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Irene Quaile January 22, 2014

The Arctic Frontiers conference is now a key event in the polar calendar. With climate change opening up the region, a record number of politicians, scientists and journalists are gathered in Norway's Arctic capital.

Arctic Frontiers Konferenz 2014 in Norwegen
Image: DW/I. Quaile

As the dark sky of the long cold Arctic night lightens in the early hours of this winter morning in Tromso, Norway, an international crowd lines up on the iced-over snow at a harbor bus stop. They're heading for Norway's northernmost university campus. Construction noise competes with the cries of the gulls as climate change opens up the commercial potential of the icy north.

Outside the conference venue, TV crews jockey for position to capture the arrival of Erna Solberg, the Norwegian prime minister. A small row of youngsters line the entrance holding up a protest banner: Fossil Free Arctic Future.

Ingrid Skjoldvaer, of Young Friends of the Earth Norway, says they want the prime minister to stop Arctic drilling and focus on cutting emissions and achieving climate targets. The young people have their work cut out for them, as Norway's prosperity is based on oil revenue. And that's unlikely to change in the near future.

Arctic Frontiers Konferenz 2014 in Norwegen QUALITÄT
Skjoldvear and other activists say Norway should stop Arctic drillingImage: DW/I. Quaile

No future without oil?

Solberg makes no bones about the continuing importance of oil and gas drilling for Norway. Her goal is to make northern Norway an "innovative and stable region" and an "attractive place to live."

Like other high-profile politicians from Arctic nations speaking at the conference, Solberg talks of opportunities and of sustainable development. Fossil fuel extraction is an integral part of her policy to bring employment, education and an improved infrastructure to the region. This domestic policy priority is in line with growing international interest in the Arctic, said the conservative politician.

Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the Arctic. But while Solberg and her peers acknowledge the problems, the young people outside cannot expect any shift in fossil fuel policy. Around 13 percent of the world's remaining oil is thought to be in the Arctic. Minerals, including rare ores, are said to be there for the taking now that the ice is melting. Nina Jensen is head of World Wildlife Fund Norway, one of the few NGOs invited to speak at the conference. She feels that many Norwegians have a growing awareness of the paradox of hunting for Arctic oil as the ice "melts beneath our feet," threatening the fragile ecosystem.

The peoples of the Arctic

"Humans in the Arctic" is the focus of this year's conference, which the organizers say will attract around 1,000 people over the course of the week. The region is home to some 4 million people, many of them from around 30 indigenous groups. Greenland's Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond, herself an indigenous Greenlander, summed up the impact of climate change on her people.

Arctic Frontiers Konferenz 2014 in Norwegen Aleqa Hammond
Hammond: Development in the Arctic should be determined by the needs of the people of the ArcticImage: DW/I. Quaile

"Imagine a giant island with three climate zones, each being pushed almost two kilometers (1.2 miles) northward each year," she said. That statistic graphically illustrates the huge changes affecting the environment and people of the world's biggest island, with an ice sheet that contains the largest amount of water in the northern hemisphere, and which is of key importance to the world climate and global sea levels.

Hammond is a realist. She knows her small country needs revenue to achieve the goal of full independence from Denmark. But she is also well aware of the negative impacts of rapid industrialization on a people traditionally very close to nature. As well as the decrease in ice stability, she talked of the contaminants polluting the environment and finding their way into Arctic mammals, some of them a source of traditional food. While physical health has been improved by better housing, nutrition and health care in the last 50 years, Hammond stressed the negative mental and physical health effects of a loss of traditional values.

Health is the main focus of the agenda. There are above-average suicide rates in circumpolar areas, and chronic illnesses and heart disease are on the rise due to a shift from hunting and fishing to what Greenland's premier describes as the "office worker lifestyle." Urbanization is another factor, with 80 percent of the 15,000 Greenlanders living in the capital, Nuuk, and only 20 percent in villages. Just 100 years ago, everyone lived in small settlements.

Arctic Frontiers Konferenz 2014 in Norwegen
Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the Arctic and the way of life for indigenous peopleImage: DW/I. Quaile

Other Arctic regions face similar problems. High-profile politicians from Scandinavia, Russia, the US and Canada, the current chair of the Arctic Council, have spoken of the need for environmental protection, maritime safety, oil spill preparedness and better search and rescue programs, as industrial activity and new shipping lanes bring freight and tourists into the dangerous Arctic waters.

The dilemma, as Hammond sees it: How to bring prosperity to the Arctic's indigenous people with easier access to oil, gas and minerals, without destroying a society rapidly being catapulted from a traditional rural lifestyle into the realities of the industrialized, commercialized, globalized world where the environment is of secondary importance?

An expanding circle

Nearby, in the center of Tromso, senior Arctic officials from the Arctic Council member states and the growing host of "observers" meet in closed-door session at the organization's secretariat, which was set up here a year ago. Dealing with the increasing number of participants is an issue. Speaking with DW, Iceland's Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson said Monday (20.01.2014) that his country was happy to work with any countries planning to invest in the region, as long as they follow the laws and regulations. Iceland signed a free trade agreement with China last year; everyone here is calling for international cooperation.

But Greenland's Hammond has called for caution. “It's clear for me that development in the Arctic should be determined by the needs and inspirations of the people of the Arctic. Anything else would be wrong,” she told the gathering. At the same time, she appealed to any new partners to bear in mind that even small changes will have a big effect on a small indigenous population, perhaps reflecting the knowledge that developing the Arctic will not go ahead without the economic power and the expertise of outsiders.

The development of the high north is cruising ahead at full speed. And everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the Arctic cake now that the icing is melting.