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Success Stories of International Cooperation in the Arctic

By Dr. Volker Rachold, Head of the German Arctic Office at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI)

During the last three decades, the Arctic has developed into an exceptional venue for peace and cooperation and was often referred to as a model region for fruitful and constructive international scientific and political dialogue and collaboration. However, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has placed these achievements at risk. Most international scientific and political organizations of the North have suspended their cooperation with Russian institutions or paused their activities.

The objective of this paper is not to analyze or predict the future of Arctic relationships, but rather to review the development of recent international and political cooperation in the Arctic and to highlight the numerous success stories.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was the epicenter of nuclear deterrence and the stomping ground of nuclear submarines of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Finnish Initiative/Rovaniemi Process

During the Cold War, the Arctic was the epicenter of nuclear deterrence and the stomping ground of nuclear submarines of the United States and the Soviet Union. Scientific collaboration between western states and the Soviet Union existed, but was limited to bilateral cooperation. The situation changed when Mikhail Gorbachev (at that time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) introduced the Russian terms “Glasnost” (openness) and “Perestroika” (reconfiguration) and his famous Murmansk speech on 1 October 1987 can be considered a milestone for international cooperation in the Arctic. In his speech [1], Gorbachev made several proposals focusing on the Arctic Region:

  • “First of all, I would like to invite the countries of the region to a discussion on the burning security issues…
  • Secondly, the Soviet Union proposes consultations between the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the NATO on restricting military activity...
  • Thirdly, the Soviet Union attaches much importance to the peaceful cooperation in developing the resources of the North...
  • Fourthly, the scientific exploration of the Arctic is of immense importance...
  • Fifthly, we attach special importance to the cooperation of the northern countries in environmental protection…
  • Sixthly, we could open the Northern Sea Route to foreign ships, with ourselves providing the service of icebreakers...”

The speech triggered a discussion of the Arctic States. It should be noted that initially, only the five Arctic Ocean rim countries (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Soviet Union and USA) were considered “Arctic States”, but later Finland and Sweden and Iceland were added to the list. It was Finland that took the initiative to invite the other Arctic States to discuss Arctic environmental protection. The focus was on transboundary contaminants - climate change had not been identified as an issue in the late 1980s. After a series of preparatory meetings, the main meeting took place in Rovaniemi in June 1991, where the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS)[2] was adopted with the Rovaniemi Declaration, signed by the ministers of the environment. The development of the AEPS is today referred to as the “Finnish Initiative” or “Rovaniemi Process”.[3]

With the Rovaniemi Declaration, four working groups were established, which are still active today within the Arctic Council: Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) and Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF).

Three organizations, representing the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic, became Permanent Participants (PP): Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Saami Council and Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United Nations participated in the meeting as observers. Thus, an early Arctic Council was born and a platform for further cooperation in the Arctic was established.

International Arctic Science Committee (IASC)

The Rovaniemi Process was paralleled by a discussion on international scientific cooperation which was mainly driven by Norway. The idea was to develop an Arctic scientific organization similar to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which dates back to the International Geophysical Year 1957/1958. Following consultations with the Arctic States and a series of pre-meetings, the founding meeting of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) took place in Resolute Bay (Canada) in August 1990. The Founding Articles were signed by representatives of the science organizations of the eight Arctic States. Representatives of some non-Arctic States participated as observers but already in January 1991, at the first IASC Council Meeting, the science organizations of the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Japan, the Netherland, Poland and the UK were admitted as full members of IASC. [4] Since then, IASC has evolved into the leading international science organization for the North and its membership today includes science organizations from 24 countries, all of which have the same status. IASC´s mission is to “encourage and facilitate cooperation in all aspects of Arctic research, in all countries engaged in Arctic research and in all areas of the Arctic region” and “overall, IASC promotes and supports leading-edge interdisciplinary research in order to foster a greater scientific understanding of the Arctic region and its role in the Earth system.” [5] Since 2011 IASC has supported five disciplinary Working Groups that lead the development of new initiatives, as well as cross-cutting, interdisciplinary activities.

IASC´s strength is that it brings together the scientific expertise from all of its member countries. In addition, IASC has developed close partnerships with many other Arctic and Polar science organizations. Using this aggregated expertise, IASC has been able to actively shape the Arctic research agenda, in particular though research planning activities, such as the International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP). [6] The best example is the MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) expedition that was initiated and developed under the auspices of IASC. [7] MOSAiC was the largest polar expedition in history, with the German research icebreaker Polarstern drifting one full year through the Arctic Ocean, trapped in the sea-ice. Following in the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen's Fram expedition in 1893-1896, hundreds of researchers from 20 countries were involved in the MOSAiC expedition.

Arctic Council

Following the establishment of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, the discussions on broadening the forum continued and in particular Canada promoted the idea of a more extensive Arctic Council. Finally, in 1996, the Arctic Council was formally established with the Ottawa Declaration [8], which defines the Council as a high-level intergovernmental forum to “enhance cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States with the active involvement of Arctic Indigenous Peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues”. In addition to environmental protection, sustainable development was included in the mandate and in 1998 the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) was created. The sixth Working Group Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) was established in 2006. Three additional Indigenous People´s organizations – Aleut International Association (AIA), Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC) and Gwich´in Council International (GCI) – were admitted as Permanent Participants and a growing number of Observer States and Observer Organizations were accredited. IASC was among the first group of observers that were accredited in 1998.

The decisions of the Arctic Council require the approval of all member states and are taken in consultation with the Permanent Participants. This active involvement of and consultation with the Indigenous People´s organizations is a unique feature. Observers are invited to the meetings of the Council and encouraged to make relevant contributions primarily at the level of Working Groups. [9],[10]

During its first 25 years, the Arctic Council has initiated and implemented a multitude of measures to protect the Arctic environment, to counteract contamination, to support the well-being of Arctic inhabitants and to facilitate the sustainable development of the region. In particular the Arctic Council assessments conducted by its Working Groups have become very successful instruments to compile the state of knowledge and to formulate policy recommendations for the member states. The 2005 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), organized and managed as a joint venture of the CAFF and AMAP Working Groups of the Council and IASC, can be considered a milestone regarding the understanding of the impacts of climate change on the Arctic environment and inhabitants. [11]

Even though the guidelines and recommendations of the Arctic Council are not legally binding - their implementation is the responsibility of the member states – the Council has initiated and facilitated three legally-binding agreements among the Arctic States:

  • The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (2011) [12] coordinates international search and rescue (SAR) coverage and response in the Arctic and defines the area of SAR responsibility of each Arctic State.
  • The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013) [13] is designed to strengthen cooperation, coordination and mutual assistance among the Arctic States on preparedness and response to oil pollution in the Arctic.
  • The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017) [14] aims at enhancing cooperation in scientific activities in order to increase effectiveness and efficiency in the development of scientific knowledge about the Arctic.

In this context, two other legally-binding agreements that are not associated with the Arctic Council should be mentioned:

  • The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) was developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and entered into force 2017. The Polar Code specifies “design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles”. [15]
  • The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean was signed by the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Kingdom of Denmark via Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States), Iceland, the European Union, Japan, Korea and China in 2018. The Agreement is to “prevent unregulated fishing through the application of precautionary conservation and management measures as part of a long-term strategy to safeguard healthy marine ecosystems and to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of fish stocks.” [16]

The mandate of the Arctic Council is restricted to environmental protection and sustainable development. Other topics are not addressed and in particular military security is explicitly excluded. However, the Council served as a catalyst for the formation of independently operating organizations addressing additional topics. The Arctic Economic Council (AEC) [17], an independent organization that facilitates Arctic business-to-business activities and responsible economic development, started from an initiative of the Arctic Council. Also the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) [18], an independent, informal, operationally-driven organization to foster safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic, is independent of but complimentary to the Arctic Council.

Another important initiative of the Arctic Council is the University of the Arctic (UArctic), “a network of universities, colleges, research institutes, and other organizations concerned with education and research in and about the North”. UArctic was formally launched 2001 in Rovaniemi (Finland) and goes back to a feasibility study on an Arctic university commissioned by the Arctic Council in 1997. UArctic promotes cooperation in education, research and outreach to enhance human capacity in the North and to date has more than 200 member institutions and organizations from the eight Arctic states and beyond. [19]

During its first 25 years, the Arctic Council has initiated and implemented a multitude of measures to protect the Arctic environment, to counteract contamination, to support the well-being of Arctic inhabitants and to facilitate the sustainable development of the region.

International Polar Year 2007/2008

Another Arctic success story of the last three decades is the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007/2008, which was initiated by the International Council for Science (ICSU) (today International Science Council ICS) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Building on earlier polar years, the IPY 2007/2008 (the fourth IPY) became the largest internationally coordinated research program in the polar regions ever. Structured around 228 international projects, an estimated 50,000 researchers, local observers, educators, students and support personnel from more than 60 nations participated in the IPY 2007/2008. The program included both polar regions and therefore facilitated the cooperation and dialogue between the Arctic and Antarctic communities. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and IASC, playing a leading role in managing the IPY 2007/2008, developed a close partnership. The Antarctic Treaty and the Arctic Council held a joint meeting in Washington DC (USA) on 6 April 2009 and jointly adopted a declaration on the International Polar Year and polar science.

In contrast to earlier Polar Years, which were mainly focusing on natural sciences, the IPY 2007/2008 fully integrated social sciences and brought together the various scientific disciplines. The projects running from 1 March 2007 to 1 March 2009 also included a large number of outreach and education activities and coordination efforts regarding data management and observations. The three IPY conferences (SCAR/IASC 2008 IPY Open Science Conference, IPY Oslo Science Conference 2010 and IPY Montreal Conference 2012) attracted up to 3000 participants each. [20]

The IPY 2007/2008 left a comprehensive legacy and a number of initiatives that were born during the program developed into permanent organizations. The first to be mentioned is the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), an international and interdisciplinary organization for early career researchers, educators and others with interests in polar regions, alpine regions and the wider cryosphere. APECS grew out of an IPY 2007/2008 project – The International Youth Steering Committee – and became a well-established organization with today 4500 members from more than 70 countries and national committees in many countries. [21] Another organization that stems from the IPY 2007/2008 education and outreach activities is Polar Educators International (PEI), a network connecting polar education, research and the global community. [22] One important recommendation of the IPY 2007/2008 was that a coordinated and sustained circum-Arctic network of observations is crucial to understand Arctic change and to build predictive capabilities. The Arctic Council and IASC acted on this recommendation and jointly established the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON). [23] SAON engages Arctic and non-Arctic countries, Indigenous Peoples, academia, the private sector, and other key partners in support of a comprehensive, integrated observing network supported by interoperable data systems. [24] IASC´s and SAON´s efforts to address Arctic data management led to the formation of the Arctic Data Committee (ADC) which “promotes and facilitates international collaboration towards the goal of free, ethically open, sustained and timely access to Arctic data through useful, usable, and interoperable systems”. [25]

In recent years, the Arctic has not only become the epicenter of climate change, but also a geopolitical and economic hotspot.

European Union Funded Arctic Projects

Starting with the first Arctic Communication of the European Commission in 2008, the European Union (EU) has become more actively engaged in the Arctic and developed into a major actor. The most recent Arctic Policy was published in 2021 under the title „A stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous Arctic”. Within the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, the EU has invested €200 million in Arctic-related research. This financial support will be continued within the Horizon Europe program which has replaced Horizon 2020 as the successor program. The EU views this as a contribution to the sustainable development of the Arctic and at the same time as a diplomatic tool to support multilateral cooperation. [26]

The EU supports a wide range of research activities in the Arctic within the framework of Horizon 2020 and other programs. The central project is EU PolarNet and its successor EU PolarNet 2 which provide a platform to co-develop strategies to advance the European Polar research action and its contribution to the policy-making processes [27]. Other examples include the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic (INTERACT) [28], the Arctic Research Icebreaker Consortium (ARICE ) [29] and the Pan-Arctic Observing System of Systems (Arctic PASSION). [30] Overall, these large multi-million € projects, involving many partners from the EU member countries plus international collaborators, are a very important instrument for the scientific community to address environmental, social, economic and political challenges in the Arctic.

Arctic Dialogue Fora

In recent years, the Arctic has not only become the epicenter of climate change, but also a geopolitical and economic hotspot. To address the need for dialogue and cooperation on the future of the Arctic, the Arctic Circle was initiated in 2013. The Arctic Circle serves as an open democratic platform with participation from governments, organizations, corporations, universities, think tanks, environmental associations, indigenous communities, concerned citizens and others. [31] The Arctic Circle, including an annual Assembly in Reykjavik, satellite Forums in varying countries and virtual tools and events, has developed into the largest network of international dialogue and cooperation on the Arctic. [32]

In a similar way, Arctic Frontiers brings Arctic actors from science, policy and business together at an annual conference, in particular addressing the responsible and sustainable development of communities and business in the Arctic.

Arctic Science Ministerial

The most recent international coordination effort was initiated by the United States that invited the science ministers from all countries engaged in Arctic research and representatives from Arctic Indigenous peoples’ organizations to the White House Arctic Science Ministerial Meeting 2016. Recognizing that the Arctic is one of the Earth´s regions most strongly affected by climate change and that the better understanding of the rapid change, the consequences for its peoples and for the global climate system require internationally coordinated efforts, the main objective was to increase cooperation in Arctic science. The report of the meeting included a Joint Statement of Ministers. [33] This first Ministerial Meeting started a process and two years later in 2018 the European Union, Germany and Finland organized the second Arctic Science Ministerial in Berlin. [34] Another three years later in 2021 Iceland and Japan hosted the third meeting in Tokyo. [35] Each of the three meetings had slightly different overarching themes, however the main focus of all three was on (1) Strengthening Observations and Data Sharing, (2) Assessing Vulnerability and Building Resilience and (3) Understanding Regional and Global Implications. The plans for a fourth Science Ministerial to be jointly organized by France and the Russian Federation are currently on hold.

Recognizing that the Arctic is one of the Earth's regions most strongly affected by climate change and that the better understanding of the rapid change, the consequences for its peoples and for the global climate system require internationally coordinated efforts, the main objective was to increase cooperation in Arctic science.

Conclusion and Lessons Learnt

This brief and certainly not all-embracing review of the development of international cooperation in the Arctic during the past three decades discloses a number of factors that constituted or at least contributed to the success story:

  • Common Interest. The prerequisite for successful cooperation in the Arctic has always been the common interest of the Arctic States in protecting the Arctic environment and in facilitating the sustainable development of the region. This common interest was the starting point of the AEPS and the Arctic Council.
  • Science Diplomacy: A fundamental understanding is that scientific knowledge is needed as the base for policy-making. Cooperation in the Arctic is therefore very much driven by scientific collaboration which at the same time facilitates diplomatic relationships.
  • Clear Mandate: From the very beginning, the Arctic Council had a clear mandate on environmental protection and sustainable development. More “difficult” issues, such as security, were explicitly excluded.
  • Co-Management and Co-Design: A unique feature in Arctic international cooperation is that the Indigenous Peoples are part of the decision-making processes as Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council. Indigenous Knowledge that was developed through observation, practice and refinement over millennia is today recognized as an integral part of Arctic science.
  • Inclusiveness: Addressing complex scientific questions in a challenging environment, requires broad scientific expertise and infrastructure. The contributions of all countries engaged in Arctic research with regard to scientific knowledge, infrastructure, observations and data management are crucial.
  • Open Dialogue: Establishing cooperation and collaboration among the various Arctic political, scientific and economic actors and rightsholders requires an open dialogue. Open and inclusive dialogue platforms play an important role in building constructive and thrustful networks and relationships.
  • Education and Training: In particular the IPY 2007/2008 demonstrated that talented and enthusiastic young researches substantially contribute to sustaining international cooperation in the Arctic. Educating, training and mentoring the next generation of Arctic researchers and policy-makers is therefore an important investment towards shaping the future of Arctic cooperation.

Sadly, with the current geopolitical situation, the future of Arctic cooperation is becoming uncertain. However, it is important to highlight the remarkably constructive collaboration in the Arctic and to remember the factors that allowed for the success of these initiatives and institutions.

Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank David Hik for his constructive review and helpful comments.

Sadly, with the current geopolitical situation, the future of Arctic cooperation is becoming uncertain.

References

[1] Schönfeldt, K. (ed.), 2017. The Arctic in International Law and Policy. Documents in International Law, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1484 pp

[2] Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) (1991): http://library.arcticportal.org/1542/1/artic_environment.pdf

[3] Stone, D.P., 2015. The Changing Arctic Environment – The Arctic Messenger. Cambridge University Press, 360 pp

[4] Rogne, O., Rachold, V., Hacquebord, L., Corell, R. (eds.), 2015. IASC after 25 year - A Quarter of a Century of International Arctic Research Cooperation. International Arctic Science Committee. 125 pp

[5] International Arctic Science Committee (IASC): https://iasc.info/

[6] Integrating Arctic Research - a Roadmap for the Future. 3rd International Conference on Arctic Research Planning ICARP III, 2016. International Arctic Science Committee

[7] Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) website: https://mosaic-expedition.org/

[8] Arctic Council Ottawa Declaration, 1996: https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/85

[9] Arctic Council History: https://www.arctic-council.org/about/timeline/

[10] Smieszek, M., 2019. Informal International Regimes. A Case Study of the Arctic Council. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis: 270 (Lapin yliopisto, 2019)

[11] ACIA, 2005. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Cambridge University Press, 1042 pp

Supporting Arctic Science: A Summary of the White House Arctic Science Ministerial Meeting, 28 September 2016, Washington DC (USA)

[12] Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (2011): https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/531

[13] Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013): https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/529

[14] Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017): https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/1916

[15] International Maritime Organization (IMO) Polar Code (2017): https://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/Pages/Polar-default.aspx

[16] Agreement to prevent unregulated high seas fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean (2018): https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/international/agreement-accord-eng.htm

[17] Arctic Economic Council (AEC): https://arcticeconomiccouncil.com/

[18] Arctic Coast Guard Forum: https://www.arcticcoastguardforum.com/

[19] University of the Arctic: https://www.uarctic.org/

[20] Krupnik, I., Allison, I., Bell, R., Cutler, P., Hik, D. López-Martinez, J., Rachold, V., Sarukhanian, E. and Summerhayes, C. (eds.), 2011. Understanding Earth’s Polar Challenges: International Polar Year 2007-2008 - Summary report of the ICSU/WMO IPY Joint Committee, 695 pp

[21] Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS): https://www.apecs.is/

[22] Polar Educators International (PEI): https://polareducator.org/

[23] Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON): https://www.arcticobserving.org/

[24] Starkweather et al. 2021. Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks’ (SAON) Roadmap for Arctic Observing and Data Systems (ROADS). Arctic 74, Suppl. 1 (2021), 56–68

[25] Arctic Data Committee (ADC): https://arcticdc.org/

[26] Joseph, C., Biebow, N., Grosfeld, L., Midleja, H., Brenner, K. and Rachold, V., 2022. EU Engagement in the Arctic. Fact Sheet of the German Arctic Office. https://www.arctic-office.de/fileadmin/user_upload/www.arctic-office.de/PDF_uploads/Fact_Sheets/FactSheet_EU_englisch.pdf

[27] EU PolarNet: https://eu-polarnet.eu/

[28] Interact: https://eu-interact.org/

[29] ARICE: https://arice-h2020.eu/

[30] Arctic PASSION: https://arcticpassion.eu/

[31] Arctic Circle: https://www.arcticcircle.org/

[32] Arctic Frontiers: https://www.arcticfrontiers.com/

[33] Supporting Arctic Science: A Summary of the White House Arctic Science Ministerial Meeting, 28 September 2016, Washington DC (USA)

[34] Co-operation in Arctic Research – Challenges and Joint Actions, Report of the 2nd Arctic Science Ministerial, 25–26 October 2018, Berlin (Germany)

[35] Knowledge for a Sustainable Arctic – 3rd Arctic Science Ministerial, 8-9 May 2021, Tokyo (Japan)

Dr. Volker Rachold

German Arctic Office at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI)

Dr. Volker Rachold is the Head of the German Arctic Office at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), which serves as an information and cooperation platform between German stakeholders from science, politics and industry. Before moving to the German Arctic Office in 2017, he served as the Executive Secretary of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) in Stockholm and Potsdam since 2006.

Dr. Rachold graduated as a geochemist from Goettingen University, where he also obtained his Ph.D. in 1994. Since then he worked with the AWI. His research focused on land-ocean interactions in the Siberian Arctic and he led several land- and ship-based Russian-German expeditions.