Polar disaster diplomacy


Photo: Ilan Kelman
Northern Norway is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the Arctic region.

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Agder, Norway

Norway is the only country with territorial claims around both polar regions. For safety, security, and disasters, this places Norway in a unique position for bringing together countries in the two polar regions. With linking experiences from both ends of the Earth, the question arises whether prospects exist for Norway to lead polar disaster diplomacy.

Disaster diplomacy refers to how and why dealing with disasters does and does not bring together countries that might otherwise not be prone to cooperation. The hope is that preventing calamity and alleviating suffering would overcome political enmity. The sad reality from examples around the world and throughout history is that short-term disaster diplomacy successes are sometimes seen, but nothing lasts over the long term. Instead, politics supersede humanitarian imperatives.

But could Norway really take initiatives around the Arctic and Antarctic for polar disaster diplomacy? The likelihood is low, because of complications in dealing with disasters and in dealing with politics.

Disasters are not easy to address at high latitudes. Across both regions, environmental conditions are harsh, opportunities for rapid responses are few, and no guarantee exists for safety in rescue and response operations or for implementing successful prevention and preparation.

The most robust planning in these regions means being ready to wait for days for the weather to clear. While most settlements in the North have a modicum of year-round access, it is not the case around Antarctica. The South Pole station is effectively off-limits for the winter months, while at McMurdo Station on the coast, significant efforts for winter aircraft landings really only started in 2015 and remain tenuous.

To avoid and address disasters, continual cooperation involving everyone is essential, irrespective of nationality or of nationalistic interests. When someone is in trouble, those who can assist do so, without expectations for or interests in wider diplomatic or geopolitical ramifications. 

This is especially important for Antarctica, given that it is a continent for peace. Almost everyone visiting there is researching, exploring, or involved in tourism.

Under the Antarctic Treaty System started in 1959 and which covers all areas south of 60°S, countries’ territorial claims are neither accepted nor declined. They have status only as claims, with no country holding sovereignty over any part of Antarctica.

Norway’s Antarctic claims have complications. Six other countries—Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—claim Antarctic territory, from the South Pole to the coast. Norway does not place explicit northern or southern limits on its claims, although obviously the South Pole must be the southernmost limit. Meanwhile, Norway also claims Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, which is accepted as a dependency of Norway, since it is outside of the Antarctic Treaty System area.

Norway’s Arctic sovereignty displays some complications, too. There is no dispute regarding Norway as a sovereign state, but difficulties appear for the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Svalbard is a territory of Norway and has some of the northernmost communities in the world, although there were never any indigenous settlements. It is governed by the Svalbard Treaty from 1920, which provided rights for livelihood and commercial activities to the citizens of the 46 countries that have signed the treaty. Therefore, Norway cannot have full control over all activities around the archipelago.

As with Antarctica, tourism, science, and exploration are common around Svalbard, but commercial activities are also prominent. Coal mining continues on land and Norway has a seemingly perpetual push north for sub-sea oil and gas exploration.

Norway remains a whaling country, and as its waters warm due to climate change, improved fisheries remain a possibility. Cargo ships traversing intercontinental waters are considering whether crossing the Arctic Ocean could be viable, with Svalbard as a possible transit point.

Topics of disasters and safety, especially collaboration among the Svalbard Treaty countries, could lend themselves to forging diplomatic connections. Norway, however, accepts its Svalbard Treaty duties as being responsible for the archipelago’s safety and security. The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Northern Norway in Bodø covers 65°N to the North Pole which covers all of Svalbard and its surrounding waters.

Consequently, little opportunity for polar disaster diplomacy exists. When mutual assistance is needed in the far north or far south, many international agreements are used and help to save lives. Diplomatic efforts led to these disaster-reducing agreements, but little scaling-up to wider pan-Arctic or pan-Antarctic cooperation is seen.

As with all other disaster diplomacy examples, polar disaster diplomacy seems to be of little interest. Disaster-related activities and wider diplomacy with respect to the polar regions are, more or less, kept separate. Norway, despite being well placed to bring together North and South, seems content with this situation.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.