Historical archive

Breaking the Ice – Exploring Polar Potentials

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Royal Geographical Society, London 1 December 2011

So this is our approach today – drawing the line from 1911 to 2011, one hundred years: two words come to my mind: From competition to cooperation, Foreign Minister Støre said at the lunch seminar "Celebrating the Roald Amundsen South Pole Expedition Centenary: Breaking the Ice – Exploring Polar Potentials".

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Intro slide: Amundsen and his men in 1911 at the South Pole, Norwegian flag and a dog.

Ladies and gentlemen, Excellencies,

  • Honour for me to speak here at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I feel humble, being a minister with limited expedition experience, to follow in a line of Norwegian explorers and national heroes like Thor Heyerdahl, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, who have all given lectures here.
  • Let me also pay tribute to this distinguished institution for all its work and achievements during so many years – or indeed centuries. Thank you for offering me the podium at this seminar.
  • In Norway, 2011 is being celebrated as the Nansen–Amundsen Year, marking the 100th anniversary of the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole – Roald Amundsen and his four companions (Hanssen, Hassel, Bjaaland and Wisting) and their dogs, on 14 December 1911 – and the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Norwegian polar explorer (scientist, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Laureate) Fridtjof Nansen. We also commemorate Captain Scott’s brave expedition, reaching the South Pole in January 1912 and his courageous and fatal struggle to return to his ship with his men.
  • As we speak, numerous expeditions are struggling to reach the South Pole – in the tracks of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton. Even today, that journey requires the very best of women and men – physically and mentally. But their efforts can hardly be compared with the expeditions a hundred years ago.
  • Talking about anniversaries, I should mention that 1 December, today, is also the anniversary of the signing of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, in which Norway is a consultative party, and – together with UK – one of the seven states with territorial claims in Antarctica. So we can detect a Norwegian–British line in the southern hemisphere – a cooperation that we are now taking forward in renewed cooperation on polar issues.
  • So this is our approach today. Drawing the line from 1911 to 2011, one hundred years, two words come to my mind: from competition to cooperation. I think this is what my address is about: how the human activities in the polar areas today are marked by international cooperation, legal frameworks, treaties and international laws, joint expeditions, research villages of many nationalities. Cooperation, not a race. Politics – I hope – at its best!
  • Let me first share with you a Norwegian perspective – or rather a historical context of where Norway “comes from” – 1911: only six years after Norway became independent.

    It should be remembered and understood how our polar explorers and polar history formed an extremely important part of Norwegian identity, Norwegian history and the whole Norwegian narrative. As a new generation of historians will recall, it was as if Norwegians went on skis to national independence.
  • In 1905, when Norway gained independence and its own foreign service, our first Ambassador to London was no other than Fridtjof Nansen (Mr Polar Explorer himself) – the first among Norwegians was sent to the first among capitals, our close ally.
  • We were – in 1911 – a very young nation, a vulnerable nation, and a poor nation. A total of two million people. During the 19th century, more than a million Norwegians had immigrated to the US and Canada. Child mortality was high in Norway. Child labour figures were high too, as was unemployment. Now, think about imperial Britain, Germany and Russia, and our old “masters” Denmark and Sweden. Contrasts.
  • Norway needed heroes. Norway needed men who took risks, broke records, survived, returned to their fatherland and won – frontrunners, symbols and icons showing that “we can do it”. These polar expeditions, and there are quite a few of them from the 1880s to 1920s, helped to build our nation. They strengthened our independence and democracy, the position of our newly arrived king and queen, gave people Norwegian idols, heroes. These adventures wrote chapters in the history, the tale, the story, of Norway.
  • Pre-1905: just consider the pride of identifying yourself with Norwegians – from a country that was not yet a state – who competed and won against explorers from the great powers. The polar explorers gave Norway an image, a reputation, an identity. The saying goes – at least in Norway – that Norwegians are born with skis and that Norwegians froze themselves to (gaining) independence.
  • So, our nation’s story is quite different from the United Kingdom’s in the 1910s. You had the empire. We had been close to being a colony for centuries. Norway and the UK – close in geography – but quite different when it came to mood, identity and outlook.

Slide: From the ship deck, dogs.

  • Talking about dogs, as you are aware, Roald Amundsen chose the Royal Geographical Society for his first talk on his expedition to the South Pole. He addressed the Society on 15 November 1912 and included the following report from his journey the previous year, exactly 100 years ago, on 1 December 1911:

    “On December 1 we had left behind us this crevassed glacier, so full of holes and bottomless chasm. Our altitude was 9100 feet. Ahead of us, and looking as a frozen sea in the fog and snowdrift, was a sloping ice-plateau studded with hummocks. The march over “The Devil’s Dancing room” was not entirely pleasant. Gales from south-east, followed by snowdrift, were of daily occurrence. We saw nothing, absolutely nothing. The ground below us was hollow, and it sounded as if we were walking on the bottom of empty barrels. We crossed this unpleasant and ugly place as quick and as light of foot as possible, all the time with the unpleasant possibility of being engulfed”. 1 December 1911.
  • Roald Amundsen’s talk at the Society in November 1912 was followed by comments by his British friend and colleague Sir Ernest Shackleton. A great polar explorer.
  • However – and here is my point about the dogs (see photo behind me) – the episode Amundsen remembered best occurred during the dinner when the Society’s President, Lord of Keddlestone, George Nathaniel Curzon (former Viceroy of India, Chancellor of Oxford University) proposed a toast for Amundsen’s dogs! Amundsen – who was not amused by Lord Curzon’s sense of humour – would remember the episode – the offence – in detail, for the rest of his life.
  • Both Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen visited the Royal Geographical Society frequently, and the ties between the British and Norwegian polar communities were as close at that time as they are today.
  • There is a long history of cooperation between Norwegian and British Polar explorers and scientists, both in the Arctic as well as in Antarctica.

Slide: International research expedition on the ice sheet (Lance). Photo. 

  • So, I am happy that we have now decided to engage in even closer polar cooperation – on cultural heritage and on polar science – as set out in the Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) that Foreign Secretary William Hague and I signed yesterday.
  • Under the MoU on cultural heritage we will cooperate on areas such as documentation, outreach and the conservation of specific cultural monuments. Focus under the science MoU is on scientific and logistical cooperation in Antarctica and in Svalbard – Ny-Ålesund.
  • We need more knowledge about the polar areas – for example about the impacts climate change in these vulnerable areas will have on the rest of the world.   

Slide: Two maps, the Arctic and Antarctica.

 Now, to broaden the picture: Norway’s High North policy – looking to the future

  • The High North: the Norwegian Government’s number one foreign policy priority. (And we are seeing increasing interest from European countries, the EU, and countries further afield – China, Japan, Korea, India.) Three key drivers:
    • climate change,
    • resources (fisheries, petroleum, minerals), and
    • international cooperation, relations with Russia.
  • 100 years ago, large parts of Antarctica and the Arctic had not been explored. Blank areas on the map – and on the ground. They are still among the parts of the world we know least about.
  • But we know one thing. That knowledge is paramount:

o   We know that some of the most rapid and major effects of climate change are taking place in the polar regions.

o   We also know that our understanding of the implications of these effects will be decisive for our ability to address global warming.

  • The Arctic and Antarctica both have a polar climate, but they are fundamentally different, as you all know:
    •  “Antarctica” means the opposite of the Arctic.
    • The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land masses, by coastal states with zones and shelf. Antarctica is a land mass surrounded by oceans.
    • Antarctica has no permanent population (except researchers). In the Arctic people have lived for thousands of years.
  • The five countries surrounding the Arctic Ocean – the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark/Greenland and Norway – have internationally recognised sovereignty over land and, as a consequence, jurisdiction over maritime zones.
  • In Antarctica, claims to sovereignty and jurisdiction were frozen in the Antarctic Treaty.
  • The Antarctic Treaty is therefore an agreement to disagree. By looking beyond the disagreement on jurisdiction, it provides a well functioning legal order that deals with the challenges at hand. Thus, peace, stability, environmental protection and international scientific collaboration have been maintained in Antarctica. A remarkable achievement.
  • As in Antarctica, the legal framework for the Arctic is already in place. However, the Arctic Ocean is not governed by a particular regime, or by a specific treaty.
  • This does not leave the Arctic in a legal vacuum. In principle and in reality, there is no difference between the Arctic and any other ocean – such as the Atlantic or the Pacific. On the contrary. The Arctic is fully covered by the principles and regulations enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in addition to various environmental and fisheries agreements, IMO rules and other general regulations. More than 150 states are party to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which reflects international customary law on a large number of key issues.
  • The five coastal states bordering the central Arctic Ocean (that I mentioned) have repeatedly and recently reaffirmed that the Law of the Sea provides a solid foundation for continued development of the international governance framework for the region.
  • So my point is this: the challenges in this region have more to do with the implementation of existing rules than with an actual lack of rules. There is no lack of rules. We are “filling in” with policies, with cooperation. I use to say: the key word is High North – Low Tension.
  • You read the discussion on these issues in the media from time to time, so therefore I say: there is no need for a new, comprehensive international legal regime governing the Arctic Ocean. But there is a need – and that is for responsible coastal states and other states to assume their full rights and responsibilities in a transparent and accountable manner. I see a need for governments to continue to come together to develop policies and rules to manage growing human activity.

Slide: From Nordland (sculpture).

  • Now, two weeks ago I presented our first white paper on Norway’s High North policy. (As I mentioned, the present Norwegian Government made the High North its no. 1 foreign policy priority when it came to office in 2005).
  • Returning to the “story of Norway”, our history and geography – long coastline, sea, harsh climate, rich in resources, livelihoods through generations. Norway and Britain – allies, sharing the North Sea.
  • Step-by-step, we have built capacity so as to be at the forefront of knowledge about the High North – from knowledge of climate change in the Arctic via traditional polar science to new insights into geopolitical changes in the Arctic and new business opportunities in strategic sectors such as aquaculture, petroleum, shipping and mining.
  • When talking to pupils and students in Norway, I often raise the question: Why did thousands of Norwegians leave their country 100 years ago when there were oil and gas under the seabed, opportunities for fish farming in the fjords and significant marine bio-prospecting activities?
  • The answer is obvious today: They did not know. They lacked the knowledge.
  • Now we know much more, but there are still many knowledge gaps that need to be filled if we are to make full use of the new opportunities arising in the High North.

Slide: The Fram Centre, Tromsø.

  • Knowledge is at the heart of our High North policy. Close cooperation and interaction with the scientific community is key to achieving our four overarching goals for the High North:

1.      Stability and predictability.

2.      Sustainable management and use of the resources.

3.      International cooperation and international law.

4.      Value creation and employment.

  • These goals are both foreign policy oriented and they involve other ministries as well. The Norwegian High North policy is both a national project and a generational project.

Now, let me very briefly – as I conclude my address – draw your attention to a few of the trends that I believe will shape the future in the Arctic region:

Slide: Energy. Melkøya. Photo.

i) A new energy province in Europe

  • The Barents Sea is likely to become an important European energy province. How rapidly it develops and how important it becomes will depend on market conditions, technological developments, the size of any commercially viable discoveries of oil and gas, and how fast renewable energy sources are developed.
  • Long distances, market-related issues, the need for new infrastructure, and environmental and safety issues will pose challenges. All the evidence suggests that the energy dimension will be the most important driver of increased interest in this region in political and business circles in other parts of the world.
  • Climate considerations.
  • Other industries like fisheries.
  • European energy security, global energy supplies.
  • Developing industry and services in North Norway.
  • Also potential for renewable energy developments, including hydropower and wind and wave power.


ii) A new industrial age in the north

  • The natural resources of the High North have been there since time immemorial. It is knowledge and growing demand that is making it possible to utilise them: fisheries, aqua-culture, petroleum, shipping and mining.


iii) Pioneering work on integrated marine management

  • Management plans have been put in place to ensure long-term integrated management of Norway’s sea areas and encourage value creation within a framework that maintains the structure, functioning and productivity of their ecosystems.

Slide: The Northern Sea Route, map with photo of a ship.

iv) The growing attraction of the Arctic Ocean

  • Roald Amundsen was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage, from 1903 to 1906, with his ship Gjøa. Amundsen and his small crew stayed for two years at Gjoa Haven, today Nunavut. In fact, Amundsen was also the first to sail through both the Northwest and Northeast Passages, in 1906 and 1920. Back then, such expeditions took two to three years.
  • In the future, ice may no longer be a barrier to transport between Asia, North America and Europe via the Arctic Ocean.
  • The Northwest Passage. Today, merchant ships operating under normal commercial conditions are using the northerly sea routes to cut travel times and costs. Volume of shipping likely to increase.
  • However, no immediate prospect of year-round shipping. Harsh weather and ice continue to cause difficulties.


v) Knowledge about the environment and climate change

  • The High North is a crucial source of knowledge about the Arctic environment and climate, far beyond the region itself. Important for global climate policy and for taking the decisions needed.
  • Norway has systematically built up centres of expertise. Svalbard: a unique platform for national and international polar research, with advanced scientific infrastructure in Ny-Ålesund and at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).


vi) Close and innovative cooperation in the High North

  • Regional cooperation in the High North is pragmatic and focuses on resolving practical cross-border challenges. The Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Northern Dimension.


vii) New geopolitical centre of gravity in the High North

  • For more than 40 years, strategic and geopolitical interest in the High North was shaped by the logic of the Cold War and the region’s inaccessibility.
  • Still an area of military strategic interest. Large proportion of Russia’s nuclear forces located there and site for military exercises.
  • In NATO, Norway has promoted a renewed focus on the Alliance’s core areas – including those in the north. A clear security policy creates stability and predictability for all parties.
  • Norway considers it important to develop close, predictable cooperation with Russia in the north. Our vision is to develop our neighbourly relations to the level of trust and openness that we enjoy with our Nordic neighbours.
  • “High North – low tension” in a catch phrase. Close and pragmatic cooperation between Norway and Russia will be an important priority in the years ahead.
  • New attention from Asian powers in the Arctic (China, Japan, India and Korea) driven by their interest in energy resources, new shipping routes and polar/climate research. Observer candidates to the Arctic Council. 

Slide: intro slide.


  • The immense contrast between 1911 and 2011: climate threat/receding ice in the polar areas, technological progress, as well as the legal and political framework for cooperation.
  • Now, returning to our polar heroes, Nansen, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and others; they showed us what it takes to explore new land and to reach new goals – even new poles. The conditions they had to endure were beyond comprehension. Their courage, strength and leadership can motivate us – to fill the present knowledge gaps in the Arctic and Antarctica, to strike the right balance between increased economic activity and environmental and climate considerations, and to take action in our time. Fridtjof Nansen’s “famous last words”: “Further and further to the north ...”, “Lenger og lenger mot nord...” – May 1930. Today we are looking north; Norway’s first foreign policy priority. Thank you.