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Nancy Joseph 09/01/2008 September 2008 Perspectives

Geographically, Washington is nowhere near the Arctic. But earlier this year the University of Washington became a member of the University of the Arctic—just the second institution (along with Dartmouth College) below the 49th parallel to do so.

Don’t pack your bags for a visit to the far north just yet. The University of the Arctic (UArctic) has no physical campus. Rather, it is a network of institutions across the circumpolar north with shared interests.

Those interests range from global warming to Inuit self-government to the natural resources of the Arctic, says Nadine Fabbi, associate director of the UW Canadian Studies Center in the Jackson School of International Studies, who led the effort to have the UW join UArctic. 

Fabbi points out that climate change—and concern that polar ice is melting—has made the Arctic a region of growing interest. “As polar ice melts, natural resources like oil, gas, and minerals may become more accessible,” says Fabbi, “and the Northwest Passage may open to shipping for the first time. This raises many political and economic issues.”

Where does the UW fit in? Fabbi has already identified nearly 40 faculty pursuing research with a circumpolar connection. These include anthropologists studying human adaptations to Arctic environments; scientists at the UW’s Polar Science Center looking at sea ice motion and thickness; and business faculty studying Alaskan economics. 

In Fabbi’s own program, Canadian Studies, the Arctic is an ongoing focus. “Canada is the second largest Arctic nation in the world,” explains Fabbi. “Forty percent of Canada’s land is considered far north.”

The University of the Arctic is a fairly new institution, established in 1998 as an offshoot of the Arctic Council, which brought together the eight Arctic nations
—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.—
to address circumpolar policy.

“The group agreed that they ought to form a University that would focus on enhanced education for and about the circumpolar world,” says Fabbi.

Classes are offered online, leading to a degree in circumpolar studies. Fabbi hopes that UW faculty may one day develop online courses for UArctic, and that UW students can pursue a circumpolar minor to complement their other UW studies.

“The online courses offer a unique experience,” says Fabbi. “You have classes where students are dialoguing with Russians, Canada’s Inuit, and students from Greenland. I’m hopeful that our membership in UArctic will lead to some innovative new programs at the UW.”

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