Recalling highlights is easy and pleasant - almost everything was a highlight. Before I became engaged in UArctic I was strongly focused on volcanology and in developing bilateral Russia-USA experiences for students and scientists in education and research. To a lesser extent, I was involved in the general problem of natural disasters. The fact that much of this work was in the subarctic of Alaska and the Russian Far East was not my primary concern. This was driven by a commitment to use my expertise in geoscience to "give peace a chance".
Before coming to UArctic, I founded a Kamchatka-Alaska field school in volcanology, which later became international because students find both places incredible. I also started a Japan-Kamchatka-Alaska Subduction Processes organization, which has met biennially rotating through Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Sapporo, and Fairbanks for some 20 years now. And I initiated a natural hazards subgroup under the Russia-US Bi-Presidential Commission (unfortunately now in hiatus). The wonderful opportunity that UArctic provided me was to apply some of these lessons on a circumpolar scale and to expand my own understanding about the Arctic, far beyond volcanology or even natural hazards. I’ve helped a lot of students discover and become excited about the Arctic and I have shared in their discovery and excitement myself.
If I were to pick one thing that has been particularly rewarding I would say it was working on projects with faculty and students from the Northern (Arctic) Federal University (NArFU) and North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU), but I value all the contacts I have made.
I would like to see more indigenous students from around the Arctic together both virtually and in reality and ensure as many Thematic networks as possible have indigenous scientists and scholars as participants and leaders. We could also have more bilingual programs, like those pioneered by NEFU. Finally, I would really push involvement of US universities outside Alaska. Many have proud polar histories, they just need to understand the opportunities that UArctic provides in addition to "we can do it ourselves".
One thing I learned is that USA is the least Arctic of Arctic countries. It bought-in 150 years ago and for a long time non-indigenous Alaskans were just people who came up to make money and then went south to “home”. The USA is a southern country with an Arctic appendage, like Denmark but the size relationships are reversed. We will see if the effort by the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council to introduce the Arctic to the rest of the country has succeeded.
One area that you have been involved in is the transition of Circumpolar Studies into a Thematic Network. Can you give us some insight as to how this process has developed?
This is a work in progress and I wish the progress were faster. I wasn’t around in the beginning when Circumpolar Studies was the centerpiece of UArctic. A wonderful set of seven courses that could serve as a core for an undergraduate degree; much of this was developed by enthusiastic volunteers. Because only member institutions, not UArctic, can grant degrees, and differences in funding models and academic regulations and structures have also been significant challenges. Russia has had perhaps the most success with the program because it aligns so well with their strong Arctic interests and interest in exposing students to the international community.
Moving to a Thematic Network framework makes this all more open and inclusive, which are definite UArctic values. At the same time, the normal funding practice in Thematic Networks funding based on fixed-length projects does not fit well with a continuing program of education. Circumpolar Studies must be a sustained effort of connecting education in the North. Ultimately, we must either convince the Arctic Council to take on a role beyond cheerleading, or convince our individual countries to chip in. The cost is modest, really, but more and more countries are adopting the unfortunate US approach of “where’s the money?”
The UArctic Academic Endorsement policy is also soon ready to be implemented. How do you see the value of this for UArctic members?
This is a way that UArctic can evaluate and endorse, but also provide valuable new guidance and connections for educational efforts in the Arctic. The great strength of UArctic is its inclusiveness and circumpolar perspective. Even the greatest Arctic experts have feet of clay when it comes to truly understanding the perspective of someone 90 or 180 degrees longitude distant or with a thousands of years longer Arctic heritage. In turn, UArctic members can offer new education opportunities that reach a vastly larger market and with a stamp of respected review and endorsement.
What are your future plans after you leave the position of VP Academic?
I will be Research Professor at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF. I intend to continue to push the theme that natural hazards and climate change are complementary issues. Many of the practices of monitoring, communication, preparation, reduction of vulnerability are the same. In some cases, “natural” hazards are the way that climate change will first impact communities. Rural Arctic communities cannot afford to focus on one threat. They face serious threats to their sustainability now. Climate change may add to their problems, but the baseline of floods, wildland fires, earthquakes, etc is already high.
I am also involved in a large international project in Iceland to drill to magma by 2020, where we will learn much to enhance clean energy production and improve eruption forecasting.
UArctic President Lars Kullerud adds
When a person leaves, it is customary to express how much that person will be missed. When John leaves as Vice-President Academic, it is really nice to know that we do not need to miss him - he will continue to be with us with his energy and inspiring mindset, as the inspiring leader of the Thematic Network on Natural Hazards. The network is John's creation and it does address some of the essential challenges of societies in the North in a very practical and concrete way - as concrete and practical as we would like to see all UArctic activities to be. I look forward to continue to work closely with you John!
We wish John all the best in his future work, and are sure that he will still be playing a strong role supporting UArctic activities and circumpolar science and higher education. Next week we will introduce the incoming Vice-President Academic Michael Castellini.