Building Vital Connections in the Arctic

By Tim Stelzig, federal regulatory attorney at GCI

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GCI joined a number of other leading Arctic stakeholders in Seattle last week for the fifth annual Arctic Encounter Symposium.  We came in part to share our experience — lessons we have learned from 40 years of building the largest communications network in the U.S. Arctic.  We also came to learn from the wisdom and experience of others.  

The theme this year was security:  economic security, cultural security, food security, energy security, and health security.  Attaining security requires investment, especially in a time of change.  

Numerous speakers at the conference discussed how the Arctic is changing at an accelerating rate.  The traditional ways of life that brought security to the people of the Arctic for millennia were well adapted to their environment.  As the environment changes, this way of life is facing heightened challenges.  Speakers explained that a warming climate is melting the ice that provides sure footing over dangerous waters and that protects communities against coastal erosion.  Ice cellars that for centuries have stored the meat from successful hunts are filling with water.  Ancestral homes are falling into seas and rivers, as personally shared by Shania Wells, one of the Arctic Youth Ambassadors who spoke so eloquently at this year’s Encounter.  Animals and plants are adapting too, which raises concerns about the health of their populations and that habitat changes may draw vital species away from rural villages. 

  Arctic Youth Ambassadors present in front of policymakers at the 5th Annual Arctic Encounter Symposium in Seattle, April 19-20, 2018.

Arctic Youth Ambassadors present in front of policymakers at the 5th Annual Arctic Encounter Symposium in Seattle, April 19-20, 2018.

Arctic security is a shared responsibility.  The Arctic is where many of us live, work and play.  We bear responsibility also as neighbors, and as friends.  Alaska is a vast state geographically, but with a sparse population it also has many characteristics of a small town.  

We cannot however expect significant investment in the Arctic solely as an act of social responsibility.  Businesses will invest, but only where they can expect a reasonable return given their fiduciary duties to shareholders and investors.  Nor can we expect rescue from government.  While governments by design have a role in providing support for social responsibilities, there are many competing needs and budgets are stretched thin.  

It is vital to create a compelling case for Arctic investment.  It can be done.  This year’s Arctic Encounter Symposium highlighted numerous successful Arctic investments, including Stephan Lindström’s presentation on the progress Finland has made in Arctic tourism, including winter visits to Finish Lapland.  The Honorable Inuuteq Holm Olsen described the investments Greenland is making in new runways and in hydroelectric power along its peaceful path to independence.  I was also struck by the personal commitment of Greenland schoolchildren to become fluent in three languages to unite their people in Greenlandic, an Inuit language and the official language of Greenland since 1979, while also learning Danish and English to ensure that the effort to preserve Greenlandic does not create barriers to outside investors and business partners.  That too is a form of investment.  

We also heard from Alaska Airlines which for decades has been running daily “Milk Run” flights that supply dairy, produce, and other necessities to certain off-road communities in rural Alaska.  Alaska Airlines is continuing to invest in the state and recently bought several new cargo planes, and is rolling out new products to help Alaskans like their “Freight for Less” program which allows Club 49 members ship up to 100 pounds of cargo in the state for a flat rate of $10.  In other states that would be a good deal.  In rural Alaskan communities that are off the road grid, that’s an affordable lifeline.  Greta Schuerch and Liz Cravalho shared a microphone to jointly describe NANA’s partnership with Red Dog mine, one of the largest zinc mines in the world.  This investment has created approximately 600 full-time jobs at the mine and approximately 2,800 jobs statewide, while also producing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Alaskans.  Many others are investing in Alaska too, such as through the work of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program.  

By working together we can rise to the challenges facing the Arctic today.  Investing in sustainable economic development will fund the adaptations needed for resilience.  Investment is most productive when it is coordinated, when new projects are selected and timed to produce synergies that multiply realized values.  This is true regionally, when a road built to accommodate a mine or other industry can be extended to surrounding communities and also used as a utility corridor for broadband and power lines.  This cross-sector investment is made more feasible through cost sharing and can bring jobs and new opportunities to an entire region as the flow of commerce, energy, and information increases.  It also is true in the broader pan-Arctic sense.  When multiple Arctic regions develop their individual economies they can increase north-north trade, strengthening the economy of each. 

We are fortunate to live in this time of transition.  As Richard Beneville, Mayor of Nome, noted last week, living among us are those who can provide a firsthand account of life in the Arctic largely as it existed for millennia.  We also live in a time when the promise of technology has never been greater.  The mobile phone in our pocket will connect us to anyone we know and to almost everything anyone knows.  Using video conferencing over the internet, patients in rural health clinics can keep an appointment with a specialist physician in a hospital 500 or 1000 miles away.  Alaska Native school children can virtually tour the Great Barrier Reef in Australia without leaving their classroom and can receive instruction from advanced math or science teachers on a daily basis rather than wait for a traveling teacher to make a weekly appearance.  Within a few short years patients will be electing to receive robotic surgery, scientists will better understand the Arctic by analyzing “big data” compiled using remote monitors and drones, artificial intelligence will increase human productivity wherever a robust internet connection exists, and people will begin experiencing the world in a whole new way through augmented reality.  At GCI, we are building the networks that power these possibilities.  

The privilege of our age comes with great responsibility.  We are the generation that will decide how to weave these ancient and modern threads of human history, selecting which aspects of the past will become incorporated into our children and grandchildren’s future.  It is a task that falls to us whether we embrace it or not.  The value of the Arctic Encounter Symposium lies less in the symposium than in the encounters, in the human connections and appreciation for others that will allow each of us to approach this decision in a more thoughtful way.