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Disaster Diplomacy in the High Arctic

Catastrophes and Norway-Russia relations in the Svalbard archipelago.

Svalbard is an archipelago in the High Arctic, part of Norway, but governed by a unique international treaty that permits many nationalities to live and work there. Many disasters have affected the people of Svalbard, and disaster risks continue to do so, leading to local disaster-related cooperation, but limited country-to-country disaster diplomacy.

 Ilan Kelman
Looking down the valley to Longyearbyen (Svalbard’s main settlement).
Source: Ilan Kelman

Funded by the Research Council of Norway (Norges forskningsråd), I led a project from December 2018 to November 2020 investigating disaster diplomacy between Norway and Russia for Svalbard. This research was part of the NORRUSS program, supporting science for Norway’s High North and Russia. Svalbard is a major connection between the two countries.

Since the first verified sighting of Svalbard in 1596, its hazards have been evident: avalanches, storms, cold weather, ice, tsunamis, and polar bears, among many others. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920, covering land and sea for 10-35° east and 74-81° north, gave Norway sovereignty. The citizens of all countries signing the treaty nonetheless retain the right to live and work there but under Norwegian law.

As settlement in these islands increased throughout the 20th century, so did disasters. Coal mining was a prominent industry, bringing the usual array of fatal fires and explosions. Transportation disasters were first related to shipping and then to aircraft, both airplanes and helicopters, including 141 people killed when a flight crashed into a mountain on 29 August 1996.

The shift of livelihoods from mining to tourism has brought deaths and injuries on visitors and staff, from polar bear attacks, dinghies hit by ice, snowmobiles falling through the ice, and ship collisions. Fears remain of a large cruise ship sinking in Arctic weather or experiencing an on-board outbreak, such as norovirus. COVID-19 happened before the main tourism season, so Svalbard’s population of about 3,000 people was not overwhelmed by the disease spreading across a ship with more than that number of passengers and crew.

Other possibilities for a major catastrophe could be a blackout or water supply disruption in the main settlement of Longyearbyen with about fourth-fifths of Svalbard’s population; a commercial jet crash-landing in a remote location; a major oil or chemical spill or fire; or a tsunami propagating up the fjord with the biggest population centres.

The second-largest settlement is Barentsburg, with a population of about 450, housing the Russian consulate to Svalbard and populated by mainly Russians and Ukrainians. With Russia being the main country exercising its treaty rights, Norway-Russia relations have the potential to be affected by disaster-related work for and around Svalbard.

This rarely happens at the bilateral level, despite plenty of Arctic-related contact between Oslo and Moscow, as well as between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen. Most disaster-related interaction appears to happen at the person-to-person level. They are living in the same community, even if in different settlements, and people want to help out.

They exchange information, they use social media to stay in touch, they act in good faith trusting each other to cooperate, and when an incident happens, they leap into action to aid each other. This was seen when an avalanche killed two people in Longyearbyen on 19 December 2015, when a helicopter crashed into the fjord near Barentsburg on 26 October 2017 killing eight people, and when dozens of tourists were injured on 15 July 2018 as their ship hit Barentsburg’s dock.

Strong perceptions remain within the population that, no matter what the nationalities or the politics among countries, dealing with disasters around Svalbard is about collaboration. International conflicts and diplomacy should not subvert local neighbourliness. In remote environments, those closest to you will save your life rather than services from your capital city a world away.

Nonetheless, international politics has changed substantially since the Svalbard Treaty was signed. Russia argues that this ancient document cannot represent needs and interests today, advocating that Moscow and Barentsburg should take on more responsibility. The Russian government proposed a Russian search-and-rescue facility in Barentsburg, a request that the Norwegian government has so far declined.

And so the diplomatic manoeuvring continues over stopping disasters, reducing disaster risks, and preventing casualties. While many might hope that a humanitarian imperative would bring together divergent viewpoints and cultures, disasters are inherently political. Preventing and responding to calamity is not immune from self-interest and manipulation.

This absence of disaster diplomacy between Norway and Russia for Svalbard mirrors other work around the world and throughout history covering a variety of disaster-related activities. No examples have yet been proven to create new, long-lasting diplomatic cooperation based on dealing with disasters.

Norway and Russia, though, are not the only countries with a Svalbard presence. Several others maintain scientific stations around the territory or their citizens live there. Most collaborate locally regarding survival, safety, and disasters—almost essential given the environmental conditions in which science and other livelihoods are conducted.

Yet no discernible influence on international relations has yet been seen, at least directly. Having signed up to the Svalbard Treaty, the countries accept Norwegian responsibility for search-and-rescue, environmental regulations, and other health and safety legislation.

From many scientists’ and residents' perspectives, international geopolitics is less relevant than staying alive while enjoying one's jobs, such as completing solid science to help society. On the scientific front, from understanding sea ice impacts on coastal infrastructure to the effects on ecosystems of human-caused climate change, environmental monitoring informs the world of our global impact.

Significant research has also emerged from working with people living around Svalbard. Innovative Ph.D. work by students and supervisors from around the world has covered informal responses to disasters and disaster risks, coal mining heritage, the role of tourism, and identities within the archipelago's small communities.

They contribute to knowledge and wisdom about society. They all involve the politics of science and science diplomacy. They all create far better connections among people than often happens among governments and countries—even for dealing with disasters and disaster risks.


Duda, P. I. and I. Kelman. 2019. "Arctic Disaster Risk Reduction and Response as Triumph?" Chapter 9, pp. 147-162 in N. Sellheim, Y.V. Zaika, and I. Kelman (eds.), Arctic Triumph: Northern Innovation and Persistence, Springer, Basel, Switzerland.

Kelman, I. 2020. "Arctic humanitarianism for post-disaster settlement and shelter". Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 471-480.

Kelman, I., A.K. Sydnes, P.I. Duda, E. Nikitina, and C. Webersik. 2020. "Norway-Russia Disaster Diplomacy for Svalbard". Safety Science, vol. 130, article 104896.

Poussenkova, N. 2020. "To Drill and not to Spill: Policy of the Russian Oil Companies Aimed at Preventing Technogenic Disasters in the Arctic". Environmental Bulletin of Russia, vol. 5, no. 20, pp. 8-14.

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