Skip to main content

The Arctic: A last frontier of opportunity

May 30, 2017


Ian Hanna

University of Alaska Anchorage student Christina Hoy
University of Alaska Anchorage student Christina Hoy with her passive underwater acoustics project.
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

I’ve always perceived the Arctic as the last frontier, where conditions are harsh and survival difficult. My experience attending the events during the Week of the Arctic, which took place the same time as the 2017 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, has changed that perspective. The Arctic is not just a place where people are merely surviving. It is a place where scientists, governments, and businesses are seizing new opportunities to thrive.

Week of the Arctic was all about those opportunities. The Arctic Council continues to forge ahead in fostering partnerships among Indigenous groups and international actors, and shaping the governance of the region through agreements and scientific reports. Businesses and researchers are exploring new technologies, everything from establishing spaceports, to using fungus as a new and sustainable insolation in Arctic homes. One way the United States government is innovating is through the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence at University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Domain awareness” isn’t a part of common vernacular, so what does it mean? In military terms “awareness” is the idea of understanding as much about the area you are working with in order to make the most informed and therefore best decisions. The Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Coast Guard are particularly concerned with maritime domain awareness, which is defined in the National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness as “effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States.’’

Systems that improve maritime domain awareness depend on fusing information from many sources. These sources are often technology based, such as combining data from the Automated Information System that transmits ship position data with near-shore radar and observer reports. The Arctic, more than any other region on earth, lacks sources from which to draw data about what is happening in the maritime domain. This is due to low population and lack of infrastructure.

Low population does not imply insignifican. The Arctic is environmentally, culturally, and economically significant. However, the lack of infrastructure leads to a lack of awareness in the maritime domain, which make the region more vulnerable to harm from marine accidents.

The Department of Homeland Security through the U.S. Coast Guard has teamed up with University of Alaska Anchorage to create the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, a center of excellence focused on advancing domain awareness in the Arctic. The center’s fellows, both undergraduate and graduate students, conduct research that develops new technology or utilizes existing technology in new ways in order to provide vial and timely information to decision makers. The Arctic Domain Awareness Center’s student researchers presented projects during the Arctic Interchange events in Fairbanks. Examples of their current projects include developing community-based observation networks for situational awareness, installing affordable sensors for crisis monitoring, and modeling storm surges, coastal flooding, sea ice, and oil plume events. The projects increase Arctic domain awareness through innovative ways to inform Coast Guard decision makers of activity and/or conditions, enabling more effective protection of the environment and human safety.

To deal with the challenges of operating in the remote and extreme Arctic domain, agencies and operators will need to adapt and innovate. The Week of the Arctic showcased the numerous ways that the international community is moving forward, only one of which is through the Arctic Domain Awareness Center. The innovations of today will ensure a safe an environmentally viable Arctic in the future. The Arctic is the frontier, a frontier of opportunity.

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.