The Arctic and the Alps


What do the Alps have in common with the Arctic? Cryosphere — water in its solid form — the frozen places of our planet. Cryosphere influences the climate of the entire world and it is melting. Cryspheric change evidenced by ice melt is affecting people, wildlife, business, transport, tourism and security from polar to Alpine regions. And there is substantial cryosphere expertise from environmental to human problems in Switzerland, much of it on display at the annual Arctic Circle assembly.

The Arctic Circle occurs about a week after the Arctic Council closed meeting in Portland, Maine. The Council comprises the governments of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States plus various observer states, organizations and Arctic indigenous communities. By contrast, the Arctic Circle is a large open forum where government, science, media, education, culture and civil society examine a wider range of Arctic issues from ice melt and shipping to tourism, wildlife, pollution, energy, business, law and security.

Despite the fact that the Arctic is an ocean, one landlocked country has a reservoir of relevant expertise, notably Switzerland. Swiss research in the Arctic dates back to the 19th Century. To highlight this, Berne’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) organized a plenary Switzerland Country followed by a panel on cooperation in Arctic scientific research. At an opening ceremony lead by Olga Letykai, a traditional Chukchi singer residing in Switzerland, various Swiss experts, including Yves Rossier, Secretary of State of the FDFA, Frederik Paulsen of the Swiss Polar Institute, Matthias Finger of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale Lausanne (EPFL) co-director of the Global Arctic project, Konrad Steffen, head of the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, all explored different aspects of their involvement with the Arctic. In 1990 climatologist Konrad Steffen established Swiss Camp, one of the first automatic weather stations on Greenland’s ice sheet. The camp, located 3.5 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, is a collection of three semi-permanent tents and a vestibule that doubles as a sauna. An Arctic Circle exhibition was specifically devoted to Swiss Camp.

Virtually every Arctic actor, whether government, corporation, indigenous community or scientist, is asking the same questions: “Who gets what, how, where and why?” That is, how to manage the activities (business, science, tourism, security) in the regions of our planet experiencing drastic cryospheric change? How will local, regional and global communities dole out the weal and woe of life in polar and alpine regions? This question was specifically addressed in a key Arctic Circle titled “Contemporary Arctic Meets Global Politics: Rethinking Arctic Exceptionalism in the Age of Growing Uncertainty.” Coupled with its Alpine expertise, Switzerland is front and centre in these intense polar region conversations.