The Arctic and the Need for Greater Differentiation in a Non-Coherent Region

by Andreas Østhagen No country in the world discovered more oil and gas reserves than Norway in 2011. Some of these new discoveries are located in the Barents Sea, which resulted in the CEO of Statoil exclaiming that the North has become a new ‘oil region’ [1]. Resource development was also the topic of the annual Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, from the 20-25 of January, where businesses and policy makers met to discuss the ‘energies of the High North’. Four days after the conference ended in North Norway, Satu Hassi, a Member of the European Parliament from the Green party, opened an exhibition in Brussels aimed at highlighting the threat of human activities to the ‘vulnerable Arctic’ climate. Consequently the Arctic debate seems polarized in media and academia alike. This does not, however, imply an unavoidable and underlying conflict of interests. Arguably, it symbolizes a greater need for differentiation between the different parts of a region which rivals the size of entire continents [2].  

The atmosphere at this year’s Arctic Frontiers conference was in stark contrast to that of last year. Whereas the 2011 topic ‘Tipping Points’ focused on the climatic changes in the Arctic, this year’s theme was directed towards businesses and local industry, as energy producing activities move northwards. Regions and companies alike lined up to promote their excellent track records when operating above the Arctic Circle. Words like ‘sustainable’, ‘local’, and ‘opportunity’ flourished: “The Nenets-region in Russia has the best infrastructure for industrial development. The University of Tromsø is the best place to establish new Arctic research. Statoil is the most responsible of the Arctic oil companies.” These and other statements all contributed to a general euphoric sentiment, where North Norway and the greater Arctic will benefit widely from new industrial activities, both offshore and onshore.

In Brussels, however, the focus in last week’s seminar was not on local or regional development, but on how vulnerable the Arctic environment has become as the amount of activity increases. This is by no means a change in the Brussels-discourse described in previousarticles by The Arctic Institute. Instead, it stems from the geographical position of the EU-capital, located far away from the Arctic territories. It seems understandable that officials and politicians from more southern countries are not preoccupied with, or in need of, acquiring an nuanced conception of the Arctic region. Combine this with the pro-active work done by some environmental NGOs, and you get a portrait telling the story of a vulnerable, distant, and inhospitable region inhabited by different indigenous communities that now find their traditional existence threatened.

This is not an inaccurate portrayal of the region, as parts of the Arctic are inhospitable and vulnerable indeed. However, if one defines the Arctic region as everything above the Arctic Circle, then such a portrayal is only one of many. The Arctic region spans 24 time zones, 8 countries, and three continents. Its territory is six times as large as the EU 27[2]. In addition, due to the Gulf Stream, the Norwegian Arctic coast and the waters of North-West Russia are completely ice free even during the coldest months of the year, setting them apart from the ice-covered waters of North Alaska and Canada. Drifting sea ice, darkness and low temperatures are no doubt common traits in the region, but the climatic conditions vary across the Arctic region.

Furthermore, there are considerable differences between parts of the Arctic in terms of level of development, culture, infrastructure, and resources. The way of life in the university city of Tromsø is different from the industrial and naval city of Murmansk, and these cities are relatively close to one another. If one also considers the differences between the local Inuit communities in North-West Greenland, and the oil producing towns on the North Slope in Alaska, it is apparent that the Arctic is by no means one coherent region. In contrast to some of the ice-covered and desolate Arctic territories, other parts of the Arctic are heavily industrialized, with significant economic production since the 1970s. The North Slope of Alaska and the Yamal region in Russia have for decades been supplying North America and Europe with much needed oil and gas. Additionally, other activities such as forestry, mining, fisheries, and metal production have had, and will continue to have, a prominent role in many communities above the Arctic Circle.

Subsequently there exists a need to more carefully differentiate and distinguish the various sub-regions in the ‘Arctic debate’, especially as the interest for the region continues to increase amongst academics and media alike. A few years ago the scientific interest for the Arctic was mainly found in the faculty of natural sciences, with emphasis on climate change and bioprospecting. Arctic research has, however, evolved more recently to encompass the wider spectrum of sociology, economy, political science and law, as represented by the existence of institutions like The Arctic Institute.

Media and politicians alike have realized the ongoing changes in the Arctic, and for better or worse have started using the region for their own benefit, e.g. to increase sales of a magazine by writing about conflict in the Arctic. ‘Non-Arctic’ media like The Guardian, The Financial Times, and The Economist have all written long pieces on this ‘new’ region. Politicians, like Russia`s Vladimir Putin, the Norwegian Foreign Minister Gahr Støre, or Canada`s Prime Minister Harper, all use the Arctic actively in their discourse to promote national identity in their domestic and foreign policies. The Arctic has become ‘sexy’; as an exotic region symbolizing climate change, and economic potential. Moreover, the region has not proven to be very politically sensitive or relevant, as it is often located far away from the volatile issues usually dominating national and international politics. Indeed, there are conflicts of interest in the region. But these are not the topics that make or break a bid for President or Prime Minister.

Even in Brussels, located multiple flights away from the Arctic Circle, there are Arctic seminars and conferences on a monthly basis, exemplified by the recent European Parliament exhibition. In a month’s time, Brussels will again be the location for an Arctic seminar, when on March 6th Statoil and North Norway will discuss the relevance of European Arctic oil and gas development in the European Parliament. Again, the contrast between the ‘environmental’ and the ‘industrial’ point of view becomes apparent. And this is exactly where a distinction is needed, to avoid polarization between interest groups that in the end are often discussing different parts of the Arctic region.

The March 6th seminar on developing Arctic oil and gas has indeed made such a distinction, taking into account that the ‘European’ Arctic faces fundamentally different challenges, in part due to a different climate than the North-American or Russian Arctic. While scientists and journalists writing about the Arctic are without a doubt aware of the differences between various Arctic regions, these nuances are often not mentioned in the general Arctic debate. As a result, conflicts in the international debate (i.e., in Brussels) between the environmental, the industrial, and the local/regional interests often derive from this lack of specification. In the end, all these interest groups could benefit from improved regional differentiation.

There are without doubt contentious and volatile issues in the Arctic due to multiple competing interests. But often times these issues are fundamentally unrelated. For example, certain commonly discussed oil and gas developments will not impact the lives of indigenous communities mainly due to the lack of geographical proximity: The continuation of oil and gas drilling in the Barents Sea has little to do with the protection of Greenlandic and Canadian indigenous communities. One interest group which may in fact not benefit from a more differentiated and nuanced debate about the Arctic may be the general media, which too often seems to portray the Arctic as a region of conflict. For the rest of us, on the other hand, ‘Arctic détente’ would be a welcome sight.


[1] News article in Norwegian media, after the discovery of the field ”Havis”.
[2] The Arctic Ocean (approx. 14 000 000 square kilometers) and the Arctic landmass above the Arctic Circle (Russia, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, The United States, Greenland) altogether comprises of 30 000 000 square kilometers, which equals the size of Africa., 
[3] Malte Humpert, "Petroleum Discoveries 2011 in mboe," based on data from retrieved February 23, 2012 from