Norwegian presence in the High Arctic


The Norwegian government prioritizes the North through new knowledge, increased activity and greater presence in the region.

Physical presence

Information on the extent, motion and also the thickness of the sea ice cover can be obtained from satellite imagery and radar altimeter data, but all research on the energy exchange between the water-ice-atmosphere, the sea bed and sub-bottom geology require physical presence in the field. The area of the seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is 3-5 times the Mediterranean Sea. To consider Norwegian presence in the Arctic Ocean, we have to distinguish between two areas; firstly, the marginal ice zone which is the first 20-40 nautical miles from the ice edge north of Svalbard and constitutes the maximum area of operation for Norwegian ice-going vessels. Secondly, the area to the north is only accessible by icebreakers, aircrafts and hovercraft. The latter non-accessible area includes the northernmost 150-200 nautical miles of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) north of Svalbard.

A short historical perspective Norwegian presence

The drift with Fram (1893-1896) across the Arctic Ocean was a monumental expression of presence in a hitherto unknown part of the High Arctic region. Then followed the Maud-expedition 1918-1925, Amundsen's attempt with the Dornier-Wal flying boats in 1925 and subsequently the successful transit with the airship Norway in May 1926. Amundsen was convinced that aviation would be important in future exploration of the Arctic Ocean, and Nansen was from 1926 and to his death chairman of a group of European scientists which wanted to use airships to bring large groups of scientists and provisions in and out of the central Arctic Ocean. This together with Sverdrup's oceanographic measurements from the submarine Nautilus north of Svalbard in 1930, show initiatives and willingness to seek out new alternatives since unparalleled in the Norwegian science community.

Norwegian presence in the Arctic Ocean from World War 2 and up to 1991 is limited to participation with research programmes on two American ice drift stations in March-May 1979 and 1982. A significant contribution has been participation in the Arctic Buoy Programme starting in 1979 with automatic buoys deployed on the drifting sea ice and reporting position, temperature and air pressure via the ARGOS satellite system. Torgny Vinje at the Norwegian Polar Institute was one of the initiators and Chr. Michelsen Institute developed a buoy which was dropped from an airplane and operated from the ice for more than a year. The coordination has been with the University of Washington, Seattle. However, from 2006 onwards the Norwegian contribution faded out with only the Meteorological Institute contributing a single buoy.

The icebreaking research vessels Polarstern and Oden were the first diesel driven vessels to make it to the North Pole in 1991 and this represents a mile stone in Arctic Ocean exploration. The contrasts in technology, mobility and ambition level between a dozen older scientists of the ice drift station era and now 94 young scientists on the two vessels, were tremendous. Since then one or more icebreaker expeditions have annually entered the central Arctic Ocean. More than 1500 scientists has participated. About 30 Norwegian scientists have participated as guests, i.e. about 2%. Norway has with the exception of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate cruise with the icebreaker Oden in 2001 to acquire documentation for an extended Norwegian claim under the Law of the Sea, not carried out a single sceintific expedition into the Arctic Ocean in 116 years, i.e. since Nansen's drift with Fram. The Fram-2012 expedition with a hovercraft last fall was an attempt to use alternative logistics which may facilitate a more active Norwegian research activity and presence in the High Arctic in the future.

The annual scientific activity in the High Arctic includes 1-3 icebreaker expedition with 20-100 scientists, air supported science operations involving 10-20 scientists, and the current Russian ice drift station NP-40 with 15 scientists. In addition, there is a tourist activity focussed on the North Pole where the Russian ice station Barneo in April each year receives about 200 guests and the operator Quark Expedition using chartered Russian nuclear icebreakers bring over 200 tourists to the top of the Earth. Today more than 15.000 people have visited the geographical North Pole.

Scientific challenges

Over-arching scientific challenges in the High Arctic are:

i) The ice cover and its "state of health", i.e. the thickness of the relatively

              cold and fresh upper layer which prevents the warm Atlantic water to

              melt the ice;

          ii) The potential for non-renewable and renewable resources.

The dynamics, seasonal variations and progressive change in the extent of the sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean have been followed in detail by satellites over the past three decades. The new CryoSat dedicated to studies of the cryosphere, will as research and validation of algorithms progress, provide better continuous estimates of sea ice thickness. The presence of sea ice is a result of stable water mass stratification with an upper cold and relatively fresh layer which reduces effective heat transport from the underlying warm Atlantic Water. The heat content of the underlying water masses is sufficient to melt the sea ice cover completely and the gradient in salinity and thickness of the surface layer surpresses vertical convection which is crucial for the "health" of the ice cover.

The United States Geological Survey has estimated that 1/3 of the world's gas and oil reserves reside in the High Arctic. This is a loose estimate based on our current rudimentary geological understanding about how and when the sedimentary basins formed and what their thermal histories have been. The circum-arctic geological evidence suggest the polar basin was largely a closed basin from its inception probably more than 150 million years ago and until opening of the Fram Strait about 17 million years ago. Situations like this may lead to periods with oxygen deficiency in the lower part of the water column and conditions for deposits of organic-rich black muds which may represent source rocks for oil and gas. Our needs for new knowledge related to the resource potential of the High Arctic are at this stage more precise basal insight into the geological evolution, palaeo-oceanography and palaeo-climate of the area. Based on what we know today, this new knowledge is most easily accessible in two areas of the central Arctic Ocean; along the slope of the Lomonosov Ridge, a submarine mountain chain of alpine proportions, and an area of the Alpha Ridge where deeper sediment layers have been exposed by an asteroid impact? If as a starting point, we can access these areas to acquire new knowledge, the cost would be several hundred million kroner less than other solutions. Eventually scientific drilling would be needed.

The potential for non-renewable resources will mostly be related to the proximity of the circum-arctic continental margins.

Scientific research and physical presence

The Fram Strait between Svalbard and Greenland represents a gateway - the only deep water connection between the polar basin and lower latitude water masses.

Norway has invested heavily on Svalbard in infrastructure for research, and the geographical position of Svalbard provides opportunities for monitoring inflow and outflow from the polar basin. However, it is not possible to sit at the entrance of a large "room" and expect to understand what happens inside the "room". The ice covered High Arctic is 3-5 times the size of the Mediterranean Sea and includes part of our extended exclusive economic zone north of Svalbard un-accessible for our present as well as future ice-going research vessels. As mentioned above, Norway has not entered the High Arctic since 1896. Exceptions are a two-week icebreaker cruise in 2001 to acquire new data to document our claim for extending the exclusive economic zone, and two small science programs on US ice drift station three decades ago. Recently, in the fall of 2012, an expedition to 85º N was carried out using a hovercraft in cooperation with a Danish-Swedish icebreaker expedition.

Possible strategies for research and physical presence

Several nations show increasing interest for new possibilities in the North. The demand for new knowledge, suggests that Norway as an arctic rim nation can not afford a time window of 117 year between expeditions, neither 10 years nor 5 years. The challenge will be to find affordable logistical solutions which make scientific field activity and increased physical presence possible. We see at least two possibilities:

              i)            joint Nordic scientific cruises using the Swedish icebreaker Oden;

              ii)           use of hovercraft and cooperation with international icebreaker


The cost of an icebreaker is of the order of NOK. 600 k per day. If Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland join forces and launch regular polar expeditions, for example every second year, the costs per country would be reasonable compared to other individual solutions. Three of the Nordic countries carried out joint expeditions to Antarctica in the late 1990.ies. Icebreaker Oden made the first cruise to the North Pole in 1991 and Sweden has since 1996 carried out 6 expeditions each with about 40 scientific participants. Two of the Swedish expeditions have crossed the entire polar basin from the Bering Strait to the Fram Strait.

 The Fram-2012 expedition and hovercraft operations during four previous seasons have demonstrated that a hovercraft equipped as a research platform can autonomously operate out of Svalbard to about 100 nautical miles north of the ice edge. In a joint international operation where an icebreaker brings the hovercraft in and out, the hovercraft may operate on its own for 4-6 weeks in the central Arctic Ocean. The synergy will increase the efficiency of the total operation and also give the Norwegian effort a unique identity.