Ocean Currents

Why Collaboration is Key in the Fight to Save the Arctic

Sunset in the Arctic © NOAA National Ocean Service

When Cold War tensions were still high in October of 1988, three gray whales were found trapped in sea ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. Various efforts to clear a path to open water for them had failed. As hope seemed to ebb, the Soviet Union dispatched two icebreakers, the Vladimir Arseniev and the Admiral Makarov, to help. Somehow, the fate of whales in Arctic waters somehow spurred successful cooperation between rival superpowers.

In one sense, we should not be surprised that cooperation is a hallmark of life in the Arctic. It is among the core traditional values of Arctic Indigenous peoples. Life in this part of the world is not a solo venture, but a matter of sharing both the work and the results. Generosity and hospitality are both not only good manners—they’re also practical survival skills. The sad history of colonization tells us that these values have not always been adopted by more recent arrivals to the North. Nonetheless, the persistence of sharing and cooperation speaks to the importance of these traits if one is to thrive in a small community, especially when hardship is never far away.

Fortunately, cooperation can often be found in many Arctic endeavors. Traditional Indigenous hunting of large marine mammals requires cooperation and coordination. Hunters and fishers work together with visiting managers and scientists to understand and conserve our surroundings, including the species that have made human life possible in the Arctic for countless generations. Much of marine research in the Arctic involves international collaborations to overcome the costs and difficulties of operating in icy waters far from the home ports of research vessels. Institutions such as the Arctic Council bring countries and others together to promote the well-being of the region and the inhabitants that depend on it.

Such cooperation can easily be taken for granted, but it shouldn’t be. When it comes to international relations, the United States and Russia clash on many things, but collaborative work in the Arctic proves a bit different. The two nations still manage to work together on at least some aspects of Arctic affairs, including search and rescue missions along our maritime boundary. Similarly, China and Norway have historically sharply differed on human rights issues and related policies, but both are signatories to the recent agreement preventing fishing in the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean until enough is known to manage such activities sustainably. Canada has disputed boundaries with both the United States and Greenland, but with so many other common interests, these disagreements remain friendly despite the potential fisheries and mineral resources at stake.

Arctic Sea Ice
© Silver / Adobe Stock

We also, of course, have lessons to learn from times when international cooperation did not succeed. In the 1980s, pollock were being overfished in the high seas of the Bering Sea. Perceptions of conflicting national interests prevented the countries involved from taking action until the fish stock was all but gone. A quarter of a century later, and fish stocks have yet to recover. Despite occasional diversions into positive engagements such as gray whale rescues, the Cold War still saw military outposts built all around the Arctic, leaving a legacy of pollution and disruption. Industrialization around the Arctic has enriched the lives of some, but it has also caused extensive social, cultural and environmental damage in pursuit of expedience over justice.

Not surprisingly, what follows is that competition continues to threaten cooperation … and with it, the well-being of the Arctic at large. Competition over resources, rivalry in regards to geopolitical strategy, contention in demonstrations of military might—the list goes on and on. Add onto this that these past, current and potential conflicts tend to grab hold of global news headlines, and the true gains achieved through cooperation are often obscured.

The United States has not been the only source of recent disruptions in Arctic affairs, but the last four years can definitely be highlighted as a low point for U.S. engagement in Arctic affairs both domestically and internationally. A return to a more cooperative and open approach that values opportunities for collaboration would be a welcome change as well as a solid measure of American commitment to a peaceful, sustainable and just Arctic future.

Related Articles

Back to Top Up Arrow