Arctic News Roundup: 22-28 June

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) The latest economic forecast issued by Statistics Iceland (Hagstofa Íslands) included a warning that the country’s GDP is estimated to decline by 8.4 percent this year, largely due to the economic damage, including on the tourism sector, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

2) Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor of Over the Circle, wrote a piece in OtC about emerging environmental threats and challenges in the Arctic region. The article discusses dangers to the Arctic’s ecosystems which can be attributed to higher regional temperatures as well as behaviour of Arctic governments, including concerns about nuclear materials in the Russian Arctic.

3) As the Icelandic news service RÚV reported, on Saturday 27 July, Icelanders voted for the President to serve as the country’s head of state for the next four years. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the current President, easily won the vote with 92.2 percent support, a landslide victory over his lone challenger, Guðmundur Franklín Jónsson.

The Other Crisis: Present and Future Environmental Strains in the Arctic

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

As the Arctic, like much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, prepares for the summer months, the COVID-19 pandemic remains by far the region’s most pressing concern. The records of far northern governments in flattening the infection curve and reopening their economies have so far been mixed. For example, Iceland began opening its borders earlier this month for travellers from within the European Schengen region, however the government of Sweden is now facing domestic and international scrutiny for its controversial handling of the outbreak within that country. Other parts of the Arctic, including Greenland and Nunavut, benefited from isolation and swift containment measures, and currently remain free of the virus.

However, over the past few weeks, evidence of serious concerns has appeared in the far north related to the perpetual environmental stresses caused by climate change, as well as via other anthropogenic means. The coronavirus has not placed a hold on the ever-growing list of threats to the Arctic environment, and indeed the first half of this year has highlighted that point in several ways.

The current heat wave in Siberia, normally known as one of the coldest places on the planet, has been mainly responsible for re-focusing attention on altered weather patterns in the Arctic in recent months. Last week, the city of Verkhoyansk (Верхоянск) in north-central Russia, long known for its record-setting winter temperatures, (including a figure of -67.7ºC measured in the late nineteenth century), confirmed a daytime temperature of 38ºC, which may have broken another record, namely the warmest temperature ever observed north of the Arctic Circle.

The ‘Pole of Cold’ (Полюс холода) monument in Verkhoyansk, Russia [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
That event took place in the wake of high temperatures throughout the Siberian region since the start of spring, producing wildfires, including so-called ‘zombie fires’ (зомби-пожаров) caused by embers underneath the soil which can re-ignite conflagrations long after they have been extinguished. The fires placed further strains on the permafrost, which is already facing attrition due to previous climate trends, in much of the Russian Arctic. Collapsing permafrost, as well as poor infrastructure and safety protocols, had previously been blamed for the calamitous oil spill near the Siberian city of Norilsk (Норильск) in late May this year, an accident which is still in the process of being contained.

Arctic forest fires in Siberia and elsewhere have been placed under greater scrutiny by environmentalists in recent years, out of concerns they are contributing to a feedback loop by discharging  greater amounts of carbon dioxide into the air which can then contribute to further temperature hikes and higher pollution levels, as well as affecting the Arctic-Atlantic jet stream. Higher than normal temperatures have also been experienced in other Arctic regions, including in Canada, (with wildfires breaking out in northern Québec this month), as well as in Finland and Sweden.

Despite the connections between fossil fuel burning and warming temperatures in the Arctic and elsewhere, some Arctic governments are pushing ahead with oil and gas development. Despite the negative public reaction to the Norilsk incident, as well as depressed oil and gas prices caused by the pandemic-induced global recession, Moscow continues to advocate for oil and gas projects in its Arctic lands, as well as expanded use of the Northern Sea Route as more of the Arctic Ocean becomes free of ice during summer months.

Other actors have also not been dissuaded by diminished fuel requirements in planning new energy initiatives in their Arctic zones. The US government, which continues to deny the existence of climate change, announced its interest this month in designating new areas of Alaska as being eligible for oil and gas drilling, (while at the same time easing restrictions on the hunting of Alaskan wildlife).

Oslo is facing criticism from green advocacy groups this month after it announced the licensing of new exploration blocks off the northern Norwegian coast, including in the Barents Sea, while the country’s Johan Sverdrup oil field has reportedly been boosting exports after Oslo agreed to abide by a plan set out by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) and its supporters to reduce production. The Norwegian government has also been dealing with a series of lawsuits from environmental organisations, including the local chapter of Greenpeace, which calls for a complete halt to further fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic on constitutional grounds, and the case is expected to be heard by the country’s Supreme Court in November this year.

Another example of a regional environmental threat, as well as an uncomfortable historical reminder, appeared during this month as slightly elevated levels of radioactive isotopes, possibly emanating from damage to a Russian nuclear power facility, began to be detected in Northern Europe. Norwegian authorities reported that tiny traces of the specific isotope iodine-131 (131I) had been monitored, earlier this June, at radiation testing stations near Kirkenes on the Russian border, and on Svalbard. The exact source of the radiation has yet to be determined, but studies suggested that its origin was likely Western Russia, despite assurances from Russia’s nuclear authority, Rosenergoatom (Росэнергоатом) that both of its nuclear plants in the region, one near the Arctic city of Murmansk and the other close to St Petersburg, had experienced no abnormalities or breakdowns.

[Photo by Emanuel Haas via Unsplash]
This incident has thrown a spotlight on another contentious aspect of Russia’s Arctic development policies, namely the role of nuclear energy. As a policy brief published this month by the London-based European Policy Network (EPN) explained [pdf], the high concentration of nuclear materials in the Russian Arctic, contained within power stations, dumping sites, weapons and vehicles, including icebreakers and submarines, was growing in intensity. The report stated that, observing current trends, there is the possibility that the Russian Arctic could contain the most heavily nuclearised waters in the world fifteen years from now.

As the brief described, the combination of the environmental fragility of the Arctic under climate change conditions, and the poor track record of the Russian government, and previously, the Soviet regime, of safe nuclear power maintenance, should be cause for alarm. To cite a recent example, in August 2019, an incident took place at the Nyonoksa (Нёнокса) test range on the White Sea, which was later described by US authorities as an explosion and radiation release, causing five fatalities, during a failed attempt to recover a misfired nuclear missile. The EPN paper concluded the increased amounts of nuclear fuel in, on, and near Russian Arctic waters, including via the floating mobile nuclear power station Akademik Lomonosov (Академик Ломоносов), which came online in May 2020, and planned new nuclear powered icebreaking vessels, greatly raised the chances of a catastrophic accident scenario.

In short, the Arctic is facing another difficult summer of environmental challenges, added to the ongoing uncertainty about the present course of the coronavirus. The region is also continuing to prove that climate change, as well as certain human actions, in the far north can have unpredictable outcomes reaching far beyond the Arctic itself.

Addendum: It was reported on 28 June that a wastewater discharge took place near the same Norilsk Nickel facilities where the oil spill had occurred a month previous.

Arctic News Roundup: 15-21 June

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) The first inter-town road in Greenland is going to be constructed at the end July this year, as reported in Arctic Today. The project is planned to be built between the town of Kangerlussuaq and the Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord near Sisimiut, and is estimated to be 130 km in length. So far, there are no roads to connect settlements or towns on the island, and the major methods of transportation consist of ships and boats, as well as planes, helicopters and dogsleds.

2) The 17th of June is the Independence Day of Iceland.  On 17 June 1944, Iceland gained its full independence from Denmark. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the capital of Reykjavík, the traditional downtown parade was replaced with breakout events throughout the city, as explained in Morgunblaðið.

3) The 21st of June marked the Greenland National Day, which was established as a holiday in 1983. Citizens in all the settlements and towns on the island celebrate the date via social activities, such as public speeches, music playing, and traditional Greenlandic kayaking events. There were also ceremonial activities in several cities in Denmark as in previous years.

4) Several tracks of damage on a moss covered land, likely caused by snowmobiles operating off-track, were found within the Fjallabak nature reserve, in the Icelandic highlands, as Morgunblaðið reported. The wilderness of Iceland is vulnerable to this type of damage and the affected area may take up to a few decades to recover.

5) An article published on Arctic Today this week warned of an increasing amount of mercury inside local polar bears on the Svalbard archipelago, based on a research sampling of hairs from the species during 1995-2016. Scientists suggested that climate change and warming temperatures may be the source of this result.

6) Also from Arctic Today; a new article published this week explains the relationship between increasing regional temperatures, and the subsequent melting of permafrost in the Arctic, and the higher possibility of waking up some dormant bacteria and viruses. Consequently, animal and human security in the region are more likely to be threatened.

7) A commentary on the newly crafted new governmental coalition in Greenland was co written by Mingming and Marc, editors for Over the Circle. This piece introduces the background of the current administration in Nuuk and the members of the new cabinet, as well as a short examination of the governmental statement which confirmed the coalition, and a description of ongoing and future challenges for the nation.

8) Molly of Denali, a joint American-Canadian PBS and CBC Kids program for children and youth, won a prestigious Peabody Award, according to CBC News. The leading role of the show is Molly Mabray, a fictional 10-year old Alaskan girl with an Indigenous background.

Greenland’s Government: New Coalition, Emerging Challenges

Greenland flag (Photo by Marc Lanteigne).

by Mingming Shi and Marc Lanteigne

After the Greenlandic government of Prime Minister Kim Kielsen fell into a minority position, following the departure of Partii Naleraq (PN) from the governing coalition, in September 2018, there was the question of whether the remaining coalition partners could continue to effectively govern before the next parliamentary elections. There had been some rough sailing on the international front, including the now-infamous endeavour by the United States government to purchase the island from Denmark, and domestically as the country faced the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in Greenland the virus has been brought under control, and the Kielsen administration, pre-pandemic, had also benefitted from recent economic gains [paywall; in Danish] over the past five years, including in regards to improved employment numbers and growth [pdf] in many sectors such as fishing and tourism.

Earlier this month, this government was given a lifeline of sorts in the form of a new agreement between the governing coalition and the centre-right Democrats (Demokraatit) which will bring the government back to a slim majority in the unicameral Greenlandic parliament (Inatsisartut) in Nuuk, with seventeen seats in the 31-seat chamber. The new three-party coalition, composed of Siumut, headed by PM Kielsen, Nunatta Qitornai (NQ), a party which had broken off from Siumut in 2017, and the centrist Democrats, now faces a host of domestic and regional challenges, including the effects of the pandemic and the omnipresent independence question. This week, it was confirmed [in Danish] by PM Kielsen’s office that he would be seeking re-election as the chair of Siumut.

There were some initial signs that the Democrats were interested in signing on to the coalition well before the final arrangement was confirmed. In early May of this year, for example, there was a report [in Danish] in the Greenlandic news agency Sermitsiaq describing the emerging interests of the party to be included in the government, which the Democrats already supported.

There are ten cabinet positions within the administration, and the new coalition prompted several changes of ministerial portfolios. Siumut still enjoys the lion’s share of these posts, with Vittus Qujaukitsoq from the pro-independence Nunatta Qitornai holding the only ministry (Finance) for his party in the current organization. Three new ministers on the team are from the Democrats, including the head of the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources, Jens Frederik Nielsen, who is also the new leader of the Democrats [in Danish]. Nielsen has studied social science at the University of Greenland [in Danish], is 29 years old, and has gained renown through a successful career as a badminton athlete prior to emerging as a new face in Greenland politics.

The recently crafted agreement [in Danish] for the current government, which is designed to serve in office from 2020-22, features three major themes: growth, stability and security, covering improving local education and economic activities, continuing working on a potential constitution for the nation, and preparing for acquisition of new duties as stipulated in the 2009 Self-Rule Act [pdf], which had been created to facilitate a shift in powers from Denmark to Greenland. Regarding natural resource extraction industries on the island, the newly-formed coalition appears to favour the continuation of policies from the recent previous administrations, and agrees that the nation should promote itself further as a mining destination, and simplifying relevant legislation for foreign investors while ensuring environmental and human security.

Despite uncertain global prices, interest in potential mines in Greenland remains strong as evidenced by the news this week that UK-based Bluejay Mining was anticipating a decision soon from Greenland’s Mineral Resource authorities about an exploitation licence for potential ilmenite mine in the Moriusaq region of northern Greenland. Ilmenite, also known as iron titanium oxide, has several commercial uses, including in cosmetics, paints and plastics.

2011.09.16 - 03413-2
[Photo from Inatsisartut, Nuuk, Greenland]
Several economic questions lie ahead for Greenland. Denmark is the island’s former colonial power, and Greenland has been a part of the Kingdom of Denmark since 1953. As per the Self-Rule Act, Copenhagen provides an annual block grant to Greenland, and according to 2018 figures [pdf], this grant amounted to approximately one-fifth of Greenland’s overall GDP [pdf] of 19.2 billion DKK (US$2.9 billion) that year. Copenhagen and Nuuk have also cooperated in order Arctic initiatives, including a marine pollution prevention agreement signed last month, and Greenland is likely to figure heavily in Denmark’s updated government policy paper on the Arctic which is expected to be published soon. However, Denmark was only mentioned briefly in the new coalition agreement. As well, both the United States and China have been seeking to deepen economic relations with Nuuk as the island grows in international interest.

Nuuk is also aware of the potential further damage of the COVID-19 pandemic on Greenlandic society, as well as possible economic losses in the shorter term. However, how well Greenland can effectively identify and address these emerging obstacles, including in the fishing, shipping and tourism industries is an open question as the global economy faces an extensive recession. Greenland’s maritime trade was given a boost this month via a joint services agreement, which recently entered into force between the country’s Royal Arctic Line and the Icelandic firm Eimskip, which may open up new shipping possibilities between Greenland and markets in Europe and North America.

With the new, more stable government coalition now in place in Nuuk, the next steps for Greenland will be how to address both the economic challenges at home and an Arctic neighbourhood which is becoming much less predictable than even a few short years ago.

[The authors would like to thank Mikkel Schøler of Sikki Consulting for his valuable comments on a previous draft of this article.]

Arctic News Roundup: 8-14 June

Thingvellir river
Þingvellir, Iceland [Photo by Mingming Shi]
by Mingming Shi

1) Marc Lanteigne, the Chief Editor for Over the Circle (OtC), provided an analysis on the Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions, which was recently published by the US government. The article outlined the primary goals of Washington, along with its motivations behind them, in the Polar Regions. However, the piece also argued that it would take some time to observe how the US would actually implement the proposed strategies within the memorandum, and how this would affect American influence on the region, given that Russia will assume the chair at the Arctic Council next year, as well as other variables such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

2) The Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), a think tank based in Copenhagen, published a new policy paper [in Danish] which suggested the Government of Denmark should take an active role in addressing tensions in the Arctic, and maintaining the relationships with its traditional alliance partners in the region, in the wake of increasing competition between the great powers, including the United States, China and Russia, as reported in Arctic Today

3) It has been one year since Iceland assumed the chair of the Arctic Council. Iceland, as noted in an editorial by Einar Gunnarsson, Chair of the Council’s Senior Arctic Officials. His comments included a restatement of the four major priorities of the organisation’s work, namely to assist people and communities, protect and understand the Arctic marine environment, to address climate and energy solutions, and to strengthen cooperation and communication between the organisation and other regional stakeholders.

4) After closing their facilities in 1953, the United States officially reopened its consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, as part of Washington’s ongoing diplomacy towards the island. Mr Sung W. Choi, who has extensive diplomatic experience in Asia and Europe, had been named as first consul.