Breaking through

Commentary | The time has come for Svalbard to start realising that its people have a unique set of skills that allow it to thrive in the Arctic

Any colour you like, as long as it’s not black (Photo: Global Seed Vault/Peter Vermeij)

Christin Kristoffersen

I am honoured that we who have the opportunity to live in the High North can stand on the shoulders of those whose stubbornness and independent spirit made it possible to settle this part of the country in spite of the hardships they faced. Their stubbornness has motivated me during my time in office as mayor of Longyearbyen.

For me, moving to Svalbard meant coming to a place that overwhelmed me, both in terms of the knowledge of the people who live here, and their skill. I saw a need to make sure this potential gained more attention nationally. Given the increasing focus on the High North, the timing could not have been better.

It’s no secret that, when it comes to Svalbard, the discussion has long (too long, I would argue) been mostly about coal. This has not benefitted the development of the High North, and it has created a situation in which bureaucratic might has beaten back whatever political will there might have been to address the matter.

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One of the characteristics of Northern societies are what experts like to call “coping strategies”. This has meant that we have focused more on our (almost surprising) knack for surviving in the High North than we have on the unique set of skills doing this requires.

We don’t just survive, we thrive.

When Canada took over as chair of the Arctic Council in 2013, they began using the term “Northerners” to describe the people who live in the Arctic. This is a term that encompasses the societal development I feel is necessary for the future of the North. I now use the term frequently.

If we are to build the new Arctic, we must focus on our societies, opportunities and skills.

This was something The Economist, somewhat pessimistically, got at in March, when it used its Arctic Summit 2015, an event at which I was invited to speak, to answer the question “Has investing in the Arctic been oversold?”

For The Economist, Arctic development has three engines. First is the enormous amounts of energy resources that will be easier to exploit as the temperature rises and the ice cap grows smaller. The United States Geological Survey estimates that 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves are found beneath the continental shelf in the Arctic.

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Second is the fact that the Northern Sea Route cuts nearly a quarter of the distance between Shanghai and Rotterdam, and reduces sailing time by two weeks. Vladimir Putin is among those who believe that the Northern Sea Route could one day replace the Suez Canal as the primary sailing route between Asia and Europe.

Third is that the Arctic could serve as a model of international co-operation. The eight Arctic states have agreed to abide either by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Arctic Council agreements when they find themselves in a dispute over the region. Nothing underscores how interested the world is in the Arctic than the crowd of Asian states seeking to establish themselves here. China, India and Singapore were granted Arctic Council observer status in 2013. I, personally, have spoken about Longyearbyen during Arctic Circle, an event where I sat alongside representatives from countries as far afield as Singapore and Japan.

It’s not that these engines don’t exist, but, as I see it, The Economist and others have missed the most important engine of them all. The engine that makes all development possible: societal development. The question we should be asking is, how can we build Arctic communities that can live live up to, and to shape, the Arctic’s potential?

When asked why we’re so focused on the Arctic at a time when we have all sorts of other problems we could be taking care of, Admiral Robert J Papp, the US State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, explained it this way: “When John F Kennedy was president, he had to deal with a lot of challenges. Nevertheless, he set a long-term goal: sending Americans to the Moon. Today we look back and we see how wise a decision that was: given the great scientific breakthroughs its led to. Making an effort in the Arctic is an equally valuable goal, since it will teach us much that will benefit humans in the future.”

The Arctic has lost neither importance nor relevance globally. The engines of growth that its societies can create on their own, and which appear to get lost in the more grandiose visions, combines scientific and technological development with a global appetite for resources.

Does any of this matter for Svalbard? And just what is it we’re trying to break through? Well, it matters because we are on the cusp of breaking through in a national debate about what Svalbard means to us, and not just continuing to listen from the side lines to the debate about coal. This all shows that our cold place is still hot. Svalbard and Longyearbyen give Norway the experience and the skills it needs to be at the centre of Arctic development.

Svalbard’s history is a commercial history. We have not used our policies in the High North to ask what what others can do for us. Instead, we’ve used it to tell others what we can do, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

How is it that societal development can allow us to take advantage of the opportunities that the Arctic presents? Take Svalbard as an example: the Svalbard Treaty obliges Norway to protect the environment here. This requires us to act decisively and sustainably in areas like natural resource extraction, snow and ice science and Arctic biology. Developing a tourism industry and other economic activities, building an infrastructure and developing our society is governed by some of the world’s toughest environmental regulations is an interesting challenge.

Longyearbyen, as an established centre for commerce and learning, is a highly developed community that exists at 78°N, and, as a result, is already experienced when it comes to Arctic operations. This is something that will be important for those looking to take advantage of the economic opportunities the region offers, not least those looking to do it sustainably.

Infrastructure, logistics and safety are all crucial for Arctic operations. In Svalbard, we are improving our port infrastructure in order to take advantage of opportunities in the maritime industry, search and rescue, tourism, industrial development and research and education.

There is huge potential for us to gain an advantage in areas like search and rescue, technology, logistics and infrastructure. Once we have refined our skills at home, they can be applied elsewhere in the Arctic. A century of operating mines, for example, has taught us how to test and evaluate equipment and to develop other mining technologies.

With more shipping and offshore drilling activity in the Arctic comes the need for improved technologies and laboratories that can be used in the event of a spill in icy waters, along beaches and other areas of coast. We have the experience, we have the understanding and we have the right location for this to happen in Svalbard.

Longyearbyen itself has an infrastructure than can be used in connection with environmental observation of marine environments. In addition, Svalbard is the site of installations that receive data from satellites that keep an eye on both our earth and space.

The growing focus on the High North, and Longyearbyen’s place in it – both nationally and internationally – was fairly new when this mayor developed her stubborn streak. Since then, focusing on what we can do locally has brought us together, and it has allowed us to formulate why and how these things must be done, and to show that we here in the High North are capable of doing what needs to be done.

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We have learned what it is we can do, and it is these skills that our future will be built upon, for ourselves, for Norway and for a sustainable, global Arctic.

The people of the High North do more than just survive. We see ourselves as possessing unique skills tied to our history in the Arctic, and this is something that has instilled us with self-confidence, an incredible potential for development that we are actively seeking to exploit and, not least, national and international attention.

Today, we are finally discussing what Norway’s status in the Arctic can be used for. This has happened because we have laid the necessary foundation; we have broken through. We have shown that making the effort to develop a society and the skills it already possesses is beneficial, and we have shown that all this can happen in Longyearbyen.

I predict that this will have a big impact on the development of the Arctic internationally. I look forward to following along from the shoulders of those who came before me.

The author is the mayor of Longyearbyen.

Originally published in Norwegian by High North News

Originally published in English by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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This commentary was originally included in special focus on Svalbard. Other articles in the series included:
More than just a treaty
The gene bank of last resort
The sheriff of Svalbard
It depends on what the definition of ‘in’ is

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