Norwegian presence in the High Arctic
By Professor emeritus Yngve Kristoffersen and Professor II, Department of Earth Science, Nansen
Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre, University of Bergen, Norway
The Norwegian government gives priority to the North through new knowledge, increased activity and greater presence in the region.
Information on the extent, motion and also the thickness of the sea ice cover can be obtained from satellite imagery and radar altimeter data, but all research on the energy exchange between the water-ice-atmosphere, the sea bed and sub-bottom geology require physical presence in the field. The area of the seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is 3-5 times the Mediterranean Sea. To consider Norwegian presence in the Arctic Ocean, we have to distinguish between two areas; firstly, the marginal ice zone which is the first 20-40 nautical miles from the ice edge north of Svalbard and constitutes the maximum area of operation for Norwegian icegoing vessels.
Secondly, the area to the north is only accessible by icebreakers, aircrafts and hovercraft. The latter non-accessible area includes the northernmost 150-200 nautical miles of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) north of Svalbard.
A short historical perspective Norwegian presence
The drift with Fram (1893-1896) across the Arctic Ocean was a monumental expression of presence in a hitherto unknown part of the High Arctic region. Then followed the Maud-expedition 1918-1925, Amundsen’s attempt with the Dornier-Wal flying boats in 1925 and subsequently the successful transit with the airship Norway in May 1926. Amundsen was convinced that aviation would be important in future exploration of the Arctic Ocean, and Nansen was from 1926 and to his death chairman of a group of European scientists which wanted to use airships to bring large groups of scientists and provisions in and out of the central Arctic Ocean. This together with Sverdrup’s oceanographic measurements from the submarine Nautilus north of Svalbard in 1930, show initiatives and willingness to seek out new logistic alternatives since unparalleled in the Norwegian science community.
Norwegian presence in the Arctic Ocean from World War 2 and up to 1991 is limited to participation with research programmes on two American ice drift stations in March-May 1979 and 1982. A significant contribution has been participation in the Arctic Buoy Programme starting in 1979 with automatic buoys deployed on the drifting sea ice and reporting position, temperature and air pressure via the ARGOS satellite system. Torgny Vinje at the Norwegian Polar Institute was one of the initiators and Chr. Michelsen Institute developed a buoy which was dropped from an airplane and operated from the ice for more than a year. The coordination has been with the University of Norwegian presence in the High Arctic By Professor emeritus Yngve Kristoffersen and Professor II, Department of Earth Science, Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre, University of Bergen, Norway Pretext The Norwegian government gives priority to the North through new knowledge, increased activity and greater
presence in the region. Nr. 9, March 2013 Physical presence Information on the extent, motion and also the thickness of the sea ice cover can be obtained from satellite imagery and radar altimeter data, but all research on the energy exchange between the water-ice-atmosphere, the sea bed and sub-bottom geology require physical presence in the field. The area of the seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is 3-5 times the Mediterranean Sea. To consider Norwegian presence in the Arctic Ocean, we have to distinguish between two areas; firstly, the marginal ice zone which is the first 20-40 nautical miles from the ice edge north of Svalbard and constitutes the maximum area of operation for Norwegian icegoing vessels. Washington, Seattle. However, from 2006 onwards the Norwegian contribution faded out with only the Meteorological Institute contributing a few buoys.
The icebreaking research vessels Polarstern and Oden were the first diesel driven vessels to make it to the North Pole in 1991 and this represents a mile stone in Arctic Ocean exploration. The contrasts in technology, mobility and ambition level between a dozen older scientists of the ice drift station era and now 94 young scientists on the two vessels, were tremendous. Since then one or more icebreaker expeditions have annually entered the central Arctic Ocean. More than 1500 scientists has participated out of which about 30 Norwegian scientists have been included as guests, i.e. about 2%. Norway has with the exception of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate cruise with the icebreaker Oden in 2001 to acquire documentation for an extended Norwegian claim under the Law of the Sea, not carried out a single scientific expedition into the Arctic Ocean in 116 years, i.e. since Nansen’s drift with Fram. The Fram-2012 expedition with a hovercraft last fall was an attempt to use alternative logistics which may facilitate a future Norwegian research activity and presence in the High Arctic.
The annual scientific activity in the High Arctic includes 1-3 icebreaker expedition with 20-120 scientists, air supported science operations involving 10-20 scientists, and the current Russian ice drift station NP-40 with 15 scientists. In addition, there is a tourist activity focussed on the North Pole where the Russian ice station Barneo in April each year receives about 200 guests and the operator Quark Expedition using chartered Russian nuclear icebreakers brings over 200 tourists to the top of the Earth. Today more than 15.000 people have visited the geographical North Pole.
Over-arching scientific challenges in the High Arctic are:
- The ice cover and its “state of health”, i.e. the thickness of the relatively cold and fresh upper layer which
prevents the warm Atlantic water to melt the ice;
- The potential for non-renewable and renewable resources
The dynamics, seasonal variations and progressive change in the extent of the sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean have been followed in detail by satellites over the past three decades. The new CryoSat dedicated to studies of the cryosphere, will as research and validation of algorithms progress, provide better continuous estimates of sea ice thickness. The presence of sea ice is a result of stable water mass stratification with an upper cold and relatively fresh layer which reduces effective heat transport from the underlying warm Atlantic Water. The heat content of the underlying water masses is sufficient to melt the sea ice cover completely and the gradient in salinity and thickness of the surface layer suppresses vertical convection which is crucial for the “health” of the ice cover.
The United States Geological Survey has estimated that 1/3 of the world’s gas and oil reserves reside in the High Arctic. This is a loose estimate based on our current rudimentary geological understanding about how and when the sedimentary basins formed and what their thermal histories have been. The circum-arctic geological evidence suggest the polar basin was largely a closed basin from its inception probably more than 150 million years ago and until opening of the Fram Strait about 17 million years ago – the present Black Sea may be an analogue. Oxygen deficiency in the lower part of the water column in a closed basin provides conditions for deposition of organic-rich black muds, a potential source rock for oil and gas. Our needs for new knowledge related to the resource potential of the High Arctic are at this stage more precise basal insight into the regional geological evolution, palaeooceanography and palaeo-climate of the area. Based on what we know today, this new knowledge is most easily accessible in two areas of the central Arctic Ocean; along the slope of the Lomonosov Ridge, a submarine mountain chain of alpine proportions, and an area of the Alpha Ridge where deeper sediment layers have been exposed by an asteroid impact? If as a starting point, we can access these areas to acquire new knowledge using conventional sampling technology at a cost of several hundred million kroner less than other solutions. Eventually scientific drilling would be needed.
The potential for non-renewable resources will mostly be related to the proximity of the circum-arctic continental
shelves and slopes.
Scientific research and physical presence
The geographical position of Svalbard in the High Arctic is unique and Norway has invested heavily on Svalbard in infrastructure for research within a wide range of scientific disciplines. Svalbard is next to the Fram Strait – an important gateway which represents the only deep water connection between the polar basin and lower water masses. It is not possible, however to sit at the entrance of a large “room” and expect to understand what happens inside the “room”.
We need a strategy to obtain new knowledge and maintain physical presence
Several nations show increasing interest for new possibilities in the North. The demand for new knowledge, suggests that Norway as an arctic rim nation cannot afford a time window of 117 years between expeditions, neither 10 years nor 5 years. The challenge is to find affordable logistical solutions which make scientific field activity and increased physical presence possible. We see at least two possibilities:
- Joint Nordic scientific cruises using the Swedish icebreaker Oden; Use of hovercraft and cooperation with international icebreaker expeditions
- The cost of an icebreaker is of the order of NOK 600 k per day. If Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland join forces and launch regular polar expeditions, for example every second year, the costs per country would be reasonable compared to other individual solutions. Three of the Nordic countries carried out joint expeditions to Antarctica in the late 1990-ies and this should be applied to the High Arctic as well. Icebreaker Oden made the first cruise to the North Pole in 1991 and Sweden has since 1996 carried out 10 expeditions each with about 40 scientific participants. Another alternative would be formal Norwegian participation in a broader european user group for icebreaker logistics which included Oden as well as Polarstern. The Fram-2012 expedition and hovercraft operations during four previous seasons have demonstrated that a hovercraft equipped as a research platform can autonomously operate out of Svalbard to about 100 nautical miles north of the ice edge. In a joint international operation where an icebreaker brings the hovercraft in and out, the hovercraft may operate on its own for 4-6 weeks in the central Arctic Ocean. The synergy will increase the efficiency of the total operation and also give the Norwegian effort a unique identity.