‘There is no question of the Arctic region being conserved as a giant wilderness’

With India applying for observer status on the intergovernmental Arctic Council, along with China and other countries, the melting sea ice and its consequences, mainly in terms of opportunities for exploration of natural resources in the Arctic region, is a crucial debate.

At the first Arctic Summit organised by The Economist in Oslo on Tuesday, though India was not represented, climate change issues figured as much as the region’s undiscovered natural resources, which many countries and oil companies are eyeing.

While India set up a research station in the Arctic in the 2008, and is keen on a say in the area, its neighbour is far ahead of it. A Chinese icebreaker made a three-month journey in the Arctic Ocean last year, thus becoming the first Asian ship to navigate through the treacherous waters. Dr. Huigen Yang, director of the Polar Research Institute of China, said the country was very keen on an Arctic sea route since it would be beneficial. China, he said, was committed to mitigating climate change, but was also keen on exploration in the Arctic and there were a lot of trade needs. If a new sea route could be opened due to the ice melt, it would be an opportunity, he remarked. While everyone was seeing the bad aspects, China was enthused by the prospects of trade and transport. Last year China carried out its fifth Arctic expedition.

Three possible Arctic sea routes were being explored, Dr. Huigen said, adding that the Arctic sea route, if operational by 2030, could take half the container ship traffic. China would double its economy size by 2020 and the new sea routes would boost Chinese trade hugely as per the Polar Research Institute’s calculations. The new sea routes would be shorter and also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Dr. Huigen said. Chinese ports might benefit from the Arctic sea route and the country was discussing sea routes with North Korea.

The Chinese icebreaker also carried out experiments in the Atlantic Ocean. James Astill, political editor of The Economist, who chaired the conference felt that the melting of sea ice was inevitable and there was no question of the Arctic being conserved as a giant wilderness. While oil companies are keen on exploring the reserves, the Arctic poses stiff challenges. The summit brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, but opposition to indiscriminate exploration of the Arctic, which many described as a unique region, came to the surface.

Nina Jensen of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Norway, said that while there was huge pressure on the Arctic and its resources,there were no systems in place to handle a shipwreck or oil spill. The Arctic Council might have an overriding responsibility for the region, but it might not be able to manage the environment. The region was witnessing a race for its resources without anyone understanding the importance of ice in the region, Ms. Jensen said. In 2012, millions of hectares of sea ice was lost and there was a clear signal coming from the region, she said, and that was ‘hold your horses.’ But it did not mean the Arctic should be kept like a museum, Ms. Jensen opined.

For the roughly 4.5 million inhabitants of the Arctic region, climate change was not a distant phenomenon, said Lars Kullerud, president of the University of the Arctic, a group of academics. There are 40 different communities in the Arctic region and they were already seeing signs of change in the form of early spring, winters being less cold, and snow being no longer dry. Animals used to dig through the dry snow for food, but that had changed. Fish stock had moved due to the changing climate and hunting seals had become difficult since the ice had melted. In the past, thick ice allowed transport to communities and mining centres, but now melting ice made it difficult for trucks to move.

Speakers also differed on the need to conserve the Arctic as a unique ecosystem or open it up for exploration. Environmentalists called for better regulation and first studying possible impacts on the region before jumping in.

(This correspondent’s trip to Oslo is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, New Delhi.)