Fólk í norðurslóðarmálum

The work has only just begun

Þorsteinn Gunnarsson - Rannís

Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, former rector of the University of Akureyri, received recognition from the Akureyri municipality and the university this spring for his work in favour of the Arctic region. He was also honoured at the Arctic Circle Conference last October. He has recently retired but has continued his dedicated work and advocated for the importance of Arctic affairs and of its education in Iceland.

Created the future policy of the University of Akureyri

Þorsteinn became the rector of the University of Akureyri in 1994. "At that time, there was very little interest in Arctic issues, and they were generally not discussed. I felt there was a need for knowledge about the Arctic region, as significant changes were occurring that needed to be both researched and disseminated to people," says Þorsteinn.

After his tenure as rector, he established collaborations with other university rectors in Europe who were working on Arctic issues. This collaboration led to the participation of the University of Akureyri in the establishment of the University of the Arctic, an international cooperative network of universities in the Arctic region. The University of Akureyri, along with the Stefansson Arctic Institute, were the only Icelandic institutions involved initially, but today, all Icelandic universities are members of the network. Þorsteinn also encouraged the involvement of Akureyri municipality in Arctic affairs. The municipality became a member of the Northern Forum, a regional association of Arctic communities, and has actively participated in the organization. From these forums, cooperation among mayors has emerged, such as the Arctic Mayors Forum, where Ásthildur Sturludóttir, the mayor of Akureyri, serves as chairman.

A robust program in Polar Law offered at UNAK

The University of Akureyri offers robust studies in polar law, making it a unique example in Iceland. Þorsteinn considered it important to teach Arctic studies in the social sciences and law departments of the university and establish a specialized field of study in Polar Law that could reach an international market. "We are still teaching polar law, and it has garnered special attention abroad that we have this degree," says Þorsteinn.


After finishing his tenure as rector of the University of Akureyri in 2009, Þorsteinn worked at Rannís until 2020. Rannís is the Icelandic representative to the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). "IASC is the most important organization of scientific institutions concerning the Arctic," says Þorsteinn.

Rannís appoints representatives to the IASC board, which has its secretariat in Akureyri. Among its activities, IASC organizes an annual Science Week that rotates among its member countries, totaling 23. In 2020, Þorsteinn chaired the preparatory committee for the Science Week, which was soon transformed two weeks before its occurrence due to the Covid pandemic. It successfully transitioned to a digital event with the help of the University of Akureyri. Rannís also emphasizes incorporating Arctic issues into the European Union's international research programs and within the framework of the Nordic countries. In collaboration with the Stefansson Arctic Institute and the Arctic Portal, Rannís published a report last year called "Mapping Arctic Research in Iceland," which maps Arctic research both domestically and internationally.

Why arctic affairs?

"There are various reasons for it. When I took over as rector of the University of Akureyri, there was no official policy for the university, and I had to think carefully about where the focus should lie. After deliberation and discussions, I believed that the university should strive to serve the dispersed communities in Iceland. To achieve that, it would be highly beneficial to learn from the experiences of neighbouring countries facing similar conditions in sparsely populated areas like Iceland. These northern regions include Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska. The sea ice, snow, and glaciers shape the environment we live in, and this environment is undergoing significant changes. I wanted science to be the means to deal with these major, foreseeable changes," says Þorsteinn.

A lot left to be done

Þorsteinn expresses gratitude for the opportunity to initiate initiatives like the focus on Arctic affairs and witness their growth and development. "Fortunately, there was a group of people willing to participate in this expedition, and I believe we have made significant progress for Akureyri and its surroundings. But the work is just beginning, and there is still much to be done," says Þorsteinn.

Þorsteinn Gunnarsson

"Fortunately, there was a group of people willing to participate in this mission, and I believe we have made significant progress for Akureyri and its surroundings. But the work is just beginning, and there is still much to be done."