Many questions, but few answers as Arctic conference gets underway in Iceland

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Ólafur Grímsson, president of Iceland, at the Harpa Reykjavík Concert and Conference Center on Oct. 10, 2013. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
Ólafur Grímsson, president of Iceland, at the Harpa Reykjavík Concert and Conference Center on Oct. 10, 2013.
(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Much has been made in recent years about the impending age of the Arctic.Some envision a future in which massive cargo vessels crawl haphazardly over an ice-free Arctic Ocean.Others see a future devastatingly impacted by the continued decline of sea ice, along with the accompanying ocean acidification and melting of permafrost on lands above the Arctic Circle.

Still others see the potential for resource development, or for trade with new neighbors in new ways.

But whose vision for the future Arctic is the right one? And when will the change come?

The reality is much of it is already coming, and perhaps all of the predictions are correct to some extent. It’s not happening — and never was going to happen — overnight. Instead, it’s been a gradual movement north, a heightened interest in the growing potential of the region.

And now, in the town of Reykjavík, Iceland, just south of the Arctic Circle, a meeting of minds to discuss just that potential — and the inevitable accompanying hangover of Arctic melt — will convene in an effort to focus the discussion on an international scale.

The Arctic Circle will hold its inaugural confab here from Friday through Monday. Co-founded by Alaska Dispatch Publisher Alice Rogoff and Icelandic President Ólafur Grímsson, the event will feature speakers, panels and presentations focused on the future of the world’s far north.

According to Grímsson, Arctic Circle was founded on an idea of inclusiveness, bringing together international stakeholders with economic, scientific, political and environmental interest in the region. Many Arctic-centric meetings take place every year, though they often focus on a single subject, like energy or resource development. The Arctic Circle, Grímsson said, aims to get all of those minds thinking on the same topics.

“If we are going to make this a success,” Grímsson said, “we have to find a new way to bring all these different constituencies together.”

Russia’s Arctic highlights

There’s a lot to talk about. One area of the Arctic has found itself in the spotlight in recent months: Off of Russia’s northern coast, a flurry of activity has been taking place. First, the voyage of the Yong Sheng — a Chinese cargo ship — caught international attention as it snaked its way through Russian Arctic waters, shaving thousands of miles off the usual route between China and Europe.

The ship’s journey represented perhaps the most pointed argument yet for why Arctic shipping in certain months of the year might make a lot of sense for ships now traveling the world’s congested waterways. When the Yong Sheng was making its trip through it was just one of more than 400 ships that had been granted a permit for passage through Russia’s Northern Sea Route. By Thursday, that number had swelled to more than 600.

Then, in the same month, another vessel traveling the Northern Sea Route found itself in trouble, again raising serious concerns about the potential for a fuel spill in the remote Arctic, where resources are few and icy clean-up methods remain mostly untested. The Russian diesel tanker Nordvik struck an ice floe and drifted for days. The incident highlighted the clashing forces of environmentalism and economics in the Arctic — a debate for which no clear compromise has presented itself.

Even more recently, Russia and the environmental group Greenpeace have clashed over a group of 30 protesters arrested and charged with piracy — and more recently, drug possession — after a protest staged against Russian-owned oil company Gazprom and its offshore drilling efforts in the Pechora Sea off northwestern Russia. That situation is ongoing, even as the Arctic Circle prepares to convene in Reykjavík.

All of the issues that have faced Russia in the last two months highlight growing considerations that pervade the global Arctic discussion:

• The need for greater spill response and assets positioned in the remote Arctic;

• Increasing ship traffic across the Arctic Ocean; and

• The clash of development versus environment.

A number of Russian representatives are expected to speak during the course of the conference, including Artur Chilingarov, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the Arctic.

A growing concern

Meanwhile, other forces are also at work in the Arctic.

The annual Arctic sea ice extent for 2013 was once again one of the 10 lowest on record, though it rebounded significantly from 2012’s record low. Taken as a measure of the main ice pack in Arctic waters, sea ice extent is the largest factor determining whether vessels can traverse waters that were ice-choked year-round but are now often ice-free in late summer.

Perhaps less well-publicized are other environmental problems accompanying the melt: ocean acidification and methane released from vast stores of permafrost also thawing at the world’s northern latitudes.

Even slight changes in pH levels in the Arctic Ocean could have major impacts on any number of marine species, and a Norwegian study earlier this year found that the ocean was already growing more acidic, in part because it was more efficiently sucking up carbon dioxide bleeding into the atmosphere.

That problem is only likely to get worse, as thawing permafrost around the globe releases vast stores of methane and carbon dioxide into the air, simultaneously increasing the ocean’s absorption of the gases.

Missing voices

So what does the Arctic Circle hope to accomplish over three days? Especially when the Arctic Council, a government-supported meeting of eight Arctic nations, already meets once a year to discuss over-arching Arctic policy?

Grímsson said that one of the goals of Arctic Circle will be to supplement the work of the Arctic Council by bringing together policy experts and officials more than once a year. It was never intended to compete with the goals of the Arctic Council, he said.

“Part of the practical difficulties is that … the Arctic is a big area,” said Grímsson said, noting his country is well-positioned geographically as a meeting point between nations in Europe, Asia and North America concerned with the Arctic. It’s also an economic benefit for Iceland, a country of only about 315,000 people.

He said a number of Arctic Council observers and representatives will be on hand for the conference, and the new event affords an extra opportunity to meet like-minded Arctic stakeholders.

Conspicuously absent are representatives from the U.S. federal government, though Grímsson said the Arctic Circle was never intended to be a primarily governmental or regulatory event. Alaska’s senior U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is slated to be in attendance, along with Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa. Alaska’s other Senate representative, Sen. Mark Begich, recorded a video message.

Grímsson invoked the name of former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel — a well-known advocate for big ideas in the Arctic — several times during an interview Thursday, which may explain some of Grímsson’s optimism when it comes to Arctic affairs.

Hickel was a bit of a hopeless dreamer in terms of the Arctic, and the attitude may have had an effect on Grímsson, who — in his nearly two decades as Iceland’s president — has visited Alaska more times than any U.S. president, and spent time with Hickel before he died in 2010.

Grímsson called the current state of affairs “an extraordinary opportunity for Alaska” to engage with other Arctic countries to further its own goals. He said that when he was a young boy growing up, militarization in the Arctic was status quo during the Cold War, and the last couple decades have seen an immense increase in cooperation among Arctic nations.

He said that the Arctic countries have an unprecedented chance to work together to develop the Arctic, politically, economically and environmentally.

“Very rarely in human history do you have a new territory opening up in this way,” Grímsson said.

“None of us would have believed (30 years ago) that the discussion would be about the opening up of the sea routes,” he continued. “The speed of moving this up has been enormous.”

And, Grímsson said, in order to keep up, the world’s Arctic nations will need to be open to meeting, sharing ideas and working together to develop the world’s northernmost reaches.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com

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