UD geographer's election to board of Arctic institute reveals cool connections
Frederick "Fritz" Nelson, professor of geography at UD, has been elected to the board of governors of the Arctic Institute of North America. He is shown on a research trip to Michigan's Huron Islands.
Col. William S. Carlson (1905-1994) on an expedition in the Arctic. He later would serve as president of the University of Delaware from 1946 to 1950. Photo courtesy of Kristin Rowe Carlson.


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2:36 p.m., May 12, 2010----Frederick E. (“Fritz”) Nelson, professor of geography in the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, has been elected to the board of governors of the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA).

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The appointment not only highlights the University's continuing contributions to Arctic research and education, but also reveals important historic connections between the international institute, a past UD president who was a polar explorer, and Nelson himself.

AINA's mandate is “to advance the study of the North American and circumpolar Arctic through the natural and social sciences, the arts, and humanities, and to acquire, preserve, and disseminate information on physical, environmental, and social conditions in the North.”

As a member of AINA's board of governors, Nelson joins 29 other Arctic specialists in overseeing the multidisciplinary institute's international governance structure. The U.S. corporation currently is headquartered at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and its Canadian counterpart is at the University of Calgary.

The institute publishes the quarterly journal Arctic, as well as a monograph series, and maintains a large specialized library and archival collection at its Canadian headquarters in Calgary. It also maintains a field research station at Kluane Lake in Yukon Territory and operates a scholarship program in support of northern research by graduate students at North American colleges and universities.

Studying the institute's history, Nelson uncovered an important connection to UD. He learned that AINA traces its roots to a series of 1944 meetings in Montreal between Arctic specialists from the United States and Canada. The U.S. delegation to the first meeting was led by the commanding officer of the U.S. Army Air Forces' Arctic, Desert and Tropic Information Center (ADTIC), headquartered in New York City.

“This individual was none other than Col. William S. Carlson, who two years later would become president of the University of Delaware,” Nelson notes.

The 1944 meetings included several other ADTIC officers who subsequently became leaders in their respective fields of Arctic research, including Richard Foster Flint (later chair of the Department of Geology at Yale), glaciologist Laurence Gould (subsequently president of Carleton College), and permafrost scientist A. Lincoln Washburn (who would become AINA's first executive director).

Also in attendance were John K. Wright, director of the American Geographical Society (AGS), W.L.G. Joerg, the long-time resident AGS Arctic specialist and chief of the Cartographic Records Branch of the U.S. National Archives, and luminary Vilhjalmur Stefansson, “the grand old man of the Arctic,” whose expeditions early in the 20th century had demonstrated to an entire generation of polar explorers the superiority of indigenous subsistence techniques for extended travel in cold environments. An equally distinguished group of scientists and civil servants represented Canada at the organizational meetings, according to Nelson.

Reverberations from AINA's organizational meetings and their participants have been felt at UD over many decades, in ways that might be described as “unexpected,” Nelson notes.

Col. Carlson had been instrumental in creating an Arctic route by which long-range fighter aircraft could be transported safely to World War II's European theater, using stopover points in Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland. His interests in geography and the Arctic continued until his death in 1994.

“Carlson, who believed that geographical education was a necessary component of postwar university-level instruction, founded UD's Department of Geography by executive action in 1949 and oversaw the University's initial moves into the realm of polar research,” Nelson says. “The Department of Geography has maintained an emphasis on cryospheric research, much of it focused in the Arctic, to the present day.”

During 1955, AGS associate Sir Hubert Wilkins, first to fly by airplane across the Arctic Ocean in 1928 and first to attempt reaching the North Pole by submarine in 1931, was a visiting professor of geography at UD.

During 2008 and 2009, UD and AGS jointly sponsored the “William S. Carlson International Polar Year Events,” the University's primary contribution to the fourth International Polar Year. Organized by Nelson, who is also a councilor of AGS, the series was sponsored by all of UD's seven colleges.

A number of other unexpected associations continue, Nelson says. After AINA was established, its U.S. corporation was based for several years in the AGS building in New York City. AINA's offices there occupied part of the quarters of the AGS Department of Exploration and Field Research, chaired by glaciologist William O. Field. Nelson was the editor of a 1995 festschrift volume honoring Field.

Both Carlson and Nelson received doctorates in Arctic earth science from the University of Michigan, in departments founded by the eminent glaciologist William Herbert Hobbs. Both were elected to National Fellow status in the Explorers Club of New York City, Carlson in 1929 and Nelson in 2004.

Carlson grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Nelson, also a native of northern Michigan, was recently presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award from Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Nelson also is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Article by Tracey Bryant