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As part of the celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI and the opening of the special exhibition “Arctic. Polar World in Transition”, the ninth Polar Talk took place as a “science slam” at the Natural History Museum of Vienna. The contributions from a multidisciplinary team of eleven APRI scientists provided a varied potpourri of their research and impressively demonstrated the importance of interdisciplinary and decolonial polar research.


A potpourri of Austrian Polar Research

APRI Director Wolfgang Schöner from the University of Graz opened the evening with news from the first Austrian polar research station at the Sermilik Fjord in south-east Greenland, which was recently presented to the media. In future, it will be available to scientists from all over the world.

The title of the evening illustrates the dominant media representations of the Arctic, which mostly report on untouched Arctic landscapes and wild nature. However, 40000 years of human and civilisation history of the Arctic as well as its 4 million inhabitants are often ignored. This underrepresentation is highly problematic, especially in view of the tragic, sometimes very recent colonial history of many regions, which continues to cause trauma and conflict to this day. Many of the more than 50 researchers at APRI are therefore committed to science communication in order to bring the diverse life in the Arctic closer to the interested public.


Colonialism in the Arctic

Susanna Gartler, social anthropologist at the University of Vienna, talked about the gold rush era in the Yukon as a “prime example” of Arctic colonial history and its connection to mining. The “Klondike Gold Rush”, which began in 1896, was followed by many decades of gold and silver mining and the extraction of other raw materials up to the present day. Particularly at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a gradual integration of Indigenous people into the market economy and especially into the mining industry, and many economic and personal connections were forged between First Nations members and miners from other parts of Canada, the USA and Europe who settled there. At the same time, however, a state-sponsored institutionalised cultural genocide of the Indigenous population took place. In addition to many other elements of the assimilation efforts, the “residential schools” in the context of the abduction of Indigenous children to boarding schools (through the use of police force) and forced adoption programmes should be mentioned in particular. The common slogan of Canadian assimilation policy until well into the 20th century was: “Kill the Indian in the child”. In addition, the First Nations were denied access to the official labour market and basic rights for a long time.
Since the 1990s in particular, there have been improvements in Canada that can be attributed to the tireless struggle of First Nations, Inuit, Métis and their supporters for decolonisation and against exclusion and discrimination. Resistance to colonialism began to form in the Yukon in the 1970s at the latest, followed by the first land rights agreements and the partial implementation of Indigenous self-determination in the 1990s.


Katrin Schmid, also a social anthropologist, reported on her research into Indigenous resistance in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, which is another example of the colonial history of the Arctic. The population in Nunavut is 85% Inuit and the territory is semi-autonomous from the Canadian federal government, allowing the Inuit to make more decisions at the regional level than in other Canadian provinces. In these decisions, the Inuit have a vote on the management and future use of natural resources, which has a major impact on future mining projects and the fishing industry, among other things. Subsistence farming, i.e. hunting, fishing and gathering, is of great importance to the Indigenous population. Country food, i.e. food that is obtained from the land, has a high cultural value and is an important part of their diet. However, to ensure that the Arctic inhabitants can continue to utilise local resources from this extremely sensitive ecosystem in the face of a growing population, tourism, resource extraction and, above all, climate change, a precise understanding of the changes in the physical environment is essential.

Social relevance of the natural sciences and why long-term observations are particularly important

The Arctic is warming around four times faster than the planet on average – more rapidly than any other region on Earth. This warming is causing massive changes to the environment. Jakob Abermann, meteorologist and glaciologist at the University of Graz, is researching the melting ice masses in Greenland as a result of climate change and shows that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is causing the water of 3.5 Olympic swimming pools to pour into the ocean every second on average. This change in the Arctic is leading to rising sea levels globally, threatening millions of people living near the coast, even far away from Greenland and Arctic latitudes.

As a sensational surprise, the biologists and glaciologists Birgit Sattler and Klemens Weisleitner from the University of Innsbruck were connected live via video. They are currently conducting field research at “Lake Untersee” in the Antarctic. The two were also able to talk about how the polar latitudes affect us more than many people might realise. They are conducting on-site research into traces of human activity in a landscape thousands of kilometres away from the nearest town. Thawing ice in polar regions leads to rising sea levels around the world, while human traces such as microplastics can be found even in the most remote regions of Antarctica and damage ecosystems. The audience was also given an impressive insight into the harsh and challenging world of polar expeditions. The two and their entire team sleep in tents on site, so only freeze-dried food is available and storms of up to 180 km/h are a major challenge for tents and scientists alike.


In addition to melting ice masses, global warming is also causing the permafrost to thaw. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground and covers around a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land area, and most people in the Arctic live on it. Satellite remote scientist Helena Bergstedt from the company and APRI member b.geos is using satellite data to investigate how ground temperatures are changing in the Arctic. She is finding an increase in ground temperatures throughout the Arctic, although in some regions this is more pronounced than in others, at up to 0.2°C per year. When this warming of the soil leads to a certain temperature threshold being exceeded, the permafrost begins to thaw. Thawing permafrost can release large quantities of greenhouse gases and thus exacerbate climate change. However, the thawing of the ground also has serious consequences for local people in particular, which Susanna Gartler is researching. In addition to deteriorating water quality, thawing permafrost jeopardises food security and the risk of infectious diseases released from the thawing soil increases. Eroding coasts and the increasing instability of buildings and transport infrastructure are particularly urgent problems for the local population. Some communities near the coast have already had to be resettled.


On the one hand, these insights make it clear how much scientific understanding of changing environmental conditions depends on continuous and reliable long-term measurements. In a system in which processes change and vary from year to year, such as the melting of the ice in Greenland or the thawing permafrost, reliable measurement series over decades are required in order to identify trends and draw the right conclusions. On the other hand, it becomes clear how much societies, especially in the Arctic, interact with the environment in complex ways and how their prosperity depends crucially on environmental change and the utilisation of local natural resources. This also shows how essential interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is, in which different disciplines cooperate and learn from each other in order to better understand the interplay between society and the environment. Transdisciplinary research goes “beyond the box” and involves non-research stakeholders, such as local communities, companies, politicians and NGOs, in order to find out first-hand which topics and research needs are currently urgent and how local people perceive the situation. Incorporating local and Indigenous knowledge into the research process can thus drive innovation and the benefits of local research.

What can interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary polar research look like?

Social anthropologist Sophie Elixhauser from the University of Vienna is working with schools in Greenland to understand how changing snow cover affects the local population. In order to successfully study such specific interactions between people and the environment, it is essential to engage with the local population on an equal footing. It is important to critically question the media representations of the inhabitants of the Arctic, which often paint an “exotic” picture of the local people and portray them as “victims” of a globalised world. The local people are not much different from “us” and can also contribute detailed knowledge to scientific research. Therefore, the “victimisation” and “exoticisation” of people should be counteracted and local needs and concerns should be integrated into research projects in equal partnership. Alexis Sancho Reinoso, who is investigating the social impact of the Baikal-Amur Mainline in Siberia, emphasises that nothing about the inhabitants of the Arctic should be published in the media or scientifically without their direct involvement: “Nothing about us – without us!”.

In order to conduct decolonial polar research in line with these findings, APRI is involved in various internationally relevant scientific committees. APRI participates in the ICARP IV process, in which the internationally guiding priorities in Arctic research are developed. In addition, the policy advice paper “Roadmap to Decolonial Arctic Research” was recently published, to which APRI scientists Gertrude Saxinger, political scientist and social anthropologist, and Jorrit van der Schot, meteorologist and glaciologist, contributed. This document is addressed to major research funding organisations, such as the EU, and is intended to initiate nothing less than a paradigm shift in how Arctic research should be conducted methodologically. It is crucial that the role of natural and social science research is recognised as part of the dark colonial history of the Arctic in order to find new paths of trust between Indigenous peoples and researchers. Research should be reorganised in such a way that the local benefits of projects for the regions and local people are clearly recognisable. And that thematic priorities are identified together with the local population, and that Indigenous environmental and social knowledge is on an equal level with Western scientific knowledge and is taken seriously in the research results. It is also important that the economic benefits of expeditions and projects are generated in the region, for example by creating local jobs in research projects and buying local products to supply research stations or expeditions.

How can socio-political conclusions be drawn from scientific findings?

In the light of the advisory paper, the question arises as to what future scientific projects could look like in concrete terms and how societal conclusions can be drawn from transdisciplinary polar research.

In the InfraNorth project, Peter Schweitzer, a social anthropologist, is researching the relationship between existing and planned Arctic transport infrastructure and the well-being of local communities. This involves a variety of field research methods such as informal discussions, expert interviews and listening sessions in various Arctic communities. Scenario workshops, which have already taken place in Kirkenes (northern Norway) and Churchill (Manitoba, Canada), represent a special method. Four local scenarios for the future development of the village are created and illustrated by local artists. One workshop is specifically aimed at local “professionals” with a professional background and another workshop is designed for a generally interested public.


The experience with the workshops so far has been very positive. The local population seemed to appreciate the fact that everyone was listened to equally, that their concerns were taken seriously and that their uncertainties for the future were given space. The InfraNorth project shows how transdisciplinary science can gain the trust of the population if it succeeds in generating knowledge in co-operation and in equal exchange with the local population.

The evening’s varied programme provided diverse and exciting insights into the world of (Austrian) polar research. In particular, it became clear that in a globalised world, the polar regions also have a considerable impact on us in Austria, not least due to global challenges such as climate change, and therefore also concern us; and that these are not problems of a region far away. However, the drive for and the perspective of increased transdisciplinary scientific co-operation gives hope that politics and society can be changed by science.

Media information

Written by Jonathan Fipper, Collaboration Gertrude Saxinger.
Layout by the APRI-Media Team.
Contact: use our contact form.
Photos: ©Klemens Weisleitner.

About the scientific authors

Jakob Abermann Ass.-Prof. (University of Graz)
Helena Bergstedt PhD (b.geos)
Sophie Elixhauser PhD (University of Vienna)
Susanna Gartler (University of Vienna)
Alexis Sancho Reinoso PhD (University of Vienna)
Birgit Sattler Priv.-Doz. (University of Innsbruck)
Gertrude Saxinger PhD (University of Vienna)
Katrin Schmid (University of Vienna)
Wolfgang Schöner Prof. (University of Graz)
Peter Schweitzer Prof. (University of Vienna)
Klemens Weisleitner PhD (University of Innsbruck)

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