The Growing Importance of the Arctic Council

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally in June 2013]

A recent trip to Tromsø, Norway reminded me that there is nothing more beautiful and life-affirming than spring in the Arctic: the return of the sun and the melting of the deep layer of snow allow the first fragile flowers to bloom. It is not this delicate beauty, however, that has recently attracted international attention to the circumpolar region. Six countries—China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore—exhibited renewed interest in the Arctic and were granted observer status in the Arctic Council during its May 15, 2013 meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum whose original goal was to promote environmental cooperation and to foster scientific research. In recent years, its scope as well as its membership have enlarged, reflecting the growing importance of the polar reaches in the world’s geopolitics and economy.

The Arctic Council consists of eight member countries that have territory above the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.* The newly admitted observer states join six others: France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and United Kingdom. As all member states, except Iceland, have sizeable indigenous populations living in their Arctic areas, the Arctic Council also grants Permanent Participant status to various non-governmental bodies that represent indigenous peoples, including the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), and the Saami Council. The most recent wave of expansion, although initially met by skepticism, especially from Russia and Canada, is generally seen as means of giving the Arctic Council greater relevance on the international scene.

As of this month, the Arctic Council has a permanent seat in Tromsø, Norway. According a recent article in the Alaska Dispatch, this maneuver “visibly signifies to the rest of the world that the Arctic Council exists outside of the ethereal alphabet soup of intergovernmental organizations”. The same article goes to note that,

“Tromsø is not yet a capital for the Arctic Council in the way that Brussels is the capital of the European Union. Yet it will be the administrative hub for activities related to the Arctic Council, whether that means archiving old documents or organizing logistics for meetings. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg nominated the city to be the “Arctic capital,” a title other cities, notably Reykjavik, have also pursued through tourism campaigns and discourse by government officials.”

Arctic - Potential Resources_0 The addition of Council “observers” raises a number of interesting questions. What makes the Arctic so attractive for countries like China, India, and Singapore, located in much more southern latitudes? Satellite data collected since 1979 confirm that both the thickness and extent of Arctic sea ice have decreased substantially, especially during the summer months. The receding ice-pack makes the area more accessible for natural resource exploration. U.S. Geological Survey estimates from 2008 indicate that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered natural gas reserves are located above the Arctic Circle. Russia, Norway, and the United States already exploit oil and gas resources in the high north, and Iceland relies heavily on thermal power. In addition to its recently successful bid to join the Arctic Council, China has intensified its relations with individual Arctic Council members, especially Iceland and Greenland, in order to gain better access to their resources.

Arctic - Potential Routes_0

Moreover, the retreating and thinning of the Arctic ice opens up new trade routes. In 2012, 46 ships transporting 1.3 million tons of merchandise reportedly used the Northern Sea Route, which runs along the northern coast of Russia. These figures represents a considerable increase from 2011, when 34 ships transported approximately 820,000 tons. In response to the growing importance of Arctic shipping, Russia set up the Northern Sea Route administration in March to supervise the process. Sailing along the Northern Sea Route—rather than through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal—reduces the length of a trip between Rotterdam and Shanghai by about 20%, which translates into significant savings in terms of fuel and crew costs. Even though observer status does not give countries such as China, India, and Singapore direct influence in council matters, participating in its meetings and research programs helps them know what the main Arctic players are planning.

In addition to commercial shipping, the receding ice-pack and technological developments allow increases in military patrolling as well as tourism. More powerful icebreaking ships are being constructed, and fleets are being expanded. As the Council on Foreign Relations recently noted:

“While the [U.S.] Coast Guard is currently exploring the development of a new icebreaker, most Arctic nations are looking to expand or modernize their icebreaker fleets. Canada currently operates six, while Russia operates more than thirty and is the only nation to build nuclear-powered icebreakers.”

Since 1959, Russia has build 10 nuclear-powered icebreakers, 8 of which are currently operational. In 2010, Vladimir Putin announced that at least three more would be build before 2020. To help defray costs, Russia’s largest nuclear icebreakers takes tourist to the North Pole on five separate summer trips. As tourists pay 800,000 rubles ($25,000) for the ten-day trip, the venture has been quite profitable.


However, the economic viability of oil and gas exploitation, shipping routes, and tourism in the Arctic remains limited by high costs, weak infrastructure, and, most importantly, seasonal constraints. The delicate beauty of the Arctic spring and the 24-hour-long days of its summer are quickly supplanted by winter, which brings not only cold weather, but more importantly the long Polar night (mørketid): in Tromsø, for example, the sun remains below the horizon from  November 26 to January 15 (in fact, owing to the mountains the sun is not visible from  November 21 to January 21). The return of the sun is an occasion for celebration. As a Tromsø bus driver told me: “You just have to remember that the sun will come back”.


* Denmark counts as an Arctic country because Greenland constitutes an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Iceland’s territory in the Arctic is the Grímsey Island, which straddles the Arctic Circle and shifts northward by about 14.5 meters per year; it is inhabited by 86 people (2011).


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