Arctic Cities Need Unique Solutions to Climate Change. UVA is Working on Some.

Aerial view of city in Arctic snow

A team supported by UVA’s Environmental Institute has been working with community members in the Arctic to find solutions to dangerous infrastructure challenges caused by a changing climate.

Article by Megan May and Allison Barrett Carter

Residents in the United States’ northernmost city of Utqiaġvik, Alaska face climate change at an unfathomable scale. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the global average. This leads to, among other problems, dangerous strains on the city’s infrastructure due to permafrost thaw. UVA researchers have been working closely with community residents to discover ways Arctic communities can thrive despite changes to the landscape.

With more than 4,000 residents, Utqiaġvik is the largest city of the North Slope Borough, sitting upon a flat tundra peninsula jutting into the Arctic Ocean. The majority of residents are Iñupiat and climate change threatens the very ground they walk on. A team from UVA has been in the region researching innovative solutions for years.

Seed funded by UVA’s Environmental Institute and the UVA Center for Global Inquiry & Innovation, in 2021 the Arctic Cities project received a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The team recently won the 2023 Research Collaboration Award from the UVA Office of the Vice President for Research.

Person walks through Arctic Tundra
UVA researchers are working in the United States’ northernmost city of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, where residents face climate change at an unfathomable scale. (Photo contributed)

The multidisciplinary team, including Howard Epstein from the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Environmental Sciences, Leena Cho and Matthew Jull from the School of Architecture, and Caitlin Donahue Wylie from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, work alongside residents to find solutions to the challenges the community faces.  

“Environmental problems require interdisciplinary understanding of both approaches and solutions along with insights from the people who experience these problems in their daily life,” said Epstein, the project’s lead. “It’s important to get multiple viewpoints. The cutting edge of science is interdisciplinary and community-engaged.”

“But it’s not just about working with scientific data and the design of infrastructure, ” said Leena Cho, associate professor in landscape architecture, Co-Director of the Arctic Design Group, and long-time member of the Arctic Cities project. “It’s also about how you can incorporate the spirit of the community right into the design.”

UVA researchers work on a monitoring station in the Arctic
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Virginia works alongside residents to find solutions to unique challenges the community faces. (Photo contributed.)

Arctic Cities & Changing Ground

Epstein is a vegetation ecologist who started his Arctic research career at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research. He has worked in remote environments, including the northern Canadian Archipelago and northwestern Siberia, for 27 years. Epstein came to UVA 25 years ago and is now a leading expert on Arctic landscapes.

While Epstein studies patterns and changes in vegetation, particularly how vegetation sits at the center of an ecosystem and affects everything from carbon cycling, exchange of energy between land and atmosphere, water flows and more, he is also increasingly interested in data about ground temperatures. He coordinates the team which monitors temperatures at nearly a hundred stations in the area to track changes and assess trends.

“It's not just that the city is warmer than the surrounding tundra,” Epstein explained. “There are spots that are warmer and spots that are cooler. That makes a big difference for the ability to build, the stability of permafrost, and building vulnerability.”

This is where a diverse team is crucial to UVA’s approach.

“Through our Arctic Cities project, we are working with engineers, architects, social scientists, and communities. It is the co-production of knowledge that is important,” Epstein emphasized.

More Snow Means More Problems

Utqiaġvik sits on ice-rich permafrost, ground made of frozen water, soil, rock, and organic material. The top few feet regularly thaw and refreeze every year. Due to rising average temperatures, this layer is becoming deeper than ever. As a result, buildings constructed on the permafrost are unstable and, ultimately, dangerous.

But the Arctic Cities team is also addressing the winter warming effect of snow.

As the Earth’s temperatures rise, more water evaporates into the atmosphere and then precipitates. In Utqiaġvik, where temperatures are below freezing most of the year, this precipitation is most often in the form of snow. Utqiaġvik used to receive less than six inches of precipitation per year; now that’s changed.

More snow means more accumulation along roads and near buildings. When snow is dry it acts as an insulator, keeping ground temperatures warm in the winter. But once the snow melts, flooded areas capture more solar energy, leading to further thawing.

houses on softening permafrost in the Arctic
Due to rising average temperatures, buildings constructed on a melting permafrost in the Arctic Circle are unstable and, ultimately, dangerous. (Photo contributed.)

Arctic Communities Are Resilient

Utqiaġvik is one of the oldest inhabited sites in the country — archaeologists have found evidence of habitation in the area dating back to 800 A.D. The community has overcome many past challenges. Matthew Jull, who has a background in geophysics and architecture, and Cho bring their expertise and research in the built environment to the project. In addition to co-directing Arctic Design Group, they work with Epstein and the community to reimagine what buildings and infrastructure could look like on a changing earth.

“We want to focus on the way in which families live and what their space needs are, which changes across regions and cultures,” said Jull. “An engineer might be looking at cost or energy optimization, which is important. But an architect or landscape architect also looks at social or cultural optimization.”

For Jull, he is not only assessing how different factors affect the destabilization of the ground from permafrost thaw, he and the Arctic Design Group recommend improvements and future development, both from an engineering as well as a design perspective, informed by the attributes of the region.

“There’s actually a lack of architects and designers working in the Arctic,” added Jull, “It’s often been a domain where development has occurred through the need to erect buildings that satisfy engineering constraints of the extreme environment. The classic format is people take designs from the [temperate] south, modify them slightly, put them up in the Arctic, and then they malfunction.”

This approach has resulted in poor living conditions and health concerns due to low-quality construction and lack of maintenance. The UVA team believes there is a better future.

snowy walk and field with a house in the distance
The stability of buildings and structures isn't only threatened by higher temperatures but also an increase in precipitation and the correlating warming effect of snow. UVA researchers and community members are working on solutions. (Photo contributed.)

It Takes a Village

The entire project has sought to be community-informed since its inception. Understanding data-driven solutions must work alongside culture, the research recommendations must be wanted by the community and sustainable for the long term.

“Since beginning our work in this region decades ago, we’ve had the opportunity to work alongside community groups such as the North Slope government, Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative, Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority, Arctic Slope Native Association, Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) Science, and TRIBN [a local consulting office] and so many more,” Cho said. “This has profoundly impacted the work our team is doing and the scope of the project – for the better.”

The team regularly travels to Utqiaġvik and meets with community members and partner organizations. They host workshops, technology demonstrations, and trainings.

“Particularly in Alaska, commitment, continuity, and investing in communities is important,” said Jull, who, along with Cho, has been working in Utqiaġvik since as early as 2008. “That’s why this project is part of a much longer-term commitment to working with the community there.”

The Arctic Design Future

Caitlin Wylie, associate professor of science, technology and society at UVA, has been focused on how the research approach can be captured in a manner to be used again in other projects. For Wylie, her work is to help establish a blueprint which can be applied to future projects.

“By studying how we can improve our work across disciplines,” Wylie said of her involvement, “I think that will translate in some ways to how to better work between Western knowledge and Indigenous knowledge.” 

Involving UVA students (undergraduate and graduate) and postdocs is also important to the Arctic Cities team. Last spring, select School of Architecture design students participated in a research studio in Utqiaġvik. Students focused on snow and drainage maintenance. The design proposals developed by the students won the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Student Honor Award for research excellence.

This year marks the halfway point in the NSF project. The upcoming field season includes regular trips from the UVA team and workshops with community members and organizations. There are hopes to host another design studio for UVA students as well as a class for community members at Illsaġvik College in Utqiaġvik.

The entire team wants their contributions to not only help their partners in Utqiaġvik but also communities across the globe that require an urgent response to climate change.

“The North Slope of Alaska causes you to stop and rethink how we live and our relationship with the environment,” said Jull. “The Arctic is constantly grinding through cycles of transformation. It allows a greater understanding of humans’ ability to adapt to a place and call that home, and how that reflects on our own capabilities.”

The Arctic Cities project page is available online.