Quantum Leap

India must open itself up to the Arctic Ocean

A polar research vessel will strengthen its position as an observer.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  4-minute read |   29-01-2016
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Just a month ago, the world was celebrating the deal hammered out during the Paris round of climate change talks. Now we are inundated with reports of extreme and erratic weather events, and their possible connection with climate change.

It is official that India was significantly warmer in 2015 than the normal, with annual mean surface air temperature averaging 0.67 degree celsius above long-term average, making 2015 the third warmest year on record. The blizzard in America has disrupted life and some scientists have blamed it on anomalies in a phenomenon called Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation with warming of the seas caused due to greenhouse gas emissions as one of the main reasons. Hong Kong and parts of South Korea this past week have seen heavy snowfall. As regards the polar caps in the Arctic, there is sufficient evidence of permanent ice cover shrinking.

Since the Arctic is central to global weather patterns and longterm warming trend, it has been under the scanner of scientists and policy makers for some years. However, the Arctic discourse now appears to shift from environment to economy with countries in the polar region getting prepared to adapt to a warmer Arctic. This is the impression I got while listening to experts and leaders of indigenous communities from the Arctic region at the ongoing Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, the Northernmost town of Norway. While the reasons for warming and shrinking of ice cover are perhaps global, the impacts will be first felt locally. The melting ice is opening up opportunities ranging from tourism to natural resource extraction in the region.

Politicians as well as community leaders are in favour of exploring these opportunities. “Possibilities of new trade routes and extraction of natural resources are opening new doors in High North, but the challenge is to strike a balance between environment and commercial interests,” pointed out Borge Brende, foreign minister of Norway. About 10 percent of the country’s population lives in the Arctic Circle and 90 percent of its exports come from sea-based economic activity.

“Human dimension in the Arctic discourse has been neglected so far, as if the Arctic is a wildlife sanctuary. The world must realise that it is much more than icebergs, ice sheets and wild animals. People here have traditions, knowledge and skills, and they should be involved in any discourse about future of the Arctic”, felt Vittus Qujaukitsoq, minister for natural resources and foreign affairs of Greenland.

It is being felt that development of oil and gas industry, tourism, mining and fisheries can help boost livelihoods of four million people who live within the Arctic Circle.

But given high environmental costs and the fact that oil prices are very low, it may not make economic sense to exploit oil resources in the Arctic in the present scenario. Meanwhile, polar countries are preparing the ground for future as more and more areas of the Arctic sea become navigable and accessible.

Why India needs a polar vessel

India has been pursuing research in polar regions for more than three decades, but its focus has been on the Antarctica. The interest in Arctic is relatively new. Now India has a research station in the Arctic in Norwegian territory and is also an observer in the Arctic Council, a body of counties around the Arctic sea. Several other countries, including China, have the observer status and are rolling out ambitious research programmes.

China has its own ice breaker and polar vessels. India too has been planning to buy a polar vessel that can cater to the needs of Indian scientists in both the poles, but the matter has been hanging fire for more than two years. “Our engagement with the council is very important because what happens in the Arctic has an impact on weather patterns in South Asia including the summer monsoon. This engagement should be deepened by bringing more assets like a polar vessel to the table,” feels NAK Browne, former IAF chief and India’s ambassador in Norway.

He suggests that India should acquire a polar research vessel soon as it will boost its research efforts in the Arctic and also further strengthen its position in the council as an observer.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)


Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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