Facts & Figures

AC Observer: 2006
Active Polar
Icebreakers: 0

Back in the XVI century, several Spanish vessels—Cabrillo (1542), Gali (1582) and Vizcaino (1596/1602)—became part of the search for the legendary Northwest Passage bordering the high northern latitudes of the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish involvement in this important arctic enterprise was only possible thanks to La Casa de la Contratación (The House of Trade) founded in Seville in 1503 as a school for navigation with the ambitious purpose of becoming the world’s main maritime university. This center was also responsible for keeping the Padrón Real (The Royal Register), a top secret universal navigation chart, to which were continuously added all observations and discoveries made on each voyage.

Without diminishing the  importance of the abovementioned voyages, we can undoubtedly distinguish the Malaspina expedition as the most outstanding accomplishment of  Spanish marine navigation and research activities in high northern latitudes. On  July 30th, 1789, two frigates—Descubierta and Atrevida—, commanded by Alejandro (Alessandro) Malaspina and his friend José de Bustamante y Guerra, sailed from the port of Cadiz. The expedition carried on board the elite astronomers and surveyors of the Spanish Navy, headed by Juan Gutiérrez de la Concha and the young Felipe Bauza as cartographer. Also on board were many scientists, artists, and others.

The objective of this expedition was quite simple: to cooperate in strictly scientific terms with the other maritime powers in order to expand the general human knowledge on marine affairs and, more specifically, to look for the legendary Northwest Passage, recently rumored to have been discovered. The two vessels searched, in vain, for a passage to link the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans between the 59º 60’ and 61º northern latitudes, and, eventually, they concluded that the said passage did not exist. As a result of this expedition Malaspina’s name is now associated with the Nanaimo area, even though he never really sailed further than Yaqui on Nootka Island.

At the beginning of 1792, other two Spanish galiots, commanded by Dionisio Galiano and Cayetano Valdés joined the English squadron commanded by Captain Vancouver, with an intention to examine an immense Archipelago, currently known by the name of Juán de Fuca.

Considering the growing openness of the Arctic today it is not surprising that Spain, among other European countries, is showing increasing interest towards the High North. Unfortunately, Spanish engagement in the region does not seem to have  yet materialized.

Perhaps the only exception in this regard are the fisheries, where Spain possesses a large fleet and has  a long tradition of fishing activities. However, this Spanish involvement is currently at risk as the Arctic coastal states are progressively intending to extend their respective continental shelves and, thus, restrict the international regime of the subjacent water column.

At the same time, Spain has also traditionally shown an important engagement in polar science. Through its Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Spain participates in EU-PolarNet: a new European research project, funded by the Programme Horizon2020 whose objective is to promote cooperation among the European countries in polar research areas.

To fully understand the Spanish position towards the Arctic, we should not neglect the impact that  an ice-free Arctic and a navigable North-West Passage would have for international commerce .

Thus, to determine the specific economic interests of Spain in relation to the Arctic’s non-living natural resources is not an easy task since Spanish companies rarely express openly their interest to researchers and scientists in the field, despite the undoubted eagerness with which they look the Arctic.

From the Age of Discovery, the Spanish presence in both Polar Regions has been constant.Consistent with that fact, the official Spanish political position parts from the basic consideration that the polar research—both in the Antarctic and the Arctic—is crucial for the study of virtually all sciences, including the environmental ones. According to this premise, Spain explains its responsibilities within the framework of international cooperation (the notion already appears in the Preamble to the Spanish Constitution) largely through scientific cooperation, which in turn would eventually allow it to diversify their policy options.

Actually, it is the premise of international cooperation that inspired the development of the future Spanish Polar Strategy: a document of political character which will contemplate both the Antarctic and the Arctic regions. However, that last fact has attracted criticism given the natural differences—continental masses in the Antarctic versus large maritime spaces in the Arctic—and the highly unbalanced Spanish presence between the two polar spaces (currently, in favor of the Antarctic).

The mobile infrastructure for polar research is the Oceanographic Research Vessel “Hespérides,” which is based at the Arsenal of Cartagena (Murcia, Spain). This vessel has been responsible for scientific campaigns in both the Antarctic and the Arctic regions and, when necessary, also performs general logistic support to the Antarctic campaign.

The National Centre for Polar Data, headquartered at the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain was created in 1998 to comply with the international obligations resulting from the Antarctic Treaty and, in particular, its art. 3 (c) that states: “[i]n order to promote international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica, as provided for in Article II of the present Treaty, the Contracting Parties agree that, to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, (…) scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.” The main objectives of the Centre include management of (meta)data obtained during the Spanish researches, as well as storage, management and dissemination of the documentary collections under the supervision of the Spanish Polar Committee. The Centre also incorporates the Spanish Polar Archive.

Most of the Spanish scientific work in the polar regions has taken placein the Antarctic , although, recently, many researchers have started similar investigations on the Arctic or are collaborating with foreign scientists within the framework of international projects covering all possible sectors of scientific research.

To develop its polar scientific activities Spain has at its disposal the following structure:

  • The Spanish Polar Committee The committee, attached to the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation,  represents the country at the main international polar institutions—such as the Arctic Council.This is the national body that grants authorizations for any scientific activities in the polar field, coordinates and manages the data obtained from the scientific activities in Antarctica and the polar zones in general. Therefore, it can be said that the Committee is, indeed, the Polar Authority of Spain.
  • Annual Programs for Scientific Investigation These programs, organized by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, regulate matters concerning both polar areas, including the funding of the scientific projects relating thereto.
  • Superior Council for Scientific Research
  • The Army Manages the research vessel Hesperides and the logistic vessel Las Palmas, both involved in the Antarctic campaigns.

It is important to bear in mind that at present the Spanish Polar Strategy is still under development. The popular group at the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies is the lower house of the Cortes Generales, Spain’s legislative branch). It has introduced for discussion at the Commission on the Climate Change Studies a no-proposition on the law on measures for the conservation and protection of the Arctic.

Since 2006 Spain has obtained an observer status at the Arctic Council. Later, in March 2009, the country was  admitted to the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC)  and ever since participated in its various Working Groups.

Elena Conde
Elena Conde

Professor of Public International Law at the Faculty of Law

Complutense University of Madrid (Spain) and Spanish delegate in the Social and Human Working Group of the IASC

Principal Investigator of the Research Project “The Race for the Arctic: issues of international law arising in the light of climate change” (reference number: DER2012–36026)

Zhaklin Valerieva Yaneva
Zhaklin Valerieva Yaneva

PhD candidate

PhD candidate in the Programme “Political and Administrative Sciences and International Relations Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology” (Complutense University of Madrid, Spain) with a dissertation on the role of the Arctic Council in the region.