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No lack of Arctic challenges

The world has probably never seen so many pictures of polar bears at one time as it has this autumn. The white animal of the Arctic struggling on the top of an iceberg has more or less become an international symbol of global climate change.

In the longer run, it might be, however, that the pictures we saw of the Russian flag (made of titanium) being planted on the seabed, more than 4000 meters below the icecap of the North Pole, will prove to be the best indication of what will be happening there.

There is no doubt that the implications of climate change will be of profound importance for developments on the municipal, regional, national and international levels. At the same time, it could be argued that the struggle for the rights to exploit the natural resources of the region will really be the determinant for the future of the Arctic. And as we know, this was what the Russian flag-planting was all about.

Had the flag event taken place during the days of the Cold War, it would have been an act of mostly political and military interest. With capitalism reintroduced in Russia, exploitation of natural resources also definitely creates opportunities for international business across the Arctic. This has been demonstrated not least in connection with the planned production of oil and gas from the Shtockman field. After first saying "Njet" to the courtesy, Norwegian StatoilHydro and French Total eventually got a "Yes" and have now become partners with Russian Gazprom. Although there is certainly going to be a struggle between these three for a share of the investments and profits (as was widely reported by the Norwegian media), there is no doubt that all of the companies concerned are in this "to learn more," as they say, about extraction in cold and deep waters. With increasingly more ice melt in the North, such developments can rapidly become a reality.

Concerning Greenland, relations with Denmark remain coloured by post-colonial discourses. Here are some samples: in both Greenland and Denmark a hard discussion is taking place related to the possibilities of oil and gas off the shores of Greenland. Thus far, close to a dozen international oil companies have applied for permits to drill. (Sermitsiaq 07/10/07), while the potential for extraction could be 73 times more than that which has been possible to produce in the Danish part of the North Sea. (Politiken 19/07/07). This newspaper also warns that Greenland might spend any oil profits independently of the economic interests of Copenhagen. Other media suggest that the possible revenue could in fact be the leverage for Greenland's economic breakaway from "the mother-country."

Parallel to this, Danish television and newspapers have (once more) carried stories portraying Greenland as a country of misery, alcoholism and social problems. This has led the Dansk Folkeparti, the supporting party behind the Danish government coalition, to suggest that the old practice of having Greenland "under administration" ought to be reintro-duced. In fact, key members of the same party also argue that Greenland should prepare for economic payback to Denmark in lieu of future incomes from oil and gas. The proposal has also found some supporters in Greenland. In other words, ownership and property rights are high on the agenda here also.

In terms of research, it is very encouraging that the International Polar Year (see p 13) has this time also put an emphasis on research on the human dimensions of the polar regions. The Arctic is not only about meteorology, geophysics, oceanography, other natural sciences, or, for that matter, international politics and security. It is definitively also about the people (and animals) who live and work in this part of the world. That in Greenland there are today villages where only every third inhabitant is female (see pp 20-21) is at least partially understandable, but neither encouraging nor sustainable in the long run. That is just one example of an important issue that we need to know more about.

We will soon be half-way through the International Polar Year. In this issue of the Journal of Nordregio, we have tried to provide an introduction to some of the Arctic issues that are not generally debated in the Nordic capitals. We hope we have succeeded in this, and also that we have provided some incentive for further discussion.

Odd Iglebaek, Editor