I spent the day yesterday at the brand new building of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The BAS is the organization to which you must apply for permissions for activities in their wedge of influence in the region – whether it’s basejumping or counting penguins that takes you there.  They hosted a small workshop on Polar Governance – for both poles. This is fairly unusual – the poles don’t actually have much in common other than they are cold – and, more interestingly, that they are both on governance paths dominated by goals of peace and understanding. So it was an interesting opportunity to look at commonalities and differences in their governance needs, successes and failures.

Antarctica is a people-less, shared terrestrial commons dedicated to research surrounded by ocean; the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by lands with many cultures and many overlapping, layered demands, particularly for living marine resource extraction, oil, gas and mineral resource extraction, and increased economic activities more generally.

The Arctic does have its own terra nullius- Svalbard – which came up several times over the course of the day. The 1920 Svalbard Treaty aimed to resolve conflicts over resource extraction in the archipelago – a place humans had used for whaling and sealing, fishing, coal mining and so on for centuries. Due to the magic of the internet, here’s a 1919 geography paper giving you the contemporary lay of the land. In its conclusion, the author writes:

“The future of Spitsbergen depends to some extent on the system of administration it will receive and the success with which it is carried out. It is a country without a native population, and this fact no doubt makes the task of government simpler. Providing nothing is done to discourage pioneers in mining enterprises, there is a great future before the country. … In a few years Spitsbergen will have many busy mining camps and a large population throughout the year. In summer the population will be augmented by an influx of tourists and jaded men and women of the great cities seeking health in the invigorating Arctic atmosphere and continual daylight. Luxurious liners will bring these travelers to Spitsbergen; hotels will cater to their wants. Climbing, exploring, boating, and no doubt flying will occupy their time. It is to be hoped that in the interests of the wild life hunting will be prohibited. Spitsbergen bids fair to become not only a great mining country but the grandest playground in Europe.”

Times haven’t changed the optimism with which we approach the ‘future ’round the bend’ for the Arctic much… but I digress.

All signatories to the Svalbard Treaty are able to engage in commercial activities there – no visas required – though the islands are under Norwegian sovereignty. Scientific research is in fact a popular past and current activity; Norway has been active in creating bioreserves there, and a doomsday Seedbank hides in the permafrost.

Antarctica’s treaty series, on the other hand, foregoes mineral extraction (at least until 2048, when renegotions may be needed) and most other commercial enterprises. Research is the name of the game.

The talks today were excellent and many found common ground in research as subject material. Several of the Antarctic researchers are investigating patterns of research in the context of commitments to the region. One looked for correlations between national research capacity (bedspace on the continent) and scientific publications – there aren’t many. This is partly because some of the most successful researchers (e.g. The Dutch) piggyback on other nation’s stations and “rent” rather than own. This led to the question – are countries really using their research stations for research, or other geopolitical aims? The answer seems to be that research is in fact primary.

Then it was revealed that all that research has led to 16 distinct ecosystems becoming known – not surprising for an entire continent – but that only about 0.3% of them are protected by more than their isolation – not a lot of ecosystem friendly local governance is resulting from the research. And where are these protected areas? Well, pretty close to the research stations – because quite reasonably –  it’s costly and cold and dangerous to go too far beyond base. Much more is needed, (here’s a call to action in Conservation Letters co-authored by one of the speakers) and more cost-benefit type analysis could help! It’s yet another case of searching inquiry happening only under the lampposts.

The new American administration was only addressed in the Antarctic presentations lightly – but the threat of reduced research and cooperation is on everyone’s minds.

The afternoon was introduced with a talk about one thing that definitely connects the poles – tourism. Here still, however, there are important differences. The Antarctic doesn’t have a local community that benefits much from tourism dollars – you can’t Airbnb space there to “become a local for a day” – at least not until penguins take PayPal. There is no back-and-forth to sell the region and not much co-creation of the travel itself – though there certainly is co-creation of the experience and the tourists’ presentations of it to themselves and the rest of the world.

The Arctic on the other hand is looking to tourism as a less extractive experience that can support globalized lives in the region. Svalbard’s got a BBC Earth series, and everyone’s got an app or a space on the web that sells the experience while inviting the tourists to co-create with the host communities.

There are so many voices and experiences that there is a wilderness of information and misinformation to navigate before experiencing “your Arctic”. The speaker noted disappointed cruisers thinking they would see polar bears between Iceland and Greenland because – well – polar bears define the Arctic for many. Fake news is everywhere and has consequences. How should tourism governance look in these conditions? How can tourism governance look in these conditions?!

The next Arctic discussions kicked off with what I will term optimistic fatalism. Questions focused on how current regulatory frameworks are or are not flexible enough to handle the increasing “bluing” of the Arctic whiteness. There are still some who are predicting big futures for trans-Arctic shipping – and imagining the ways in which the Polar code will fail to instill high enough safety and environmental concerns. Others see devolution to the national and regional levels when UNCLOS (law of the sea) can’t quite resolve all the claims and challenges. And most coordinated efforts will be focused on keeping Russia “in the peaceful Arctic fold” and the non-Arctic states from gaining too much of a foothold in “their” territory.

But the most direct was a political scientist- international lawyer who started his talk by saying, now that DJT was the US president, he might as well throw up  his hands, say he has no idea what might happen, and sit down again. “That would be a true presentation.” But in spite of the uncertainties he forged ahead to remind us that while DJT is not a consistently rational actor, Putin is. What Putin is is cash-strapped and capital constrained. This will hopefully help to keep Russia in the fold. But how the D.C. drama over whose interests are really represented by the current White House will play out is a set of guesses above all of our pay grades.

These high-level talks were followed by some closer examinations of science-policy interactions — including yours truly talking about invasive crabs in the Barents, others talking about the entrenchment of stakeholders in decision making (e.g. Svalbard conservation; oil drilling).

The day also held a couple of presentations one doesn’t get to see enough of because they may not seem “scientific” enough. First, a highly insightful presentation of how science can and cannot get through to the British Parliament, and where stumbling blocks to knowing AND using the science in policy lay. Then, some representatives from APECS (Association of Polar Early Career Scientists) discussed their strategies for training up early career researchers in polar fields – getting them hooked in to conference prep and service, providing peer and mentor support – some things a lot of disciplines could learn from (mentioning no names but giving shrewd glances).

 All in all, well placed talks for science-policy interface.

UN Flag Image credit: By Wilfried Huss (Sodipodi.org) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons