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Climate changes arctic working life
Insight

Climate changes arctic working life

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

The climate is changing much faster in the Arctic than researchers had predicted. This also means great challenges for working life in an area where between four and nine million people live, depending on how you define it. The Arctic Frontiers conference has been staged in Tromsø for the eighth time.

Uncertainty surrounding just how the climate will change was demonstrated by the general weather during the conference. It was dry and cold on opening day. The sun re-emerged over the mountain tops surrounding the city of 57,000 people for the first time since the end of November, and the people of Tromsø were ecstatic. It coloured the surrounding mountains pink and people walked around with a smile on their faces. 

“It is fantastic that the sun has returned!” exclaimed the city’s mayor, Jens Johan Hjort, as he welcomed the participants to the conference.

The people who live in the Arctic understood what he meant.

The next day it was raining, but on day three the snow was coming down in flakes the size of cotton buds, making people coming in from outside look like they had been sprayed with white foam.

Faster than expected

The conference heard a summing up of the big SWIPA study financed by the Arctic Council, which comprises 230 scientific reports on the consequences of climate change. It builds on previous studies but has been updated with information from the latest ten years.

“The first conclusion in the SWIPA study is that changes in the Arctic are happening at a much faster rate than previously predicted,” said Morten Olsen from the Danish Ministry of Climate. 

SWIPA is short for ‘Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic’.

There is still debate over how significant climate change is on a global scale, yet no-one can deny the dramatic reduction in the North Pole ice cover and that glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet are melting fast. Processes are set in motion which in turn accelerate climate changes, for instance when snow cover is reduced. That leads to less sunlight being reflected and the resulting temperature increase has global consequences.

Good cooperation

“The good news is that the Arctic countries are cooperating well. This makes it easier to manage the way in which we have to adapt,” said Gustaf Lind, Sweden’s Arctic ambassador.

Conference

One visible proof of that cooperation is that the Arctic Council, which comprises the eight countries which are partly situated north of the Arctic circle, has established a permanent secretariat in Tromsø which was officially opened during a ceremony with Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, his Swedish colleague Carl Bildt and Canada’s Minister for the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq. Magnús Jóhannesson from Iceland will be heading the secretariat. 

But things can get hot even in the Arctic. Most often it happens when people debate fisheries, an industry which has seen the consequences of a warmer climate as several fish stocks have moved. Haddock, which used to swim along the south coast of Iceland, now stay north of the island. 

“Internally in Iceland this creates problems because it is the fishermen in the south who have the quotas for haddock. Fishermen in the North now get so much haddock as illegal unintended catch that they cannot fill their cod quotas,” said Steingrímur Sigfússon, Iceland’s Minister of Economic Affairs and of Fisheries and Agriculture.

The mackerel creates problems

The mackerel has also started to gather in the sea outside the south coast of Iceland. Icelanders, who traditionally have not been fishing mackerel, have chosen to draw up their own quotas – quite separate from what Norway and the EU do.

“Mackerel swimming in our zone represent a biomass of 1.5 million tonnes. They are not there as tourists, they are there for business. They gain 650,000 tonnes which they take from the Icelandic ecosystem,” said Steingrímur Sigfússon.

“Traditional methods of sharing a fish stock between several nations does not work when you have the kind of dynamic changes that we see now. We need to find the balance between historic catches and other factors,” he said.

Yet keeping in mind how notoriously difficult quota negotiations usually are, nobody knows what will happen if the present principles are sidelined. 

Fisheries account for 40 percent of Iceland’s merchandise exports. In the past two years mackerel has reached second and third place as the most important fish stock. Historically Norway and the EU have the right to harvest 90 percent of North Atlantic mackerel quotas, while Iceland, the Faroe Islands and all other countries must share the remaining ten percent.  

Erosion a major problem

But climate change means more than changes to fish stocks. When the permafrost recedes the coastline can begin to erode. Two thirds of the Arctic coastline is being kept together and is protected by ice. When it melts and the permafrost thaws, erosion can set in very quickly. Along the Laptev and Beaufort seas the coastline has receded by more than two metres a year and several Alaskan Inuit societies are preparing for the fact that they will have to move.

Although the Arctic is sparsely populated, the cold helps communication. Traditionally through the use of dog sleighs and in modern times through opening up ice roads over frozen lakes and rivers. An ice road is the only link between the Nunavut territory in Canada to the rest of North America.

Now the period when these ice roads are safe has become shorter, as they freeze over later in the year and thaw earlier in spring. 

Thawing permafrost also means buildings, pipelines and airports are being deformed, despite new building techniques.

New opportunities at sea

The warmer climate also brings new possibilities. New trade routes are opening up when the ice melts. 42 vessels sailed from Asia to Europe or the other way around through the North-East Passage in 2012. That makes the route from Hamburg to Shanghai 35 percent shorter compared to when sailing through the Suez Canal.

The North-West Passage goes north of Canada. If that becomes free of ice, European vessels could reach the USA’s west coast without passing through the Panama Canal.

More traffic is created by large cruise ships which sail up along the ice shelf. 

“At the most we’ve had eight vessels at the same time around Svalbard. One such ship alone can have more passengers than the number of people who live on Svalbard,” said Vice Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hansen, as an example of the new challenges facing rescue services.

"Cultural imperialism"

An increase in tourism also brings new demands and changes.

Sara Olsvig

“Tourists want to see unspoilt, original societies where they can taste the forbidden fruit – whale meat,” said Sara Olsvig, a Danish MP representing the leftist Inuit Ataqatigiit party (‘Community of the People’) in one of the two seats reserved for Greenland in the Danish parliament. 

She didn’t mince her words when she described the EU’s ban on the sales of seal products, calling it completely irrational, since the seals were neither threatened with extinction or hunted in an inhumane manner.

“This is about cultural imperialism and not about animal rights,” she said.

Interest from other countries

There has been a surprising level of interest in becoming observers at the Arctic Council from non-Arctic countries. 

“I recently gave a speech in Singapore about the Arctic which drew a lot of people. At least Singapore is on the right side of the globe – it is one degree north of the Equator,” joked Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide.

Keeping in mind Singapore’s dependency on shipping, the country’s interest is not so strange. Last autumn the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long sailed through the North-East Passage.

For Sara Olsvig, China represents an opportunity both for major investment in the hunt for minerals, and as a buyer of seal products. In Denmark they are currently debating whether a new state company should be set up in order to invest in mining activities and to look for oil and gas in Greenland. 

“I don’t understand the sudden interest. When we negotiated with previous governments they didn’t do anything about investments,” says Sara Olsvig.

Denmark’s subsidy to the Greenland budget has been frozen since 2009.

“If we want to keep the Greenland welfare state we simply must find new ways to create revenue,” she says.

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