2011 Year in Review: An Amicable Arctic

Jokulsarlon, Iceland. (c) Mia Bennett

Summary of the Past Year

This year, the Arctic has witnessed a lot more cooperation and a lot less conflict. Whereas past years were marked by sovereignty squabbles, boundary disputes, and accusations of airspace intrusions, this year, events took a more peaceful turn. First of all, members of the Arctic council signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic in May. Five months later, the first SAR exercise took place in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, with over 80 delegates and attendees. The agreement is actually beginning to be implemented, making it a true success story for the Council.

Executives from South Korea and policymakers from the Northwest Territories discussed the possibility of working together so that the former could purchase gas from the latter. The Norwegian and Russian legislatures ratified the agreement made last year delineating the maritime boundary between the two countries in the Barents Sea. This, in turn, opens up the waters to joint oil and gas exploration, which could see technology transfer from Norway to Russia, spurring the development of their offshore resources.

Russia, Canada, and the U.S. also carried out the second ever Vigilant Eagle exercise, a joint affair between the three countries testing their abilities to respond to a terrorist hijacking over the Bering Sea. In 2010, when the exercise was first performed, it was the first live-fly exercise between Russia and the U.S. since World War II, and the first ever between NORAD and Russia. Pushing the “reset” button in Russian-American relations may not yet have been fully successful, but it has worked to some degree in the Arctic. Encouragingly, Canadian and Russian tensions dissolved this year. Relations reached a high point when Canada’s Chief of Defence met with his counterpart in Moscow. More high-level visits also took place, with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg paying a visit to President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. Though their conversation mostly concerned non-Arctic affairs, they did touch briefly upon the circumpolar north.

Most Unexpected Event

While it was not surprising that more parties than ever were interested in the Arctic, it was surprising where the interest originated. Billionaire Chinese investor Huang Nubo attempted to purchase a large tract of land in northeastern Iceland to develop an ecoutourism resort, but was rebuffed. Facebook and other technology companies like Google set up server farms in the cold northern regions of the Nordic countries. And most recently, UK Member of Parliament Angus Robertson of the Scottish National Party wrote an editorial in the Scotsman calling on Scotland to make a stand in the Arctic and rekindle ties with its northern neighbors like Norway. Robertson represents Moray, a council area on the southern coast of the Moray Firth, an inlet of the North Sea. Moray is actually not that much farther south than southernmost Norway, so perhaps Robertson has a point that the UK, or Scotland at the very least, could be more involved in the Arctic. Finally, the top brass of South Korea’s Korean Gas Company made a trip to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories to investigate the possibility of building an LNG terminal. As a country with a large population that is short on natural gas, South Korea dearly needs new suppliers. Likewise, the Northwest Territories can always use more investments in their wealth of natural resources, so the partnership could be a natural one despite the vast distance of the Pacific Ocean separating the two places. While Iceland rejected a Chinese businessman’s attempts to buy property in their country, the issue of investing in natural resources is generally less controversial. Land and territory are sensitive subjects, particularly in the Arctic, where Canada and Denmark are still haggling over Hans Island. Yet Kogas purchased a 20 percent share in a Mackenzie Delta gas field, which Canada permitted. Yet had the company attempted to buy a large amount of land, that might not have been permitted.

Person or Group of People of the Year

The Arctic Council is this year’s group of people for its members’ accomplishment in signing the first-ever agreement under the council’s auspices. The Search and Rescue Agreement, signed by all eight member states of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland this past May, will coordinate countries’ efforts to aid ships, planes, and other vessels in distress. More work still needs to be done in harmonizing cooperation between all of the countries, but the agreement is a major milestone in the 15 year history of the Arctic Council. As I mentioned before, the first ever SAR exercises took place in October, demonstrating that the eight countries are serious about SAR.

The Arctic Council also grew in the eyes of foreign ministers in all of the Arctic countries this year, especially in the United States. For the first time ever, an American Secretary of State attended the ministerial meeting. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar also attended, highlighting the importance of the meeting and esteem of the council in Washington’s eyes.

Forecast for 2012

Next year, even more of the Arctic sea ice will likely be gone in the summer of 2012. This does not bode well for the future of polar bears, subsistence lifestyles, and the environment in general in the Arctic. However, for the shipping industry, it’s good news. In 2012, we can expect more shipping activity in the Arctic, especially along the Northern Sea Route, which Russia is working hard to develop.

The Nordic countries will focus more on social development in the Arctic, using a “People first” approach. The Nordic Council of Ministers’ Arctic Co-operation Programme for 2012-2014 will begin next year, with a yearly budget of six to eight million DKK (approximately $1.08 – $1.45 million). The program’s aim is to promote sustainable development in northern communities in the face of climate change and globalization.

In Canada, work on the High Arctic Research Station will move forward. The facility is scheduled to open in 2014. We can expect its Northern Strategy in the Arctic to remain constant, especially since Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be settling into his sixth year in office. More investment could pour into the country from other Arctic nations, too. For instance, the Danish Ambassador to Canada, Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen, will give a presentation in Aalborg, Denmark in January 2012 about opportunities for Danish companies in Canada’s Arctic.

Russia will also likely have a stable policy in the Arctic, though with Vladimir Putin inevitably returning to office, it is possible that they Kremlin could take a harder line. However, Putin has mentioned his desire to clean up Russia’s Arctic several times this past year, so perhaps the environment could become slightly healthier next year. Russia is also continuing to build ties with other countries in the Arctic. Just yesterday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Icelandic counterpart, Ossur Skarphedinsson, to discuss the region.

In the United States, one thing we can be sure of is that the country will not be ratifying UNCLOS anytime soon. Other than that, we can expect more of the same: a low-key policy in the Arctic with representatives from Alaska continuing to harp on the federal government to become more involved up north, and to drill. A decision might be made on whether to open ANWR to drilling, too.

The outlying countries and organizations, like China, South Korea, Japan, and the E.U., will press on with their interests in the Arctic. The next Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting will not take place until 2013, so they will not have a chance to re-apply for admission as a permanent observer. However, they will be able to continue engaging in the Arctic, generally through commercial and scientific enterprises.

Finally, the International Polar Year Conference, “From Knowledge to Action,” will take place in Montreal in April 2012. It will conclude the International Polar Year, which actually took place over two years from March 2007 – March 2009. It will be one of the largest polar conferences in history, with 3,000 scientists, researchers, and policymakers expected to attend. The public is allowed to register as well. Hopefully, I’ll be able to report from the conference!

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