Notes on the Arctic Circle

One of our volunteers travelled to Iceland this month to represent the Youth Arctic Coalition! Here is her account:

The Arctic Fox is the only land mammal native to Iceland. History tells us that the intrepid Arctic fox walked across the frozen sea to arrive in Iceland at the end of the last ice age. In 2014, at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, foxes were everywhere. Now the logo for the Arctic Council, hundreds of Arctic foxes peeped from the footnotes of most slideshow presentations. And so they should, there are some new mammals abroad.

 

 Common to all Arctic states, the Arctic fox is logo for the inter-governmental forum, Arctic Council

Poster for the Second Arctic Circle conference

Though similar in name, the Arctic Council and the Arctic Circle Assembly are entirely separate entities. The assembly is the brainchild of President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson who introduced as an annual Iceland-based conference with the mission to “facilitate dialogue and build relationships to address rapid changes in the Arctic”. In effect, it’s a big networking hub. Now in its second year, the Arctic Circle Assembly demonstrated a cross-section of the vast human interest in the region. Arctic locals, scientists, corporate representatives, students, NGOs and government delegates from over thirty participating nations sat down for a weekend of plenaries and breakout sessions. But why is all this happening? The ice is melting, and everyone wants to know what this means.

Observer States

Through plenary sessions, each sector presented bite-size abstracts on the current and proposed activities in the Arctic. As it happens, the presentations made by “observer” (non-arctic) states were the most colourful. A floor-to-ceiling union jack announced the beginning of the British session which included a star-studded list of speakers from entities such as the British Antarctic Survey, Shell Oil and the House of Lords. They were supported by a shoal of nearly sixty delegates with the resounding message: “the British are not coming to the Arctic, the British are here”.  The French session raised tension with a commercial for a luxury Arctic cruise liner, meanwhile the Singapore Minister of State told well-meant anecdotes about Environmental Science students in the Arctic. With a low-lying coastline, Singapore knows better than most the threat of melting ice.

However, the brunt of dialogue seemed to take place via unplanned discussion over lamb soup and bottomless coffee. Between bites, most conversations knocked around the idea that the Arctic “ is a brand new frontier that’s opening up” as it was described by US Admiral Robert Papp, future chair of the Arctic Council. Some even politely debated what we mean when we say Arctic.

Shipping 

The feasibility for new business in the high north is in the fore. Particularly, the continued growth in seasonal Arctic shipping. Arctic routes, as an alternative to the Suez canal, could cut 40% from shipping costs between Europe and Asia. However, among the talk of the “unfettered” annual rise in the number of vessels traversing the Arctic (2 vessels in 2009, 41  in 2011 and 71 in 2013, NSR), experts are saying that it is unrealistic for this upward trend to continue:

“if you keep drawing that straight line then by 2030, all the world’s ships are going through the arctic. This is probably not realistic – the ice doesn’t melt as quickly or as linearly as we thought. We had 71 transits last year and this year we will only have around 30 because the ice has been more resilient. This doesn’t really lend itself to strong business development because businesses like to plan ahead. In the arctic it is very difficult to plan ahead” – Malte Humpert, Executive Director Arctic Institute

It was emphasised that the Arctic remains a higher-risk option when it comes to shipping and many expressed the need to amend the Polar Code.

The ‘Indigenous’ Question

Most sessions included a nod toward cooperation with indigenous communities. However, most also seemed to forget that bare intentions (however well-meant) to cooperate with indigenous peoples do very little. In fact, few delegates challenged the homogenizing effect of the ‘indigenous’ idea and often failed to acknowledge that the cultures they were describing are nuanced and numerous, with as many differences as similarities. Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Josie Okalik Eegeesiak, warned against the romantic ideal of an empty white frontier in the north, she hopes the new wave of external forces will not “inadvertently reinvent the Arctic in their own interests”. Nonetheless, it remains doubtless that Arctic dialogue will always include the voices of its locals.

Youth

I attended Arctic Circle as part of a delegation from the Youth Arctic Coalition. Significantly, the YAC was just one of a dozen or so youth groups who were in attendance (you can read the official report on that here). It is on this subject that I would like to laud Arctic Circle Assembly for making itself accessible to students. The registration fee is a mere 25 euros, a steal compared to parallel conferences abroad. Further, the assembly provided a platform for several youth groups to orchestrate a break-out session and brainstorm issues facing Arctic youth today. As for the assembly itself, there seemed to be interest in the engagement of youth with Arctic development. Significantly, this interest seemed to be shared by corporations and NGOs alike.

 

By Laura Cole

Communications Volunteer at SWLEN 2014-2015