The Arctic’s Changing Frontier

Our world is changing, and quickly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arctic region. For decades, Arctic sea ice has been shrinking, the result of higher temperatures driven by climate change. So too has Greenland’s ice sheet, for the same reason. While each new winter has brought with it evidence of deterioration in polar stability, the winter of 2016-2017 has been the most alarming of them all. In the first winter months of 2016, temperature readings in the Arctic were the highest ever recorded, by 20-35 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 11-19 degrees Celsius) above historic averages.

This was the context for a remarkable journey I took to the Arctic in late January 2017, when I headed to Tromsø, Norway, to attend an international conference on the region. Titled “Arctic Frontiers,” this annual conference is both the largest of its kind on the region and, by any measure, the most comprehensive. Held at UiT—The Arctic University of Norway and at other locations around Tromsø, the conference featured compelling venues in a lovely city with a chock-a-block slate of panels and speakers. With plenary sessions moderated by the no-nonsense BBC journalist Stephen Sackur, “Arctic Frontiers” more than delivered on its promise as being the global conference for all things Arctic. 

Conferences of this size and aspiration always deliver more than one can consume, and indeed “Arctic Frontiers” packed nearly every topic one can imagine—and a few that one cannot—into its days-long agenda. Besides the omnipresent climate change, topics spanned energy, fisheries, shipping, geopolitics and security, scientific exploration, national economic development, indigenous peoples and culture, and transnational management of the region.

Yet despite this topical diversity, the tension between conservation of the Arctic and its exploitation dominated the conference. This contradiction lurked behind every conversation, between preserving the Arctic as a near-pristine natural environment with a minimal human footprint—a sentiment also broadly shared about the Antarctic—and using a swiftly-changing Arctic for material gain.

Nearly every speaker, including all government officials as well as those from the extractive industries, paid homage to the need to protect the Arctic’s fragile natural environment. Yet most speakers also said, in their very same statements, that we should “sustainably” fish or drill or transit or tour the Arctic in order to boost national or local or tribal or global economies. When challenged by the able Sackur and other moderators on how it is possible to have our cake and eat it too, none could talk their way out of this conundrum. This uncomfortable situation had very little to do with either the speakers’ sincerity or their capabilities, and more with the impossible logic that their positions put them in. It is not, as a matter of fact, possible to both conserve something and change it at the same time. The more of the latter, the less of the former, and vice-versa.

Yet despite this uneasy dualism over use of the Arctic, on balance, the conference was marked by an optimistic spirit of cooperation rather than by a darker mood of antagonism. National ministers all endorsed the need to continue working within the Arctic Council and finding collaborative solutions to common challenges. While one should interpret some of this as diplomatic posturing, at the same time these sentiments clearly were both heartfelt and held by their national governments. Endorsing views held by civil society representatives, government officials supported the basic notion that governing the Arctic well requires ongoing dialogue through the Arctic Council and other interstate and non-state forums.

With the Trump administration only a few days old at the time of the conference, attendees could only speculate as to what US policy toward the Arctic will be on oil drilling, the Arctic Council, relations with Russia, and other matters. Attendees’ views, it should be said, ranged widely. The most commonly-articulated fear was that the administration will put energy exploration above all other goals, especially climate change, and thus become a destabilizing force within the Arctic Council.

For their parts, the Russian and Chinese delegates were conciliatory on most issues. Among other things, Russian speakers (or observers of Russian foreign policy) contended that cooperation in the Arctic is easier for Russia because the Arctic introduces few questions about liberal ideals (e.g., human rights) and because Russia is capable of disaggregating its foreign policy when needed. Cooperating with the United States about shipping or fishing in the Arctic is possible even when the two countries clash over Ukraine. As for the Chinese delegates, they too were all about cooperation, but as a non-Arctic country, their interests were clearly oriented toward using the melting Arctic, for fish primarily and ice-free shipping to Europe secondarily. 

As one might expect, the Nordic countries were front and center in every discussion, with their representatives consistently calling for strong multinational, multi-stakeholder stewardship of the Arctic. As the host nation, Norway’s stewardship was given extensive and deserving plaudits, in particular for environmental protection and advocacy of multilateral climate solutions. On the other hand, Norwegian speakers also faced questions about their national interests in oil exploration and fishing (the country’s biggest exports). One interesting aspect concerned the China-Norway connection, which centers around Norway’s desire to sell fish to China, and China’s desire to acquire fish from Norway to feed its enormous and increasingly wealthy population.

All of which returns us to the central theme of the conference, which is of the Arctic as a frontier. A bit more than a century ago, the Arctic was a true frontier in that it was literally unmapped and untamed. Today, it is more of a metaphorical frontier and less of a literal one. Not only is the Arctic well-mapped, it also is well-explored and increasingly well-exploited. As has been true of every frontier in world history, the Arctic is being transformed from a wilderness into a domesticated space. Granted, it will be some time yet before freighters and cruise ships and trawlers ply Arctic waters at will, but that scenario someday will come to pass. Simply put, a changing climate, combined with our own desires and technical capabilities, will push the frontier back until it is completely gone. Something else will replace it, for better and for worse.

Tromsø, it should be mentioned, lies above the Arctic Circle. Before arriving, I expected temperatures to be around zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) or even colder. Instead, I was treated to balmy temperatures near freezing during the day, and a bit colder at night. At 5 a.m. the morning of my departure, I got into a taxi to head to the airport. It was January 25, and it was raining.

Peter Engelke is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterEngelke1.

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Image: Children play amid melting icebergs on the beach in Nuuk, Greenland. (Reuters/Alister Doyle)