Blog post written by Quark’s VP of Marketing and Product, Rachel Hilton.
No longer the gaping white space at the top of the world map, the Arctic has evolved rapidly over the past several decades into a growing region of destinations to be discovered. Technology, a wealth of natural resources and small ship accessibility have all contributed to the ever-increasing interest in – and access to – the far North.
I joined Arctic stakeholders, policymakers, and business representatives at Arctic Summit 2014 this March. The annual conference hosted by The Economist took place in London, England, and brought international Arctic experts together to identify opportunities for Arctic trade and economic development. Among the topics at this year's summit: conservation priorities for the Arctic, climate change, managing risk, economic development potential and spotlights in the shipping, mining, oil and gas industries.
Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Iceland's Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, spoke to the growing importance of the Arctic region on the world stage. "The Arctic has long been a source of fascination and fable, with its wildness and remoteness; accessible to only a few determined explorers," he said. Change is happening at a fast pace in the Arctic, Sveinsson said. Indeed, climate change has been a hot topic among international media. However, other physical and societal changes have taken place at a fast clip in the last few decades.
"First and foremost in any discussion about the Arctic opportunity are the rights and interests of the four million people living in the region," he reminded the audience. The reduction of ice in Arctic passageways has lent to greater opportunities to travel in and around the Arctic region. Electronic media, however, is also playing a huge role in how people learn, do business and communicate in the Artic, and with those in Arctic regions.
Animals, too, are trying to adapt to the changing conditions in Arctic regions. The species most popularly connected with climate change are polar bears, which are threatened by the disappearance of sea ice and the resulting limited access to ringed seals, their primary food source. Reindeer are feeling the effects of the changing winter climate, as well; weather extremes have reduced the availability of winter forage in recent years.
All of this change is progressing quickly, just as business and tourism interests in the Arctic are spiking. Recently, the first Arctic Chamber of Commerce was established to assist in the economic development of the region. Investors are seeking out opportunities to tap into the region, as it – and its resources – become more readily accessible.
Cruise travel to the Canadian Arctic has increased steadily since 1984, though those first few years were exploratory and slow. By 2006, communities on Baffin Island were hosting up to 12 cruise ships each summer. Arctic expeditions are still considered higher-risk than traversing Southern waters, though technology and polar-class icebreaker ships like those used by Quark Expeditions are greatly mitigating the risks.
Ice detection has also improved greatly, with tools and tech like sonar, satellites, thermal cameras and even drones helping ship captains and crew detect ice earlier and navigate around it. As travellers continue to discover the Arctic regions and the wealth of resources, tourism, historical sites and cultural opportunities they have to offer, traversing the Arctic safely and with little environmental impact will remain mission critical.
Overall, Arctic Summit 2014 offered a rare and fascinating look into the multitude of challenges and opportunities facing those who live, do business and travel in the Arctic regions.
See their multimedia page on the Economist Insights website for videos of key presentations and other resources.