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18 September 2012

Ice-free Arctic attracts research

Climate change is rapidly jeopardising conditions for life in the Arctic region. Mistra Arctic Futures is investigating the economic, demographic and social implications of a modified Arctic environment. Also under way is a study to explore the scope for extending the programme.

Temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than elsewhere on Earth, and in 30–40 years’ time the region is expected to be free from ice in summer. This spells major readjustments for the flora and fauna, and for the human population. Thawing of sea ice disrupts seal hunting and other traditional livelihoods. Simultaneously, opportunities are emerging for greater extraction of natural resources, increased shipping and the inception of new industries. Immigration into the region may also be expected.

What effects are these changes having on the indigenous Arctic peoples’ lives and means of subsistence? How should the interests of the various groups and countries be balanced against one another? What are the risks of development and how should they be assessed? The Mistra Arctic Futures research programme addresses these questions, seeking to provide knowledge and effective tools for understanding in discussions among the parties concerned. Research can show our society possible ways of responding to the new conditions and developing appropriate policies.

Social sciences in demand

Gustaf Lind belongs to the programme board for Mistra Arctic Futures. He is also an ambassador for Arctic issues at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and is heading the Arctic Council during the Swedish chairmanship of the Council, an intergovernmental body, in 2011–13.

– Generally speaking, Sweden has been far ahead when it comes to scientific research in the Arctic. But with the changes that are to be expected, research in social sciences is extremely important. It has become clear that the more solid research we have, the easier it is for different countries and groups to agree.

The five research projects in Mistra Arctic Futures concentrate on different aspects of the region’s future. The work concerns, for example, how tourism can be managed on terms that suit the local inhabitants and sustainably, and on conflicts of interest that may arise about extraction of natural resources, and how these can be tackled. Other projects shed light on crisis preparedness ahead of the disturbances that are liable to arise. These projects draw on the experience gained in earlier epochs when major changes took place. Research into the development of new administrative structures is also in progress.

Sweden can play a part

Anders Karlqvist, who formerly headed the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat for many years, now chairs Mistra Arctic Futures and has been a driving force in devising the programme. In his view, it fills a need throughout the region and creates scope for Sweden to secure a key role in developing the Arctic.

–Sweden has no direct territorial interests of its own in the Arctic,’ Karlqvist points out. ‘But thanks to our northerly location and longstanding tradition of advanced research in polar environments, it has a key role to play in providing knowledge of development in the region.

The first programme phase is of a broad, exploratory nature. The idea is thereafter to focus the research more on a possible second phase. Another aim is to foster a new generation of social scientists with an interest in Arctic research. In June 2012, the Board of Mistra decided to appoint a drafting committee to plan further development of the programme after 2014. The committee is expected to submit a proposal to the Board in December.