General outline of the course

There is an increasing international interest in the Arctic, triggered by the effects of global warming as well as global economic and political trends. Retreating ice sheets and glaciers, decreasing sea ice, changing seasonality of snow and ice, permafrost thaw and changing ecosystems characterize the present Arctic. These changes, with large potential feedbacks, have led to increased efforts by scientists to monitor the changes, explain their causes and predict their consequences. Simultaneously, climate change as well as changing global economic and political trends, have led to an increased economic interest in the Arctic. The decreasing summertime sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean has already offered new possibilities for shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern coast lines of the Eurasian and North-American continents. In addition, global economic trends such as rising and falling world market prices for base metals as well as rare metals on the world market, has resulted in boom and bust cycles in prospecting and mineral extraction across the Arctic region. Together these changes pose a challenge to all stakeholders in the region, from indigenous peoples and other local residents, municipal planners, to policy makers and economic actors on the regional, national and global scales. The changes also pose a challenge to students who wish to work for sustainable development in their careers.

Svalbard - a landscape changing as a consequence of climate change. Photo: Eric Paglia

The Arctic environment and the ways humans relate to and depend upon it, have undergone changes before however. Therefore, the point of departure for this course is that in order to understand the present development and its possible outcomes, we need to know why and how the region has developed from a long term perspective.

The geographical focus of the course is on the Fennoscandian Arctic, but changes in this region will be placed in a larger Arctic and global context. The Sami indigenous population has lived in the Fennoscandian Arctic since ancient times and the Nordic states have had a foot there since the mediaeval period. The natural environment in the region has undergone several changes since the last glaciation (10 000 years ago), often triggered by changes in the climate. The indigenous peoples of the north have shaped their lifestyle´s in interaction with these changing environmental contexts, but also in relation to new colonizers in the region. Over the centuries actors from the centers of power in the southern parts of the Nordic countries have successively increased their interests in the Fennoscandian Arctic, as an arena for taxation, science, tourism industry, resource exploitation, energy production and settlement. Thus the rise and fall of interest in natural resources and political influence in the Arctic is nothing new, but the scale of the operations and their potential impacts on environments and societies are more severe than ever before and therefore pose a challenge to residents (indigenous and non-indigenous), economic and political stakeholders and for policy makers on local, regional and national levels. We are aware we need to predict the effect of cumulative impacts of which climate change and extractive industries are the two most important for this region.

1.1 Objectives and learning outcomes

The aim of the course is to provide a thorough orientation about long-term changes in the Arctic region, with a particular focus on the Fennoscandian Arctic. Which environmental changes has this region experienced historically? Why and how have humans used the region? How can we use past experiences when assessing the impact of the currents changes? The course focuses on two interrelated themes – 1) climate- and environmental change and 2) societal- and cultural change. 

Field education at Storglaciären, Tarfala valley, Arctic Course in 2014. Photo: Dag Avango

After the course, students will be able to:

1. Recount climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic  

2. Describe and explain the main processes of societal change in the region

3. Conduct basic field research through documentation of natural phenomena, built environments and interviews

4. Perform simple research tasks by using and combining the different sources

5. Critically analyze current events in the Arctic, in relation to the course contents

Svalbard 2012. Photo: Eric Paglia

1.2 Learning activities

The learning activities of the course takes place in two different contexts - at KTH, Valhallavägen campus in Stockholm, Sweden; and in Svalbard, 

The learning activities in the course are the following:

Lectures: An important part of the course comprises of lectures which last from one to two hours. Most lectures are given by teachers from KTH, SU and UIUC.

Excursions: On occasions, the lectures will be complemented by visits to museums in Stockholm, focused on museums which in various ways deal with the Arctic.

Field work: The students will be trained in field research (documentation of natural phenomena and built environments as well as interviews), during the field work period. As a part of the field work, the students will collect data for use in their written assignments.

Seminars: An important part of the course consists of seminars. The seminars will be in three different forms – literature seminars, field work seminars and essay seminars. The literature seminars will be devoted to the course literature. They are normally 1 hour long and follow some of the lectures. If there is no seminar following the lecture, we will examine you on the readings by a quiz. The field work seminars will be held in conjunction with the field work and will be devoted to discussing different issues related to the field work. The essay seminars will be held on two occasions during the course – one at the beginning and one towards the end. During those seminars the students will have the opportunity to present their work in progress and receive feedback from the teachers before completing and handing in their final essays.

Quizzes: in connection with some of the lectures, we will have a quiz on the readings.

Writing an essay: The students will write an essay in pairs. This essay must deal with research problems pertaining to environmental and societal changes in the Fennoscandian Arctic. The essays should be based on data the students collect during the field work (both natural science and humanities-social science data, which must be combined), and on course literature and lectures. The essay must contain clear and informed reference to course literature from all disciplinary fields in the course. In addition other literature sources may be used. At the beginning of the course, a full synopsis of the essay should be presented at a seminar. Towards the end of the course a work in progress on the essay shall be presented and discussed. The final version of the essay should be handed in at a date in the third week of august.

1.3 General outline of the course

The first part of the course will be held at KTH, Valhallavägen campus in Stockholm, and consists of a series of lectures, seminars and museum visits on the topic Arctic environmental and societal change. 

The second part of the course takes place in Svalbard and consists of different field work exercises, focusing on different aspects of the changes taking place in the Arctic.

Svalbard, Arctic Course 2012. Photo: Eric Paglia
Exploring glacier morains at Tarfala valley, Arctic course in 2014. Photo: Dag Avango

The general objective of the field work is to train students in addressing main research problems of the course, by documenting and analyzing evidence on environmental impacts of climate change, as well as data pertaining to the consequences of natural resource extraction in the Arctic. A third objective is for the students to collect data for their final essays.

The main teachers of the course are faculty members from KTH and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Belongs to: Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment
Last changed: Feb 04, 2020