The Arctic: An Uncertain Time for Arctic Cooperation   

By Samantha Pace

The Arctic, the area in and around the Arctic Circle in the northernmost part of the globe, is a site of unique geopolitics and international cooperation.  

The harsh, remote region has gotten an increasing amount of global attention in the last couple of decades due to climate change-induced warming. It is estimated that the Arctic is warming three to four times faster than the global average, leading to evolving challenges and opportunities. Some challenges include land slumping and landslides due to permafrost thaw, difficulties with resource harvesting, and even an increase in wildfire-friendly conditions in some areas. Given the changing conditions, there are also opportunities in the Arctic for more potential shipping routes, mining, and oil and natural gas extraction, all of which would change the economy and development of the region. 

For the last two and half decades, the Arctic’s primary authority – the Arctic Council – has operated in peaceful collaboration and completed productive projects. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has disrupted the collaborative arrangement of the Arctic Council. Arctic governance is in unchartered territory. 

Arctic Council Overview 

The Arctic Council, established in 1996 by the Ottawa Declaration, is the leading international forum for the Arctic region. It champions environmental protection and sustainable development through cooperation and consensus-based decision-making. The Council has helped to facilitate legally binding agreements, though the body itself lacks the legal authority to create or enforce binding agreements. The role of the Arctic Council has been to promote cooperation and coordination through projects in Work Groups that culminate in assessments, reports, and recommendations for use in agreements and policies. 

The Arctic Council has three types of members: Arctic States, Permanent Participants, and Observers. The eight Arctic States, which have territory in the region and rotate the chairmanship overseeing the Council, are: the US, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The Permanent Participants are the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North, and the Saami Council. These groups have a unique position in the Arctic Council to consult on decisions and Work Groups. Observers include 13 non-Arctic states and 26 NGOs/intergovernmental organizations. 

The Arctic Council has six main Work Groups and currently one active Expert Group. The Work Groups focus on monitoring and assessment, flora and fauna conservation, emergency prevention and response, action for Arctic contaminants, sustainable development, and protecting the Arctic marine environment. The active Expert Group deals with black carbon and methane. There are currently over 100 ongoing projects. The active projects include a Biodiversity Monitoring Program, a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter, and Black Carbon and Health Assessment

Current Politics 

In early March 2022, a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, all other Arctic States issued a joint statement declaring a pause on all Arctic Council partnerships and work. There was hope that the situation in Ukraine would change, but as the war trudged on, it became necessary to reassess Arctic relations. In June 2022 the seven Arctic States issued a statement to continue projects not involving Russia, allowing low-level cooperation to restart, but high-level political cooperation remains out of reach. 

Russia accounts for roughly half of the population of the Arctic and is the Arctic state with the most land and coastline. Continuing on without Russia runs counter to all Arctic Council precedents and further obscures the potential for cooperation among all Arctic states. Furthermore, Russia also holds the current two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. On May 11, 2023, the Arctic Council Chairmanship will move from Russia to Norway, and there is an abundance of hope that the Norwegian Chairmanship will forge a path forward while balancing tensions with Russia. 

The Arctic Frontiers Conference, an annual meeting of multi-disciplinary Arctic thought-leaders, was held in northern Norway in early 2023 and covered many  Arctic-related topics, including a discussion on the trajectory of the Arctic Council. Several Arctic experts weighed in on the discussion:  

Whitney Lackenbauer is a professor and researcher at Canada Trent University and stated, “there is no Arctic Council without Russia. We need to abolish the term Arctic 7.” ‘Arctic 7’ is a term used by the media to refer to the Arctic States excluding Russia since the invasion. 

Evan Bloom, a Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said, “Norway has been balancing and protecting the cooperation with Russia for many years while pushing back Russian aggression.” 

“They [Norwegian Chairmanship] know how to do it,” said Malgorzata Smieszek who is a researcher at the Arctic University of Norway. 

As Arctic communities and ecosystems face the challenges and opportunities of a changing climate as well as political turmoil, the fate of the Arctic Council remains uncertain. Arctic experts demonstrate confidence in the upcoming Norwegian Chairmanship to manage Russian relations well. 

Hike in northern Sweden

This post is a preview of my upcoming presentation on Arctic governance and climate change for the Global Urbanization Scholarship taking place May 3, 2023, at UNC-Chapel Hill. Come check it out! 


“How We Work.” n.d. Arctic Council. Accessed April 1, 2023.

Jacobs, Peter, Nathan Lenssen, Gavin Schmidt, and Robert Rohde. “The Arctic is now warming four times as fast as the rest of the globe.” In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts, vol. 2021, pp. A13E-02. 2021. 

Jonasson, Trine. “Arctic Council Chairmanship: ‘Norway Knows How to Do It.’” High North News. February 3, 2023. Accessed April 1, 2023. 

Ken, Palgrave Macmillan Coates. “The Palgrave Handbook of Arctic Policy and Politics.” (2019): 9-18. 

Samantha Pace is a first-year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill interested in climate resilience, strategy, and urban design. After receiving her undergraduate degree in Industrial Design from North Carolina State University, she worked at a biotechnology start-up in Research Triangle Park for 3 years. In her free time, Samantha enjoys camping, live music, and making pizzas. 

Edited by Candela Cerpa

Featured Image: Tarfala Glacier in northern Sweden. Photo Credit: Samantha Pace