Category Archives: Arctic

From knowledge to action

This week more than 3000 scientists, bureaucrats and industry representatives have congregated in Montreal for the IPY 2012 conference called “From knwoledge to action”. The main problem with the conference is that there has been a lot og knowledge and very litle action.

My expectations might have been a litle off, but I do believe that a coneference that gives itself the title “From Knowledge to Action” must strive to combine policy and science, scientists and politicians. And, if it was not possible to get the politicians onboard, the onus is on the scientists to formulate the policy implications of their work. Without doing this the science stays in its ivory tower without gaining traction in the real world.

The conference shows the huge implications for the Arctic of climate change, the change for local societies by the effects of globalization and that we still need more information on all these aspects. To be able to handle this we need the politicians to act, on globalisation, on climate change, and on providing funds for further studies and even longer time series. On this important field the conference seems to me to be a failure.

I think one of the reasons of this is that the community that is here is so damned polite and restrained. Where is the fired up discussions on scientific priorities, on policy or on relationsships between indeginous populations and majority populations? They might be here, but I certainly did not find them. I do not think it is because everyone agrees, but I do think it is because everyone is so polite.

Fortunately the key note speaker on thursday adressed some of these challenges. Dr. Sheila Jasanof gave a wonderful talk about the border between science and politics, between knowledge and actions, and why this border is so seldom bridged. Her answer was that one of the problems is that we believ that there is a linear movement from knowledge to action, and that the wrongly held belief that science is neutral and should not be involved in the messy compromises that is politics is one of the barriers against necesarry action on among other things climate change. You really should hear her talk. I think it will be available on the coneference homepage.

Congratulations Greenland

Yesterday, more than 75 percent of the Greenlanders voted for increased self government. Only one area had a no majority. According to the Norwegian daily, VG, many Greenlanders see this as a step towards full independence. The vote has been welcomed by the Danish Primeminister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. According to Jyllandsposten he says (my translation): – The proposal for greater self government for Greenland has broad political backing on Greenland as well as in Denmark.

Verdas største øy tar eit nytt steg mot sjølvstende. Foto:NASA/Wikipedia
The worlds largest island takes another step towards independence. Photo:NASA/Wikipedia

It will be exciting to see how this develops. An important question will be if Greenland is economically able to support full independence. Today they receive funds from Denmark. Greenland has about 57 000 inhabitants. Independence wil of course be more expensive than todays homerule. Many Greenlanders hope that oil will be found and that will give them the possibility. This is also mirrored in the first comments from Johan Motzfeldt, leader of the social democratic party, Siumut. He said my translation):

The first area we want to take control over are resources. Now we have a mandate to do this.Afterwards we are going to launch a program to exploit this economically for Greenland.

Sermitsiaq writes in an other article that the Scottish company, Cairn Energy PLC is the biggest player in the Greenlandic oil sector. They received two new liscenes off South Greenland just days before the referendum, where the future resource incomes has been the most important theme.

It is the Danish parliament will make the final provisions for what powers should be transfered from the Danish government to Greenland.

You can find individual results from the referendum here.

The EU and the Arctic

The EU takes interest? Photo:NASA
The EU takes interest? Photo:NASA

The EU has for a long time taken slight interest in what has been happening on its northern Arctic periphery. That is set to change. The Commission has just released a communication to the parliament and the council on “The European Union and the Arctic Region”. This could be good news, it could be bad.

A communication like this is often the first step leading to a thorough policy from the Union. The first step is actually quite interesting and , I believe, sets the Union on a right path. Except that is, that this document as so many documents today is schizophrenic. On one hand it makes all the right noises about climate change and the environment. They write beautiful words, such as these:

The vast sea and land spaces of the Arctic region are vital and vulnerable components of the Earth’s environment and climate system. Arctic air temperatures have been increasing twice as much as the global average. Coverage of sea ice, snow cover and permafrost have been decreasing rapidly, triggering strong feed-back mechanisms that accelerate global warming. Accelerated loss from the Greenland ice sheet would raise sea levels rapidly and considerably. In spite of harsh conditions, melting of ice and new technologies will gradually increase access to Arctic living and non-living resources as well as to new navigation routes. Although the Arctic remains one of the most pristine areas on Earth, it will be increasingly at risk from the combined effects of climate change and increased human activity.

It seems that they understand the problem, I thought, for about half a minute. That was the time it took me to reach this paragraph:

Support for the exploitation of Arctic hydrocarbon resources should be provided in full respect of strict environmental standards taking into account the particular vulnerability of the Arctic.

So climate change is extremely important, but we still need to drill for more oil and gas. Somehow that double standard, seen often these days, keeps amazing me. Still I guess it is a step forward the climate change actually is put first in the document. And, truth be told, no other governments are less schizophrenic. I guess there are two good reasons for actually exploiting arctic hydrocarbons. It could possibly make the EU less dependent on Russian natural gas, and natural gas could replace coal fired electricity. I don’t believe either scenario.

However the document contains more than climate change and hydrocarbons. It sets a very interesting path for multilateral cooperation in the Arctic, within the framework of UNCLOS. Even more interesting it ponders the possibilities of setting up new legal frameworks in the Arctic. I think that it would be very good if the parts of the Arctic not under national sovereignty could be handled in the same way as the Antarctic is handled. With a treaty that protects the environment an demilitarizes the polar basin. I have been thinking about this more as a dream, but with the EU warming to the idea it could be a distinct possibility.

They write:

The full implementation of already existing obligations, rather than proposing new legal instruments should be advocated. This however should not preclude work on further developing some of the frameworks, adapting them to new conditions or Arctic specificities.

I tmight still be a dream, but it is a nice one.

The Arctic is melting – drill for oil

The Arctic is melting – drill for oil. That is the response from the European Commission at least if we are to believe the EUObserver, that writes:

Drilling for oil in the fragile northern environment must go ahead with European financial and political support for the sake of EU energy security, energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs declared on Friday (19 September) at a debate on the subject in Brussels.

“You cannot say [the Arctic] is a sanctuary,” said the commissioner “… otherwise, where will will we get our energy from?”

The lack of logic is of course amazing. We are doing badly, lets do worse. But is is a good example of how we have com in this predicament at all. To continue doing what we are doing is the most important thing. The lack of imagination is mindgobling.

So you say, is there really such a thing as global warming? I dare you to look closely at the graph below.

Less ice in the Arctic than before
Less ice in the Arctic than before, source

However, the EU is not the only ones that is looking north. I have written about it here, but take a look at this quote from the same EUObserver:

In August last year, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the Arctic sea floor underneath the North Pole, while on Wednesday (17 September), during a meeting of the country’s security council, President Dmitry Medvedev set in motion plans to claim part of the Arctic shelf as national territory.

The move will “turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base of the 21st century,” he said at the meeting.

Meanwhile, Conservative Canadian Prime Minister, whose nation also has competing claims on the north, has also pledged to assert Arctic sovereignty while campaigning ahead of the country’s 14 October federal election.

Too many people sees dollars where they should see warning flags

Conflicting claims

I have earlier written about the conflicting claims in the polar basin. The University of Durham has published this very interesting map of these claims.

Claims in the Arctic
Claims in the Arctic

You can find a larger version of this map in a pdf-version with notes at This map gives you a good idea of the potential conflicts in the north.

The Arctic is heating up

No, I’m not talking about climate change. Even though I obviously could have, the North West passage is open again this year. No, I’m talking about the international scramble to grab land (read sea bottom) in the Arctic.

The United Nations Law of the Sea gives all the countries around the Arctic bassin until 2014 to stake their claim or earlier if they ratified before 2004. This means we are in for a rush of claims. Norway has already submitted her claim, Russia, Canada and Denmark (Greenland)are ready to do so. What the US will do is uncertain. The US has not ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, while the other countries have.

There is litle doubt that some of the claims will overlap. Certainly more than one country will claim the pole. Russia surely has made her intent clear by planting a flag on the north pole.
With the ice disappearing and the US Geological services claiming that large reserves of petroleum is to be found, there is reason to believe conflict will be many and tough. Lets just hope they do not escalate. writes:

In the latest sign of the rising international political stakes in the Arctic, the top U.S. Coast Guard official has revealed a planned shift in American foreign policy from scientific research to “sovereignty” and “security presence” in Alaskan waters bordering Canadian and Russian


“The primary mission right now is the maritime boundary line with Russia – keeping foreigners from stealing Alaskan fish,” Rear Admiral. Gene Brooks, head of the U.S. Coast Guard’s operations in Alaska, told the radio network.


…prompted the Conservative government to promise a new year-round icebreaker for Arctic waters and a fleet of up to eight ice-reinforced patrol boats.

But we should be careful not to look at this potential conflict with old cold war glasses. The potential disputes between Canada and the US, Canada and Denmark are equal poignant as the potential conflict between all the Arctic countries and Russia.

However the Telegraph writes that:

As the polar powers have got out their maps in the last couple of years, four of them – Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the USA – have made the unpleasant discovery that the fifth – Russia – is far ahead of the game. As Russian forces consolidate their grip on her messy southern frontier in the aftermath of the war with Georgia, her diplomats, oilmen and military have been pressing their advantage in the north, a border region which is on a far vaster scale but equally confused and disputed.

Cleo Paskal, an Assistant Fellow at Chatham House and an expert on how climate change will affect borders, said: “The Russians have a big head start. Their nuclear submarines have been all over the Arctic for decades, they have 16 icebreaking ships to the Americans’ four, they have a lot of experience and a lot of the right gear.

So as all countries are beefing up their military capabilities in the Arctic, lets just hope the dispute settlement mechanisms in the Law of the Sea treaty will be robust – and enough.