The once so inaccessible and barren Arctic North has recently acquired a sort of cuddly status. People are crossing the Arctic Circle from more and more countries to make use of the shorter sailing routes and tourist attractions. Alongside the exploitation of mineral resources under and near the polar ice, the gradual growth in tourism has pushed the strain on the polar region caused by human visits up to unheard-of levels. According to polar researcher Louwrens Hacquebord, who retired from the University of Groningen on Tuesday 28 May, clear agreements about protecting the polar regions are more urgently needed than ever. And as many countries and parties as possible should sign them.
Once, the North Pole was the romantic décor of adventurers and heroes challenging the elements on voyages of discovery, or to hunt seals, walrus and whales. From Willem Barentsz’s Nova Zembla expedition to the frostbitten toes of discoverers, the North Pole has appealed to the imagination as an inhospitable and inaccessible region.
This picture has gradually changed, partly helped by popular documentaries and books like Frozen Planet and The Arctic World, which emphasize that the Arctic region is a vulnerable and extraordinary habitat. One of the consequences is that many thousands of people want to see this extraordinary Arctic region with their own eyes. According to Hacquebord, the changed aesthetic perception of the region has resulted in it becoming less unattractive as a destination.
Hacquebord emphasizes that throughout history, people have accepted the disadvantages of the Polar region, driven as they were by favourable economic prospects. ‘That started with the hunters, who often had to absorb heavy losses when ships froze fast in the ice and were lost. The revenues generated by the products, however, always made it worthwhile in the end.’
Not much has changed there. ‘Exploiting the mineral resources in the Polar region is neither easy nor cheap, but once world prices reach a certain level it can become financially viable. Even the melting of the polar ice is viewed in that light, because open sea routes through the Polar region could mean enormous savings in transport costs for trading nations like China, India and Singapore.’
It is prospects like these that are behind countries wanting to join the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental organ managing the North Pole region, as observers. The European Union was recently turned down as an observer, mainly a result of Canadian anger at the European ban on seal hunting.
The composition of the Arctic Council reflects the often conflicting interests of countries in the Arctic region, but in Hacquebord’s opinion this council is the most important card in the pack. ‘I expect that the EU will eventually become an observer, as it should, because in the end we have to have as many countries as possible agreeing on the rules that will apply to access to and conservation of the North Pole region. The more countries you can involve, the better.’
The changed perception of the Polar region among the general public is a strategic fact for countries, businesses and non-profit organizations like Greenpeace. This also applies to a recently published report by the American Geological Survey, which says that thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and thirty percent of the gas reserves are in the Arctic region.
‘Nature itself has become a policy instrument in the discussions about extracting raw materials and the question of whether that is necessary’, says Hacquebord. ‘Nature protection dovetails closely with the image of an extraordinary and vulnerable world. Nature protection NGOs can profit from that. However, will they achieve their goal if tourism continues to grow unabated in the region, as a result of the new cuddly status?’
retired as professor of Arctic and Antarctic Studies and Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen on 28 May 2013. He studied Physical Geography at Utrecht University and Archaeology at the University of Groningen. From 2000-2008, he was vice chair of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC).
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