Facts & Figures

AC member since 1996

Active Polar Icebreakers: 1
Coordinates Oslo: 59.9139° N, 10.7522° E
Tromsø: 69.6492° N, 18.9553° E

Population Norway: 5.2 million
Northern Norway: 480,000

Land Area Norway: 385,000 km2
Northern Norway:185,000 km2

Coastline 25,148 km

In Norway the Arctic is considered everything north of the Arctic Circle, despite the arguably minimal variation between the areas north and south of 66°34N. In terms of its foreign policy engagement, Norway distinguishes between the extreme Arctic (referring to the North Pole and the uninhabited areas in the so-called High Arctic) and the more hospitable and populated parts of Northern Norway and Svalbard, deemed the “High North” or “nordområdene” in Norwegian.

The landmass of the three northern counties (Nordland, Troms and Finnmark) accounts for a third of the landmass of mainland Norway (totalling approximately 100,000 km² out of approximately 300,000 km²). Svalbard and Jan Mayen archipelagos add another 85,000 km². The climate in North Norway—with the exception of Svalbard—does not vary significantly from the southern part of the country, as in the case of some Arctic countries.

The average temperature in Tromsø, the largest city in the north, oscillates between -4 °C (25 °F) in January and 12 °C (54 °F) in July . The North Norwegian coast is ice free and, due to the Gulf Stream, experiences less extreme temperatures than cities further south in Canada or the United States. Longyearbyen on Svalbard, on the other hand, experiences more arctic-like conditions, with -13 °C (9 °F) in March and only 8 °C (46 °F) in July. Climate change has especially affected the ecological conditions on Svalbard, as the summer sea ice has gradually receded. This has an adverse impact on plant and animal life, not only on Svalbard, but also in mainland Norway. Changes related to the tree-line, movements of fish stocks and agricultural yield, challenge the ability of local communities to adapt and sustain their livelihoods in the north to a greater extent than elsewhere in Norway.

Tromsø is the largest city in the Norwegian Arctic with 72 thousand inhabitants (2015), followed by Bodø with 50 thousand inhabitants (2015). In total, roughly 480 thousand people live in the three Arctic counties of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark. Another 2,667 people live on Svalbard. Bodø is the regional capital of Nordland; Tromsø the regional capital of Troms; and Vadsø the regional capital of Finnmark. Albeit sparsely populated in a European context, the population numbers are relatively high when contrasted to the North American Arctic. Although difficult to specify exactly, the Sámi population in Norway is between 40–50 thousand, with  most residing in the three northern counties. Karasjok is the seat of the Sámi Parliament of Norway.

The traditional lands of the Sámi people in Norway, Sápmi, stretch from Hedmark county in the middle of Norway, to the Russian border in the north. Even though the Sámi are a minority in most parts of Sápmi, traditional reindeer herding is still present across the land. Sámi reindeer herding takes place in a total of 140 municipalities. Reindeer herding—and other traditional Sámi livelihoods such as fishing, hunting and gathering—are some of the most important ways in which the Sámi cultural heritage is preserved in Norway. The Sámi languages and traditions are thus part of daily life in Sámi communities, in contrast to other parts of the society where Norwegian culture dominates. At the same time, the Sámi people are a part of modern Norway and are keeping old traditions alive as well as developing the culture. The traditional livelihoods; however, are dependant on land. This land is increasingly under pressure as mining companies invest in the north and more people build cottages in the area.

Since its opening in 1989, the interests of the Sámi population have been ensured by the Sámi Parliament. The opening of the Parliament was seen as the end of an assimilation policy enforced by the Norwegian government since the 1850s. Norway was subsequently one of the first countries to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which ensures the Indigenous peoples’ right to consultation before decisions regarding them are being made. In 2005, the Sámi Parliament and the Norwegian government signed an agreement which formalizes the procedures for consultation on all relevant policy issues. The increased focus on business opportunities by actors outside of the Arctic could lead to more pressure on an already endangered culture. It is worth noting the Sámi Parliament’s many funding schemes to support small scale businesses and tourism.

Although there is relatively little difference between Arctic and non-Arctic communities in Norway, some traits have historically been more prominent in the north. Given the region’s sparse population, vast distances, natural geographic barriers and dependency on traditional subsistence economies (fisheries, reindeer herding, and agriculture), the northern counties have historically been poorer (in terms of GDP per capita) and less developed than the rest of Norway. As the Norwegian welfare state grew after the WWII, the North was earmarked for regional development funds to help the region overcome the natural barriers that did not exist to the same extent in the south. Albeit with a somewhat higher level of public employment and a slightly higher percentage of the population on welfare, the northern counties are no different than the other counties across Norway that also experienced a de-industrialization in the 1990s. In the north, this was coupled with the decline of the fisheries industry as quotas were reduced and the fleet modernized.

A system of differentiated employer’s social security tax is meant to improve the conditions of operating businesses in the north. Similarly, Finnmark county and parts of Troms county have since 1990 had a lower income tax, cancellation of student debt, and a higher rate of child support. In recent years, however, North Norway has actually been experiencing greater economic development than the rest of Norway.The region’s emphasis on seafood and fisheries, industrial products and tourism—as opposed to relying solely on the oil boom elsewhere in Norway—has helped spur the growth.6 The region is experiencing steady population growth, while the increasing focus on the Arctic has helped the northern communities frame their regional development in a new context.

As with the rest of the Arctic, attention turned towards the potential of arctic industries in the north of Norway at the beginning of the new millennium. The emphasis was on the north as a new province for oil and gas development. Since 1979, seismic activity and exploratory drilling have taken place in the Barents Sea, with over a hundred wells drilled. Yet, in spite of substantial discoveries, there is only one producing field as of January 2016—the Statoil Snøhvit field that has produced liquefied natural gas since 2006. ENI is set to start producing oil from the Goliat field in 2016. The main barriers for Barents Sea offshore development have been the lack of suitable markets and the lack of infrastructure. Although there have been suggestions of extending the pipeline system transporting gas to Europe up to the Barents Sea (it currently stops more or less at the Arctic Circle), the low gas prices and the lack of political commitment in Europe have halted development. The more accessible offshore area around the Lofoten and Vesterålen archipelagos are thought to hold considerable hydrocarbon resources, but environmental concerns and popular resistance have hampered development there.

Norway also has the fifth most valuable shipping fleet in the world, and a substantial interest in a potential increase of traffic via the Northeast Passage. Kirkenes, on the border with Russia, has positioned itself, through business and potential harbour investments, as a receiving port. This development has yet to take off. Similarly, the prospects of mineral development in North Norway was heralded at the start of the millennium as the next big industry in Norway. In contrast to Sweden and Finland, Norway has, with some exceptions, not developed its relatively mineral rich mountains. As with the oil and gas sector, environmental concerns have halted development. Additionally, the mineral industry has met resistance from local and Sámi communities, as the land in question is already being used by reindeer herders. Reindeer herding, in addition to constituting a cultural way of life for the Sámi, is also a considerable industry in North Norway.

An industry which has had more success is fisheries and aquaculture. The Barents Sea cod is the largest cod stock in the world, and has in recent years seen record yields. Russia and Norway cooperate on managing this shared fish stock, often portrayed as a success story of bilateral resource management. Other types of fisheries and aquaculture—like salmon, herring, mackerel, shrimp, king and snow crab, and halibut—are also found in the Norway’s Arctic waters. This “blue industry” is being heralded as the future for the north.

Similarly, the number of tourists visiting has increased steadily, spurring regional growth and employment. In addition, the region has a number of other sectors that are seeing rapid development, like research institutes and universities, IT companies, and the development of technological niche products.

When discussing Norway and the Arctic, it is important to distinguish between the mainland (the three northern counties) and the Svalbard archipelago, while at the same time recognizing that the latter is a part of the Kingdom of Norway. Norway was granted sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago with the Svalbard Treaty, signed in 1920 in Paris. The Treaty gives the signatories the right to live and work on the islands, and places some limitations on Norway’s ability to tax and use Svalbard for military purposes. There are diverging views with regards to the status of the 200 nautical mile maritime zone surrounding the archipelago, which is currently a Fisheries Protection Zone.

Norway’s renewed engagement in Arctic affairs can be traced back to the then foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s choice to  emphasize the High North (in a Norwegian context) and the Arctic (internationally) in 2005 when the new “red-green” government took office. The elevation of the Arctic to the number one strategic foreign policy priority in 2005 also coincided with the failed arrest of the Russian trawler Elektron. This incident helped focus attention on maritime cooperation with Russia in the Barents Sea.

When Russia planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2006, the eyes of the world turned north. Støre made use of the opportunity to prioritize regional development domestically, and multilateral cooperation (Arctic Council and Barents Euro Arctic Council) internationally. The government coalition he belonged to has since been criticized for failing to deliver on their grand Arctic policy statements. The new Conservative government that took office in 2013 has arguably changed little, and at times even seemed uninterested in following up Arctic policies set out by their predecessor.

In terms of security and national defence, the Arctic is not necessarily framed in a security context in Norway. The Arctic has connotations of ice and wilderness, whereas the Norwegian Arctic—at least the part that belongs to the Norwegian mainland—is ice-free and relatively populated. This ties into a general Norwegian perspective that the Arctic entails circumpolar cooperation on softer issues such as environmental challenges, human security affairs, and economic opportunities. This is in contrast to Norwegian security policy, predominantly focused on the relationship with Russia, which takes place in the Arctic, but is not framed as an Arctic endeavour. It is therefore important to distinguish between the Arctic and the “High North.” The latter entails the border with Russia and the security concerns derived from having a resurgent neighbour.

There is, at the same time, a realization that the relationship with Russia needs to be built on pragmatism, as everything from joint fish stocks to border crossings and trade need to be managed between the two states. Norway has taken pride in this bilateral relationship, concentrated around environmental management and people-to-people cooperation on a local and regional level. Yet, this does not diminish the overarching security concerns related to a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. With a neighbour that increases its military posturing through naval and airborne activity along the Norwegian border, the importance of NATO has by no means diminished for Norway.

Norway’s Arctic Policy for 2014 and beyond:

The High North (Norwegian MFA’s thematic page):

Are we talking about the same “Arctic”?

From Black Gold to a Blue Economy?