Climate change is affecting the Arctic in ways with which we are all familiar: sea ice is diminishing in thickness and extent, the tundra is warming, Greenland’s ice sheet and glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting – and of course, wildlife such as walruses, ringed seals and polar bears is at risk.

But the impacts are being felt in other ways as well, as industry and governments look at the prospect of an ice-free, or at least ice-diminished, Arctic not as a failure but an opportunity. Last year, Russia approved approximately $30 billion of spending to develop infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route, the seaway to the north of its Arctic coast that Moscow pictures as a future alternative to the Suez Canal for international shipping. China is building a fleet of icebreakers that appears to signal its commitment to a “Polar Silk Road” of transport and travel.

Such developments not only have geopolitical and environmental implications for ecosystems and polar bears; they also have potentially serious repercussions for the four million or so people who live in the Arctic, and the many millions more who inhabit Arctic-adjacent areas from southern Canada to northern Europe.

Gathering in Reykjavik

To discuss the geopolitical challenges raised by such developments, several thousand attendees from government, science, the media and the non-governmental sphere descended on the Harpa Conference Center in Reykjavik, Iceland last October for the 10th annual assembly of Arctic Circle, an organization founded by former Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. Featuring three days of plenary presentations from speakers as varied as the Crown Prince of Norway, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (who, because of re-election campaign commitments, joined by video from Anchorage), and the Chair of the Military Committee of NATO, as well as approximately 200 breakout sessions held concurrently in the Harpa’s labyrinth of meeting rooms, the conference was immense in scope and attendance. The sheer number of people was testimony to the increased importance of and attention to the Arctic in world affairs – and, after more than two years of pandemic-induced isolation, was somewhat intimidating.

Photo: Kieran Mulvaney

Former Icelandic President and founder of the Arctic Circle, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, addresses the 2022 assembly.

Yet it did not take long for attendees to be given an urgent reminder of what truly was at stake. “The Arctic may become unrecognizable if we do not act,” pointed out Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s Prime Minister, in the opening plenary session. Mary Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General, noted that “what happens in the Arctic does not just affect the region but is of global importance.” To bolster her point, presentations examined the Arctic aspirations and policies of such non-Arctic nations as India, Singapore, and South Korea, as well as China.

Since 1996, the primary vehicle for Arctic diplomacy and the negotiation of treaties and conventions has been the Arctic Council, membership of which comprises the eight Arctic states and the region’s Indigenous peoples, with 38 observers. But the Arctic Council has been in something of a state of suspended animation since one of those eight member states, Russia, invaded Ukraine, prompting its effective suspension from the council and other regional forums. Russian representatives were notable by their absence from the Arctic Circle Assembly too, but the impact on the Arctic of the invasion hung over proceedings at every turn – from discussions of the consequences for Kirkenes, a Norwegian coastal town that abuts the Russian border and that had positioned itself to benefit from expansion of the Northern Sea Route, to lamentations over what war by the Black Sea means for diplomacy around the Arctic Ocean.

Conflict in Ukraine

It is, noted Evan Bloom, formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries and Director for Ocean and Polar Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, a “very difficult time in terms of Arctic cooperation. Not too long ago, the prospect of pan-Arctic cooperation was bright. But the Ukrainian conflict has seriously disrupted that. Russia takes up half of the Arctic, and it isn’t clear what Arctic cooperation means without them.”

The need for such cooperation has rarely been higher as climate change takes its toll on the region and disagreements rise over who will “own” an ice-free Arctic. (Russia and Canada, for example, claim the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage respectively as their own waters, whereas other nations such as the United States argue they are international seaways; Russia is developing legislation that would formalize its control over the NSR.)

For some, the Ukraine conflict is potentially a worrying harbinger of the future of relations among Arctic nations.

“Saying ‘the Arctic is ours’ and attempting to monopolize the Northern Sea Route sounds a lot like the same philosophy that led to the invasion of Ukraine,” argued President Alar Karis of Estonia, whose capital, Tallinn, is the most northerly of a non-Arctic nation. “The diplomatic community must reflect on its relationship with Russia. We cannot go back to the day before the invasion and think everything is the same.”

Photo: Kieran Mulvaney

Sailboats drift on the shores of Reykjavík, Iceland during the 2022 Arctic Circle Assembly.

Small gains

In the absence of Russia, the remaining Arctic Council States – referred to as the A-7 – have resumed informal dialogue on some issues; but, on the final day of the Arctic Circle Assembly, Chinese special envoy for Arctic affairs Gao Feng questioned whether the council even had the authority to operate without Moscow’s participation, suggesting that metaphorical battle lines are only hardening.

While not in any way a formal decision-making body, the Arctic Circle Assembly was able to boast a small diplomatic triumph, in the form of a cooperation agreement signed in Reykjavik between Iceland and Greenland that focuses on the economy, climate change, and culture. It is a small ripple in a turbulent ocean, but the kind of progress that the Arctic needs at a time when the challenges it faces are so extreme.