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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

On January 15, 2016, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center (ASC) hosts a full-day symposium, under its two-year ‘Arctic Crashes’ project, Peoples and Animal Relations in the Changing Arctic: Climate, Human or Habitat Agency in the Anthropocene. The symposium focuses on the current studies of historical animal population crashes, primarily in the North Atlantic and Eastern Arctic. It follows a similar session organized by the ASC for the ‘Arctic Crashes’ project that was held in Anchorage, Alaska in March 2015 and covered research in the North Pacific- Western Arctic sector, with a different set of prime animal species (Pacific walrus, Caribou, Sea lion, Polar bear, Harbor seal, Beluga whale, and others).

The Symposium follows the second ‘Annual Ernest “Tiger” Burch Lecture’ presented in the NMNH Baird Auditorium. The speaker this year is Dr. Morten Meldgaard from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Dr. Meldgaard is a zooarchaeologist with extensive experience in historical caribou and seal hunting sites in Greenland that illustrate numerous fluctuations in Arctic resource abundance and past human-animal relations.

The Symposium with 12 invited speakers from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands is organized in three thematic sessions of about 1.5 hours each: 1) Climate Change, Animal Crashes, and Aboriginal People; 2) Historical Commercial Hunting and Past Animal Crashes; and 3) Changing Visions on Human–Animal–Habitat Relations in the Arctic

The ‘Arctic Crashes’ project sponsored by the Smithsonian ‘Grand Challenges’ Consortia studied the role of humans, climate, and habitat change in historical collapses (‘crashes’) of some keystone Arctic wildlife populations. A cross-disciplinary team of Smithsonian scholars and external collaborators included researchers from four departments at the Natural History Museum, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Virginia, as well as partners from the U.S. and Canadian agencies, and indigenous knowledge experts from northern communities. The team worked for two years (2014–2015) in various Arctic and Subarctic regions, such as Southeast Alaska, Bering Strait, Labrador, Québec North Shore, and the Canadian High Arctic, as well as surveying and organizing specimens in the NMNH collections.

The Arctic makes a particularly compelling case for assessing planetary sustainability, due to highly visible changes in its environment triggered by the recent climate warming, retreat of polar sea ice, and habitat shifts. The project team relied on new field and historical data to demonstrate how differently human-animal-habitat relations have been treated by scientists, indigenous people, commercial users, and conservationists over time.

Today’s Arctic sends an unequivocal message of rapid and dramatic change to its residents, the international science community, decision makers, and general public. Some observed transitions are within memories of local indigenous people and archaeological data; but many are beyond the scope of our records. By bringing together an innovative set of perspectives from the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and indigenous knowledge, we aspire to expand the breadth of research and our capacity to address the multiple challenges of the Anthropocene era, at both regional and global scales. We believe that in-depth, case-by-case, and area-specific assessments is the best way to learn how people acted and adapted historically to habitat changes and animal collapses, and to disseminate our message on the complex nature of the human agency on the planet to the public via scholarship, outreach, and educational efforts.

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