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Italy and the Arctic

Italy boasts an ultra-centennial history in the Arctic, which dates back at least to the expedition of the Duca degli Abruzzi in 1899 and to Umberto Nobile’s missions of 1926 and 1928. During those expeditions, the support of the Regia Marina [Royal Navy] was significant both for the hydrographic activities and for the rescue operations. Italy’s bonds with the Arctic continued over time with the activities carried out by explorers and scientists, as the anthropologist Silvio Zavatti, who devoted his life to the studies of the Northern peoples with a special focus on the Inuit communities, and Guido Monzino, who contributed by reaching the North Pole in 1971 on sleighs pulled by dogs. The beginning of research activities by the University of Rome at The Thule High Arctic Atmospheric Observatory in Greenland in 1990, alongside the opening in 1997 of the Dirigibile Italia Arctic Station run by the Italian National Research Council (CNR) in the Svalbard Islands, marks the onset of the Italian presence in the Arctic as it now stands. Alongside the CNR, also other Italian research institutes – such as the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA), the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics (OGS), have been operating in the Arctic, thus outlining a consolidated high-level scientific presence. 

Such highly appreciated contributions to research in the Arctic, together with the economic interests of some major enterprises, represent the basis for the request made to the Arctic Council to obtain the status of Observer State, which was accepted in 2013. To prepare such request, the Farnesina set up the Arctic Task Force (Tavolo Artico), a forum coordinating the actions of Ministries, agencies and enterprises, which meets on a regular basis and represents an important moment of reflection and interaction among Italian institutional and industrial stakeholders interested in the Arctic. The Arctic Task Force drafted a policy document in 2015-2016, entitled “Towards an Italian Strategy for the Arctic – national guidelines”, which summarises the inception, evolution and objectives of the Italian presence in the Arctic, highlighting the political commitment, the environmental and human dimension, the scientific activities and the economic cooperation. In 2016- 2017, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies carried out a survey to the Italian Arctic Strategy, organising auditions with Italian and EU institutional representatives, members of the scientific community and enterprises. 

The conclusion of the aforesaid survey highlighted that “Italy’s participation in political cooperation initiatives in the Arctic represents a strategic priority in the light of the changes under way in the region, caused by climate change and the interactions between major international players in the area”. Moreover, the document, “within the framework of the commitment to enhance the resources allocated to research, calls for an urgent acknowledgement by our Country of the specificity of research in the Arctic, identifying the appropriate institutional and financial tools needed to strengthen international scientific cooperation and to highlight the Italian points of excellence in that field”. The same Foreign Affairs Committee promoted the constitution of a  Scientific Committee for the Arctic  (CSA) and the creation of the  Arctic Research Programme  (PRA), in order to provide further support to research institutions and to define a coherent framework for an improved commitment of the Italian scientific community. During the first three years of activity, PRA has funded two calls for research projects, a call for the strengthening of scientific infrastructures, the creation of a digital infrastructure for data management and the launch of a PhD in Polar Science. 

Italy’s approach to Arctic issues complies with several basic principles, in line with the commitments relevant to its role as Observer State to the Arctic Council: respecting the sovereignty of Arctic States and the international law applicable to the Arctic, primarily enforcing the Law of the Sea; promoting the protection of local and indigenous peoples’ traditions and cultures and of international, multilateral and bilateral cooperation on Arctic issues; contributing to the economic development of the Arctic with the involvement of the business community, in compliance with topmost environmental protection standards and sustainable development principles; protection of the marine environment and navigation safety. Hence, a contact person has been assigned to each of the six permanent working groups of the Arctic Council as well as to some of the expert groups and the Task Forces. 

The Report on the contribution of Italy as an Observer State of the Arctic Council underlined the value of Italy’s contribution through the concerted action of Italian Ministries (MITE [Ecological transition], MUR [University and Research], Defense through the Navy’s Hydrographic Institute and MIMS [Infrastructures] through the Coast Guard), research institutions (especially CNRENEAINGV e OGS), universities and educational centers, alongside major Italian enterprises with interests in the Arctic. In addition, Italy provides an active contribution in other international fora in institutional contexts, such as the Arctic Science Ministerial Meeting, whose third meeting was held in Tokyo in May 2021, as well as in conferences, as Arctic Circle. Worthy of mention is also the contribution within the IMO (International Maritime Organization) in order to regulate ships operations in polar waters (Polar Code). 

Scientific research represents the prime driver of Italy’s presence in the Arctic, which stemmed from the establishment of a ‘polar community’ created in the ’80s with the National Research Programme in Antarctica (PNRA). Scientific activities were therefore performed in the 90’s in the ‘Dirigibile Italia’ Base in the Svalbard Islands (CNR), as well as at the THAAO international observatory in Thule (Greenland) (a project run by Rome’s Sapienza University, ENEA and INGV). Many more research projects have been carried out since then, and others are still in progress, often as part of international collaborations and European Union programmes. The polar ship ‘OGS Explora’ conducted five oceanographic campaigns in the Arctic, in addition to the eleven in Antarctica. Also the new research polar ship “Laura Bassi”, recently purchased by OGS and equipped with several laboratories and scientific instrumentation, is intended to carry out campaigns in the Arctic (the first took place in August-September 2021), as well as in Antarctica. Among the important initiatives that are worthy of mention, also because of their concerted nature involving the participation of all major research agencies, there are the yearly marine geophysics campaigns by the Hydrographic Institute on behalf of the Italian Navy which started from 2017 within the framework of the multiannual programme known as “High North”. 

Major Italian firms work in the Arctic and fully participate in the Arctic Task Force to ensure synergy among the diverse Italian stakeholders. These operate in the Region with cutting-edge technology to assure utmost respect for a particularly delicate environment. They also seek to involve local and indigenous communities in their activities, aware of the fact that such peoples have a legacy of notions linked to their territory and traditions. Among the stakeholders involved in these actions are ENI, which in the Goliat off-shore platform in the Barents Sea (Norway) and in the North Slope in Alaska, applies innovative operational standards and technology solutions, compliant with the extreme operational conditions, utilizing innovative oil-spill prevention systems with the active participation of the indigenous communities; e-Geos, which deals with the data of the Cosmo-Sky Med satellite system and also has an agreement with the Finnish Meteorological Insitute; Fincantieri, the firm that built the new Norwegian  polar research ship. In March 2019, CNR and ENI signed an MoU to set up four research centres in southern Italy specifically dedicated to young researchers, one of which is located in Lecce and focuses on the Arctic and climate change. 

Finally, another important aspect is supporting the dissemination of Arctic–related themes in Italy. An international conference on Climate Change in the Arctic was held in December 2014 at the Venice International University. In 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation hosted an international conference entitled “The Arctic Council and the Italian Perspective – The 20th Anniversary of the Ottawa Declaration”. In November 2016, the National Research Council (CNR) exhibition “Arctic: an interactive journey to the North Pole” was inaugurated at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa and then taken to several Italian cities and to the CNR headquarters of Rome in February 2020. The Forum on “New Arctic, Old Mediterranean – together for an extraordinary destiny” was held in Genoa in November 2018 organized by the Milan Center for Food Law and Policy. In April 2019, Genoa has also hosted an exhibition entitled “The Italian Navy in the North Pole” organized by the Hydrographic Institute of the Italian Navy. The Ca’ Foscari University in Venice has launched a PHD in polar sciences in cooperation with partners such as CNR, INGV, the Bicocca University of Milan, the University of Pisa and the Insubria University. The Italian Society for International Organizations (SIOI) holds a Master’s course on “Sustainable development, resources geopolitics and arctic studies” since 2016. SIOI also organizes “Arctic Connection” an international symposium in partnership with the Bodø University (Norway) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Rome. As for initiatives specifically targeted to youth, SIOI in 2017 organized an international simulation of the Arctic Council work sessions entitled “One Arctic” and in 2019 the Zero Hackathon “Ocean and Polar Connections” in cooperation with the Embassies of the USA and Norway and the Ministry of Education, University and Research. In September 2018, SIOI was the first Institute of a Mediterranean country to become a member of the UArctic (University of the Arctic) network.