The geopolitics of the Arctic: What it means for the EU, Russia and India

Cooperation on researching the melting permafrost in the Arctic region can bring together the EU, Russia and India
The EU has been using developments in the Arctic to promote science diplomacy by including non-EU Arctic states as well as certain select countries in its Arctic Science Ministerial meetings (AP) PREMIUM
The EU has been using developments in the Arctic to promote science diplomacy by including non-EU Arctic states as well as certain select countries in its Arctic Science Ministerial meetings (AP)
Updated on Oct 21, 2021 12:00 PM IST
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ByAditya Pareek and Ruturaj Gowaikar

The European Union (EU) recently came out with a publication detailing its strategy for the Arctic region. The document highlights the environmental hazards of expedited warming of the Arctic in comparison with the rest of the world’s surface. As the permafrost and ice-sheets thaw, the EU is considering geopolitical developments, biosecurity, digital connectivity, push for sustainable energy and critical mineral supply security as focal points of its policy for the region.

The most relevant of the multilateral fora in the region is the Arctic Council, where Russia is the current chair, thus making Russia’s role imperative in any engagement by the EU.

India and the Arctic

India, for its part, is also an observer at the Arctic Council since 2013. India has, on several occasions, made it clear that it wishes to adhere to a multi-faceted cooperation approach when it comes to the Arctic. This means engaging with Russia, Europe as well as the United States (US) and other partners, though currently, India’s activities in the Arctic are confined to research projects related to Polar science, and a few hydrocarbon extraction projects in the Russian Arctic and Far East through Russian intermediaries.

The EU has been using developments in the Arctic to promote science diplomacy by including non-EU Arctic states as well as certain select countries in its Arctic Science Ministerial meetings. This is a global platform to discuss research and cooperation in the Arctic region. India has attended these meetings as an “observer” country and has also expressed interest in hosting future meetings.

Ocean currents in the Arctic can influence currents in the Indian Ocean that, in turn, can influence weather patterns over India, specially the monsoons. Hence, India is invested in studying the effects of the climate crisis on Arctic ocean currents and its global implications.

The research in the Arctic region from India is coordinated, conducted, and promoted by the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), Goa, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India. India is interested in the long-term monitoring of upper ocean variables and marine meteorological parameters using both remote sensing and moored platforms. India operates a permanent research station in the Arctic called Himadari at NyAlesund, Svalbard Area in Norway. It has also deployed a multi-sensor moored observatory called IndARC in the Kongsfjorden fjord since July 2014.

India also plans to launch a satellite mission with NASA in 2023 called NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISER). The onboard radar will be used to map the elevation of Earth’s land and ice masses 4 to 6 times a month at resolutions of 5 to 10 meters. This satellite mission will be latest contribution of India towards the Sustained Arctic Observational Network (SAON)

The climate crisis and biosecurity

Melting permafrost in the polar regions due to the climate crisis can disrupt ocean currents, leading to aberrant weather patterns that can affect non-Arctic regions as well. Many countries, including India, have well developed research programs dedicated to this.

But the melting permafrost can pose a serious challenge to human health in other ways as well. There is the possibility of thawing of microbial pathogens or trapped mercury deposits in the permafrost leading to new epidemics. The Arctic region is more vulnerable to such a scenario than the Antarctic due to more human activity in this region. Anthrax and smallpox virus are thought to be trapped in the Arctic permafrost. The 2016 anthrax outbreak that killed 200,000 reindeer and one human in Siberia has been linked to perma-frost melting. The outbreak of skin lesions caused by a newly discovered Orthopoxvirus called Alaskapox in Alaska is also being linked to melting permafrost in that area.

The EU’s new Arctic strategy document has tried to highlight this issue and suggested using existing mechanisms in this region to monitor emergence of new pathogens. Such programmes can be part of The Northern Dimension Partnership for public health. The document also suggests that the EU’s The Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) can be involved in this effort.

India should actively participate in this area of research. The glaciers and permafrost areas of Himalayas are also melting at an alarming rate. These glaciers feed river systems that support high density human settlements. The melting of Himalayan glaciers can lead to similar scenarios of novel pathogens triggering epidemics. Thus, the scale of this problem in the Indian subcontinent can be far more than the Arctic.

Current research on melting glaciers is focused on the northwestern Himalayas. While difficulty in observing Himalayan permafrost spatially is hampering data gathering, field measurements and then modelling work by scientists from the National Institute of Hydrology and Indo-Swiss Indian Climate Adaptation Programme are directed towards understanding the link between global warming and permafrost regimes in Himalayas. Studies in the Tibetan glaciers have led to the discovery of 33 frozen viruses, out of which 28 are novel. Yet, dedicated effort to link these discoveries to biosecurity of the Indian subcontinent is lacking. India stands to gain a lot by participating in dedicated programmes of the Arctic Council geared towards such scenarios.

India should continue its cooperation via the Arctic Council and other multilateral organisations in the realm of climate science but should also focus on the biosecurity aspects that the melting permafrost can lead to keeping the Himalayan region in mind.

The EU-Russia dynamic

The EU has taken several administrative, policy and legal steps to mitigate threats to the environment, including the European Green Deal and EU Carbon Tax which will impose costs “based on the greenhouse gases emitted to manufacture” the imported goods coming into the EU. These measures are likely to cause some friction with nations whose economies are still dependent on hydrocarbons, especially the export of fossil fuels, including Russia.

The EU strategy makes reference to the opening up of the Northern Sea Route(NSR) and the need for “forming important interlinks between maritime and land transport” so that transshipment of “freight originating in the Arctic regions on land” can be facilitated.

The development of the NSR is a major strategic priority for Moscow and significantly tied into the Kremlin’s national development goal of developing its Far East. However, Kremlin also wishes to develop, extract and exploit the natural resources in its Arctic territory. The Russian national priority will thus be in direct contrast to the EU strategy’s assertions, to implement a “partial moratorium on hydrocarbons exploration in the Arctic” and that the region’s “oil, coal and gas stay in the ground”.

Russia has invested in developing capabilities in the Arctic that find no close rival in any other state, be it a littoral near Arctic state or an expeditionary power. As the EU strategy acknowledges, there is a particular need for collaboration with Russia on avenues such as “creating data and services for permafrost areas to improve environmental and health security and develop mitigation measures”.

The EU’s idea of helping with the much-needed digital connectivity however amounts to leveraging its space based capabilities both for digital communications and for providing data streams for Earth Observation applications such as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, via its Copernicus programme.

Although significantly useful, the measure is no substitute for terrestrial and subsurface infrastructure such as submarine cables & their landing stations, overland fibre optic cables, heavy icebreaker ships and Search and Rescue (SAR) capable aircraft based in the region.

Russia is notably laying submarine cables in the Arctic under the Polar Express project and has the largest number of nuclear-powered heavy icebreaker ships. Russian forces also have a relatively high number of search and rescue assets, including rotary and fixed wing SAR capable aircraft, in the region. ROSCOMOS the Russian space agency is also working on its own planned Arktika-M constellation of satellites, the first unit of which is already in orbit.

Cooperation on researching the melting permafrost in the Arctic region can bring together the EU, Russia and India. Russia not only faces the aforementioned biosecurity and economic challenges but also a physical threat to its existing infrastructure — which was not built with thawing permafrost mitigation measures during Soviet times.

India may also have a stake in helping Russia study and mitigate this threat, as its investments in hydrocarbon and other infrastructure in the region could be affected too which may lead to financial losses. A multi-stakeholder and multifaceted approach is not only consistent with India’s direction in the Arctic but also the need of the hour.

Aditya Pareek and Ruturaj Gowaikar are research analysts at the Takshashila Institution

The views expressed are personal

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Thursday, December 09, 2021