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Norway in the Arctic

By Tore O. Vorren


The Arctic is the name applied to the sea and land areas around the North Pole. Its southern limits are defined in many ways, the Arctic Circle being one of them. But a more logical boundary would perhaps be the timber-line. This largely coincides with areas with a mean July temperature of 10 degrees Celsius, where the natural conditions can reasonably be described as Arctic. The southern boundary runs as far south as 52° N by Labrador and the Aleutians and just touches the mainland of Norway, at about 71° N.

Out of the total area of 26 million km2, 8 million km2 consist of land and the rest of sea. In the midst of these waters lies the Arctic Ocean Basin. Here the sea is up to 5000 m deep and beneath it lie three pronounced under-sea ridges, the Alfa Cordillera, the Lomonosov Ridge and the Nansen Cordillera, farthest east. Around the fringes of the Arctic Ocean are shallower marginal seas: the Barents Sea north of Norway and the Kola peninsula, the Kara Sea east of Novaya Zemlya, the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Straits, the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and western Canada, and the Lincoln Sea and Wandel Sea north of Greenland.

Norwegian territory in the Arctic includes the Svalbard archipelago, whose combined area is 64,000 km2. In addition it covers the western part of the Barents Sea, which is the shallow marginal sea between the shelf edge to the west, Svalbard to the north, the disputed boundary line with Russia to the east and mainland Norway to the south. The lonely island of Jan Mayen and its surrounding waters, far out in the Norwegian-Greenland Sea is also part of the Arctic. The Barents Sea is relatively warm considering its latitude. One branch of the warm Norwegian Current enters it from the south, while another continues north, flowing past Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard islands, before entering the Arctic Ocean. In the northern part of the Barents Sea, cold Arctic water flows in a south-westerly direction. The warm Norwegian Current keeps the southern part of the Barents Sea ice-free, even in winter and in late summer almost the entire Barents Sea is ice-free.

Exploration of the Norwegian Arctic

Norse Discoveries

Throughout the whole of history the northern regions of our planet have been shrouded in myth and superstition. Norwegian descriptions of the true nature of these places were the first steps towards clarifying their mystery. A Norwegian named Ottar, from Malangen in Troms county in North Norway, made a significant contribution towards this process when, in the late 800s, he visited the court of the English king, Alfred the Great, who ordered that an account of the Norwegian's travels be written down. Ottar described his voyages to the White Sea, and although he was perhaps not the first Norwegian to reach these unknown waters, his journey was a remarkable feat of exploration which made both the North Cape and the White Sea known in European literature for the first time.

While Ottar was journeying eastwards, the Vikings were moving west towards Iceland. The first settlers in Iceland are thought to have been Irish monks. After a few sporadic visits by Norwegians, the first permanent Norwegian settlement on Iceland was established by Ingolf Arnesson from Fjaler in Western Norway, who acquired land there in 874. The gradual acquisition of Icelandic territory by foreigners, the "Landnåmet", lasted from this time until the year 930, and was largely dominated by Norwegian chieftains who had fled to Iceland to escape the harsh rule of King Harald Fairhair. One of these settlers was Erik Raude, who discovered Greenland and was the first man who set out to explore this vast Arctic island. Norwegians and Icelanders colonized the island and took part in the exploration of both Greenland itself and of the Arctic areas of North America. The best-known of these voyages of discovery was that of Erik the Red's son, Leiv Eriksson, who around the year 1000 sailed southwards along the coast of Baffin Island and Labrador to the "Vinland" of the sagas. According to Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, who carried out extensive research on the subject, the "Vinland" of the sagas was Newfoundland, where sites of ancient settlements and implements dating from the Viking Age have been found at L'anse aux Meadows.

Of all the Norse discoveries in the Arctic, the discovery of Svalbard was the one that attracted least attention. A brief entry in the "Icelandic Annals" in 1194 states simply, "Svalbard discovered" -- surely one of the shortest descriptions of a major geographical discovery in history. The word "Svalbard" can be translated as "the cold border" and in this context it can only mean the land with the cold coast. Speculation as to what territory this could be has usually led to the conclusion that it must be Spitsbergen.

With the approach of the Middle Ages, Norse voyages of discovery in the Arctic became fewer, and Norse domination in these regions declined. Much of the accumulated knowledge of the Arctic was forgotten, but the Norwegians had at least shown to other nations the seaward route to the north.

The Arctic skippers

The first Norwegian research expedition to this region took place in 1827, when the young geologist, B. M. Keilhau, set sail from Hammerfest aboard a sloop, visiting North Norway, Bear Island (Bjørnøya) and Spitsbergen. Keilhau's expedition lasted six weeks, and he pioneered paleontological, geological and botanical studies of the region. About fifty years were to pass before the next purely scientific Norwegian expedition visited the Arctic. But during this period the captains of Arctic-going vessels, who mainly came from Tromsø and Hammerfest, were making a name for Norway in the far north both in hunting expeditions and new discoveries.

North Norwegians started hunting and fishing in the Arctic by the late 1700s. The year 1859 marked the beginning of a major era of Arctic exploration by these hardy seafarers. This was the year when Elling Karlsen first caught sight of Kong Karls Land. Four years later he made new discoveries and circumnavigated the entire Svalbard archipelago. As more and more boats arrived on the hunting grounds, there was a drastic reduction in the numbers of walrus, whose hide was in great demand for making drive belts for machinery. Elling Carlsen decided to search for new hunting grounds and in 1868 he sailed eastwards and discovered rich grounds around Novaya Zemlya. In the three following seasons the captains and crews of the Norwegian boats made a series of discoveries which greatly added to the accumulated knowledge of the waters around Novaya Zemlya and the Kara Sea. Measurements of water temperature and depth were taken, and the ice conditions, general character and geographical position of the coastlines were recorded. On the group of islands later named the Gulf Stream Islands they found wooden floats from Norwegian fishing nets, beans from the West Indies, pumice stone from Iceland and the wreckage of ships -- clear evidence that the influence of the Gulf Stream can be registered as far east as the Barents Sea. In 1871 Elling Karlsen made a sensational discovery when he came upon the remains of Willem Barents' winter camp, from 1596, on the northernmost tip of Novaya Zemlya.

It became more and more customary for foreign expeditions to follow the same routes as the fishermen, whalers and trappers, drawing benefit from their experience. Apart from E. Johannessen, who discovered Ensomhetsøya (Lonely Island) in western Siberia in 1878, the whalers, fishermen and trappers now took on jobs as ice pilots, skippers or crew aboard both Norwegian and foreign expedition vessels. Elling Karlsen was appointed ice pilot for the Austro-Hungarian Payer-Weyprecht expedition, which discovered and explored Franz Josef Land in 1872-74. The Arctic skippers' journeys to the Kara Sea opened the way for Swedish explorer A.E. Nordenskiøld's later expeditions to the river Yenisey and his subsequent circumnavigation of Asia.

Nansen, Amundsen and Sverdrup

In 1888 Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), undertook his famous crossing of the Greenland icecap on skis, and made this year a turning point in Norwegian polar research. Nansen's accomplishment inspired the Norwegians to strive for new goals in polar research, and he himself led the way. No sooner had he returned from Greenland than he presented plans for another Arctic expedition, this time to the North Pole.

On the basis of finds of driftwood on the east coast of Greenland, the Norwegian meteorologist, Henrik Mohn, had advanced the theory that there must be a current of drift ice moving across the Arctic Ocean, from the waters north of eastern Siberia to the straits between Greenland and Spitsbergen. Nansen decided to exploit this current by allowing his specially-built ship, the Fram, to freeze into the drifting ice and be carried along by it. In 1893 he and his crew embarked on one of the most daring research expeditions ever undertaken by man. True to plan the Fram froze firmly into the drift ice at a point close to the New Siberian Islands and more than three years were to pass before the ice relinquished its grip on the vessel, which then returned to Norway by way of the straits between Greenland and Spitsbergen -- later named the Fram Straits. One of the discoveries made by Nansen on this expedition was that the Arctic Ocean was deep, a surprising revelation to most people at that time. He also made a bid for the North Pole, together with one of his crew, Hjalmar Johansen. Accompanied by a dog-team, the two men left the Fram and set off on skis for the Pole. They managed to reach 86° 14' N before adverse conditions forced them to turn back. The two men spent the winter in a bivouac on Franz Josef Land. After a separation of 17 months Nansen and Johansen rejoined the Fram and its crew on 21 August 1896, in the town of Tromsø.

Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), was 17 years old when he first heard of Nansen's trek on skis across the Greenland icecap and became seriously interested in the polar regions. He was the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage from end to end, in 1903-1906, on board his ship the Gjøa. Later, having won the race to be first at the South Pole -- which he reached in December 1911 -- Amundsen returned to the Arctic. He may also have been the first man to pass over the North Pole when in 1926 he crossed the Arctic Ocean from Svalbard to Alaska in the airship Norge, accompanied by the American, Lincoln Ellsworth and the Italian, Umberto Nobile. This is because three men, Cook, Peary and Byrd, claimed to have reached the North Pole, but it is still a matter of conjecture whether any of them actually did so. In 1918-20 Amundsen sailed through the Northeast Passage in his ship the Maud. He died in 1928, while taking part in the search for Nobile's airship, the Italia, which had disappeared in the Arctic.

Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930) is probably the least known of the three great Norwegian explorers of the period around the turn of the last century. He accompanied Nansen on his trek across the Greenland icecap and was second-in-command on the Fram expedition across the Arctic Ocean, assuming command of the ship when Nansen and Johansen made their bid for the North Pole. From 1898 to 1902 he led the second Fram expedition to the islands of Arctic North America. Among this expedition's discoveries were Axel Heiberg Island and the Ringnes Islands, which were declared a part of Canada in 1926.

Norwegian Arctic research

Norwegian research in the Arctic areas has escalated in recent years. The four Norwegian universities, in Tromsø, Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo, together with the Norwegian Polar Research Institute and the Institute of Marine Research have undertaken a variety of research and management assignments in the Arctic.

The Polar Environment Centre was opened by King Harald V on 1 December 1998 in Tromsø. The Centre houses the following institutions: the headquarters of the Norwegian Polar Research Institute, Akvaplan-Niva AS, and sections of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) and the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU), the Sami Cultural Heritage Council, the Norwegian Mapping Authority and the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority (SFT). The Centre will be versatile, taking on a wide array of jobs involving studies of air, water, land and living organisms in the northern regions. Thus the Polar Environment Centre will handle most of the fields connected with the natural Arctic environment. The institution's ambition is to become the leading European centre for environmental expertise about the polar areas and the Barents region.

Svalbard features unique qualities as a platform for research and education in Arctic matters. The archipelago is easily accessible and has a well developed infrastructure. In 1993 the university studies on Svalbard (UNIS) were established in the town of Longyearbyen. UNIS is located in a modern building and has a capacity of 100 students in the subjects of Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology. In time, most of the instruction will be given in English in order to recruit an international student body. UNIS is a foundation under the four Norwegian universities. Along with UNIS, the Norwegian Polar Institute opened its division and EISCAT started operations in 1996. In addition, the University of Tromsø has research stations for biology and northern lights studies nearby. Thus can Longyearbyen boast of an impressive infrastructure for research.

Research activities have also increased in Ny Ålesund on Spitsbergen. In addition to Norway, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan all have permanent stations in Ny Ålesund or its immediate vicinity. Considerable investments in the infrastructure have been taken here too in recent years. Among these, a new dock was built in 1992 and its airfield was upgraded in 1996.

Norwegian research activities in the Arctic focus mainly on Norwegian land areas and the Barents Sea. There has been a marked increase in research on the Barents Sea in connection with prospecting for oil and gas, fisheries management and the growing environmental problems in these waters. As knowledge has increased, Arctic research has naturally changed direction, with the emphasis gradually shifting from geographical exploration and research to technical and scientific studies. But there is one area where much remains to be studied, both in general and in detail, and that is the Arctic Ocean itself.

The boundary line and zone limits

The Treaty of Svalbard -- signed in 1920 by about 40 countries -- awarded Norway sovereignty over Svalbard. It lays down certain specified rights to which persons and companies in the contracting states are entitled. The most important of these is the right to engage in certain types of economic activity on an equal footing with Norwegian companies. The Svalbard Treaty applies to the islands which lie between longitudes 10° E and 35° E and latitudes 74° N and 81° N.

In these waters the Norwegian continental shelf runs in a continuous, uniform line, extending from the mainland north to Svalbard and beyond. Thus, Norwegian continental shelf legislation is applicable in this region, with the exception of Svalbard itself and its internal waters, where the Mining Code for Svalbard applies. Some countries have either disagreed or reserved their position regarding the Svalbard Treaty's area of jurisdiction outside the territorial boundary.

From 1974 and onwards Norway and the Soviet Union, and thereafter Russia, discussed the issue of the boundary line in the Barents Sea, but the question remained unresolved. The Russians adhere firmly to the sector-line principle, while Norway advocates the median-line principle. The disputed waters between these alternatives cover 155,000 km2 - equivalent to almost half the total area of mainland Norway.

Norway and the former Soviet Union, later Russia, have concluded an agreement concerning the enforcement of regulations of third parties' fishing in what is known as the grey zone. This covers 41,500 km2 of disputed waters, 23,000 km2 of undisputed Norwegian waters and 3,000 km2 of undisputed Russian waters -- all in all 67,500 km2. Other zones in this area are the Svalbard zone -- a 200 nautical mile fisheries protection zone around Svalbard, established on 3 June 1977, the Jan Mayen zone -- a fisheries zone proclaimed in 1979 and enforced from 28 May 1980, and a mainland zone -- a 200 nautical mile economic zone established around mainland Norway from 1 January 1977.

Resources

Mineral resources--Coal

Up to the present, the most important source of commercial minerals in the Arctic has been the coal mined on Svalbard. As early as in 1827, the Arctic skippers were shipping coal from Svalbard to Hammerfest on the Norwegian mainland, though mining on a regular basis did not start until about 1900. The Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani extracts about 300,000 tonnes of coal a year from the mines around Longyearbyen, the main settlement on Svalbard, and the Russians take 475,000 tonnes from their mines at Pyramiden and Barentsburg. A reduction of the Russian mining population has occurred in recent years.

Oil and gas

Fifty-three wildcat wells have been drilled on the continental shelves of the Barents Sea and its adjacent areas since 1980. Activities were initially restricted to the Tromsøflaket, but the area made available for commercial operations has gradually been expanded and it is now possible to shoot seismics and to carry out other forms of pilot study throughout the whole Norwegian sector of the Barents Sea south of 74° 30' N and west of 32° E. Finds so far have been relatively few, amounting to about 260 million standard cubic metres (Sm3) of gas and 25 million Sm3 of oil and condensate. Long distances to the markets and present price-levels make the commercial exploitation of these reserves only marginally profitable. Studies of the geology of the Barents Sea indicate that the remainder of the areas opened up for prospecting contain 1.5 billion Sm3 of oil equivalents. The latest estimates from the Petroleum Directorate indicate the presence of 800 to 1,500 million Sm3 of oil equivalents in the Norwegian part of the Barents Sea, most of it probably in the form of gas.

Hunting and Fishing

Through the ages the animals of the Norwegian Arctic have been extensively hunted. In the 1600s, 1700s, and early 1800s Dutch, British, German, French and Danish-Norwegian vessels relentlessly pursued the whale. After the whalers came the trappers, who mainly hunted polar bears and fox. Russian trappers wintered on Svalbard from the early 1700s, but around 1850 their activities declined, while the Norwegians expanded their hunting both on land and sea.

Until quite recently the Norwegians harvested large numbers of marine mammals such as seal and whale, but this is no longer the case. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has declared a moratorium on all commercial whaling. Norway halted all minke whaling after the 1987 season. After a fresh estimate of the size of the whale population, the hunt was resumed in 1993. Norwegian sealers now operate on the hunting grounds west of Jan Mayen and west of Novaya Zemlya -- around the mouth of the White Sea, hunting the harp seal and the hooded seal.

Today, many nations fish extensively in the Barents Sea. During the past 20 years upwards of 2 million tonnes have been fished annually in these waters and in the northern parts of the Norwegian Sea. The arcto-Norwegian cod, as well as haddock, herring and capelin grow to maturity here, and the polar cod is native to these waters. Intensive fishing and the increasingly stringent quotas have affected the size of the catches. Regulations have helped maintain adequate stocks.

In recent years the biggest catches have been of cod and capelin. Stocks of arcto-Norwegian cod have dwindled steadily in the postwar years, from a good 6 million tonnes to the present level of about one million tonnes. Cod fishing must be limited to the quotas that Norway has been allocated through international agreements. Strict restrictions on fishing have led to stocks of around 2 million tonnes over the past few years, but in comparison with the average stocks in the 1957-1976 period (2.5-3 million tonnes) the numbers remain low.

From 1973 to 1984, the size of the adult capelin stock in the Barents Sea varied from 2.4 million to 7.3 million tonnes. But a dramatic fall in their numbers necessitated a halt in catches. Only three years previous to this, the Norwegians and the Soviets had fished more than 2 million tonnes. From 1988, the stock began to grow again, reaching over 3 million tonnes in the autumn of 1990. Due to natural variations, the capelin stock has continued to fluctuate in the past years and is once again down to a low level.

The Environment

The Arctic environment is vulnerable and it can be affected both directly and indirectly. The land-based ecology is also fragile as well as relatively barren. Damage to the terrestrial ecosystems can take a long time to heal. The growing season for plants is short in the cold climate. Due to the permafrost, only the upper centimetres of soil are available for plant roots. Minor damage to the vegetation can soon develop into a deep scar. Despite low growth, plants can sustain 10,000 reindeer on Svalbard. Grouse and geese also survive on the sparse vegetation. Land-based operations are fairly easy to register, and with good planning and management, damage can be kept to a minimum.

But the sea and air are different matters. Both the waters from the Atlantic Ocean and air currents reach the Arctic Ocean, transporting pollutants from lower latitudes. The marine environment in the Arctic is a system comprising water, ice, organisms, dissolved chemical compounds and sediments, both in the Arctic Ocean Basin and in the marginal seas on the surrounding continental shelf. This system influences the earth's climate by a process of interaction which we only partly understand. The system is itself strongly influenced by climatic changes resulting from processes which take place outside the Arctic.

Computer simulations of the global climate indicate that the effects of global warming are intensified in the Arctic environment through a combination of factors such as the melting of the sea ice and alterations in the stability of sea and air. This makes the Arctic highly vulnerable to environmental changes on a global scale. Human activity on land and sea can directly affect the marine environment. Large numbers of ships of various types are now operating in the Barents Sea, and prospecting for oil and gas is being expanded. Further pollution can be expected if the Northeast Passage is opened to maritime traffic. Fifty per cent of the pollution registered in the seas comes from land-based activities. The Barents Sea may already have been affected by the pollution in the large rivers, the Ob, the Lena and the Yenisey. The Russian military installations are also a source of pollution, caused by nuclear waste, chemical and biological weapons and other military equipment.

The world's gravest environmental problems have a common characteristic -- there is no simple link between cause and effect, for example between the release of CO2 and its subsequent affect on the climate. There are complex mechanisms behind the world's major environmental problems, and it is difficult to protect the environment against them or to solve the problems on a non-global basis. Many factors play a part, and the fundamental condition for solving the problems and for taking the necessary precautions is a thorough knowledge of interactions in nature. Our knowledge of these interactions in parts of the Arctic is very limited. and can be summed up by the words of Fridtjof Nansen almost one hundred years ago: "The day is slowly approaching; but it is still only dawn, and darkness rests over the great polar wastes."

International cooperation in the Arctic

Opportunities for wide-ranging international environmental cooperation in the Arctic have opened up in recent years. The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) was established in 1988, and its secretariat is seated in Oslo. The IASC is a cooperative organization for national research institutions in the eight Arctic and Nordic countries (Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark-Greenland, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. In addition, research institutions from Germany, Great Britain, France, Japan, the Netherlands, and Poland collaborate.

In recent years the eight Arctic and Nordic countries have also initiated environmental cooperation in the Arctic by means of the Rovaniemi process. The ministers who met at Rovaniemi, Finland, in 1991 to discuss environmental issues in the Arctic decided to establish a system of environmental surveillance and its secretariat is located in Norway. The meeting targeted a number of environmental challenges in the Arctic. Cooperation between the participating countries encompasses protection of flora as well as fauna. The Rovaniemi process -- in which the indigenous peoples in the area are broadly represented -- is a first attempt at extensive cooperation between the governments of the eight countries. In 1996 the minister-level Arctic Council was established with members from the governments of the same Nordic and Arctic countries.

The author of the article, Professor Tore O. Vorren Ph.D., is professor of geology at the University of Tromsø. On three occasions he has been a guest researcher and lecturer in the USA. During the last 20 years he has concentrated his research on the marine geology of the Barents Sea and adjacent areas. This article is reproduced at ExploreNorth with permission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.