Svalbard and the Arctic Region on the agenda during "Arendalsuka" 2019.

From Pollen, in the harbour area of Arendal. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen

During “Arendalsuka” 2019, the week from August 12 until August 17, I had the pleasure of beeing present in many seminars and debates. “Arendalsuka” is an independent initiative started in the city of Arendal in the south of Norway in order to contribute to political debate in public spaces in Norway. Many of the political leaders from the Government and the Norwegian Parliament take part, together with national, regional and local organizations, municipalities, Universities, research institutions, business actors, and inhabitants, including youth and children.

In this blog post I will give some highlights from debates and seminars concerning Svalbard and the North, relevant to my work as a co-leader of the Horizon 2020 project INTAROS; Integrated Arctic Observation System work on Community Based Monitoring of the Arctic.

The opening of the "Arendalsuka" 2019. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen

The international political situation is affecting the collaboration in the Arctic. Balancing "firmness and dialogue" is important to maintain a good climate for the collaboration on climate.

On Monday August 12 the Fridtjof Nansens Institutt (FNI) arranged a debate in Café No9 in Arendal, about major politics in the Arctic, and the Norwegian interests in the North.

The background for this debate was the fact that the Arctic and the northern regions are under pressure due to climate change, international politics and growing interest from both business and other actors who see resources and new opportunities in the region. The question asked was what Norway really wants in the north. With increased international political interests in the Arctic region, what is the status of the Norwegian Northern Territory politics, and how does Norway relate to the growing interest were questions addressed.

Andreas Østhagen, FNI talked about the interests of US in the Arctic. Although there have been many discussions concerning US interests, and the fact that the political leadership is stating that climate change is not due to impact of human activities, US is respecting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Svein Vigeland Rottem, FNI, talked about Russian interests. Russia is the largest nation in the Arctic region, a point they clearly state in many situations.  The collaboration in projects, research and safety issues between Norway and Russian is found to be good, but due to increased military activity from both Russia and NATO, the Russians wants to defend their interests in the region. Altogether the political situation is more stressed than some years ago.

Julie Wilhelmsen, NUPI, talked about the increased NATO activities in the region, as a response to some of the Russian activities. In general, the military activity in the region has increased over the last five years. NATO has a principle of balancing "deter and reassure" connected to military activities, but the Russian intervention on the Crimean Peninsula, has increased the awareness and activities from the NATO-partners.

Gørild Heggelund, FNI, talked about China as a big nation with increased interests in the Northern region. China has since 2013 an official status as an observer nation in the Arctic Council. She explained that China have been working on a White paper for their Arctic policy for the last couple of years, although China is not a nation in the Arctic. It is important not to mistrust these interests in the first place, but to look at what the White paper is addressing, and the main focus is the global climate situation. Climate, environment, the ocean, but also the interest for possible resources in the Arctic region is addressed. Most important is the four principals that are forming the basis for the white paper, respecting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the work of the Arctic Council and the Arctic nations, to build on collaboration, and on sustainable premises. They are asking for more research in the region, and this of course could be seen as increased interest from China to be involved in the activities and future possibilities in the Arctic.

Svein Vigeland Rottem talked about Norwegian activities and role in this international, political picture. First of all, he stressed that we need to understand that there is a comprehensive collaboration across the states in the Arctic. For Norway the Arctic Council is very important, and not supposed to be an arena for international politics, but first of all an arena for collaboration and sharing knowledge and research. For Norway the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is very important as a basis for all activities and collaboration, but also for a sustainable and balanced development and resource management in the north. Norway has strongly supported the strengthening of the Arctic Council, with a permanent secretariat in Tromsø, which is seen as the capital of the Arctic Council, at least from the Norwegian perspective.

Norway will take over the leadership of the Arctic Council in 2024 two years after respectively Iceland (2019-2021) and Russia (2021-2023). (For Norway) The Council a very important arena for collaboration and trust building between the nations. International security and defence policy is not to be a topic for the Arctic Council, that is something that needs to be handled on other political arenas.

For the stability and collaboration in the North, it is important to build on existing collaboration and research projects, and look for where the nations have common interests in finding solutions to environmental issues, pollution etc.

How the nations talk about each other in the press and on political arenas, is also influencing the balance between trust and mistrust and the collaboration in the Arctic region.

Andreas Østhagen, FNI, Svein Vigeland Rottem, FNI, Julie Wilhelmsen, NUPI,  Gørild Heggelund, FNI. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen

After this discussion a new panel with Bård Vegar Solhjell, Norwegian Secretary General in WWF, Espen Barth Eide, Representative in the Norwegian Parliament for the Labour Party, Jørgen Berggrav, Secretary General of Norwegian Reserve Officer´s Federation (NROF), entered the stage for further discussions and reflections on the topic of the debate.

Moderator Karoline H. Flåm, FNI, Bård Vegar Solhjell, Norwegian Secretary General, WWF, Espen Barth Eide, Representative in the Norwegian Parliament for the Labour Party, Jørgen Berggrav, Secretary General, NROF. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen.

Espen Barth Eide talked about the importance of the North, and the collaboration in the Arctic Council. During his time as a Norwegian Minister, the politics of the North was seen as the most important topic and commitment of the Norwegian Government. The nations all agreed that the Arctic Council was not to be a political arena, but a place for discussions and knowledge exchange on topics like climate, climate change, environment and the state of the oceans. China is soon one of the largest international economies, and they have many common interests with the nations represented in the Arctic Council, where they now have an observatory status. Russia and Norway also have common interests in the North, and especially on Svalbard. It is very important to collaborate in the north.

Bård Vegar Solhjell, Norwegian Secretary General in WWF, stated that we need to understand that climate and natural resources will be the framing of all collaboration and dialogue connected to the Arctic region. Those are the most important topics, and the framework of our discussions and actions. He was concerned that on Svalbard the temperature increase is more than the double of the average global temperature increase. The goal of maximum 2 degrees increase, means 8 degrees on Svalbard. This is dramatic. The management of the natural resources and adaptation to climate change must be framing all forms of collaboration in the Arctic region now. This will influence activity in the region, the economic development, permanent shipping routes, which again will influence security and risk management.

Climate change also affects migration, natural disasters, change in the economic situation and the international political situation. Both concerning China and Russia, Norway needs to manage to collaborate, but also to be clear about what can not be accepted, based on international agreements. Collaboration with China is very important in order to manage the climate situation globally. The best method for collaboration and trust-building is to work together in projects, and to address common issues, a method Norway have tried over years, and a method that has proven to be successful. Research and knowledge must be the basis of the collaboration and dialogue in the North.

Jørgen Berggrav, Secretary General, Norwegian Reserve Officer´s Federation, NROF, talked about the situation from his background in the military. Russia has its most important strategic position on the Kola Peninsula, they have a much more developed weapon technology, and they are the largest nation in the Arctic. This gives them increased needs for surveillance, both for military reasons, but also to protect land, resources and interests. Increased military activity and surveillance also affect Norwegian interests and need for security. Together with the US expression of "The freedom of the high North", and Canada which is claiming sovereignty of their own areas, and islands, while US is seeing these islands as part of the the international areas, the political stress is increasing. Norway should of course try to solve issues connected to their coastal zone at a national level but call for collaboration if the situations are escalating.

Espen Barth Eide commented that it is important to manage both the art of "firmness and dialogue". The last years there has been an imbalance concerning these two perspectives, giving room for more mistrust amongst the nations. The threat situation around Norway has not increased, but the interantional political situation is more unstable.

Bård Vegar Solhjell commented that increased activity in the region can lead to increased stress and conflicts. US is an important actor to collaborate with, but the political situation there is seen to be more unpredictable. China is big, and represent a growing global economy, which we need to collaborate with, and Russia, as before, is, like before, the largest nation represented in the Arctic region. We need to collaborate on climate and energy issues, resource management, search- and rescue-operations, and future development and management of the Arctic.

Jørgen Berggrav stated that there is also a need for substantial collaboration connected to safety- and risk management. Emergency preparedness and rescue-operations need to be based on international agreements and collaboration, but also on contributions and equipment from each nation present in the Arctic.

The need for linking top-down with bottom-up approaches in the policy making for a sustainable North,  for co-creation, and to listen to the local voices, local and regional needs and knowledge.

Debate in the old Town Hall of Arendal. Photo by Lisbeth Iversen

On Monday August 12, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and GRID Arendal arranged a debate about the The Northern Territory Report 2020 and the way forward for the Norwegian Government's Northern Territory policy, in the old Town Hall of Arendal.

The Norwegian Government will launch a new Northern Territory Policy report in the autumn of 2020. Foreign Minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, and the Minister of Local Government and Modernization, Monica Mæland, presented the main strategic priorities in the forthcoming policy document.

The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen.

The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, informed about the former work connected to the northern area policy of Norway. They presented the Arctic Strategy in 2017. This is the basis for the ongoing work with the new Northern Territory Policy report where collaboration, research, knowledge, business opportunities, health, well being, culture and digitalisation are some of the most important topics.

The High North in a Norwegian context has not only to do with natural resources, species, animals, land, oceans etc., but 10% of the Norwegian population is living in the Arctic region, and we have cities, like Trømsø, in this area.

Research and value-creation are important topics to address, and Norway needs to balance growth and protection. In the report there will be a status of the situation today, International Law, the relation to Russia, Russia and the Western states, among other topics. In the work with the policy document, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and her department will work closely with the Department of local Government and Modernisation and the Minister, Monica Mæland.

The policy document is important to Tromsø, Sortland, Svolvær, Svalbard and other areas, where there are many activities and important development, but also great concerns.

In addition, the international political situation between the big nations, Brexit and the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS), are all affecting local places, communities, people, and the everyday life in the Arctic region.

It has been important not only to work top-down, but to make sure to invite local actors and politicians in a bottom-up process in order to bring local knowledge, concerns and possibilities to the table. Therefore, there has been several public meetings and dialogue-seminars in the North of Norway in this process. It is nine years since the last policy paper. The existing strategy for the North will still be relevant. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the collaboration in the OECD are both very important, but there is also a need for more collaboration with the local communities and municipalities. Both the national, regional and the local level will be of importance to Norway in the international collaboration, and in the work on the policy paper.

Concerning the increased stressed political situation internationally, Norway still needs to have two strategic approaches, "warnings, and dialogue", and to be able to balance these. Of course- situations that starts in other regions in the world between states, can affect the High north and the collaboration and situation there eventually.

There has been severe situations caused by Russia on the Crimean Peninsula and in Ukraine  where a lot of people got killed. In such situations, we have the important collaboration with NATO.  At the same time, we need to remind ourselves about all the collaboration with Russia that is going well in the Arctic region. This gives Norway a unique possibility to “read” Russia, and to be an actor in the dialogue and conflict-solving activities internationally.

Voices and thoughts from people of the North

Kathrine Johnsen, GRID Arendal. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen. 

After the presentation of the policy paper by the Minister of of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, Kathrine Johnsen, a Senior Expert from Grid Arendal, talked about her work in the north, and she shared some thoughts from people living in the north. She reminded the Government about the importance of building the policy on a sustainable economic growth, in such a way that the interests and possibilities of people and societies in the North are taken into account. They need work and education, and at the same time safety and development. They want to contribute to the discussions and the policy development for the region.

The introduction part of the seminar was followed by speeches from representatives from the three northernmost counties and the Sami Parliament. Tomas Norvoll, the leader of the County Council of Nordland; Sigrid Ina Simonsen, The advisor on culture and business in the County Council of Troms; Remi Strand, the leader of the Labour Party group in Finnmark County Council; and Erik Larsen, political advisor in the Sami Parliament all gave input about the importance of the involvement of the local and regional actors. They emphasized the importance of  broad knowledge, and not to make a policy document about the North, but with the people of the North. Infrastructure, competence, education, transport and airport facilities, and traditional occupations, are all important topics to address, and to remember to look at all the areas of Finmark as well, and work with the indigenous people in the region.

Remi Strand stated that the Norwegian policy for the North has to be developed with the North, in dialogue with people who live there. The institutions in the north need to be strengthened economically, and Iceland should be invited to the collaboration to a larger degree. The existing Nordic collaboration, and the collaboration with the Baltic need to be strengthened. The Regional Advisory Board of the Baltic Sea is important and collaborating concerning the oceans should be strengthened. The oceans are important for the local communities, and the local and regional authorities should have greater influence on the resources and resource management in their region.
The development and management of Svalbard should be closer connected to the North of Norway, to the Counties and Municipalities, and there is a need for increased knowledge and economic resources for this collaboration.

Sigrid Ina Simonsen talked about how the challenges and possibilities look different dependent on who is looking, national, regional or local actors. It is important to link the top-down and the bottom-up perspectives. Norwegian policy should be the sum of local, regional and national policy.

"I wish the Government could ask; what could people of the North do and contribute to related to a sustainable development of the North, instead of asking, what could the Government do for the people of the North."

The national policy needs to be followed up also in the departments and state-owned institutions, like Innovation Norway, The Research Council, The Cultural Advisory Board etc., and everybody should implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Tomas Norvoll stressed that the policy for the North needs to be downscaled to a level that makes people engaged and committed. It must be relevant for them, and we need to make sure our political goals can be measured, in order for us to follow the development, and see if we are on the right track. Will there be more jobs and a population growth? Will people come, stay and work in the North? There is a dawning mistrust between the North and the South of Norway. A new Northern Territory Policy report will be measured in the North by the activity, innovation, value creation, jobs, transport situation and population growth. The local value-chain connected to natural resources needs to be strengthened.

Erik Larsen questioned the growth strategy and claimed that it was not sustainable and based on the traditional Sami life and traditions, the reindeer herding and traditional knowledge about the areas. The policy process is lead from Oslo, and it needs to be developed with the Sami population, not with Sami people as objects, but as equal actors in the process. The Sami population is working, living and collaborating across national boarders. He reminded the audience and the politicians there are about half a million local voices in the north.

The Norwegian Minister of Local Government and Modernisation, Monica Mæland. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen.

The Norwegian Minister of Local Government and Modernisation, Monica Mæland, talked about the importance of the perspecitve of local and regional value-creation in the policy document. This needs to be seen in connection with other policy documents like the regional reform, the policy document for the districts, where competence and education, gender equality are being addressed, together with the imbalance between an increasing elderly population, and the lack of younger people working and providing services. The districts need new technology development, more jobs and education, and more younger people working, and a reduction in the amount of young people on social welfare support. The challenge for the business sector, especially in the North, is to get competent and specialized employees to the various jobs. It is important that people living and working in the North, are participating in the planning for future development in their region. The Government is working on a plan for the establishment of a secretariat for the Regional Northern Area Forum in Vadsø. The government is also strengthening the influence on the Northern policy documents for the counties of the North.

Svalbard: The 2-degree goal versus the 8-degree reality?

Andreas Østhagen, Kerim Nisancioglu, Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, Rune Vistad. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen.

In the early morning of Tuesday, August 13, the Norwegian Research Council (NFR), the University Centre on Svalbard (UNIS) and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research arranged a dialogue seminar in Café No9 in Arendal, concerning the increased temperatures on Svalbard and the consequences for the local community, urban development and risks and safety issues on Svalbard.

Globally, the 2-degree target is set, and even more preferred the 1.5°C. Locally on Svalbard there is an increase in temperature of 8-10 degrees. Svalbard becomes more humid, greener, and the sea ice in the fjords are dissapearing. Some species are also disappearing, and new are coming. In this situation questions are raised concerning how climate change will affect Svalbard, what will be the role research plays in this situation, and what a strong knowledge environment could contribute with. Furthermore, a different Svalbard could have geopolitical implications, and also bring new opportunities and constraints due to a new climate. What is already experienced on Svalbard could affect other areas, but also bring important information to the field of climate research and knowledge about climate change and adaptation to climate change.

In a newly published report: Climate in Svalbard 2100, including contributions form the Nansen Center, we can read about a 3-5 degrees Celsius temperature rise on Svalbard from the 1970 until today.

If the global emissions continue, the temperature increase will be 10 degrees Celsius in 2100.
Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty, according to the Svalbard Treaty, but all nations behind the Treaty can stay on Svalbard if they have business activities and jobs. Many nations are present, and there has been a small decline in the number of Norwegians on Svalbard, and an increase in the international population, especially after the decline in the mining activity.

The participants in the panel were asked about how the climate change on Svalbard will change it and bring both new possibilities and new challenges. Rune Vistad, Director of the department of Climate and Polar Areas in the Research Council of Norway, stated that Svalbard is an indicator of the climate change in the North. There have been many types of media coverage on this situation, as well as on the topic concerning the massive melting of the Greenland ice-sheet.

Kerim Nisancioglu, Professor at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and the University of Bergen, spent one month on a field trip to Greenland each summer, where they were drilling for an ice core to read the development of climate over the years. This year it was extremely hot, and the ice was melting even in the higher areas. Usually they do not experience any melting in these areas, but this summer the ice was melting even there.

Rapid changes are causing huge threats, and on Svalbard they already see a temperature rise of 3-5 degreees Celsius. This is dramatic. The North West Passage will be without ice around 2040. Svalbard is placed in the middle of the ice, or where the ice has been, and is affected strongly by this situation. He believes that Norway with the research institutions in Bergen, Oslo, Tromsø, Stavanger, UNIS on Svalbard and others have a lot of knowledge about the oceans, atmosphere and the ice, and the changes taking place, but what do Norway as a nation do with that knowledge?
Is this knowledge brought to the table of decision makers in order for sustainable decisions to be made, and preventions to be taken for the people who are living in the North?

Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, leader of the department of Arctic geology at the University Centre on Svalbard (UNIS), talked about her experience as an inhabitant on Svalbard for the last 17 years, and as a professional on permafrost. Spring and Autumn has changed a lot. Heavy rainfall and more active layers due to melting permafrost, are causing land-and rock slides, and avalanches. There have been several serious incidents in Longyerbyen, also including loss of lives. Collaboration on preparedness, evacuation and rescue has increased, and this of course is affecting the local planning and development. Some houses have been demolished, and more will be demolished due to increased risks. New apartments and houses are being constructed or planned for.

In the report Climate in Svalbard 2100, the permafrost is also mentioned, with a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius. The students at UNIS can see with their own eyes what these changes are causing. UNIS has a unique possibility to study and find out what is happening, and do something about it.

Greenland is also affected by the changing climate in the Arctic. If the ice sheet on Greenland, which is on land, is melting, this will affect the sea level in the global oceans, and especially those nations and islands further away, in the southern hemisphere.

We have to investigate what we see around us, but we are also in need of more data, to understand better why we experience this rapid change in climate.  There are large ongoing projects dealing with these matters, the SAON project being one of them. Svalbard is like a "super-site" for all kinds of climate processes, and this should be seen as a possibility for research and knowledge that can be shared globally. Tourism is the growing business, also on Svalbard. Through research and collaboration on risk and safety, we can provide knowledge about the most sustainable way to balance use and protection of our resources and nature.

Rune Vistad, Director of the Department of Climate and Polar in the Research Council of Norway, explained that the climate change in the Arctic are already causing challenges for people and animals. There have been severe losses in the reindeer herd, due to lack of grass and healthy nutrition for the animals. Instead they come to the shore and eat seaweed, which their stomachs are not prepared for, so they get sick and dies. He believes most people agree that what we experience connected to climate change are results of human activities. We should now enough to act, but of course continuously seek knowledge and share experience.

On the other hand, climate change is also bringing new possibilities, especially connected to the oceans, but we need to know more about the changes, and how to have a sustainable management of the resources and development in the future.

Andreas Østhagen, High North News and the Northern Area Centre /Fridtjof Nansen Institute, talked about the development on Svalbard, where they see an increasing tourism.  Norway is interested in a general population growth, but for Norway it is also important to have many Norwegians living on Svalbard. With the decline in the mining activity , there has been a small decline in the number of Norwegians living on there, compared to the international population. This is not in itself negative, but over time it may challenge the Norwegian sovereignty on Svalbard.

They also see changes connected to the fisheries. Fish stocks migrate to the north, and the fisheries are following. This is creating international stress, and questions about who should have permission to fish, or even, where the fishing boats could bring in the fish. This is now a discussion also on Svalbard.

Kerim questioned the argument that "we know enough".

"Do we really know enough? Many researchers have a lot of questions related to the rapid changes we experience. Climate is a very complex system, but we need to better understand why the ice sheet on Greenland is melting so quickly."

He agreed that Svalbard is a real-life laboratory for the investigation and research on climate change. There are unique programs for the student, and they are motivated and clever, and eager to bring forward new knowledge. All the young Norwegians, and international youth should experience this, get information, and take the lead in development of knowledge. The Arctic and Greenland are really the "jokers" of the climate system.

There are still many researchers who do not have enough knowledge about the Arctic, and there are still many misunderstandings. The Svalbard Treaty are stating that Svalbard is 100% Norwegian, but Svalbard is open for all the inhabitants of the member states to come and work there.
Rune reminded the audience and the panel that Norway is the only country with a territory both in the Arctic and the Antarctica. Norway has weather stations and research connected to these territories, and knowledge that are shared internationally.

Hanne supported the statement that Norway is in the forefront in the field of Polar research, and Svalbard is an important part of this. The Minister of Climate and Environment is coming to Greenland the week after “Arendalsuka”, to get more information about the rapid changes.

“We would like to establish a research hub at Svalbard, where we can offer field work, the students can measure and collect data, and this will increase their understanding and knowledge. Norway has the possibility to establish a unique hub for polar research.”

Andreas did not disagree about that, but as a social scientist and geopolitical researcher, he sees that there is a lack of social science research and research on international conflicts and geopolitical issues. Social science could be better integrated with the climate- and polar research.

“There is a need for a renewal in the social science research in these Arctic areas”.

Rune addressed the question about possibilities and challenges in the new climate situation and stated that there are lots of opportunities. The cod is going North, there could be possibilities for new shipping routes and access to resources, but…this again could cause greater risks and disasters, if we do not manage this in a sustainable and knowledge-based way.

Andreas argued that risk and safety management are important fields, and collaboration in these fields will be crucial for the safety and sustainability in the Arctic. The Arctic Safety Centre on Svalbard needs to be further developed. The snow-crab and the fish are coming North, and that could also eventually cause some stress and challenges for the Coast Guard. We really have to be a bit cautious concerning expectations about the future development and investments in these areas. It has to be a knowledge-based development.

Kerim commented on the presentation of the northern area policy of Norway the day before and was concerned with the fact that climate and climate change was hardly mentioned. He was a bit disappointed, because the coming policy paper on the North is about energy, possibilities, jobs and directions for the North.

“In 20 years, the North West Passage will be open for transport routes in the summer. We have to be prepared, and we have to work more across sectors and research fields, and also develop more knowledge on safe operations in the Arctic region”.

Answering a question from the audience about the possibility of solving climate challenges through geo-engineering, Kerim answered that it would be impossible to solve the climate change by geo-engineering solutions. There is also a need for more information about the consequences of using that kind of technology.

Need for development of an Arctic security center and emergency base in Longyearbyen on Svalbard.

Hanne H. Christiansen, Professor and Vice Dean of Education at UNIS, Hege W. Fagertun, Head of Administration, Longyearbyen Local Council, Fred S. Hansen, HSE Director, UNIS, Lars Kullerud, President, University of the Arctic and Ann Christin Auestad, Project Coordinator, Arctic Safety Centre. Photo: Lisbeth Iversen.

In the afternoon of Tuesday, August 13, the University Centre on Svalbard (UNIS) and the Arctic Safety Centre at UNIS arranged a debate in Café No9 in Arendal, about the need for further development of an Arctic Safety Centre and Emergency Base in Longyearbyen on Svalbard. The Local Council in Longyearbyen was also represented in the panel by the Head of Administration, and the President of The University of the Arctic, UArctic, was also taking part in the discussion.

The discussion addressed the importance for such a centre for the local community, for urban development in Longyerbyen and safety management, and also the importance such a centre could have for international research, broad knowledge, possible future development, and for sustainable solutions and innovation.

In the invitation to this debate, the hosts stated that Svalbard is already experiencing a tremendous climate change. This is creating new challenges for how to operate safely in the region. At the same time, the rising activity in the Northern Territories is increasing the need for knowledge of how to operate safely in the Arctic, both on land and at sea. Svalbard is optimally positioned to be the host of an Arctic Safety Centre and Emergency Base, which will be important for the activity on Svalbard, but also in the Arctic. Longyearbyen has a unique composition of Norwegian government institutions, which could jointly operate such a unique, innovative security centre, according to the collaborating actors of the seminar, but how get it established, was a question yet to be discussed.

Ann Christin Auestad, the Project Coordinator of the Arctic Safety Centre on Svalbard opened the debate with information about the ongoing work connected to the Safety Centre. The project started in 2016 in a collaboration between the University of Tromsø (UiT), University of Stavanger (UiS), the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU), and it was supported by the Ministry of Forreign Affairs. The task of the Safety Centre is to be present at UNIS, contributing to education, research, guidance and courses. They also have to support and contribute to society in general as well as the local community.

Fred S. Hansen, HSE Director at UNIS was stating that the focus areas of the Arctic Safety Centre are tailored for the fields of knowledge and education at UNIS. UNIS has 25 years of experience with ice, oceans and atmosphere etc. research and education, but now it is even more important than ever before to take precautions when operating and travelling in the region. Risk- and safety management is very important. The Safety Centre is concentrating on precaution and safety, and knowledge connected to sustainable management and development. Together with the competence of the Governors Office and the safety base, there is a possibility for a strengthening of these areas, and increase research connected to them.

Hege W. Fagertun, the Head of Administration in the Longyearbyen Local Council, expressed that there has been a paradigm shift in the collaboration connected to safety- and risk management after the avalanches in 2015 and 2017. People saw the challenges connected to climate change, and how that affected peoples’ lives, homes and the infrastructure in Longyearbyen. The members of the Local Council were concerned with how to build sustainable infrastructure and have a safe environment for people in Longyerbyen.

UNIS is contributing with competence on avalanches and landslides, together with the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). The Governor is taking final decisions on evacuation of people.

Hanne H. Christiansen, Professor and Vice Dean of Education at UNIS, talked about how UNIS has developed a unique research based competence in field-development, across disciplines like medicine, society, geology etc. The collaboration with the other Universities gives a holistic and very good picture of the development of climate and topics related to the changing environment.  UNIS is increasing the amount of students in order to connect some of the student to the Arctic Safety Centre and the education they offer. UNIS wants to further develop Arctic field security, and new courses are staring now. They also provide many safety courses for the inhabitants of Longyearbyen, a local community with a high turnover. They are also offering a Master program now, related to safety and risk management.

Lars Kullerud, the President of the University of the Arctic, has been part of this collaboration from the very start of the Arctic Safety Centre. The University of the Arctic is a collaboration between more than 200 universities world-wide. He is stating that there is a need for more knowledge on safety in his organization. Knowledge on field security is not formalized.

UNIS and the Norwegian Polar Institute has a track record showing that the field trips and activities have been successful, but due to a precautionary principle and well prepared expeditions. This represents a unique competence globally.  It is very important that this knowledge now will be formalized through the Master programs. Later there is a need to develop an ISO-norm on "How to survive in the Arctic". The Arctic Safety Centre-project is now developing into a management phase.

 Ann Christin asked Fred how the Arctic Safety Centre could contribute to the safety of people living in Longyerbyen and on Svalbard. Fred explained that planning and development earlier had been based on historic data and experience.

"It is not sustainable to base the decisions for the years to come on data and experience from last year, with this unpredictable climate situation!"

There is a combination of research competence in natural science and practical experience from the "do-ers" in the region. Longyearbyen Advisory Board on Emergency is important with the high turnover they have in the local community. They have to bring knowledge and information out to people in the community, over and over again. Climate is changing rapidly, and many climate models are outdated due to this. There is a need for an update on data and models, to make more sustainable risk- and security analysis. This should be combined with practical experience.

Hege suggested an even better collaboration between the actors in Longyerbyen. The Local Council is buying some climate services from UNIS in order for the employees to get updated information. But how to build safe homes and buildings, infrastructure and prevent and secure the local community will demand a stronger collaboration with UNIS and the Arctic Safety Centre.

Lars suggested the Centre for the Oceans and the Arctic in Tromsø, lead by Jan Gunnar Wither, as a base for further international collaboration. Together with UiT, UiS, Canada, US and Greenland etc. there should be a great interest for the development of an international Safety and Risk-management Centre on Svalbard. In this field Norway is in the forefront.

Hanne commented on why a Safety Centre should be based on Svalbard, and she mentioned several reasons. The ongoing work on data collecting, the SIAS project, the geographical placement, the strategic placement for new transport routes, and the fact that students can study the rapid changes in climate. They have a broad selection of topics related to the Arctic at UNIS.

Erik Hamremoen from the Norwegian Labour Organization (LO) in the audience, asked how UNIS could build on the practical experiences from rescue operations, in the academical work and education. Fred explained that they use the reports from these rescue operations as cases in the studies. They also invite pilots and people working in the North Sea to give lectures for the students.

Lars followed up with a comment that the Arctic Safety Centre could build a foundation for a sustainable attitude on how to behave in the Arctic, prevent incidents, and support this with research and theories in this field.

Ann Christin also mentioned that they have practical and experienced based knowledge integrated in the education, from the Local Council, The Governors Office, The Coastal Guard, Shipping industry and the North Sea.

At the end of the debate I managed to ask a question to the panel about how the combination of top-down or expert knowledge and local knowledge, experience and participation, was taken into account in this work, and in the climate-discussions and decision making processes.

Hanne answered that they are searching for a leader of this Centre in order to strengthen this collaboration. This is still a new road to walk, and they do not know exactly where they are heading, and they want to see which actors are interested in participating in the development of the Safety Centre. INTAROS is an example of a project that is contributing with this approach and the data collection, and this is very important for UNIS.

Fred explained that their work is from the "side of the ship- to the shore", while other actors are in charge of the safety on the ship. There are security-laws for the shipping industry, but of course they collaborate on these topics. UNIS has a unique research environment, and they take part in big exercises, like SAREX.

At the end of the debate Lars stated that it is an opportunity for Svalbard to develop a unique competence within this field.

Hege stated that the collaboration between the actors, including the Safety Centre, is very important for the Local Council in Longyerbyen.

Hanne claimed that a Centre of Excellence could be a common goal for the collaborating actors, and the new leader of the Safety Centre will be of great importance related to the future development of the Safety Centre. It is also very important to ask other actors what they think, and what the needs are for the actors in the Arctic Region and on Svalbard.

Text and photos by Lisbeth Iversen, The Nansen Center / NERSC
Co-leader of INTAROS WP4.


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