Koenders: ‘proud of Dutch contribution to Arctic research’

‘It isn’t easy to do research in this cold, biting wind, among ice floes and lurking polar bears. I have great admiration for these courageous men and women,’ foreign minister Bert Koenders said on Saturday, referring to the 55 scientists of the Scientific Expedition to Edgeøya Svalbard (SEES). For the past nine days, the researchers have battled the elements while studying the impact of human activity on the Arctic region.

Mr Koenders described the research as vital to ensuring a sustainable polar climate, as advocated by the Netherlands. ‘Climate change is so tangible in this polar region,’ he said. ‘A better understanding of this vulnerable region is important for the whole world, especially for the Netherlands.’

The SEES team has collected and analysed samples of water and plant and animal material. ‘Their findings will greatly improve our understanding of the polar climate because the region is changing rapidly,’ the minister said. ‘The scientists are using the most recent ocean charts, but these already need to be updated because hundreds of metres of sea ice have melted.’

The minister’s visit to the expedition and his talks with his Norwegian host, foreign minister Børge Brende, will contribute to the Dutch polar strategy for 2016-2020. This will be a comprehensive strategy, considering geopolitical developments as well as the impact of economic activities on the polar region.

The Dutch polar expedition underscores the Netherlands’ historic ties with the Arctic, Mr Koenders said. The island Svalbard where the researchers are conducting their investigations was formerly known by the Dutch name of Spitsbergen, and was discovered by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz in 1596. ‘Four centuries on, the region is still close to our hearts. It gives us a warm feeling.’

The SEES expedition works at research stations staffed by scientists from around the world. International cooperation is a key feature of polar research, the minister emphasised. ‘It’s great to see international teams of researchers, from the US to China and India and beyond, all working towards the same goal: to protect this vulnerable region. It’s vital work because deteriorating conditions at the North Pole affect countries around the world. And not just delta countries like Bangladesh and the Netherlands, but Russia, the world’s largest Arctic state, too.’

Mr Koenders’ visit to Svalbard is part of his preparation for the UN climate conference COP21 taking place in Paris in December. Mr Koenders and Mr Brende also discussed the need for a new agreement on climate change, which they hope will be reached in December. ‘Svalbard is a particularly good place to see the way the climate is going. This knowledge will be useful to us in Paris,’ Mr Koenders said.

The two ministers are now travelling to Alaska, where they will attend GLACIER, a conference on the future of the Arctic hosted by the US. President Barack Obama will give the closing address.