Stefansson Arctic Institute

Stefansson Arctic Institute logo

The Stefansson Arctic Institute (SAI) was established in 1998 and operates under the auspices of the Icelandic Ministry for the Environment. Recently, the Institute celebrated its ten year anniversary. Among guests and speakers at the celebration were Ms. Þórunn Sveinbjarnardóttir, Minister for the Environment and Ms. Sigrún Björk Jakobsdóttir, Mayor of Akureyri.

The Institute bears the name of explorer and anthropologist Vilhjálmur Stefansson (1879-1962). He was born in Canada and both his parents were Icelandic immigrants. Vilhjálmur studied anthropology at Harvard and then explored the Arctic from 1906 to 1918. When he returned he lived in the USA, giving lectures, writing and teaching.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson

Stefansson undertook his first expeditions when he was a student of anthropology at Harvard University. These were journeys to Iceland in 1904 and 1905 for the purpose of obtaining human bones for research in anthropological anatomy. Vilhjálmur Stefansson was best known, however, for his extensive scientific expeditions into the unexplored regions of northern Canada.

Stefansson's expeditions constitute impressive achievements, in the fields of both exploration and research, and include numerous elements of the societies and natural environment of the North. Vilhjálmur spent a total of ten winters and seven summers travelling through the northern regions. With his companions, he travelled on foot and by dog sledge, covering a distance of approximately 32,000 kilometers, often in extreme conditions.

Stefansson wrote over 20 books as well as nearly 400 articles and essays on most subjects in the sphere of Arctic studies. One of Vilhjálmur Stefansson’s best-known books is The Friendly Arctic, and he foresaw that the book’s title presented a challenge to many of his contemporaries who did not share his positive approach to Arctic regions and their inhabitants. Stefansson undertook three arctic expeditions, which included discoveries of new land and the edge of the continental shelf. His journeys and successes are among the marvels of polar exploration.


1906-1907 Anglo-American Expedition explored Mackenzie Delta area of Arctic Canada
1908-1912 Stefansson-Anderson Arctic Expedition: explored Arctic Canada
1913-1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition: explored Arctic Canada and discovered Brock, Borden, Meighen and Lougheed Islands

The legacy of the explorer and anthropologist Vilhjálmur Stefansson is closely connected with human-environmental relations, the sustainable use of natural resources, and the survival and viability of northern communities. Perhaps his legacy is of primary importance because he has, more than anyone else, contributed to a change in the image of the North, from a barren eternally frozen wasteland into a rich region of diverse character that deserves the attention of the international community. We live in changing times and the current focus of awareness has certainly been shifted north. This has been a rapid development, transferring the Arctic regions to a central position with regard to the issues of environmental and climate change, international co-operation and resource governance and use.

Stefansson Arctic Institute

The Stefansson Arctic Institute is located in Akureyri in Northern Iceland. The staff at the Stefansson Arctic Institute includes scientists with broad interdisciplinary research background and experience. SAI has enjoyed and further welcomes visits by scholars, to work on and present their research. The role of the Institute is to:

  • promote sustainable development in the circumpolar north and strengthen Icelandic participation in this endeavor,
  • facilitate and co-ordinate arctic research in Iceland,
  • be a forum of co-operation with regards to multidisciplinary research and international events and projects,
  • collect and disseminate research material and information on circumpolar issues,
  • provide facilities for scholars pursuing research relevant to SAI’s agenda,
  • advise the government on northern issues.

Stefansson Arctic Institute Current Projects

Arctic Human Development Report

The Arctic Human Development Report was published in November 2004. The report was prepared under the auspices of the Arctic Council and is an overview and assessment of human conditions in the circumpolar region. The secretariat of the project was at the Stefansson Arctic Institute. The Arctic Human Development Report is accessible at the SAI webpage here.

The Friendly Arctic: A Travelling Exhibition

The exhibition focuses on Vilhjálmur Stefansson’s life, legacy and vision for the Arctic, featuring a selection of his photographs, recordings, publications, diaries, maps and other items. The exhibit opened in Akureyri Art Museum in November 2000 and has after that visited Reykjavík, Gimli, Winnipeg, Iqaluit in Nunavut, Norwich in Vermont, New York and in Bryggen, Copenhagen. To view a web version of the exhibition, please click here.

Human Dimensions of Arctic Environments

This web-based information project is concerned with arctic cultures and environments, with a broad comparative focus on critical issues, problems and opportunities which face the peoples of the Circumpolar North today. Launched by SAI in 2000 with funding from the European Commission, the project involves co-operation with the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, the Institute for Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College, University of Iceland Institute of Anthropology and University of Akureyri. The name of the project is The Arctic Is. To view the projects website, please click here.

International Collaboration

University of the Arctic

Designed to meet the needs of northern peoples as they face the challenges of a rapidly globalizing world, the University of the Arctic has begun to make important contributions to higher educational in the emerging circumpolar region. The Stefansson Arctic Institute has a representative in the Council of the University of the Arctic, participates in developing the Univesity’s Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies Program, and contributes to the delivery of UArctic courses at the University of Akureyri. The UArctic webpage.

Northern Research Forum (NRF)

The NRF provides a platform for effective, policy-relevant discussion and the sharing of research on northern issues. Open meetings are held biennially with the participation of a wide variety of scientists, policy makers and representatives of other stake-holders. The first NRF was held in Akureyri in November 2000, the second in Veliky Novgorod, NW Russia in 2002, and the third in Yellowknife and Rae Edzo, the Northwest Territories, Canada in 2004. The fourth Open Meeting was held in Oulu, Tornio, Haparanda and Luleå in Sweden and Finland in 2006. The 5th NRF was heldin Anchorage, Alaska, in September 2008. The secretariat for the NRF is operated jointly by the Stefansson Arctic Institute and the University of Akureyri. Northern Research Forum Website.

North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO)

SAI is the one of NABO’s coordination offices. NABO is a non-governmental regional research co-operative with over 450 members in 14 countries. NABO includes 28 major northern research centers in North America, and northern Europe. NABO webpage.

The International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA)

IASSA is governed by an elected eight-member Council and a General Assembly consisting of all members having paid their membership. There is a General Assembly every three years held during the International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS) organized by IASSA. Between the General Assemblies IASSA is run by a Secretariat. The Secretariat is located at the Stefansson Arctic Institute.

Other international initiatives and circumpolar networks in which SAI participates include the International Arctic Science Committee Regional Board, the Nordic Polar Group, and International Conference on Arctic Research Planning.

Location of the Stefansson Arctic Institute

The Stefansson Arctic Institute is located in Akureyri, Iceland’s Capital of the North, which is a growing centre of arctic activities and events. Two of Arctic Council’s secretariats are located in Akureyri – CAFF (Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna) and PAME (Protection of the Arctic Marine Environments). The Northern Research Forum secretariat is located in Akureyri and the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) was recently moved to Akureyri. In addition, Studies in Polar Law for M.A. and LL.M. were launched in the autumn of 2008 at the University of Akureyri. The town of Akureyri, of 17000 people, is gaining reputation for hosting arctic related workshops, conferences and other events. The Arctic Portal Project is also based in Akureyri.

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