All ears at High North Dialogue. Photo: Mia Bennett.
All ears at High North Dialogue. Photo: Mia Bennett.

In Bodø, Norway, a city of 50,000 people just 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, over two hundred students, academics, business leaders, and government representatives gathered to discuss the Arctic at the tenth annual High North Dialogue. While many students were from Russia and also the United Kingdom, most of the invited speakers flew in from the urban centers in the south that are directing Arctic development: Moscow, Copehnagen, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Los Angeles, to name a few. Furthermore, those that came from the North tended to hail from its industrialized urban centers, like Bodø and Tromsø. Thus, the conference reflected a particularly Norwegian view of the future of the Arctic. Notably, the name of the conference was changed two years ago from “Arctic Dialogue” to “High North Dialogue,” using the official name for Norway’s Arctic region exemplified in the government’s “High North Strategy” first released in 2006. Clearly, this was a conference about the future of the Norwegian Arctic first and foremost, which arguably sees itself as a role model for the rest of the Arctic.

So over the two days of the conference, two things became clear. First, the Arctic is a diverse place with many different sub-regions. Second, the Norwegian Arctic is outstripping the “other Arctics” on a number of different measures thanks to a combination of forward-looking government policy and fortuitous geography.

A (snow)globe of many Arctics

Several speakers noted that the Arctic is a diverse place. Laurence Smith, a professor at UCLA, contrasted the increasingly accessible maritime Arctic with the terrestrial Arctic, where infrastructure is literally sliding into the melting permafrost. The Canadian Ambassador to Norway, Artur Wilczynski, proclaimed, “Our North is fundamentally different… The geographic north of Canada is four million square kilometers – the size of the European Union – but the population is 115,000.”

The Arctic is also pristine in parts but a real wasteland in others. Alexander Sergunin, a professor at St. Petersburg State University, noted that 15 percent of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) is “polluted or contaminated.” The AZRF extends across approximately 9 million square kilometers (Conley and Neretin, 2015), so if 15 percent of that is truly polluted, that equates to 1.35 million square kilometers. In other words, the polluted area of the Russian Arctic is equivalent in area to approximately three and a half Norways or one Peru. This is a shocking figure by any stretch of the imagination. It’s so hard to fathom all of Peru being covered in nuclear waste, trash, oil, and other detritus that I think a clearer definition of what Sergunin means by “polluted or contaminated” is necessary before making any conclusions. Regardless, it’s clear that Russia, whose Arctic region has been industrialized for far longer than any other Arctic state, could benefit from environmental clean-up on a massive scale. Putin has ordered such environmental restoration projects even as other extractive projects come online.

One of the few presenters to portray the Arctic as a uniform region was Nathan Frisbee of the International Energy Agency (IEA). He claimed that through 2040, “We don’t see the Arctic as being an economically viable source of fuel on the global scale,” adding, “Future Arctic investment is likely to be driven by strategic rather than commercial needs.” This statement flies in the face of what companies like Statoil and Norway at large see as the next frontier for the national oil industry. The Statoil representative declared, “We don’t go to the Arctic because it’s there. We go there because oil is there.” Yet the oil is not simply “there.” New technologies, advanced expertise, a supportive government, and a friendly regulatory climate all combine to turn the Barents Sea’s oil into an accessible and exploitable resource for Statoil and other companies like Lundin Norway, which sent a delegate to discuss its aspirations to drill in the offshore Arctic. The construction of this resource, the source of so much wealth for Norway both now and in the future thanks to its well-managed sovereign wealth fund, is why the Norwegian Arctic can tower above almost all the the rest of the world’s northernmost areas.

The High North on high
If the Arctic is a diverse place, then the Norwegian Arctic is one of the brightest spots – and I mean that literally: here’s a satellite image of the Arctic at night that I’ve posted a number of times to Cryopolitics. The top of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the Kola Peninsula, and northwest Russia are the most extensively lit-up places in the Arctic. There are other concentrations of light on Alaska’s North Slope and in the nickel-producing city of Norilsk, Russia. But nothing compares in luminosity to the area more formally called the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR), an Arctic sub-region that enjoyed its moment in the spotlight when Claus Bergersen, adviser to the Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes, Norway, spoke on the second day of the conference.

BEAR is more than just a hodgepodge of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Russian counties that find themselves next to each other thanks to accidents of geography yet separated by international borders. People have moved back and forth throughout this region for centuries, from the Sami people who roamed with their reindeer throughout Fennoscandia and the Kola Peninsula to the Kola Norwegians, settlers from Norway whom Russian Tsar Alexander II permitted to settle in the Kola Peninsula beginning in 1860. Persecuted under Stalin, almost all of them returned to Norway in the 1990s once the opportunity arose. The Pomors, a people living in the White Sea basin (an inlet of the Barents Sea), traded so often with northern Norwegians that a new pidgin language developed called Russenorsk.

A map of the Barents-Euro Arctic Region, from Nordregio.
A map of the Barents-Euro Arctic Region, from Nordregio.

Today, the high rate of development in this part of the Arctic, particularly in Norway’s High North, has partly to do with geography and partly to do with a pro-active government. First, the Norwegian and Barents Seas have more amenable climactic conditions that almost all other parts of the Arctic. Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, the ocean does not freeze over in winter (though harsh conditions still lead oil companies to pull out their rigs and drlll ships in winter).  As one speaker mentioned, 80% of Arctic shipping occurs in Norwegian waters. The trickle of ships through the Northern Sea Route pales in comparison to the hustle and bustle of maritime activity off of relatively mild northern Norway.

Second, the government in Oslo seems determined to make the North an example for the planet. Anne Kari Ovind, Deputy Director General and Head of Department for Security Policy and the High North within Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared, “Our goal is for north Norway to become the most innovative region in the world.” This statement comes as residents in some parts of the Canadian and American Arctics barely have access to potable water or plumbing year-round. Norway has clearly been able to meet the basic needs of all of its northern denizens, allowing it to move on to things like building universities and even new concert halls. On that note, High North Dialogue attendees were given free tickets to attend a concert at the new Stormen Concert Hall by a world-renowned Norwegian pianist.

Northern Norway has two universities, the University of Tromsø and the University of Nordland. This is impressive for a region with a population of only 500,000 people. The Canadian Arctic, for instance, does not have a single university (though it also only has one-fifth as many people). In northern Norway, universities are crucial for driving continued regional growth because they help to attract new students and churn out a talented workforce that hopefully continues to reside in the area following graduation. In 2013, as Trude Pettersen wrote for The Barents Observer, the region’s unemployment rate was only 2.7%, a rate so low it threatens to slow growth. Perhaps in the hopes of attracting more people to come and study in northern Norway, the conference had an entire session dedicated to promoting the host university, particularly its masters programs in energy management and sustainable development. These courses highlight the focus of Norway’s two Arctic universities on creating applied knowledge specifically targeted at helping industry and resource extraction (perhaps at the expense of basic research, however). The University of Nordland also has strong ties with Russia and specifically the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where its energy management students go on exchange. In the other direction, many Russian students attended the week-long masters course offered during the week of the High North Dialogue. The continued participation of Russian students in the course at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West speaks volumes about the efforts of the conference organizers and Norway at large to maintain good bilateral relations.

Nuances in the North?

Towards the end of the conference’s last day, one speaker remarking on the existence of various Arctic regions offered, “We need to take these differences into account to have a meaningful and nuanced conversation on Arctic development.” The very inclusion of the word “development” in this statement, however, reveals the way in which this conference, like many others on the Arctic and especially those in the Nordic Arctic, takes capital-intensive development as a given. The Arctic’s oil and gas will be sucked up out of the seabed, its fish plucked out of the ocean, its fjords filled with cruise ships, and its rivers dammed. This being the Nordic Arctic, and a conference where the university’s business school played a role, the exciting potential of Arctic development overshadowed worries about climate change or the rights of indigenous peoples. In the words of the BEAR adviser, “We cannot hinder business development in the Arctic.”

The undercurrent of the conference seemed to be that Norway’s high North represents the most well-positioned and well-developed of all the Arctic regions. Admittedly, however, possibly due to the plunge in the price of oil and the threat of climate change looming ever closer, one Norwegian admitted that things are looking a bit dimmer this year. “We all see a bright future, but that is not really the same kind of future as last year,” he said. But the Norwegian Arctic still seems to be shining brighter than the rest.

Bright lights, big city, all looking pretty. Bodo, Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett.
Bright lights, big city, all looking pretty. Bodo, Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett.
Categories: Scandinavia

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