Governing the inconvenient, unpredictable and uncontrollable ice in the Arctic Ocean
Ms Justiina Dahl, Researcher, PhDc. Department of Political and Social Sciences, European
“There is a new imagination now. The Arctic. We intend to carry out the legislative programme of Arctic research, to develop Arctic routes, to develop those vast hidden resources the last few years have revealed.”
This quote is not from an Arctic policy published in the 21
st century or a speech related to contemporary Arctic politics. It is an excerpt from a speech from 1958 given by the Canadian Prime Minister of that time, John Diefenbaker. In hindsight his Arctic vision has been judged to have been utopian, not having taken into consideration the specific materiality of the region, or the economic realities of resource extraction in remote northern areas in the Canadian Arctic. However, the Roads to Resources program, which was one of the corner stones in the Canadian Progressive Conservatives’ election program in 1957, and which this speech refers to, was not judged to be such by the general public at the time. The Progressive Conservative party gained 112 seats in the 1957 elections, and Diefenbaker became the Prime Minister. The framing of the Canadian North the Diefenbaker party used in their election strategy was, hence, successful in electoral politics, but not as an actual policy. The contemporary framing of the Arctic as a new geopolitical heartland has had similar success in Canadian as well global politics. As a policy, its feasibility is yet to be proven. When the knowledge the new imagination for the Arctic the global press, as well as national policies in the eight Arctic Council member states, have developed since the first record low summer sea ice extent in the Arctic in 2007 is looked at before it is filtered through specific national or international politics, the vision of the “New North”, however, seems to share surprisingly many of the elements that made Diefenbaker’s Arctic imaginary a utopia; most notably the lack of consideration for the specificity of the materiality of the region.
Most of the maps that track the possible future shipping routes of the Arctic do not include information of seasonal variability of the sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean. As long as the living conditions on Earth are favorable for human life, there will be sea ice on the Arctic Ocean in the winter, as the polar night will fall on the Northern Polar Region in the winter as it has done before. The uncertainties related to the modelling of the ebb and flow of the ice cover are something that any trans-Oceanic shipping, as well as offshore oil- and gas exploration, will need to take into consideration. The distinction of seasonal variability, however, is not communicated in the illustrations of future Arctic shipping even in the form of noting that these maps are only applicable in the summer season. Ice free, also does not mean completely devoid of ice.
Sea ice is not the only type of ice that will affect activities in the Arctic Ocean. There are also icebergs: Frozen pieces of freshwater that have broken off terrestrial ice formations, glaciers or ice shelves. Polar lows, small-scale, short-lived atmospheric low pressure systems, in turn, can create a thick and slippery cover of ice on infrastructure in minutes. Sea ice itself is as well a much more complicated entity than the areal geographical maps that present the seasonal extent of sea ice as a flat white, coherent surface covering (or not covering) the top of the globe.
Pack ice is sea ice driven together into a large single mass by wind and sea currents. Frazil ice, on the other hand, consists of plates or spicules of ice suspended in water, and shuga of spongy white ice lumps a few centimeters across. Sea-ice is, also, not only a hindrance for human activity in the Arctic. It is and has been used as a basis for basic infrastructure, such as ice roads and research stations. It is also a resource in itself.
Sea ice is critical for polar marine ecosystems, the living resources of the Arctic Ocean. It, e.g., provides a thermal barrier against cold winter temperatures; a nursery ground for invertebrates and fish; and as the ice melts, it releases organisms into the surface water and creates an ideal habitat for large ice-edge blooms. Sea ice is, thus, a much more complex entity than a mere white cover on a map. The simplification of this complexity to certain extent in policy making is necessary, but in contemporary Arctic politics, it is done in a manner that previously has had grave consequences of which the Diefenbaker vision is one example.
When the information the imagination of the Arctic Ocean as a new, but yet a very traditional geopolitical heartland of resource appropriation and transportation is looked at in non-oil and gas heavy contexts, this vision seems to be similarly simplistic, lacking in relevant material knowledge as Diefenbaker’s was. What is more, the visions do not communicate how the specificity of the global climate change as non-precedent in human history makes modelling the change harder, as there is not enough previous accumulative data. One way of making the future Arctic visions more rational would be to take ice in the Arctic Ocean, sea as well as terrestrial, as the starting point in the narrations of the future of the region. These new narrations should be especially careful in not portraying ice as a knowable, controllable, and immutable laboratory object, but enable ice to have its inconvenient, unpredictable and uncontrollable agency.
Contemporary representations of ice in Arctic politics and policies derive ice of its non-human dependent ability of change, and variability, which give it specific kind of agency dangerous to the proposed human interests. How the vision of Diefenbaker did not turn into a successful space of experience is a warning example of how such simplification can have grave, unwanted, consequences. Admitting agency to ice would aid in the development of better Arctic governance through the drafting of legal and regulatory mechanisms that were able to adequately address the challenges that not only the seasonally changing physicality of the Arctic, but also the hard to model and predict changing climate poses to actors wishing to enter and exploit the North in a previously unforeseen scale.