India’s Arctic Circles

India is a credible player in Antarctic science, says David Scott, executive director of the Canadian Polar Commission, on a recent visit to New Delhi. “Which is why Canada and other countries are eager to work with India in the Arctic.”

Scott and Louis Fortier, scientific director of ArcticNet, were in India to explain the new Northern Strategy of Canada and Ottawa’s interest in roping New Delhi into this new formulation — albeit as a minor player.

Canada launched the Northern Strategy following Russia’s planting of one of their flags on the Arctic seabed and as global warming has prematurely brought about a viable “Northern Passage” — a melting of the icepack significant enough to allow commercial and warships to go back forth from the north Atlantic to the north Pacific.

Scott and Fortier stressed that a key part of the Northern Strategy was in the area of science. The idea, they said, was to “ensure Canada remains a global leader in Arctic science.” And, unspoken, helping legitimising Ottawa’s desired ambition to one of the three or four main guardians of the northern polar areas. As Scott noted, “sovereignty” was one of the key underpinnings of the strategy.

Over the next six years, Canada has committed to spending close to a quarter of a billion dollars on making it clear that if knowledge is power, they intend to be the main power of the Arctic. As Fortier, whose ArcticNet brings together 155 researchers in 30 universities, notes, “the members hope to provide a scientific bearing on police decisions.”

And there are no shortage of unmade decisions regarding the Arctic Sea. There’s the issue of jurisdiction and sovereignty as this former frozen desolation suddenly begins to become both habitable and a lot more navigable. There’s the scope and membership of the Arctic Council. Canada, say Indian officials, has signalled an interest in India joining the council but fears pressure to then let in China — which it is a little bit warier of. Then there’s all the nonpolitical stuff like climate change and so on.

Is there anything in India in all of this, some would ask. India is already struggling to keep a presence in areas like the South China Sea. Wouldn’t the Arctic be a waste of already stretched resources.

Not quite. First, the science is important. As Fortier notes, “What is happening in the Arctic and elsewhere is climate telekinesis.” A butterfly effect where developments in the Arctic have surprisingly strong impact on faraway places. We know now, he points out, that a warming planet creates atmospheric pressure poles that effect the jetstream — “and this effects the monsoon.”

Second, for all its subtropical existence India has developed a depth of scientific knowledge of the polar regions. Scott points out that India has kept a presence in the Antarctic for 30 years and a station in Norway for seven years. “Universities here have capacity in polar sciences,” he says. And, as mentioned, the monsoon and even Himalayan glaciers are being linked to polar science.

Third, India may actually find the opening of a Northern Passage of economic importance. Say both scientists, climate change is impacting the Arctic much more rapidly than expected and ice-free summers at the North Pole are conceivable in 20 years. Though India is not expecting to benefit directly — look at the map and know why geography tends against that — if, say, global natural gas shipping becomes cheaper through the Arctic the net effect on global gas prices will be a positive for India.

Canada has ensured the bulk of its Northern Strategy budget is spent on helping its own Inuit people. No doubt this helps dilute any political opposition to this sort of expenditure, but is a reminder that the great polar game will be played out in as polite language as possible and through the veil of science.

India is contemplating observer status at the Arctic Council. It should consider even sending a naval ship through the northwest passage. And it needs to throw its scientific weight behind attempts to find out climate links to the monsoon and other South Asian pecularities.

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