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The Climate Capital for the High North

Last year, Norway announced plans to create a new leading centre of research on climate change and the environment in Tromsø – part of the government’s High North Strategy. Within the coming years the hope is that Tromsø will not only be the climate capital for the High North in Norway, but for the entire High North region internationally.

New Building Blocks in the North, the government’s next step in its High North strategy, calls for gaining knowledge about climate and the environment so that Norway can further improve management of its sea and land areas in the north and its resources.

Norway’s concern is that environmental and climate change, increasing pressure on natural resources and large-scale new activities could have far reaching impacts on society and the environment, not least because a large part of the value creation in the north depends on the natural environment and living resources.

“The High North offers a front-row seat for observing climate change,” said Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s foreign minister, in his speech on the High North at the University in Tromsø this April. “We see that the ice is melting. We see that maritime traffic along our coast is increasing…We are seeing a growing awareness of how a warmer climate will affect human activity – creating new challenges and opportunities – particularly for the coastal states in the north.”

New National Centre

As part of this strategy, the government is establishing a new national centre of research on climate change and environment that will be approximately double the size of the existing Polar Environmental Centre in Tromsø. The new centre will boast about 6,000 square metres of additional space once completed in 2014, and add at least 150 new employees, according to Jan-Gunnar Winther, Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) director and chairman of the Polar Environmental Centre.

Currently, there are 250 people working at the Polar Environmental Centre. These include employees from the NPI, the largest at the centre, along with environmental consultancy company Akvaplan-niva, Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), Geological Survey of Norway (NGU), Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), Norwegian Mapping Authority’s Tromsø office, National Coastal Administration, and Nature Directorate.

In addition, the centre is home to Unilab Analyse, which offers chemical analyses of hydrocarbons, PCBs and heavy metals, plus an arctic aquarium at Polaria, the Arctic Council secretariat, Climate and Cryosphere (CliC) secretariat, and Arktika Conference Centre.

Gathering Point
The planned expansion will gather these institutions and companies, as well as new ones, into one centre. It currently goes under the working title the Fram Centre for Climate Change and the Environment. It is named after the wooden ship that was used in the expeditions of the Arctic and Antarctic regions by the famous Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen between 1893 and 1912.

The Fram Centre will take on several additional members, including a branch of the Bergen-based Institute of Marine Research, SINTEF, National Veterinary Institute, some from the University of Tromsø and possibly Oslo-based Cicero (Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research), said Winther. The centre will collaborate with about 10 different organizations all over Norway, such as the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (Nofima), and the universities in Longyearbyen, Bergen and Oslo.

“The ambition is to be a world leading centre, not just for Norway,” said Winther. “In the US and Canada, there are activities that are more spread out. It is not a collection like ours.”

The High North strategy also calls for an ice-class research vessel to be based in Tromsø as part of the infrastructure for the environmental and climate research centre. A new vessel would constitute one element of a research platform for fields such as the environment, climate, natural resources, polar research, fisheries-related and marine research, and geological and petroleum related research.

Implications for Oil, Ships & Fish
One example of the important work done at the Polar Environmental Centre is the NPI’s cooperation with the Norwegian government on a management plan for Lofoten and the Barents Sea. The plan looks at the integrated way of knowing the effects of climate change on the ice and temperature changes in the ocean, which could disrupt ecosystems. These effects could have implications for the region’s fishing and shipping economies, as well as exploration of the potentially vast oil and gas resources. Recent figures by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate estimate there could be around 1.3 billion barrels of oil equivalents in the unexplored waters offshore Lofoten and Vesterålen.

Another significant type of research is the NPI’s study on how climate change affects sea ice and its potential impact on shipping, fishing and oil and gas activities. The NPI recently opened a new Centre for Climate and Ecosystems (ICE) in March 2009. The centre will be developed as a national centre for ice and climate research, as well as environmental monitoring of Polar regions. It will focus on how snow and sea ice affect– and are affected by – the climate, and the impact on ice-dependent species. The goal is for the centre to become a world leader in its field.

“Climate change is a very important driver underlying this focus because there will be more access to the Arctic,” said Winther. “Oil and gas, tourism, fishing and shipping will all be influenced by such an access.”

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