Creating a Vision for Sustainable Arctic Communities

The community of Longyearbyen is a key port in Norway’s Svalbard islands with a fast-growing tourism industry, but it attracts few permanent residents. In Longyearbyen, there are no indigenous people, and those residents who brave the isolation and extreme environment still cannot privately own land. But this Arctic town may offer insights on resilience to other places like it that are facing the effects of climate change. (See related interactive map: The Changing Arctic.)

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The main settlement of Longyearbyen, capital of Svalbard (Photograph courtesy Tobias Luthe)

I have been in the Arctic on many exploratory and scientific outdoor trips over the past 15 years, from  guiding ski mountaineering  and ski trips in Norway, Canada and Alaska to crossing Iceland by skis and kataraft while collecting water samples for a project. My experience of the Arctic as a scientist, expedition guide, and photographer has developed my deep appreciation for its beauty, its wildness, its dangers, and its vulnerability.

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Sea kayaking and Telemark skiing on Svalbard (Photograph courtesy Tobias Luthe)

Wanting to better understand this complex environment, I undertook research to examine communities in both the Arctic and the Swiss Alps: two regions vulnerable to climate change and dependent on few economic sectors, with tourism being a major part of their local economies. (Take the quiz: “Energy in the Changing Arctic.”)

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The Arctic: The Science of Change
Learn more about the issues surrounding a changing region.

In the ArcAlpNet project, we used surveys, interviews and other tools to take a closer look at social networks in Longyearbyen and three communities in the Swiss Alps.  In Longyearbyen, the economy is based on coal mining; a research university center and research in general; and the growing tourism industry. Most tourism industry staff go there for adventure and quick money, while only a few business owners have been living there for longer periods of 20 to 40 years.

One consequence of this transience is a lack of attachment to the place—potential engagement with a place one cares for, a kind of mental ownership that would drive people to take responsibility for a sustainable future. Such individual and collective engagement is the prerequisite to striving for resilience and a sustainable future.

Collaboration and resilience

Despite the population’s transient nature, the social collaboration network of Longyearbyen reveals one important pathway to resilience: the high turnover of people and the compartmentalization of the community into sub-groups may enable innovation through the influx and incubation of diverse new ideas. The town’s Alpine counterparts, in contrast, have more stable and dense social networks, but are more at risk of “group think” and resistance to new ideas.

Longyearbyen’s form of resilience comes at a cost: less-coordinated planning, and the potential for short-term visions to be at odds with a long-term ecologically sustainable economy. The lack of a common vision or functional leadership in Longyearbyen leads to low collaboration on long-term action and more structural changes, and prevents the implementation of necessary innovation for sustainability.

A renewable energy vision for  Arctic communities

To develop resilience, Longyearbyen should increase strategic and long-term collaboration through joint networking initiatives, and develop common values and a vision that may help to increase attachment to the town; this may then lead to more engagement in local sustainable development.

But what could such a vision likely be? Strengthening resilience of the community while designing a sustainable way of living and thriving in the Arctic may be such a vision, but this goal is rather abstract. Energy is at the forefront of the sustainability discussion, and it is especially relevant to the Arctic and its communities, given the extreme living conditions and increasing interest from multinational energy companies in extracting the region’s resources. This rising demand will put new pressures on highly vulnerable Arctic ecosystems, and any development must be undertaken with the greatest possible care.

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A former coal mine near Longyearbyen on Svalbard, no longer in use today. (Photograph courtesy Tobias Luthe)

Longyearbyen’s economy is already rooted in energy production, thanks to its long history as a producer of coal. Though the community’s energy comes exclusively from the coal mined there, 70 percent of its production is exported mainly to fuel high-tech steel production in Central Europe, especially in Germany, because the coal is of such a high quality and carbon density that it is worth the export.

But coal’s high emissions and its changing fortunes as an economic commodity raise the question about the potential for renewable energy and greater efficiency in the Arctic. What is the potential for energy-efficient lifestyles in combination with renewable energy production to serve as a model for the possible development paths of Arctic indigenous and non-indigenous communities?

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Old coal transportation towers in Svalbard (Photograph courtesy Tobias Luthe)
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Sveagruva, a coal mine that is still active in Svalbard’s Van Mijenfjorden (Photograph courtesy Tobias Luthe)

Blueprinting Arctic communities of the future?

What can we learn from resilience of a community like Longyearbyen that, to a major extent, exists for business and fun? Does the increasing global pressure for energy and tourism push indigenous communities into a similar direction of developing tourism, employing research, and opening wide areas for resource extraction—thus making Longyearbyen something of a blueprint for future Arctic communities? Where are the threats and where are the opportunities for anticipating change and driving resilience in other Arctic indigenous communities?

Further research is needed to examine the resilience features of indigenous Arctic communities, applying the same network-based resilience assessment methodology as in the ArcAlpNet project. Comparing such results with those found in the comparison of Longyearbyen with three communities in the European Alps can help shed light on the Arctic community developments of the future.

You can learn more about Tobias Luthe at his website.