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Arctic Circle

The Arctic and Third Pole – Himalaya: Science and Collaboration

By Dagfinnur Sveinbjörnsson, Arctic Circle Emissary on the Third Pole, Climate and the Oceans

As the ice of Third Pole – Himalaya melts and wastes away with increasing pace the consequences for the water resources of Asia come into stark relief. The scale of the emerging challenges can be described vividly and with great drama. Professor Yao Tandong, the leading glaciologist of China, predicted a few years ago that two thirds of China’s glaciers will disappear by 2050; stating that a full-scale shrinkage of the glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.[1]

Third Pole – Himalaya is a region like no other on the planet. It is framed by the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Pamir Mountains and extends across the vast expanses of the Tibetan Plateau – The Roof of the World – to the Taklamakan Desert. It is referred to as the Third Pole or the Water Tower of Asia, as the ice fields constitute the largest permanent ice cover outside the polar regions and are among the largest reservoirs of fresh water on earth. Third Pole – Himalaya is a reference not only to the ice and the water. It refers to the center of gravity in the region, namely the Himalayan arc across Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is a region of great cultural and religious diversities and immense political complexities. It includes densely populated societies and two of the most populated nations on earth.

The impact of climate change on the region is of monumental scientific importance. It is also of great consequence for human lives. More than a billion people rely on water downstream in one way or the other; not only for drinking and sanitation but for food production, hydroelectric power and a host of economic activities. The Yellow River basin is home to over 150 million people and water in the Yangtze River basin is fundamental for the lives of at least 370 million people. The population of the Indus River basin is projected to rise to 319 million by 2025 and the Ganga and Brahmaputra River basins sustain livelihood for at least 670 million people.[2] The magnitude of the predicted catastrophes is monumental. It will result in irregular water flows, water shortages, disruptions of the monsoon winds, and the formation of glacial lakes in the mountains which present a constant danger of deadly glacial outburst floods (GLOFS).[3] Glacial outburst floods have taken many lives and with increasing frequency caused great destruction of infrastructure and communities. In the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan they are formally identified as the most serious national threat.

The impact of transformations in the mountains will also be seen in the political arena. Scientific research reveals that the rivers most sensitive to the consequences of melting run through areas that are critical to relations between the Asian states, namely the Indus tributaries in Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges and the neighborhood of Brahmaputra's big bend.[4] This is truly alarming given that for decades grievances in the region have been overwhelmingly over water and collaboration across borders is limited.[5]

In the face of the enormity of the challenge it is of great concern that scientific understanding has been limited and fragmented. In the IPCC Assessment Report of 2007 Himalaya was referred to as a “white spot”, a term which indicates “little or no data”.[6] And in the UNEP report of 2012 it was noted that there was considerable uncertainty about the current state of Himalayan glaciers; the availability of data and information sparse and lacking in consistency.[7] Since then great contributions have been made by Professor Yao Tandong and his team at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research and by the leadership of the regional institute headquartered in Kathmandu, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

However, the greatest potential for collaboration in the region remains in efforts to strengthen regional and international collaboration on scientific research and the dissemination of scientific findings. In future efforts to heed that challenge in the Third Pole – Himalaya the experience of collaboration in the Arctic over the past decades can provide important lessons; can serve as a model.

More than a billion people rely on water downstream in one way or the other; not only for drinking and sanitation but for food production, hydroelectric power and a host of economic activities.


Over the past decades the Arctic has been a theater of remarkable natural and environmental transformations which carry with it monumental and multifaceted consequences for economic activities and the lives of the Indigenous Peoples. In the face of the transformations the Arctic has also become an arena of constructive collaboration across borders which over time has become multidimensional. The collaboration among the Arctic states did in fact begin with joint efforts to understand the environmental challenges facing the region which then led to institutional and governmental mechanisms to disseminate information and scientific findings which in turn enabled policy authorities to address the challenges both locally and through international collaboration.

The first formal institutional prelude to the establishment of the Arctic Council – the formal diplomatic institution – was the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) in 1990. In 1991 the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) was adopted by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the USSR, and the United States. At the same time, the Declaration on the Protection of the Arctic Environment – the “Rovaniemi Declaration” – was formally adopted. When in 1996 the Arctic states established the Arctic Council, the declared purpose was at least twofold, namely to preserve the sensitive and changing environment in the Arctic, and to promote development initiatives that fulfil the principle of sustainability. To achieve those two aims, an improved understanding of nature in the Arctic was necessary. It became an important function of the Arctic Council to promote and initiate collaborative efforts in science and research among Arctic nations.[8]

The Arctic is not only a model for other regions of the world when it comes to formal mechanisms of collaboration among states and institutions in efforts to understand and disseminate information and findings on the natural world and environmental challenges. It has also become an arena where scientific efforts, information sharing and debate is encouraged and sustained in a remarkably open and democratic manner. Arctic Circle, established in 2013 at the initiative of then President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, has become the preeminent venue for global engagement with Arctic affairs. It convenes representatives of diverse and separate constituencies; heads of states and governments are joined by representatives of scientific institutions and universities, environmental organizations, representatives of indigenous peoples and businesses and investment houses. The annual Arctic Circle Assemblies generally welcome over 2000 registered participants from about 70 nationalities. Arctic Circle Forums on more specific topics are also convened around the world in collaboration with governments and leading institutions.

This open and democratic arena not only enables the global community to engage with Arctic affairs – which are of monumental consequence for the planet – but creates a dynamic relationship between separate spheres of activities. This cross fertilization is necessary not only to improve understanding of transformations taking place, but also as a foundation for constructive collaboration.


The way in which the Arctic states have organized their engagement with environmental challenges presents many useful examples for other parts of the world and has served as an inspiration. In the Third Pole – Himalaya the Arctic experience has already served as an inspiration, as can be seen for example in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), which was inspired by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).

However, the Arctic experience is more comprehensive and has been presented to institutions and authorities in the Third Pole – Himalaya region in conferences, meetings, workshops, and forums. Notably, this has taken place within the domain of the Arctic Circle Assemblies and Forums. In particular with a special two day program on the sidelines of the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland in 2013, with the Third Pole Environment Workshops in Iceland in 2011 and in Dehradun India in 2013 co-hosted by the Government of India and with a Himalaya-Third Pole Circle meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan in 2015 co-hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Following those meetings work was launched by the regional organization ICIMOD on the Hindu-Kush Himalaya Assessment Report – modeled on initiatives of past decades in the Arctic. The report was published in 2019 to international acclaim.[9] A five-year study focused on effects of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, receiving input from over 350 scientists, experts, researchers and policy makers from 22 countries. It is the most comprehensive climate assessment of the region to date; revealing in no uncertain terms that the challenge of climate change and the melting of the glaciers and the consequences for the water resources of the Third Pole – Himalaya are among the monumental environmental challenges of our age. The report presents the prediction that, depending on the rate of warming, one-third or two-thirds of the 56.000 glaciers in the region will disappear by 2100. The report calls for immediate and decisive action and renewed efforts to communicate the gravity of the challenge to the political and policy making establishments of the region and beyond.

In this context the envisioned Arctic Circle Abu Dhabi Forum, co-hosted by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment of the United Arab Emirates, offers an opportunity to present the Arctic model of collaboration to the Third Pole-Himalaya region more systematically than before. It will be a venue to present data and information on a regional scale which demonstrate the nature and scope of the challenge; combined with a dialogue and deliberations by policy makers and ministers on the need for more effective collaboration: How a mechanism devoted to collaboration in the region can be most reasonably and effectively designed.

Calls for greater and improved scientific efforts have echoed across the Third Pole – Himalaya region and have to some extent been met with important contributions. However, it is clear, as it was in the Arctic, that research initiatives in this vast and enormously challenging geographic space, and the imparting of knowledge and findings that will need to follow, let alone the policy measures that will eventually be called for, cannot become effective in the absence of institutional and regional collaboration. The way in which the challenge of climate change comes ever more clearly into stark relief is making explorations possible and with hope, new forms of established collaboration will become tenable.

The way in which the Arctic states have organized their engagement with environmental challenges presents many useful examples for other parts of the world and has served as an inspiration.


On a classic and greatly influential 20th century analytical account, the challenge of initiating collaboration and providing collective goods, cannot be solved in the absence of coercion or outside inducement. A failure to contribute to the common and collective interest without enforcement is not a failure of reason but an exercise of it.[10] The effort to create conditions and to initiate collaboration in the Arctic and the Third Pole – Himalaya departs from this analytical framework and is informed rather by a classical account of collaboration of earlier centuries. On that account, the failure to collaborate in the face of a common challenge was viewed as a failure of reasoning and an irrational inclination to be deceived by short term interest.[11] It stands to reason, that to solve the collective action problem and to initiate collaboration to meet a common challenge, the reasons for collaboration need to be established and communicated.

In the face of environmental challenges this translates into a need for strengthened scientific research and efforts to improve the state of knowledge and an effective communication of the findings to the policy making and political establishments. Facts established by scientific research in the Third Pole – Himalaya are commanding and present the strongest reasons for collaboration. Jónas Hallgrímsson, a scientist and a celebrated Icelandic poet of the early 19th century, phrased it elegantly in a poem when honoring the legendary French explorer Paul Gaimard: „Science sustains all deed“.[12] In the Arctic this has been the approach for over three decades, namely to sustain collaboration on the foundations of science, and it has already constituted a model for the Third Pole – Himalaya.

Thus, the Arctic Circle Abu Dhabi Forum, when it takes place, will be devoted to an exploration of the challenges facing Third Pole-Himalaya as the ice melts with monumental consequences for the river basins across Asia. It will offer presentations on what can be learnt from the way in which the Arctic collaboration initially evolved and was eventually designed as well as lessons from the way in which it has grown over time. Among the elements of a growing collaboration in the Third Pole – Himalaya region can be efforts to connect high-level diplomacy with ground-level research and policymaking. Should that become successful it would be in keeping with – can in fact be seen as a description of – what has already taken place in the Arctic. The Forum will offer a model and guiding principles for the collaboration devoted to Third Pole – Himalaya and the vision that shall define the endeavour.

No. 1/2022, 19 January 2022

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Dagfinnur Sveinbjörnsson

Arctic Circle Emissary on the Third Pole, Climate and the Oceans

Dagfinnur Sveinbjörnsson is the Arctic Circle Emissary on the Third Pole, Climate and the Oceans. Dagfinnur is the former CEO of Arctic Circle since its establishment in 2013 and until 2021. Since its establishment it has become the preeminent venue for engagement in Arctic affairs and the relationship of the Arctic with the international community. 
Dagfinnur read philosophy, history, economics, politics and the political economy of development at the University of Iceland; Trinity College, Cambridge; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and was a fellow at Harvard University.


[1]Jing Gao, Yao Tandong, Masson-Delmotte V, Steen-Larsen H C, Wang W (2019), „Collapsing Glaciers Threaten Asia´s Water Supplies.“ Nature 565, pp. 19-21.

[2] National Research Council of the National Academies (2012), Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security. The National Academic Press. Washington D.C.

[3] Wilkinson, Freddie (2019), „What happens when the roof of the world melts?“ National Geographic 2019.

[4] Immerzeel, Walter W., Ludovicus P. H. Van Beek, Marc F. P. Bierkens (2010), „Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers.“ Science, 11 June 2010 Vol. 328. Regarding important variations across the region see: UNEP report 2012. Rees G. H. Collins, D.N. (2006), „Regional Differences in Response of Flow in Glacier-fed Himalayan Rivers to Climate Warming“ in 7 Hydrological Processes, 20: pp. 2157-2167.

[5] Chellaney, Brahma (2011), Water: Asia´s New Battleground. Georgetown University Press. Washington D.C.

[6] IPCC (2007), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Assessment Report.

[7]UNEP report 2012. United Nations Environment Programme.

[8]Among notable reports: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. And Arctic Human Development Report (2004), Akureyri: Stefansson Arctic Institute.

[9]The Hindu-Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People (2019) Wester, Philippus. Springer. Switzerland.

[10]Olson, Mancur (1965), The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press.

[11] Tuck, Richard (2008), Free Riding. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press.

[12]Hallgrímsson, Jónas (1839), „To Mr. Paul Gaimard“. Poem in honor of french scientists and explorer Paul Gaimard presented at a Banquet of Icelanders in Copenhagen in 1839. In Icelandic: „Vísindin efla alla dáð.“ Gaimard led the early 19th century expedition which produced the greatest collection of scientific findings on Iceland and Greenland to date: Voyage en Islande et au Groënland executé pendant les années 1835 et 1836. Published in 12 large volumes 1838-1852.