Chairman of the Steering Committee of Sponsors of International Northern Sea Route Program
What images does the phrase "Arctic Ocean" bring to mind? An ocean covered with vast sheets of ice. A vast, white wilderness, whose night sky is often illuminated by the unearthly kaleidoscope of the aurora. Both these images suggest a harsh but ethereal natural beauty, where human activity is but a distant rumor.
Viewed from directly above the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean is a closed sea, hemmed in by the great North American and Eurasian continents and the barren island of Greenland. Russia, the United States and Canada face each other around this circle of ice-infested water. For this reason, the Arctic Ocean held a position of crucial strategic importance during the cold war-so much so that the Soviet Union kept its northern coast completely off limits to other countries.
The Arctic Ocean was opened to the world in 1987, when the then Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared the Arctic Ocean an international entity. With this dramatic shift in attitude, the Arctic Ocean was transformed from a barrier between Europe and Asia into the shortest sea lane linking the two great regions.
It is now eight years ago that Terje Johhannessen, Norway's Ambassador to Japan, stated that "Norway would like to conduct joint research with Russia on the possibility of year-round operation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and we sincerely hope that Japan will be an equal partner in this program." Upon listening to the Ambassador's arguments, I agreed to collaborate in all aspects of the projects, stating that
For centuries, most of the myths about sailing conditions along the Northern Sea Route have been grounded on incomplete understanding of the historical route. The wealth of data that Russia has amassed on the natural and social environment in the Arctic Ocean holds out an extraordinary opportunity. By accessing this valuable data and constructing a basis for further survey and research efforts and seconding the necessary personnel, Japan and Russia can seize the chance to promote the cultural exchange between them to develop a timely and historic international project.
The three principal cooperative partners, the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in Norway, the Central Marine Research and Design Institute (CNIIMF) in Russia and the Ship & Ocean Foundation (SOF) in Japan, formed an international joint project called the International Northern Sea Route Programme (INSROP). The mission of this program was to shatter the myths about the NSR and replace them with scientific knowledge over a six-year period beginning in 1993.
The fruits of this six-year labor are prodigious. Some 390 front-line researchers from 14 countries took part, creating a corpus of 167 reports on the natural, social, economic and legal environment of the NSR that was widely hailed as the 20th century's last great legacy of comprehensive research results. In addition to historical and statistical data, project participants gathered the latest information on the Arctic region at frequent intervals, constructing the world's foremost geographical information system on the Arctic Ocean.