US pushes ambitious goals as Arctic Council convenes in Anchorage

Just six months into the United States' chairmanship of the Arctic Council, events have "already moved the ball forward enormously" on one of its main Arctic goals, a senior State Department official said Monday.

"Our goal is to raise the awareness of the American public about the Arctic while we have this bully pulpit for two years -- to make sure that, as much as we can, people on the street in any part of America in the middle of the country know that we're an Arctic nation, know where Alaska is, understand at least a little bit about why the Arctic matters to everyone," said Senior Arctic Official Julia Gourley, the State Department veteran who represents the U.S. at the eight-nation Arctic Council.

Thanks to the high-profile State Department-hosted GLACIER conference held in August in Anchorage that was attended by President Barack Obama, Lower 48 residents are already better aware of Alaska and its Arctic status, Gourley said at a luncheon held by a newly formed Arctic Alaska Host Committee.

Anchorage will also play host this week to the first of several high-level Arctic Council meetings scheduled during the U.S. chairmanship, a Senior Arctic Official meeting to be held Tuesday through Thursday.

Alaska has already hosted meetings of Arctic Council working groups and other council-related events in recent months, such as a Sustainable Development Working Group meeting earlier this month in Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks.

But the SAO meeting to be held in Anchorage is a higher-profile, plenary event with full delegations from each of the eight Arctic nations and the "permanent participants," the far-north indigenous organizations that are also part of the Arctic Council structure. There will also be representatives present from the more than 30 accredited "observers" -- national governments, intergovernmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations that might not have Arctic territory but do have interests in in the circumpolar north.

At Monday's luncheon address meeting, Gourley outlined plans for the upcoming meeting and upcoming Arctic Council work.


To guide its 2015-17 chairmanship, she said, the U.S. delegation has settled on three broad goals -- improving Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions for people in the Arctic; and addressing climate change impact in the Arctic.

Within those broad goals are numerous and varied programs and projects, some of them carried on from the just-ended Canadian chairmanship and prior years of Arctic Council work, and some introduced by U.S. officials, Gourley said.

A "pillar" of the Canadian chairmanship, for example, has become a big part of the U.S. chairmanship -- promotion of mental health and suicide prevention in the region, Gourley said. She referred to a tragedy that happened Saturday in the same downtown building where she was speaking -- the death of a man who jumped from a third-floor balcony of the Dena'ina Center on the last day of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

"Knowing what happened here a few days ago, that couldn't be a more important subject for us to raise awareness of," she said.

To address the issue, she said, the U.S. has formed an initiative called RISING-SUN, which stands for Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups -- Strengths United through Networks. The RISING-SUN group held its first workshop in Anchorage last month.

Another subject that will get Arctic Council attention under U.S. leadership is ocean acidification, falling under the broad category of Arctic Ocean stewardship, Gourley said.

Scientists are just starting to understand the phenomenon, which is changing ocean chemistry as atmospheric carbon is absorbed, she said.

"Nowhere is it happening faster than in the Arctic Ocean. And we know that's the case. We know that's because of oceans acting as a carbon sink and absorbing carbon dioxide at a much faster rate than once happened," she said. "What we want to spur, while we have the chairmanship, is much more research into what that really means."

Among the other environmental issues the U.S.-chaired council will focus on -- and likely an important subject of the upcoming SAO meeting -- is black carbon, the dark particulate pollution also known as soot. It is carried northward on atmospheric currents, and it has a particular effect on the Arctic, Gourley said.

"When you have these black particles that don't stay suspended very long dropping out and landing on white surfaces, you get accelerated melting and thawing," she said.

By the end of the Canadian chairmanship, the Arctic Council had formed an expert group on black carbon and methane. That group is already moving forward on a plan to identify the sources of black carbon pouring into the Arctic, Gourley said.

Black carbon is bad for more than Arctic snow and ice, said Jim Gamble, executive director of the Aleut International Association, one of the indigenous organizations that is an Arctic Council permanent participant.

"It's tremendously bad for you when you breathe it in," he said. That is why black carbon is a health concern for local communities as well as a regional environmental concern.

The SAO meetings will be closed to the public, but there are some other related events open to the community:

• A youth event is scheduled for Tuesday evening at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Arctic Alaska Host Committee, which was organized by the Institute of the North, and the University of Alaska Anchorage debate team are hosting the 6:30 to 8 p.m. event, which features several members of the Arctic Council delegation and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

• The Alaska World Affairs Council is hosting a luncheon forum on the Arctic, featuring Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Balton, who serves as the Arctic Council's SAO chairman; Anders Oskal, director of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry; and Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's U.S. Arctic program.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.