Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the first successful expedition to the South Pole. Roald Amundsen, the man who led the mission, is revered as one of Norway’s great national heroes.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre points to Amundsen’s earlier achievement. Between 1903 and 1906, he led the first successful crossing of the Northwest Passage — the ice-clogged sea route north of Canada connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
“What has been a fascination for mankind for centuries is whether you can sail to Asia through the Northwest or the Northeast Passage. That, you know, has been tried by explorers, polar explorers who really risked their lives in going into the ice — coming out, perhaps, on the other side.”
That was before climate change started to melt the polar ice caps. Ten years ago, researchers thought it wouldn’t be till the end of the century that the region would be clear enough of ice to allow regular shipping. Støre says it’s now possible to sail the Northeast Passage up to three months a year.
“You can shorten the time from Rotterdam to Yokohama by 40%, save fuel, and that is attractive.”
An ice-free Arctic isn’t just attractive to shippers. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a fifth of the world’s unfound energy resources may lie beneath the Arctic. That puts Norway in a tricky position. As a country on the frontlines of climate change, it’s determined to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. But it can’t afford to ignore the oil and gas off its shores.
“There is no way you can just turn down energy production because you fear energy. One and a half billion people in this world don’t have access to energy, and until they have, you know, we need to produce more energy.”
In fact, Støre says the High North’s resources means region is emerging as a global political center of gravity. He notes that China, whose waters are ice free, now has six ice breakers and six more under construction. The U.S. has only one in working order.
“I make these points all around the world, because this is a Norwegian foreign policy priority to manage the North wisely — to keep a High North/Low Tension perspective.”
Støre says he needs the support of all the High North’s regional players — including the U.S. and Russia — to achieve that goal. He also needs the support of the energy sector to have any hope of addressing climate change. That’s one reason he brought his message to Houston. The other is that more than seven thousand Norwegians live and work here — the largest concentration of Norwegians in the world outside Scandinavia.