Yes.”

“Do we work on the same floor?”, I said smiling.

“Yeah, I work at GlaxoSmithKline, what brings you here?” she said, smiling back.

“Oh, I work at Fulbright, I’m down the hallway from you…”

“Oh, cool, I didn’t know there were other young people around!”

It was a long elevator ride to the first floor.

“Well, pleasure to meet you. Gotta run now!” She pointed to her bicycle helmet and left hastily through the revolving door.

Over the next three weeks we ran into each other everywhere: on the sidewalk, at street corners, on our bikes. We were lucky to have met when we did; her job ended a few weeks later. One day, after bumping into each other for what seemed like the 16th time, we decided to grab coffee. It was the start of a new friendship.

When we were together, we’d often discuss Canada-U.S. relations. Despite the fact that our distinct countries were united through history and tradition, we realized that we still had a lot to learn from and teach each other:

“How do you think that foreign policy is changing under the Harper government?”

“Why is gun ownership such an important issue in America?”

I met her friends at her next job at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development; she mine at Fulbright Canada and the U.S. Embassy. Our friendship was like the Canada-U.S. relationship: we were close and shared common values and traits (including a wacky sense of humor), but we also had our disagreements.

Part of my job at Fulbright Canada was to encourage Canadians to apply to study in the United States. I had myself come to Canada because of a Fulbright Scholarship to McGill University. For as long as I had known her, Viva had been conducting and publishing research on global health issues. I knew she would make a great candidate for a Fulbright award.

She had spent most of her adolescent years in Windsor, Ontario, where she said she was subject to the typical confusion that Canadians feel living in a border city: Celsius or Fahrenheit? Tigers or Blue Jays? The CBC or ABC? Somewhere between the joint Canada Day and Independence Day fireworks, and the various concerts at the Cobo Arena, she had come to love the special bond between Canada and the U.S. One day, after yet another passionate discussion about the Canada and the U.S., I decided to encourage her to apply for a Fulbright scholarship: she seemed like the right person to represent Canada to Americans and she could easily conduct her research from the U.S.

Michael OShea and Viva in Ottawa
Michael and Viva ice-skating on the frozen Rideau Canada in downtown Ottawa in winter 2013.]

Although skeptical of leaving her full-time job, she finally gave in: “Fine, sure, I’ll apply. What’s the worst that will happen?”

Between ice skating, snow-ball fights, and dance parties, Viva worked on her Fulbright essay. Around the same time, I had decided to apply to graduate schools for a degree in higher education. Through cold fall days at cafés and late nights in diners, we prepared our respective applications over cups of coffee and hot chocolate.

By January we had both heard back. Viva was bound for Baltimore to conduct research at Johns Hopkins University. I was bound for Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania. Somehow, we would be only an hour drive way, or as we jokingly called it, “a 33 hour bike-ride.” A friendship that started in an elevator in Canada was moving to America.

We are lucky to have a relationship that spans borders, a relationship that allows us to learn from each other, especially as we each begin the next chapter of our lives. Our similar but distinct experiences at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania means that we have a lot to talk about when we do catch up. For example, Viva is deeply troubled by the socio-economic disparities she sees in Baltimore. It has been somewhat of a shock for her to see such conditions in a first-world setting, a setting that is so similar (yet so different) from Canada. For me, I have finally returned from Canada after three years, a country where I saw less segregation, racism, and concentrated poverty than I saw in Chicago growing up. Back in Philly, I was faced that reality of urban America once again.

: Michael and Viva with friends at the 2014 Fourth of July party at the Official Residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada.
: Michael and Viva with friends at the 2014 Fourth of July party at the Official Residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

As we write this, we are realizing how much our lives have changed over the course of a few months. For one, we are both living the stark contrasts between the “haves” and “have nots”, from East Baltimore to the world-renowned Johns Hopkins, from West Philadelphia to Penn’s Ivy League campus. And so, lessons from a friendship that was born in an elevator in Canada, sustained by Fulbright, are now being tested East Baltimore and West Philadelphia. One of us is exploring the sobering relationship for the first time, the other returning to the sometimes troubled country called home.

It’s the story of two countries, two cities, two Fulbright awards, and two curious people who met in an elevator.

Reflections on #UnderTheSameStars Earth Day Art Exhibition

Written by Acacia Johnson, Fulbright Scholar

The warmth of sun, birdsong, sound of water lapping. To think that a few months ago, the idea of warm air seemed utterly impossible, the sun disappeared to some land of no return. Now everything is utterly drenched in it. More in the Arctic than anywhere else, really.johnson_fulbrightblog13

Back in my art studio on Toronto Island, the aftermath of my exhibition Under The Same Stars is omnipresent. Boxes of prints, tissue paper, thumbtacks on the wall and little blue printouts spread liberally over every available tabletop, sorted by depth and shade of indigo and magenta.johnson_fulbrightblog11

I returned last weekend from Ottawa, where I had spent a week presenting the first public exhibition of my series of photographs from Baffin Island. The show was in the shining, granite-walled lobby of Constitution Square, a large office building downtown where someone told me 8,000 people work. On Monday, the framed prints were delivered, and unwrapping them felt like Christmas, all the shades of blue gleaming jewel-like behind glass. The next night, we installed them; by Wednesday the show was open to the public and it was time to begin presenting the work to the world.johnson_fulbrightblog5

It had been a whirlwind, hitting the ground running. Only 53 days earlier, I had returned, bewildered, from an entire winter in Arctic Bay, a place that had become home to me over the course of four months. The immense project of developing and scanning negatives, making a selection of 18 images, printing them and getting them to the framer had consumed all of my energy since returning from the Arctic – to the extent that I had scarcely had time to reflect upon my experiences at all! So it was a welcome surprise that when it came time to present the work in person, to talk about it and explain what it was about, the words came naturally. The wealth of Arctic experiences and stories was brimming under the surface, ready to go before I even knew it myself.johnson_fulbrightblog4

I was stationed with the art work during the three days of my exhibition in Constitution Square, which allowed me to chat with the visitors who came to see the photographs. It was amazing to see the ways in which people reacted to my photographs – the surprise or amazement of those who had never been to the Arctic, and the smiling recognition of those who had (and even a few who knew Arctic Bay). What made me the happiest was encountering people who really engaged with the work and seemed to learn something from it, or at the very least have their stereotypical ideas of the Arctic challenged on some level. “So people actually live up there, huh,” was a concluding remark I heard on several occasions. Yes. Yes, they do.johnson_fulbrightblog3

It was an honor to have the opportunity to display the work to such a wide audience thanks to Fulbright Canada and the Fulbright Canada-RBC Eco-Leadership program, and to be able to meet so many people who are engaged with Arctic issues.

Moving into the future, I look forward to having the time to step back, reflect deeply and continue working with the material from this winter over an extended period of time. I will be returning to Baffin Island as a guide this summer, where I hope to share what I have learned throughout this remarkable experience. And hopefully one day, I will return to Arctic Bay itself, to experience the nightless summer season that balances the winter darkness.


Lessons in Green and Inclusive Growth: What Can Los Angeles Learn From Vancouver

This post was written by the The University of California, Los Angeles, a member of the Fulbright Canada ecoLeadership program.

67c953d177c211576dd32265_280x186 Los Angeles has much to learn from Vancouver.  While both are dense, diverse, cosmopolitan cities bounded by mountains, LA’s sister city to the north is renowned for its compact development and walkable neighborhoods.  Vancouver is a model of sustainability, largely due to planning efforts focused on smart growth and environmental protection.
In March 2015, a group of UCLA Graduate Students from the Luskin School of Public Affairs traveled to Vancouver to learn first-hand about the city’s compact development pattern, comprehensive urban transit network and successful natural resource management.  Students met with over 30 government agencies, non-profits, and leading researchers to understand the Vancouver success story.
Preliminary findings can be found on the trip blog and Twitter.