The Nature of International Cooperation in the Arctic

Pulling IcebreakerBy Eli Kintisch

Science & Diplomacy

On a planet that is undergoing profound change, the Arctic is experiencing some of the most rapid changes, leading to historic, unexpected, and largely unprecedented physical and ecological transformation. Yet apart from Antarctica, there’s no region on earth about which scientists know less or have fewer experts or instruments monitoring it. So scientists, local stakeholders, myriad industries, and policy makers around the world are closely watching the transformative developments taking place in the farthest northern reaches of the globe.

Rapidly changing ecosystems are threatening wildlife and the indigenous populations that depend on it, while thawing land and melting ice are shortening shipping routes and opening up new areas for development of fossil fuels and minerals. Science collaborations have played a key role in shaping various environmental and geopolitical regimes in the Arctic. International research partnerships are important because of the expense required to operate in the high latitudes; sharing the responsibility helps countries undertake more scientific projects than they could on their own. Furthermore, the issues at play in the changing North—rapid climate change, thawing permafrost, shifting global weather systems, expanded resource extraction, and shipping—affect nations far from the Arctic Circle.

As the United States leads the Arctic Council during its two-year chairmanship (2015–2017), negotiations are under way to try to remove various barriers to effective scientific collaboration in the Arctic of the future. Central to that issue are relations between East and West, specifically between Russia and other nations. Russia controls the largest portion of land north of the Arctic Circle, with 40 percent of the Arctic sector under its control, including a massive 14,900-mile Arctic coast.

This essay explores how research in the Arctic, so much of it international in nature and collaborative in practice, has evolved in terms of cooperation between East and West. Science partnerships have been a fundamental part of Arctic exploration for centuries. Expanding the size and scope of these partnerships can bring benefits to the many nations that have interests in the Arctic. But it requires thoughtful reflection on the roadblocks to successful collaboration. What barriers exist to effective international partnerships in the Arctic? How can scientists and governments forge closer ties, and what lessons can successful collaborations provide? Answering these questions will shed light on important issues that will affect research in the High North for decades to come.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: NASA ICE (Towing an Icebreaker) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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