From the south, keen interest in the Arctic and the Arctic Council

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Mount Kangchenjunga, in the Himalaya, is the world’s third highest mountain at 8,586 metres (28,169 feet) after Mount Everest and K2. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)
Hot, humid India may lie well south of the Arctic Circle, but it has plenty of connections to the Arctic, its leaders say.

The earth’s high latitudes have similarities to high altitudes of India’s Himalayan region, including rapid warming and glacial retreat, Indians say.

“We consider the globe is consisted of three poles — Antarctic, Arctic and Himalaya,” said Raj Kumar Srivastava, an Indian diplomat who traveled to Fairbanks to attend last week’s ministerial meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council.

Arctic warming has big implications for the Indian subcontinent, including growing evidence that monsoons are connected to the Arctic and declining sea ice there, Srivastava said. Ice melt at both poles poses threats of sea-level rise, which are acute in India.

And India, which has a strong polar research program, is looking to the Arctic Council for lessons on creating a Himalayan council to address regional scientific and environmental issues, Srivastava said.

“This is an example of, a role model for how the countries can sit together and work for the common good,” he said.

Official observer status
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Observer State and Organization delegates at the Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska on May 11, 2017. (Linnea Nordström/Arctic Council Secretariat)

Because of its demonstrated ties to the Arctic, the government of India is among the official observers in the Arctic Council — allowed in closed-door meetings and included in on-the-ground projects and programs that carry out Arctic Council goals, though not part of the group that makes policies.

India gained observer status in 2013, successfully making the case that its three decades of Antarctic research and its more recently established Arctic research program make it a worthy contributor to Arctic causes.

The observer ranks also include China, Korea, Japan, Spain and Singapore, nations not ordinarily associated with the Arctic.

But they have some keen commercial interests, with fleets that might sail in newly opened Arctic waters and populations that could use natural resources extracted from the Arctic region. They also have environmental links to the Arctic.

Between them, the member states and observer nations account for the vast majority of the world’s carbon emissions, environmentalists point out — and the rapid Arctic warming linked to those emissions affects the southern observer nations. In China, for example, there is mounting evidence that the air pollution that plagues its eastern cities is exacerbated by Arctic sea-ice melt and its impacts on global atmospheric patterns.

Switzerland’s parallels to the Arctic
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A hiker standing on ice on the Aletsch glacier photographs a fissure in August, 2016. The Aletsch glacier is Switzerland’s largest glacier and is shrinking rapidly. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Arctic Council last week expanded its observer list by seven, accepting a third of the governments and organizations that applied for membership. That brings the total of observers to 39 — a group that encompasses non-Arctic nations, intergovernmental and regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations.

Applications for observer status came from as far south as Greece. Switzerland wound up as the only national government to win observer status at the Fairbanks ministerial meeting.

Switzerland made the case that, like India, it has parallels to the Arctic in its high-altitude habitats and melting glaciers. The Swiss government emphasized its work on climate change and chemical pollutants, issues also critical to the Arctic.

“Swiss leadership in international negotiations has been critical in addressing climate change, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer and transport of pollutants, all of which disproportionately affect both high-mountain areas and polar regions,” the country said.

Emphasis on meteorological cooperation

Also accepted as an Arctic Council observer was the World Meteorological Organization, a logical choice, given that the Finland’s just-launched two-year chairmanship is emphasizing international meteorological cooperation.

Nongovernmental organizations accepted into the observer fold were the National Geographic Society, the Oslo-Paris Commission, the West Nordic Council, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and the environmental group Oceana.

Oceana, which has been trying to get into the Arctic Council for a decade, celebrated the decision.

“We look forward to increasing the participation of our international team of science and policy experts with the Arctic Council. Oceana intends to be an active participant at the working group level and to promote sound and efficient policies that will protect Arctic Ocean ecosystems, promote community sustainability and maintain opportunities for the subsistence way of life,” Oceana Chief Executive Officer Andrew Sharpless said in a statement.

European Union still waiting
Elijah Pallituq demonstrates how Inuit hunters use harpoons to hunt seals under sea ice. Photo by Levon Sevunts.
Elijah Pallituq demonstrates how Inuit hunters use harpoons to hunt seals under sea ice. (Levon Sevunts/Radio Canada International)

Not making the cut in Fairbanks, along with Greece, Turkey and Mongolia, was the European Union, which had its application put on deferral status in 2013 and which has a detailed Arctic policy. The EU is a party to ongoing negotiations to prevent commercial fishing in international waters of the Arctic, for example, and it has called for vessels sailing in high-latitude waters to be prohibited from using heavy fuel oil, which is considered a threat to the Arctic marine environment. However, the EU’s import ban on seal fur has been a sticking point for Canada, and Russia has also objected to the EU gaining observer status.

But individual EU nations have roles in the Arctic Council, including Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, four of the eight core member nations. The EU is also a member of the Oslo-Paris Commission, so it now has what might be considered partial observer status.

Official observer or not, all countries have a stake in the Arctic, scientists argue. That point is made in a publication and interactive video called “Arctic Matters,” issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics.

“Wherever you are, you are connected to the Arctic through Earth itself,” the report says in its introduction. “Although remote to most of Earth’s inhabitants, the Arctic is tied to every point on the globe through land, sea, or air. Our daily weather, what we eat, and coastal flooding are all tied to the future of the Arctic.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Arctic Council ministerial – View from Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark: Arctic sea ice – Is the minimum maximum the new normal?, blog by Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Finland: Arctic Council ministerial – View from Finland, Yle News

Iceland: Meeting in Iceland discusses banning unregulated Arctic fishery, Radio Canada International

Norway: Norway and Finland talk Arctic with China, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Arctic Council ministerial – View from Russia, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sweden’s glaciers are melting away, Radio Sweden

United States: Arctic Council presents united front as Finland takes over from U.S., Eye on the Arctic


The Arctic Council chairmanship moves from the United States to Finland on May 11, 2017 in Fairbanks, Alaska. Eye on the Arctic’s Eilís Quinn along with EOTA media partners and contributors will be bringing you stories, interviews and analysis leading up to the handover.
Read our full coverage here!

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