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Impressions of the Arctic

Impressions of the Arctic, © Alfred Wegener Institute

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Who may use the Arctic Ocean, who may exploit the sea and seabed? Germany is working at an international level to ensure that economic interests and the need for environmental protection are reconciled.

Impressions of the Arctic
Impressions of the Arctic© Alfred Wegener Institute
The effects of climate change in the Arctic are dramatic already today. The Arctic region is warming three times as fast as the middle latitudes of the world. This is because the melting polar ice reduces the surface that reflects the sun’s rays back into space.Climate change is thus noticeable here first and most clearly. The Arctic is an early warning system.The summer ice area in the Arctic has lost the equivalent of four times the surface area of Germany in recent years. In the summer of 2012, the Arctic sea ice covered less area than at any time since the systematic observation began.

This brings risks, such as rising sea levels and the release of greenhouse gases when the permafrost thaws, but also opportunities.As a result, the Arctic Ocean and its resources will become easier to reach and exploit in the medium term.In an estimated 20 to 30 years, the Arctic Ocean will be free of ice in summer months and thus increasingly open to shipping. In 2007, one of the major Arctic shipping routes – the so-called Northwest Passage off the coast of Canada – was ice-free, and therefore navigable, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.Ship-owners have also started to consider the Northeast Passage as an economically viable alternative route to Asia. In 2010, German research, passenger and trading ships were able to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean in both directions.

The Arctic covers an area of around 20 million square kilometres between the North Pole and latitude 66˚33’ north,more than six times the size of the Mediterranean and consisting of approximately one half mainland and offshore islands, the other half being taken up by the Arctic Ocean.The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by five so-called “Arctic Ocean Coastal States”: Norway (with Spitzbergen), the Russian Federation (with Siberia), the United States of America (with Alaska), Canada and Denmark (with Greenland).Iceland is classed as a “subarctic” state. The Arctic Ocean Coastal States are a small group compared with the 50 States Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, to which Germany has belonged since 1979.

The economic prospects presented by the region are leading to more claims by the countries bordering the Arctic. For example, at the end of July 2007 the Russian Duma deputy Artur Chilingarov, having boarded a research submarine, planted a Russian Titan flag on the Arctic seabed near the North Pole. A series of other voyages of discovery in the national interest are underway, including research on how far the continental shelves extend. Canada is considering building an Arctic deep-water seaport south-east of Resolute Bay.

Which international organizations and institutions are concerned with the Arctic?

Various bodies deal with environmental concerns and issues relating to the Arctic’s continental shelves and mineral resources.


Polar sea
Polar sea© NOAA Climate Program Office

The Arctic Council was founded in Ottawa in October 1996. In addition to the five Arctic States (Denmark, Canada, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States of America), Iceland, Sweden and Finland are members, which is why they are often collectively referred to as the “eight” Arctic States. They are joined by permanent participants (six indigenous groups) and numerous observers, among them six countries including Germany. One of the Arctic Council’s main tasks is to implement the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy of 1991. The Council is a political forum, whose decisions are not legally binding. In 2013, the new standing Arctic Council Secretariat opened in Tromsø, Norway.


In accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), large sections of the Arctic seabed and its subsoil in areas beyond national jurisdiction have a special status as “common heritage of mankind”. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is headquartered in New York, however, is the central body for determining the limits of the continental shelf of the coastal states, which have exclusive rights to use and research the natural resources of the seabed and its subsoil within these limits. The Commission, which was established in 1997, is an international body based on UNCLOS. The members comprise experts on geology, geophysics and hydrography from 21 countries who are elected at regular intervals. The Commission issues recommendations, based on a two-thirds majority, by which a coastal state can extend its continental shelf beyond the maximum limit of 200 nautical miles normally provided under UNCLOS. Norway was the first Arctic State to receive such recommendations (2009). The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf currently has cases from Russia, Denmark (the Faroe Islands and Greenland) and Canada on extending their Arctic continental shelf. 


Germany is in the forefront of international polar research. Amongst other significant projects is the work of the German Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, which together with France maintains the important Arctic research station Koldeweyin Svalbard (Spitzbergen).With its research vessel “Polarstern”, Germany has been doing pioneering work for many years in the field of polar marine expeditions. The Antarctic research station “Neumayer III” opened in 2009 is a model for polar activities in the southern hemisphere and sets new technological and environmental standards.The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) has considerable expertise in the field of polar geology.

With a national workshop and successful international workshops in March 2008, 2009 and 2011 in Berlin, Germany has been playing an active role in the discussion over the Arctic’s future.Germany is a State Party to the 1920 Treaty of Spitzbergen and has permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. With regard to the South Pole, Germany is a Consultative Party of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty with voting rights.

The Arctic region is also of interest to Germany economically.German companies are important consumers of Norwegian and Russian oil and gas. They are cooperating with companies in Norway and the Russian Federation on exploiting gas reserves. German expertise is being put to use here.

To which areas in particular is Germany lending its support?

Germany is strongly committed to the environmental compatibility and sustainability of all economic activity in the Arctic region.Germany advocates the efficient implementation of the UNCLOS environmental stipulations within a legally binding framework, especially preventive and effective multilateral measures to protect against pollution from oil and other materials. The UNCLOS expressly provides for such cooperation to protect and conserve the marine environment, either globally or regionally. Owing to the crucial importance of climate protection, a priority concern is the conservation of the Arctic’s unique climatic conditions.

The Arctic Council is expected to play an even bigger role here in the future.Germany advocates increased participation by the observers on the Council, as well as the appointment of new observers such as the European Union.Germany supports the intensive efforts on the part of the EU to promote an active Arctic policy.

Freedom of research must be protected and at the same time scientific and economic cooperation promoted. Germany supports all EU and UN endeavours in this direction.

As possessor of the world’s third-largest merchant fleet, Germany is anxious to ensure that shipping concerns are given due consideration. Whilst it is true that it will be some time before there is a sharp increase in the movement of ships through the Arctic Passages, the Federal Government is working to ensure the observance of strict environmental provisions in the regulation of passage through the Arctic.

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