Snow has lightly kissed the mountains on Greenland’s eastern coast. I know because I am sitting on a Finnair flight from Helsinki to New York and all I can see through my window is the expansive ice fields before me. I’ve come to love these Arctic flights from Scandinavian hub cities to North America. They’re a good way to see a lot of territory most would never care to think about – or would they?
The Arctic region is teeming with possibilities. This week, for example, my Monocle colleagues and I had a chance to meet Finland’s ambassador of Arctic affairs, Hannu Halinen at London’s Monocle Café. Of the eight nations that comprise the Arctic Council, Ambassador Halinen said he’s curious about why Canada and the US have not appointed an ambassador to the region, when many others have. This week, the Russians reopened a mothballed Cold War-era base in the country’s far north. And, there is ever-so-slight chatter of an independent Greenland.
This all makes sense if you think about how far we’ve come in terms of northern sea routes – shipping passages that were once clogged with ice are now, thanks to climate change, open for business. This not only means goods can get from Asia to Europe faster, but it also means there’s a real, cost-effective model for getting raw materials out of some of the most remote places on the planet. All of a sudden, independence for a place like Greenland, or, dare I say Alaska, doesn’t seem such a lofty dream. Climate change means better access to soil for growing, mountains for mining and the ocean floor for drilling. These are all things with which an independent economy could thrive.
By no means am I extolling the virtues of the icecaps melting. I am just laying out a fact: the Arctic is at the centre of the next big resource rush.
Of course, rising sea levels are top of the list of Arctic problems but there are other concerns too. For example, how can Arctic nations safeguard and protect territorial waters? The state of Alaska has a handful of coast-guard helicopters that are already stretched thin. Greenland doesn’t even have a military unless you count its ties to Denmark and the EU. The Chinese have quickly cosied up to Iceland, asserting their clear strategic interest in the region. The rush is on.
The Finns don’t necessarily have the biggest dog in the fight, geographically speaking, but Ambassador Halinen suggests that Finland is a natural leader for all things Arctic. “There are 17 million people who live above the 60th parallel, and 5.4 million of them, are Finns,” he says. Point taken. In fact, everyone in Finland lives above that invisible line. That’s more than in any other country, which means you could say that Finland has 5.4 million dogs in the fight.
Because many Finns’ lives take place in the Arctic, they want to see an Arctic strategy that couples the needs of the economy with the values of ecology and resilience. If their eye for social equity and design-driven solutions is any indication, I have faith we all might be in good hands if we listened a little more to the Finns.
Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle