Looking Back on the Arctic Experience

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17 October 2013

Tara is docked in the port of Ilulissat (Greenland) until Sunday. The expedition will then sail to Quebec, leaving the Arctic Circle. From Pond Inlet to Ilulissat, secretary general of Tara Expeditions, Romain Troublé was on board. We reviewed with him these past months of sailing on both sides of the icy Arctic Ocean.

- Vincent Hilaire : Before heading south and leaving the Arctic Circle in a few days, what is your impression of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition after these first 5 months?

- Romain Troublé: “We realized that there’s a great difference in ice conditions from year to year, even though the general trend is towards increased melting. Variations in climate can be significant from one year to another. We encountered many other boats on our route, with a lot of local and international traffic, but very few fishing boats.”

 

- VH: In terms of maritime traffic, do you think the Arctic is ready to become the maritime highway often evoked in the media? 

- RT: “2013 is the year of  ‘firsts’ in terms of maritime traffic. For the first time, a container ship crossed the Bering Strait and traveled to northern Russia. A Chinese merchant ship did this too. And a ship carrying coal from the mines of Canada – the Arctic Orion – made its way to Europe via the Northwest Passage. A huge ship crossed the Northwest Passage! As a matter of fact, it passed through Prince Regent Inlet just a few hours before us.

Ship owners are clearly testing these 2 Arctic routes, but we’re still far from having a clearly marked highway secured by ice breakers. The Arctic passages are far from being able to compete with the conventional routes via the Panama or Suez canals.”

 

- VH: Along the route taken by Tara, what did you notice about the local populations?

- RT: “There is a great disparity among the local populations living near the Arctic ice pack. Some of the people are indigenous while others are settlers from outside.

On the economic front, Greenland (where we are now) is a very important center for fishing – organized, structured and competitive. In Canada, the maritime centers supported through subsidies are not yet ‘westernized’.

Hamlets like Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet are still deeply rooted in the Inuit culture. The situation here in Greenland is at a different stage, though the population is also Inuit. Things vary, depending on where one is in the Arctic. In Russia, it’s somewhat like Canada, but with still other differences. There are large, well-developed infrastructures, but at the same time they seem to be abandoned by the central government in Moscow.

This is typically what we felt in the far north of Russia, for example in Pevek (Chukotka region). But during our other stopovers, in Murmansk and Dudinka, we sensed that things were changing. Nickel mines are breaking records of productivity.”

 

- VH: Do you feel that the Russians will take over this emerging maritime traffic in the Arctic?

- RT: “Yes, in northern Russia there are docks for cargo ships, and above all they have a fleet of high-performance icebreakers in the Northwest passage that can keep a route open in the ice for 10 months of the year. The Russians’ weak point is that the East Siberian Sea, near Bering, is not deep enough for these huge ships with sizable drafts. The giant tankers might not be able to pass through. In comparison, Canada has deeper passages, but their infrastructures are not as effective as the Russian ones.”

 

- VH: There now exists a structure to manage the Arctic. What role might it play?

- RT: “The Arctic Council was established in 1996 by 8 countries: Canada, Norway, Russia, USA, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark (representing also the dependencies of Greenland and the Faroe Islands). The purpose of this entity is to promote sustainable development in the Arctic – social, economic and environmental. The immediate issues are the development of new fisheries, management of fishing and mineral resources, the establishment of regulations for maritime traffic, and the imposition of new standards for the Arctic. ”

 

- VH: A Canadian Inuit was recently appointed president of the Arctic Council. Do you think this might bring about a change, and in what way?

- RT: “Indeed, this is the first time a woman from the northern lands, an Inuit, has taken on this responsibility. I think her appointment will mean that the rights and demands of the indigenous people in these areas will be better taken into account, within the perspective of sustainable development.”

 

- VH: We always come back to this fundamental question in the Arctic, as elsewhere:  Will the environment and economic development be compatible with all these opportunities?

- RT: “Yes, there are great opportunities, but also a great challenge. The Arctic region is nearly virgin territory at the moment. With the technology available today, our impact is fairly accurately known. Will we be able to make the Arctic a laboratory of sustainable development from the start? I certainly hope so. This is the challenge of our work studying plankton. It will allow us to understand the functioning of the Arctic’s planktonic ecosystems and how they are changing. ”
Interview by Vincent Hilaire