Italy’s Arctic Policy


Italy is a Mediterranean country, mostly famous for its rich cultural heritage or for its delicious cuisine. Being a Mediterranean country, Italy has always had the sea in its veins. Italians have always been a people of explorers and navigators: just think about Cristoforo Colombo or Amerigo Vespucci. It is therefore only natural that, even today, despite its distance from the Pole, Italy is interested in maintaining a presence in the Arctic as well.

Italy and the Arctic

Italy has a long history in the Arctic, dating back to the Duke of the Abruzzi's expedition. Luigi Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta was a Royal Prince and an explorer who, in 1899, left Italy with all the intention to become the first conqueror of the North Pole. He could not reach it, but with his men he beat the latitude record set by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen just a few years earlier by several dozens of kilometres.

The expeditions of the general and aviator Umberto Nobile deserve to be mentioned as well. Nobile and his men flew over the North Pole twice. The first time in 1926 with the airship Norge (the airship was piloted by Nobile but Roald Amundsen, the famous Norwegian explorer, was also on board), and the second time with the airship Italia, that tragically crashed during the return journey.

Research and politics

Photo: Laura Bassi, icebreaking research vessel operated by the Italian National Institute for Oceanography and Applied Geophysics 

The start of Italy's contemporary presence in the Arctic can be traced back to the beginning of research activities by the Sapienza University of Rome at the Arctic Atmospheric Observatory of Thule in Greenland in 1990 and the establishment of the Dirigibile Italia Base by the Institute for Polar Research of the National Research Council (CNR) in 1997 on the Svalbard Islands. We can therefore say that the primary efforts of Italy in the Arctic are nowadays dedicated to the advancement of scientific research, in all possible realms.

The polar research vessel Laura Bassi is Italy's first, and for now only, icebreaker, and the fact that a country such as Italy owns an icebreaker is an interesting fact in itself. Laura Bassi primarily operates in Antarctica. However, in 2021, she conducted her first campaign in the Arctic. Additionally, among Italian research initiatives is an annual marine geophysics campaigns initiated in 2017 by the Italian Navy under the program known as "High North."

Given the contributions of the country to Arctic research, Italy formally requested to obtain observer status within the Arctic Council. The request was granted in 2013, and since then a new diplomatic figure has been created within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy: a special envoy for Arctic affairs, to which was given the task to coordinate and overlook any possible aspects of the Italian presence in the Arctic.

Educational and informative aspects

Since 2016, the Italian Society for International Organization, known as SIOI (a think tank dedicated to the study of international relations), has been offering a Master's program in Geopolitics of the Arctic.

Since 2018, the same Society has been organizing in Rome the annual international symposium "Arctic Connections" in collaboration with the Embassy of Norway and the University of Bodø. Since September of the same year, it has become a member of the University of the Arctic network, being the first institution from a Mediterranean country to be admitted.

Of significant importance is also the establishment of a Ph.D. program in “Polar Sciences” at Ca' Foscari University of Venice in 2019. The program aims at equipping graduates with a solid knowledge in all the aspects of Arctic science such as geology, geography, physics, marine biology, oceanography and meteorology.

Osservatorio Artico, of which I am myself a proud contributor, also deserves mention. It is an online magazine, publishing articles on an almost daily basis, offering insights and organizing events, only in the Italian language, with the specific mission to raise awareness and spread knowledge of the polar region among Italians in the most understandable but in-depth way as possible.

Economic and Military aspects

In the Arctic, several significant private Italian companies operate, proving our economic interest in the region. Among these, we can mention:

  1. ENI: Italy's national petroleum extracting company, together with the Norwegian Equinor, since 2016 developed the Goliat field – the world’s most northern offshore platform, located in the Barents Sea, in Norwegian territorial waters.
  2. ENEL: the national agency for electric energy has been active for years in the construction of renewable energy plants such as wind fields.
  3. e-Geos: An aerospace company engaged in Earth observation via satellites, collaborating with various Nordic companies, space agencies and Meteorological Institutes.
  4. Fincantieri: is the largest shipbuilding company in Europe, Active in Norway, the United States, and Canada in the construction of ships suitable for polar navigation.
Photo: The Goliat field, situated in the Barents Sea

The last aspect I would like to briefly discuss is the military one. As you well know, Italy is a founding member of NATO. Italian troops and vehicles have been involved in virtually all the military exercises organized in the NATO framework in the Arctic, in the Nordic Countries, Canada and Alaska. The Italian Navy plays a leading role in these efforts, deploying ships and Marine infantry, with significant support from the Air Force and the Alpine troops of the Army.

Since Italy does not have specified Arctic troops, the Alpine troops must demonstrate the ability to operate in such environments, applying concepts relevant to both mountain Warfare and cold weather operations. In the recent exercise Nordic Response 2024, approximately 2000 Italian troops were engaged in a highly specific environment, with temperatures reaching -40°C.

In conclusion, Italy's involvement in the Arctic covers scientific research, economic partnerships, educational initiatives, and military cooperation. Our nation's efforts in the region prove our recognition of the Arctic's global significance and the interconnection of our world. As we look to the future, Italy is dedicated to promoting sustainable development, environmental protection, and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic.

Tommaso Bontempi