Global warming: Bonding over ice
By Sulagna Chattopadhyay
The Arctic is heating up and is now pliable to human exploration. Who rules the Arctic and its new ice-free oceanic routes is a question that is deeply contested amongst the stakeholders, heralding the rise of myriad interests. India, an observer in the Arctic Council (a high-level intergovernmental forum) is engaged primarily in science, as changes in the high-north are said to influence Indian monsoon.
Of the eight nations that the Arctic envelops, the American Arctic, limited to the state of Alaska, has been historically shaped by asymmetry in prominence and influence in US’ administrative circles. At present, Alaska’s crude oil production from the high-north is on a slump from 1.8 to 0.5 mn barrels per day between 1991 and 2019. Despite abundance, there is a reluctance among exploration companies and banks. Additional issues of increased coastal erosion necessitating village relocation, permafrost thaw and freshwater scarcity are also pressing concerns.
Alaska, the Arctic frontier of the US, accords strategic mileage to the nation allowing access to the Beaufort, the Chukchi and the Bering Sea. This requires the US to manage a lengthy maritime border with Russia that extends into the Arctic Ocean. The US policy orientation, therefore, holds a security concern that emanates from the need to protect its borders. Beginning in 1971, for more than 40 years now, the US has articulated its fundamental interest in the Arctic through several presidential security directives, the latest being in 2016. Each document establishes guidelines for the US policy in the Arctic, aligning it with the geostrategic realities at the time. In 2009 the US elevated the need to view the alarming climate change impacts in the region as a national security imperative. New administrative positions were created with greater Arctic visibility. Federally protected areas in the American Arctic were also increased in an effort to minimise development in the region. The US consequently held the Arctic Council chairmanship from 2015-2017. Soon after, the emphasis shifted to economic development in the American Arctic. The onshore and offshore areas were reopened, and leases were offered in the Chukchi and the Beaufort Sea.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Riovanni’s Arctic Council meet in May 2019 reflects US’s strong Arctic interests—warning China and Russia against ‘aggressive’ actions in the Arctic. Lashing out at China he said, “There are Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. China claiming otherwise entitles them to exactly nothing”. The current appointment of the new State Department Arctic Coordinator, James DeHart, a post that was vacant for more than four years, invokes the narrative that casts the Arctic as an arena of great power competition.
In the midst of it all, the US budget dedicated to Arctic science and research has significantly remained intact. American Arctic stations such as the Barrow and Toolick Lake prioritise climate research and the Summit Station in Greenland funded by the National Science Foundation is the only high altitude, high latitude, inland, year round observing station in the Arctic. America has been funding scientific research through the NSF and via active collaborations with universities. The recent case in point is the MOSAiC expedition, which is a collaboration of 20 nations (India is not a party).
Although Indo-US relations have improved, scientific collaborations with India on the polar front have been sparse. India’s polar scientists have been engaged in collaborative projects such as the International Ocean Discovery Programme (IODP) from 2009 onwards, where the US Science Support Programme (USSSP) is a funder, but these expeditions are for oceanic research. Research Moored Array for African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction (RAMA), undertaken in collaboration with US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is designed to study the Indian Ocean’s role in the monsoons. More recently a US-India Radar Mission is planned for 2022 between NASA and Isro. The spacecraft, NISAR is to focus on polar regions to gather scientific observations, though its scope and geographical extent are unclear.
With America’s new warmth for India, it is perhaps time to embark on an era of bilateralism with the Arctic at its centre. The fortification of science through a multidisciplinary approach will bolster the global climate change discourse and strengthen India’s position in the geopolitical milieu. With an active research station in Norway and near fruition plans of establishing stations in Canada and Russia, Indo-US collaborations can work to the advantage of both nations. Engaging in the study of climate change impacts, overarching global mechanisms of Arctic conservation and in adaptive capacities of the indigenous populations in the Arctic can help bolster India’s role in the Himalayas. With access to the US’s cutting edge instrumentations and underwater technology, Indian researchers would be able to engage in better science. Ambitious scientific programmes, like MonArc (Monsoon-Arctic), under America’s scientific superstructure, can help enthuse global communities to explore the connect. Perhaps mass balance, glacial and cryospheric studies can help model sea-level rise in the coastal cities of India. Shared research stations and robust multidisciplinary Arctic excellence centres in Indian universities can substantially augment the global communities Arctic research infrastructure.
The author is President, SaGHAA, a think tank working on Polar issues