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Space Technology for a Smart and Resilient Arctic

Polar Initiative, the Norwegian Embassy, and Arctic Frontiers hosts an in-depth program exploring the role of satellite technologies in current Arctic connectivity infrastructures and their continuing development.

Date & Time

Jun. 11, 2018
8:30am – 11:30am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The Arctic continues to change at a rapid pace with northern communities experiencing social, political, environmental, and economic impacts of such change. With over four million residents above the Arctic Circle, and many millions more living in the Arctic region, including indigenous peoples, the communities of the North are looking to a broad range of balanced economic development, the application of new and applicable technologies, and opportunities to shape their future.

The availability and application of new and innovative technologies will be critical components of building and maintaining a future Arctic where inclusion, balanced economic development, and informed decision-making should be the norm. Dependable and affordable telecommunications are still a challenge throughout the Arctic - yet such connectivity is essential to equitable educational opportunities, health care, workforce development, resource development, subsistence activities, marine transportation, search and rescue, oil spill preparedness and prevention, research, and environmental monitoring, to name just a few. Arctic communities require both terrestrial and space-based infrastructure that enables them to connect with the world outside the Arctic - as well as with other regions within the Arctic.

The importance of satellite technology in the Arctic cannot be overstated. Norway is a world leader in this respect, with major facilities for reading signals from satellites on Svalbard and a number of vehicles in space. The “smart Arctic,” where communities are connected and can cooperate in areas such as education or medicine is vision shared by all Arctic nations.

Experts from private industry, academia, government, and Arctic communities explored these important issues by considering the following questions:

How can we better connect the Arctic – through space technology, terrestrial communication systems, and the resulting development and exchange of expertise and knowledge? How can space-based technologies contribute to more sustainable Arctic communities and a greening of Arctic economies? What role can space technology play in monitoring and surveillance, and contributing to the currently level cooperation in the Arctic?

The objective of this program was to a) showcase the role of satellite technologies in current Arctic connectivity infrastructures and b) discuss how infrastructures and connectivity can be further enhanced by new technologies and their deployment.

Selected Quotes

Amb. Kåre R. Aas

“The importance of satellite technology in the Arctic cannot be overstated. It helps us better understand climate change, get more precise weather forecasts, navigate safely, and monitor the environment. Norway is a real leader in this field. This would not be the case without longstanding Norwegian-American cooperation on space technology.”

“As the ice melts, we will see increased activity in the region. As Arctic coastal states, both Norway and the U.S. have a responsibility for exercising authority and monitoring and emergency preparedness over vast sea areas. Better connectivity is fundamental for safer marine transportation, better search and rescue capacities, and improved oil spill preparedness. It is also essential for monitoring our national resources so that we can harvest them responsibly."

Ole Øvretveit

“The image that people have of the Arctic is multifaceted... It might be of ice, of remote communities, of ocean, more ice, polar bears, climate change, resources, and more ice, again. Now these are all concepts that exist in the Arctic and they are all important, but they do not constitute the region alone. There are also thriving, modern, technologically advanced, knowledge-based, connected, smart societies in the North.”

Michael Byers

“We also need to think seriously about how we invest in space for Arctic purposes, again, because technology moves so quickly. Three years ago, the Canadian government was planning on spending several billion dollars on a couple of communications satellites that were going to be put in polar orbit to provide broadband communications for both military and civilian purposes in the Canadian Arctic. They’ve pulled back from that plan, and I initially thought that that was a very bad thing, because we need broadband connectivity in the Arctic, but I now think that it was a prescient thing, because there are commercial operators that are going to be able to provide this service far cheaper than any government could.”

Sean Helfrich

“What happens in the Arctic does not really stay in the Arctic, so if we are to make sure that we are providing good forecasts to the lower 48 states, you have to be able to turn around and have good observations coming in from all over the world, and the Arctic plays a big role in that, particularly in winter weather forecasting.”

“As far as challenges [in Arctic development], a lot of it comes down to allowing technology to catch up with where the demand might be going, and it’s kind of a chicken and the egg scenario, because people don’t want to operate where they have big unknowns. They don’t want to operate into areas where there might be danger, and until you actually have the technology in place, there’s a reluctance to be able to make major investments into those areas."

Rolf Skatteboe

“Norway has opened the regions north of the northern part of Norway, which will be far north from the Alaskan and Canadian northern shores, for explorations and activities, and that causes a lot of new challenges. First of all, you have to have more efficient ice forecasting and monitoring. There will be drifting ice, there will be severe polar low pressure systems… and in addition, tourism is moving north.”

“If we don’t have satellites, and the right type of satellites, this is what you see: You see nothing; it’s pitch dark. It happens that we have 24 hours of sunlight in the summertime, but most of the time, in the winter, this is what you will see, and that’s why you need to use technology to solve that situation. The radar satellites are the only ones that can really do the job for you.”

Rune Sandbakken

“There’s a growing interest and presence in the Arctic. We see new satellite technologies and combined applications that are emerging. With more AS receivers in space,  we can improve the detection of the actual maritime traffic in the Arctic. New low-cost alternatives are emerging.”

Nettie LaBelle-Hamer

“There are really two different time scales that we are looking at that are very important to technologies and to the science of the Arctic. One is the long-term observations. It is absolutely crucial for us to have these long-term, consistent, and inter-operable observations over the long term for us to look at trends, but we also have the near-real-time aspect of it that requires us to grow our technologies and grow our capabilities both in space and on the ground.”

“The growing interest in the Arctic is now. We talk a lot in some of our scientific discussions about how in the future there will be more human presence and activity in the Arctic, but the truth is that it is happening now.”

Douglas May

“What you’re finding is they’re not building those systems just to serve the Arctic. They’re actually building those systems to serve other markets. In the case of the undersea cables, the goal there is to go from Asia to Europe in a shorter route, a quicker path, so you get that data that everybody wants [and] you get it quicker. Satellite systems are the same thing; they’re not being built to serve the Arctic."

“Another conclusion that comes out of the Arctic is you get anchor tenets or anchor customers… If you have a military installation or you have an oil and gas installation or you have a scientific research facility that brings in, perhaps, some significant connectivity for that purpose, what you quickly learn is that’s your anchor customer. You can build off from there. You can mesh off from there and serve local communities. So the question is how do we take advantage of those opportunities."

Tina Pidgeon

“If we’re not able to use all the technologies that are available – the combination of satellite, of wireless, of microwave, of fiber, to deliver services to Arctic communities – then really, just the basic experience that we have as a shared global community will pass by people of the Arctic.”

“We are seeing diminished coverage over time, at least over the U.S. Arctic. As satellites reach end of light, we’re not seeing additional or new satellites come in to provide the same type of coverage… The other thing we’re seeing in the U.S., in particular, is an insatiable demand for continued and more frequencies to support mobile applications.”

“This truly is an exciting time, I think, for connectivity and broadband in the Arctic. We have the focus. We have available tools. We have solutions in sight – but really, [not] unless we can keep our individual efforts organized, directed, and realistic. We need to do those things to keep that promise as near in time and as effective as it possibly can be.”

Eirik Sivertsen

“One key question we have to discuss here is who’s going to pay for the opportunities – because in a modern world, digital infrastructure is fundamental for good living.”

“This about the right for the people in the North to have equal opportunities like the rest of the world, because we also face the three major global trends: It is urbanization… It is climate change… And the last one, of course, is digitalization. And, of course, for government, it’s about science, it’s about surveillance, it’s operations, and let me finish with search and rescue.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski

“There used to be a time that when you brought up the Arctic [in a Congressional hearing], that was new. No one was likely to have brought that up… The good news for us is that so much of that has changed over the past few years, and more and more are viewing with great interest all that is going on in the Arctic. It is no longer a parochial Alaska issue.”

“If you’re doing things by yourself as an Arctic nation, it’s not only going to be lonely, it’s going to be very difficult.”

“When we think about how we are linked in the Arctic by culture, by language, and by challenges and opportunities, I think we know that we are better for it – we are ‘money ahead,’ if you will – if we are working together. And when it comes to satellite coverage for the Arctic, we know that this is not just something just for a single nation. It’s a regional issue. It’s a global issue. I am reminded of this daily.”

“Not to suggest that climate is not still very, very important, and we have to address that, but maybe we need to push out more to ensure that this aspect – the role of technologies and satellites and communications in a better-connected Arctic – moves to the top of the list.”

8:25am: Welcome RemarksDr. Mike Sfraga, Director, Polar Initiative, Wilson Center

8:30am: Keynote RemarksH.E. Kåre R. Aas, Ambassador of Norway to the United States of America

8:45am: Introductory RemarksDr. Mike Sfraga, Director, Polar Initiative, Wilson Center & Mr. Ole Øvretveit, Director, Arctic Frontiers

9:00amSession 1: The Role of Satellite Technologies in the Arctic

  • Panelist: Professor Michael Byers, University of British Columbia
  • Panelist: Mr. Sean Helfrich, Center for Satellite Applications and Research (STAR), NOAA
  • Panelist: Mr. Rolf Skatteboe, CEO, Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT)         
  • Panelist: Mr. Rune Sandbakken, Head, Satellite Communications, Norwegian Space Centre
  • Moderator: Dr. Nettie LaBelle-Hamer, Director, Alaska Satellite Facility, Geophysical Institute, UAF

10:00amSession 2: Business Opportunities in a Better Connected Arctic

  • Panelist: Mr. Douglas May, Arctic Council Task Force on Improved Connectivity, U.S. State Department
  • Panelist: Ms. Tina Pidgeon, Vice President, GCI
  • Panelist: Mr. Eirik Sivertsen, Chair, Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic (SCPAR)
  • Moderator: Dr. Mike Sfraga, Director, Polar Initiative, Wilson Center

11:00am: Concluding Remarks: Senator Lisa Murkowski, United States Senator for Alaska & Mr. Eirik Sivertsen, Chair, Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic (SCPAR)


Hosted By

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

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