United Kingdom

Facts & Figures

AC Observer: 1996
Active Polar
Icebreakers: 0

The United Kingdom has one of the longest histories of interest and activity in the Arctic of any country. Merchants, hunters, sailors and scientists have visited the Arctic from the British Isles since at least the 15th Century. Most famous of all were the expeditions to discover fabled marine passages through the north to the lucrative markets of East Asia. Yet while attempts to navigate passage through the Arctic foundered – often tragically as in the case of Sir John Franklin – they facilitated the emergence of whaling, sealing, fishing and fur trapping industries in North America and Russia. Both the Muscovy Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were founded by English royal charters, and resources brought back from the Arctic were used to feed the expansion of British industry. It is worth noting that by contemporary standards, the UK was an Arctic state until 1880, when it gave up its remaining Arctic territories to Canada.

By the early 20th Century, the nature of the UK’s relationship with the region had changed further. After the search for the Franklin expedition ended, the British government turned away from the Arctic to focus its attention on Antarctica. Overfishing and the declining use of whale oil also led to a reduction in the UK’s long-standing use of Arctic resources to feed its economy (although coal mining on Svalbard was still of interest).  However, the emerging strategic importance of the region during the First World War brought the UK back to the Arctic as the British sought first to support its White Russian allies during the Russian revolution, and later the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The strategic importance of the region would remain high throughout the rest of the 20th Century as the UK became a lynchpin in the defence of Norway and the North Atlantic against the threat of the Soviet Union, and its nuclear-armed submarines patrolled beneath the Arctic sea-ice.

After a period of limited engagement in the 1990s (although the UK was an observer to the Ottawa convention in 1996, attended the first Arctic Council ministerial meeting in 1998, and has maintained a national scientific research programme in the Arctic since the end of the Cold War), interest in the Arctic is growing again, driven by concerns about climate change and interest in emerging economic opportunities. As an island nation, highly dependent on global trade, the geostrategic importance of a new ocean becoming navigable, for at least part of the year, is also attracting interest.

A number of sectors in the UK have economic interests in the Arctic. London hosts the headquarters of major international energy companies such as Shell and BP (which owns a 20% stake in Rosneft), while smaller oil firms such as Tullow Oil and Cairn Energy have also been active in the Arctic in recent years. Interest in the maritime sector is led by the City of London which is likely to play an important role providing major financial services such as insurance, risk certification, dispute resolution, ship brokerage and investment. In 2014, Lloyd’s of London started work on an Arctic Ice Regime to complement the International Maritime Organisation’s Polar Code and improve safety standards. This kind of activity is demonstrative of the role the City of London could play in helping to determine the regulatory environment which will underpin future maritime activity in the Arctic. Other areas where UK businesses have shown interest include tourism, telecommunications, satellite technology, and even airships. The UK government has also invested in Arctic science, with more than £30 million in Research Council funding already committed since 2010. The UK has maintained a research station in Ny Ålesund, Svalbard since 1992, and recently commissioned the construction of a new polar research ship.

The UK’s Arctic policies are set out in Adapting to Change: UK policy towards the Arctic, a white paper first published in 2013.

The document sets out that the UK’s approach to international cooperation in the Arctic is built on three pillars: respect for the sovereign rights of the Arctic states and views and interests of people who live and work in the Arctic; leadership on issues such as climate change and international scientific cooperation; and cooperation with all other Arctic stakeholders. According to the paper, the UK’s main interest areas are in climate change, environmental protection and economic development. It does not address defence issues although this is also an area where the UK has interests and responsibilities. Underpinning all aspects of the UK’s engagement with the region is a commitment to undertaking, and using, high-quality, independent science. This is being coordinated by the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Arctic Office, which is hosted by the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Further scientific activity in the Arctic is diffused throughout the UK university sector.

The UK Parliament has also shown an increasing interest in better understanding the opportunities and challenges emerging in the Arctic. In 2012, the Environmental Audit Committee (a House of Commons Select Committee) investigated what more the UK could do to promote responsible development in the region. This was followed in 2014 by an inquiry by the House of Lords Ad Hoc Select Committee on the Arctic, which considered whether the UK was pursuing its interests in an effective way. One of the main outcomes of this inquiry was to reignite the debate about whether the UK should have an Arctic ambassador, although the government continues to resist such a move. In 2015, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions was launched to improve awareness and understanding of Arctic issues among UK parliamentarians.

The UK is an observer to the Arctic Council.

In addition, the UK is a member of multiple international organisations and regimes involved in Arctic governance including the IMO (the only major UN agency based in London), NEAFC, NAFO, OSPAR Commission, Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES, CMS, LRTAP, Stockholm Conventions on POPs, UNFCCC, the EU, and many more.

The UK is committed to helping the Arctic states and peoples maintain the stability of the Arctic region, while at the same time seeks to participate in sustainable economic development and international scientific research programmes. However, it is unlikely that more resources will be committed to support UK interests until key uncertainties about the economic potential of the region, and the future role of non-Arctic states in Arctic governance and international scientific activities, are resolved.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Department for Business, Innovation, Skills (see NERC and the Science and Innovation Network – Nordics)

Ministry of Defence

Dr Duncan Depledge, Royal Holloway (University of London) and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.

Professor Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway (University of London).