High stakes in the high north

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“It is as if the entire island moved 10 degrees south,” an Icelandic fisheries expert told me, describing the vanishing silvery capelin fish over the past year. Hikers trudging toward a glacier in the south part of the country also encountered a 200 meter lagoon recently covered by ice.

The Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the global average. This will impact the planet in a number of important ways. Melting polar ice brings new shipping routes to and from Asia. The natural beauty of the Arctic will also entice more cruise ships to travel north once the current coronavirus pandemic ends. The region is also home to around a third of world energy resources, including the rare earth minerals in Greenland.

Not surprisingly, the rising significance of the high north has sparked the major powers to increase their focus on the region. Russia established a new Arctic military command, bolstered naval stations on its north coast, created new Arctic brigade combat teams and operational airfields, and plans to build new icebreakers. Earlier this year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization jets scrambled from Keflavik Air Base in Iceland to intercept a Russian bomber that was reportedly flying near the Icelandic coast with its transponders turned off and no flight path registered.

Wanting in on this new great game, China has similarly declared itself a near Arctic country, and it maintains seven Arctic research stations with an unclear purpose. China has also sent two icebreakers to the Northern Sea Route as part of the efforts to build a Polar Silk Road.

Nor has the United States been idle. Two years ago, the Navy reactivated the Second Fleet in the Atlantic Ocean, and also sent the first American aircraft carrier to the Arctic in 30 years. The Air Force released a recent Arctic strategy that establishes the goal of a “secure and stable region where American interests are safeguarded, the homeland is protected, and countries address shared challenges cooperatively.” Those visits to Iceland by both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also show the United States has focus on the Arctic.

There are clear benefits for collaboration in the Arctic, and the potential downsides to unbridled competition and confrontation. Advancing joint efforts on scientific research is a wise place to start. The region has great potential for discovery that leverages satellite imagery and taps the ideas of indigenous people. Researchers from 20 countries have spent a year in the polar region aboard the German vessel Mosaic. The National Science Foundation has also bolstered its Arctic research by 40 percent and has made international collaboration on polar science a priority. It also uses artificial intelligence and machine learning with shared data.

There are other opportunities for international collaboration in areas like shipping rules, generational fishing, port infrastructure, digital network construction, and search and rescue capabilities. In all these endeavors, buy in and ownership by the people of the Arctic is critical. Their way of life depends on the environment, and sustainability is key to survival. The Icelandic market depends on fisheries and tourism. Development of the Arctic has to follow this key path. Arctic countries also employ twice as much renewable energy as the global average, with Iceland and Norway leading the way. More efforts could connect remote Arctic communities, while reducing carbon emissions across this fragile region.

The Arctic Council has a pivotal role to play for the future. Its members include the Arctic countries, permanent participants, and international observers. Its mission is coordination and interaction with Arctic issues, notably the “sustainable development and environmental protection” of the region. Iceland will pass the chair of the Arctic Council to Russia next year. The third Arctic Science Ministerial, hosted by Iceland and Japan, is another useful forum for the advancement of international collaboration on science and research which benefits all stakeholders.

The Arctic is rapidly changing, and the world has to take note. As the stewards of this critical region, the Arctic countries must act swiftly to safeguard our shared destiny, and for the benefits of the entire planet. Norms and rules of engagement in the Arctic are not inconsistent with protecting the legitimate interests of Arctic countries. Markers must be laid down to ensure the Arctic is democratic and sustainable, and is an arena where scientific innovation benefits the whole planet.

Robert William Gerber is a senior fellow at the Center of the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a former United States foreign service officer, and an international business consultant for wind energy industry firms.

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