Map of Svalbard, Norway. A detail from the World Map.

One hundred years after the signing of the Svalbard Treaty, that granted Norway sovereignty over this territory, the strategic and geopolitical importance of that Arctic archipelago has never been higher and is even more emphasized by the consequences of the global warning.

Svalbard, a strategic archipelago in the Far North

The Svalbard archipelago is located in the Arctic Ocean, between Greenland (West), Franz Josef Land (East) and Europe (South). Equidistant from Norway (621 mi / 1,000 km north of Tromsø) and (621 mi / 1,000 km northwest of Murmansk), it stands on a strategic position in an area of interest to NATO and Russia in the Far North. Known for its numerous scientific bases, its “apocalyptic seed vault”, its coal mines or its quantity of polar bears, Svalbard also receives a booming arctic tourism.

Map Svalbard archipelago in the Far North
Svalbard archipelago in the Far North -Wikipedia

Even though the archipelago has officially been under Norwegian sovereignty since 1920, the partial internationalization of the land and its territorial waters, as defined by the Svalbard treaty, raises many tensions, especially with the race for the appropriation of Arctic resources

A controversial 100-year-old treaty

Signed at the Paris Conference on the 9th of February 1920, and implemented in 1925, the treaty currently has 46 signatories and recognizes Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard with a few limits. First, Article 9 states that the territory is a demilitarized zone. What is more, all the signatory states have equal fishing rights in the territorial waters (12 nautical miles) of Svalbard. In addition, they get free access to the resources of the archipelago and can exploit them as Norway.

However, the introduction of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in 1982 poses two major problems. On the one hand, there is a debate about the continental shelf on which Svalbard is located (Norway or Russia). On the other hand, the 1982 Convention authorizes Oslo to establish a sovereign EEZ around Svalbard, which fuels a huge number of rivalries. Indeed, Norway considers that the rights of the other countries do not apply in the EEZ but on the archipelago and its territorial waters only. However, Russia, as well as the European Union and the United States, do not share this interpretation and consider this EEZ as the zone of application of the 1920 treaty.

The epicenter of climate change in the High North

The Arctic is warming up three times faster than the rest of the planet. Unfortunately, the Svalbard archipelago is not spared by this phenomenon, which is even worse on these islands. During the summer of 2020, temperatures beat a record, reaching 21.7°C (71°F) in Longyearbyen, on July 25. Records from the Norwegian Polar Institute show that the average annual temperature has increased by about 5°C (41°F) over the last 40 years . And by the end of the century, the mid-winter air temperature in Longyearbyen is expected to be between 7 and 10°C (45 and 50°F) higher than current temperatures!

Global warming and associated issues for the Svalbard archipelago

The consequences of global warming in the Svalbard area are multiple. First of all, the warming of the oceans causes fishes to migrate towards the North, searching for colder waters, and making the surroundings of Svalbard richer in fish resources, which are coveted by many countries.

Moreover, the melting of the ice allows for the discovery and access to new hydrocarbon deposits. The competition for the monopoly of these resources could therefore intensify, using divergent interpretations of the 1920 treaty. Finally, the melting of the Arctic ice cap also opened new maritime routes that considerably reduce the time it takes to sail from one continent to another. In particular, China has shown great interest in the “Northern Sea Route”, which would save 30% of shipping time and avoid passing through choke points such as the Suez Canal. This new route, which passes near Svalbard, is therefore fully integrated into its “Belt and Road Initiative” project, also called “New Silk Roads”.

All these global-warming-induced phenomenons could therefore contribute to increasing geopolitical tensions around Svalbard.

What future for the Treaty?

The Svalbard archipelago is coveted by many countries for its strategic importance, which will increase even more with future climate change. This poses a threat to the Norwegian presence in Svalbard, which has been relatively stable for one century, but is now suffering from a decline in the local Norwegian population, slowly replaced by other nationalities.

Moreover, the lack of consensus among NATO members on the status of Svalbard (e.g. the uncertainty about using Article 5 to defend it) could be a real opportunity for some competitors to obtain concessions from Norway, or even to take over the archipelago by making a “fait accompli” move. Thus, Norway could quickly find itself in difficulty, especially in the present times, as the crisis is raging in Ukraine and the world is being affected by unprecedented climatic upheavals, all of this happening while oil and gas reserves are being discovered around the archipelago.

The Svalbard treaty seems increasingly threatened and more fragile than ever.

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