High North Study Visit

By Professor Klaus Dodds, Department of Geography

Led by the Norwegian Ambassador to the UK, Kim Traavik, a small party of mainly UK MPs and senior civil servants were invited to participate in a study visit encompassing various locations in northern Norway and Svalbard. As the only academic in the party, it was a tremendous privilege to be invited to attend on the basis, I presume, of my published work on the changing geopolitics of the Arctic region.

Prof Dodds in Svalbard

Prof Dodds in Svalbard

Norway, as an Arctic coastal state, is one of the major players in the region and is a critical energy trading partner of the UK. The two countries have also enjoyed a long standing military relationship with one another and UK armed forces personnel recently trained with their Norwegian counterparts in March 2012 under the auspices of Exercise Cold Response. The study visit offered an unrivaled opportunity to access senior ministers, civil servants, military officers and other professionals responsible for promoting and implementing Norway’s High North strategy. After briefings in Oslo by senior representatives from the Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Petroleum and Energy, we flew north to Bodo and Tromso for further conversations with Norwegian military personnel, scientific officers and oil and gas experts.

The highlight of this portion of the study visit was a tour of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, which is located inside a mountain close to Bodo. Standing in front of multiple screens real-time tracking Norwegian assets in the Arctic and Afghanistan, it was difficult not to be reminded of a James Bond movie. Impressive as it was, this visit enabled us to better understand Norway’s current and future military plans in the Arctic region, in the light of improved relations with Russia in particular. In Tromso, the site of the Norwegian Polar Institute it was notable how the Norwegian government has invested considerably in their scientific presence. Some 160 staff work there focussing on both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The last leg was the most spectacular as we boarded a plane from Tromso and headed further north to the archipelago of Svalbard. Home to 2500 people, this Norwegian territory is regulated by the Svalbard Treaty which allows for other signatories including Russia and the UK to establish their own presence on the islands. Although bad weather prevented us from flying to Ny-Alesund and witnessing an array of scientific stations, one highlight was a visit to the impressive satellite station (Svalsat) perched up on a hill behind the main settlement of Longyearbyen. The facility functions as a ground control station for polar orbiting satellites and works closely with international partners such as NASA. The golf ball like structures (radomes) accommodate and protect the radar systems and as we stood inside one such example I fought the urge not to be distracted by images of geopolitical intrigue as depicted in the opening scenes from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Satellite stations in Svalbard

Satellite stations in Svalbard

What did I learn overall from this study visit? Norwegian officials place considerable importance on maintaining a close relationship with the UK especially in the fields of energy and defence. The UK is a key importer of Norwegian gas and this is likely to continue to be the case. Norway has a keen sense of its interests in the Arctic and placed considerable importance in both exercising national sovereignty over its Arctic territories and maritime spaces while actively supporting international bodies such as the Arctic Council. Norway’s relationship with Russia is complex and multi-faceted and although relations have improved in some areas (e.g. maritime boundary delimitation in the Barents Sea), there are outstanding commercial and military-based concerns which will shape future Norwegian-Russian relations. Cold War era anxieties have not entirely dissipated.

Finally, I appreciated only too clearly the importance of public and private diplomacy as the Ambassador and his staff effortlessly (or so it appeared) shuttled us around multiple locations in a carefully constructed programme designed to impress upon us Norway’s Arctic credentials.

About rhulscience

The Faculty of Science at Royal Holloway, University of London
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