Arctic Council Hails New Scientific Partnership

In an exclusive interview with Arctic Deeply, Evan Bloom, director of Oceans and Polar Affairs at the U.S. State Department, discusses the Arctic Council’s new Arctic science agreement and how it will change the way science is carried out at the top of the world.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A scientist measures the amount of sunlight reflected from the surface of ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea. NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Three years ago, at an Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, representatives from the U.S. and Russia put forward a proposal to develop a way to encourage cooperation among the Arctic nations on scientific projects. In particular, they wanted to remove the barriers that kept nations from working together effectively, such as securing visas for the scientists and personnel working on a project or getting permission to move equipment into the countries and up to the Arctic regions.

After nine meetings, the Task Force for Enhancing Scientific Cooperation, co-chaired by Evan Bloom, from the United States, and Vladimir Barbin, from Russia, has moved towards establishing the Arctic Council’s third binding agreement.

At the most recent meeting in Ottawa, all of the delegations agreed to the text, resulting in an ad referendum agreement that will now go back to the eight Arctic states for approval. Although the agreement won’t be final until it is signed in Fairbanks in spring 2017 by the foreign ministers, it is widely expected to go ahead.

“We had very good cooperation from all the countries, the U.S. and Russia worked well together in this context and it was a very positive experience,” said Bloom.

Arctic Deeply: Why was it important to have a legally binding agreement?

Evan Bloom, director of Oceans and Polar Affairs at the U.S. State Department, was a co-chair of the Arctic Council's Task Force for Enhancing Scientific Cooperation. (Evan Bloom)

Evan Bloom, director of Oceans and Polar Affairs at the U.S. State Department, was a co-chair of the Arctic Council’s Task Force for Enhancing Scientific Cooperation. (Evan Bloom)

Evan Bloom: We began with general discussions about the types of scientific work going on in the Arctic and then moved towards what sort of policy responses there should be to the obstacles to scientific cooperation – and how we could improve them. There were a number of options possible, but ultimately after a fair amount of discussion, the eight states decided that the best way forward was to have a legally binding agreement.

This will be the third legally binding agreement done under the Arctic Council. That is a big and important step as an institution. It is not something that is done every day.

When you act through a legally binding instrument, especially one that will be signed by the foreign ministers of all these countries, it is a statement that there is a lot of emphasis being placed on the cooperation and that all the relevant parts of government and ministries need to conform to the policy. It gives more emphasis to it.

Arctic Deeply: Does the agreement include the Arctic Council observers?

Bloom: There are countries beyond the eight Arctic states that have very strong interests in science in the Arctic. Many of those countries are observer states in the Arctic Council. They sent representatives to these meetings and wanted to find ways to ensure that their interests were protected. It was only going to be the case that the eight Arctic states would be parties to this. It would be very complicated to try to attempt a treaty that went beyond those eight countries. The two prior legally binding agreements are just the eight Arctic states.

But there were these other interests in play and considerable discussions on what to do about that. In the end, we came up with a solution that included ensuring that if scientists from a non-Arctic state were partnering in a project with an Arctic state, they would be included within the benefits that accrue under this treaty. They get the benefits in a way even if they’re not a party. I think that worked out quite nicely.

Arctic Deeply: Were there specific types of projects that were in mind when the agreement was being negotiated?

Bloom: Early on in the process, it was understood by the negotiating parties that this wouldn’t be an instrument where this would set Arctic science priorities. There are other places where that is done and those change over time. We wanted this instrument to last for a long time. It’s about improving obstacles rather than setting priorities.

But it does facilitate access by scientists of the eight states to Arctic areas that each state has identified, including entry and exit of persons, equipment and materials, access to research infrastructure and facilities, and access to research areas. It covers terrestrial, coastal, atmospheric and marine areas, as well as Arctic ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction. It calls specifically for facilitation of processing of marine scientific applications under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as scientific activities that require airborne scientific data collection that are subject to implementing agreements. Basically, it looks at the wide variety of types of scientific exchanges and cooperation that can occur and is flexible enough to deal with future scientific opportunities.

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Researchers take samples from a cage over the frozen ocean. (Flickr/World Meteorological Organization)

Arctic Deeply: Earlier this month, in Ottawa, the delegations agreed to an ad referendum agreement. What does this step mean?

Bloom: When you reach the ad referendum agreement it means that each of the delegations sends the text back to their governments for a final official internal review. The parties have agreed to complete their initial reviews by September 15. If there are no problems with the text, the different language versions are created and then each country does the final ratification and procedures that are needed in order to sign.

One expects at this point that all the delegations have worked out any issues. In the U.S. for example, there has been extensive consultation with lots of federal agencies.

Arctic Deeply: What role did the permanent participants have on shaping the agreement and how are they integrated into it?

Bloom: We worked very closely with the permanent participants that were represented at all these negotiating sessions. There is a specific article on traditional and local knowledge and that article encourages the participants to utilize, as appropriate, traditional and local knowledge in the planning and conduct of scientific activities under the agreement. It encourages communication between the holders of that knowledge and the participants, and it encourages the participation of the holders of traditional and local knowledge under the agreement. The indigenous groups were supportive of the result.

Arctic Deeply: Even though this agreement isn’t meant to create efficiency or reduce redundancy in scientific research going on in the Arctic, might it have that effect?

Bloom: There were some participating governments that felt that the existence of this type of agreement would help focus central governments and their funding authorities on the importance of Arctic science and might help solidify long-term funding. There is always the hope that that kind of effect comes about.

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