Over the Circle (OtC) is a site dedicated to news, politics and current affairs in the Arctic region.
by Mingming Shi
1) While many continue to watch the Fagradalsfjall volcano, the Icelandic news service RÚV reported that the volume of snowfall in the country during the 2020-21 winter season was at its lowest level in forty-four years, with many regions throughout Iceland reporting higher-than-average temperatures.
2) Greenland held its parliamentary elections on 6 April. Out of the 31 seats in total in the country’s Parliament (Inatsisartut), then-opposition party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) earned twelve, giving it the right to form the next government coalition, with another five political parties shared the rest. According to the news service KNR, IA has begun to negotiate with possible partners to form the next government. The election was watched carefully outside of Greenland given that a major issue during the campaign was whether to halt plans for a uranium and rare earths mine in southern Greenland, a stance IA supports.
3) The Greenland Integrated Observing System (GIOS), a scientific research partnership, has been established [pdf], featuring local studies of atmospheric conditions, hydrology, the ice sheet, biology, permafrost, sea ice and snow, and space weather. Several educational and research institutes in both Greenland and Denmark are responsible for its creation and oversight.
4) In light of the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Estonia and Norway, a webinar entitled The Changing Arctic was announced, with the event to take place on 14 April this month. A number of specialists on regional affairs in the High North have been invited to present their work on various related topics.
by Mikkel Schøler, CEO of Sikki.gl
On 6 April, Greenland held both its national and municipal elections. The result of the national parliamentary (Inatsisartut) vote was a decisive victory for what had been the main opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), who will now seek to form a government coalition– most likely with the Naleraq and Atassut parties, (although the former took a minor hit in the results). If such a coalition can be created, the three parties can form an eighteen-seat majority in the 31-seat parliament.
Despite internal infighting between the newly elected Siumut president, Erik Jensen, and the incumbent Siumut prime minister, Kim Kielsen, Siumut held its ground compared to the 2018 elections.
Another party, the Democrats, took an anticipated massive hit to its voter share, as the last election’s voter magnet, Niels Thomsen, has since left politics. Thomsen personally accounted for almost 9.5% of the total national vote in the 2018 elections. That turnover in the Democratic Party was too much to cover for the newcomers.
This is bad news for the Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) uranium and rare earths mining project, as well as for the Greenlandic mining sector in general, as the perceived political and financial risk of investing in Greenland will rise if IA succeeds in stopping the Kuannersuit application process at the eleventh hour.
Hotel and tourism investors in Ilulissat will also be holding their breath. While the same could be said for the airport plans for the region near the southern town of Qaqortoq, IA stands to take control of the country’s southernmost municipality, Kommune Kujalleq. This may erode their initial opposition to the planned airport at Qaqortoq. The municipality struggles with high rates of unemployment, at nine percent, (the national average is 5.2%, according to figures from stat.gl) – so IA would need to compensate for the loss of expected jobs from Kuannersuit if that mine project, overseen by an Australian firm with a Chinese partner, is cancelled.
The Greenlandic election was called for 6 April, as an indirect result of the change in Siumut presidency. Erik Jensen, former minister in the coalition led by Kim Kielsen, was elected party president, with 39 to 32 votes.
After being elected, Jensen held talks with the coalition partners from the Democrats and Nunatta Qittornai (NQ) that constituted a majority of 17 of the 31 seats in the Greenlandic parliament, Inatsisartut. The purpose was to solidify a majority behind Jensen as the new Greenlandic Prime Minister. Simultaneously Jensen negotiated with the opposition with the purpose of forming a new broad government coalition.
The opposition consisting of IA, Naleraq and Atassut shunned Jensen and in the process, the coalition partners lost faith in Siumut under Jensen’s leadership. The Democrats have been direct in their criticism of Jensen and Jensen’s support base. Referring to the people who make up Jensen’s supporters in the Siumut leadership, the party president of the Democrats, Jens-Frederik Nielsen, has made the harsh statement that the cadre of Jensen supporters serve themselves rather than the party or the country, and gave that as the reason why the party lost faith in Siumut under Jensen’s leadership.
The Inatsisartut election was held simultaneously with the municipal election. The municipal election has not received as much attention, but the results are interesting nonetheless.
In the northernmost Avannaata Kommunia region, Siumut won the election with 46.2% of the vote with a wide margin to IA’s 16.9% in second place. However, the incumbent Siumut mayor, Palle Jerimiassen, could see newcomer, Minik Høegh-Dam receive 406 votes to his own 338. This could lead to Høegh-Dam becoming mayor of Avannaata.
In Kommune Qeqertalik, the incumbent Inuit Ataqatigiit mayor, Ane Hansen, will probably remain mayor after IA received 53.3% of the vote. She saw her personal vote tally increased, but she was still bested by Peter Olsen, another IA candidate. Olsen could very well be appointed to a new IA-led government, leaving the municipal reins to Hansen for another term. Though they came in second, Siumut lacked a strong unifying candidate in Qeqertalik, and saw their total number of votes reduced by one-third, compared to 2017.
In Qeqqata Kommunia, incumbent mayor Malik Berthelsen almost doubled his personal votes to 976, though Siumut lost 11.9 points compared to the 2017 municipal elections, the party still ended up as the clear front runner with 39.8% of the vote. Depending on the national result this could lead to a change in leadership as well, if the three remaining parties – Atassut, Naleraq and IA – form an alliance against Siumut, though Berthelsen should be the favorite to emerge as mayor again.
In Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq, the incumbent mayor Asii Chemnitz Narup withdrew from her position in 2019 after the Democrats pulled support for her leadership in the municipality following a string of social neglect cases in Eastern Greenland, where the municipal administration was viewed as having failed in its responsibilities. She ran for the Inatsisartut election and was elected third with 983 votes, trailing IA party president and likely new Greenlandic prime minister, Muté Borup Egede (3.380 votes) and IA vice president Aqqaluaq B. Egede (1.287 votes).
In her place, IA appointed Charlotte Ludvigsen as new mayor. Ludvigsen had received just 77 personal votes in the last municipal election. In this election she received a massive 1.512 votes– more than one-third of IA’s total votes in Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq. This means Ludvigsen will remain mayor of Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq.
In Kommune Kujalleq, Siumut and the incumbent mayor, Kiista P. Isaksen, took a hit. The party lost 15.7 points compared to 2017 and Isaksen saw her personal votes more than halved. Isaksen will probably point to Siumut’s president, Erik Jensen, wavering on the Kuannersuit mining project issue boosting environmental concerns, as the reason IA succeeded in making the issue central to the campaign. Still, the result is massive win for IA, and Stine Egede looks to be the new mayor of Kommune Kujalleq.
The election campaign has been defined mostly by IA and Siumut with social challenges, the Kuannersuit Mining Project and airport construction plans as central themes. The Greenlandic fisheries sector has played a surprisingly small role in this election, but that can be due to the fact that the country’s fisheries commission still working on its final report.
During the election, former Siumut president Kim Kielsen made it clear that he did not see the question of party presidency as settled. Even though Kielsen remained quiet, letting Jensen work, before the election was called, Kielsen has fought to make a comeback as president since then. Stating that Siumut’s voters now had the chance to make their opinion count through personal votes, Kielsen had openly challenged Jensen.
Kielsen came in first with 1,841 votes, while Jensen could only muster 1,186 votes. A massive difference that could very well see Kielsen return as party president.
Also noteworthy is the results for two newcomers. Aslak Wilhelm Jensen (814 votes) and Qarsoq Høegh-Dam (796 votes) thundered into parliament, while known quantities like Vivian Motzfeldt (237) and Anders Olsen (199) come in a distant 5th and 6th.
IA has presented a number of costly proposals aimed at increasing the standard of living in Greenland. However, IA has very clearly stated that they want to stop the Kuannersuit project on its principal opposition to uranium mining.
Both of these positions will reduce expected revenue streams for Greenland in at least the short to medium term.
Thus, IA will be hard pressed to find new sources of revenue, if they wish to deliver on the promises made during the election campaign.
IA has won the election and will seek to form a coalition. Now Greenland, international investors and great powers alike will be waiting to see exactly what IA hopes to accomplish through that coalition and what course the party sets for the future of Greenland.
by Mingming Shi
1) As the Reykjavík Grapevine reported, Iceland is ranked the top in terms of gender equality, (for the 12th time), in the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, conducted by the World Economic Forum. However, as the Prime Minister of the country, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has commented, Iceland has not completely eliminated gender inequality, as well as the increasing domestic violence during the pandemic.
2) Heavy snowfall in Europe in the past few winters may be a direct result of decreasing ice in the Barents Sea, as described in a feature story by National Geographic. Some research has proven that, because of climate change and warmer temperature, evaporation from the Arctic Ocean has fuelled increased snow levels in much of Europe. Some scientists assume that this model may become a trend in the future.
3) According to CBC News, the Yukon Poverty Report Card 2020, published by the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, provides ten recommendations to reduce poverty levels in the region. These include the lowering of rents and building more low-income housing, as well as a potential increase in the minimum wage. This was the first such study of its kind in the territory. However, how the government will address these issues remains to be determined.
4) The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) has suggested further steps in the country’s COVID-19 vaccination policies to allow for shots to be given to the younger population, as reported by The Local NO, noting the news from NRK. The idea is based on several considerations, as the specialists of the organisation have explained. For instance, children and youth are also vulnerable to the virus and their inoculation is seen as required to help foster herd immunity. Currently, only people over 18 are receiving vaccines against the coronavirus.
5) Visit Greenland, a government owned tourism promotion board, has warned that the island should prepare for a slack period for the upcoming summer season, due to the country’s ongoing entry restrictions to guard against the COVID-19 pandemic. As Arctic Today pointed out, local tourism had already suffered from a sharp decline in the summer last year.
6) Rhiannon Bourassa, a teacher at Iqaluit’s Aqsarniit Middle School in Northern Canada, gives classes to her young students on how to distinguish information from misinformation found online, as written in Nunatsiaq News. The main purpose of these lessons is to educate the students to better comprehend materials on the internet in a more critical way, with various case examples from broadsheet news reports, editorials, and tabloids.
7) In a comment in Singapore’s Straits Times, the recent incident involving the blockage of the Suez Canal in Egypt by the wayward cargo vessel Ever Given suggested the need to develop alternative maritime trade routes, including via the Arctic Ocean, as the region becomes more navigable in the summer months. Russian authorities have also been quick to tout the possibility of the Northern Sea Route as an alternative maritime corridor given the perceived vulnerability of the Suez region to traffic stoppage.
by Mingming Shi
1) A species of bird known as the Golden plover, (or Lóa in Icelandic), has been spotted in Iceland, according to Vísir, a local news service. This migratory species is widely regarded in Iceland as the messenger of spring.
2) A new postgraduate diploma programme on Arctic Studies is now available at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands) in Reykjavík. The programme, consisting of thirty credits, provides several courses on regional politics, Indigenous affairs and international relations in the Arctic region.
3) Condé Nast Traveler published an article on how Greenland has been promoting its tourism sector in a methodical and cautious manner. The authors outlined the measurements for the industry’s development adopted by Greenland. The policies are to welcome more visitors, once circumstances allow, but also to address the potential problems of over-tourism, including creating and strengthening various travelling themes and characters for different parts of the island, planning to better improve transportation options, and prioritizing local businesses.
4) A new OtC article by Marc Lanteigne was published on the subject of the Czech Republic’s recent application to join the Arctic Council as a formal observer. This piece summarised the benefits Prague could bring to the organization, including stressing the contributions of Czech scientific research to High North studies, mutual concerns about Arctic climate change, the country’s engagement with polar Indigenous groups, and Prague’s current relations with the eight Arctic states.
5) As the Helsinki Times reported, despite the strict border restrictions which the government of Finland implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is still seeing many arrivals from one of its nearest neighbours, Estonia. Most of the cross border travellers from Estonia to Finland are essential workers. Overall border crossings, including from Estonia as well as elsewhere in the Nordic region, were sharply down in 2020 as compared with the previous year.
6) As Greenland prepares for an election on 6 April, it was reported in Arctic Today that, based on a new survey, many people in the country are becoming more sceptical of the government. Corruption concerns were singled out as a major problem which has eroded public trust in the country’s lawmakers and civil servants.
7) Many news services, including CNN, have reported on the findings of a new study by the University of Washington, published by the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which suggest that the number of lightning strikes in the Arctic has increased significantly, tripling during the past decade. The Siberian region saw the most dramatic increase in lightning activity. This phenomenon, which has been linked to climate change, has been blamed for an increase in wildfires throughout much of the region in the summer months.
8) Higher temperatures and thinning sea ice in northern Labrador are having a significant effect on the local economy, including hunting practices, in a feature story by CBC News. Communities in the region are concerned about the trend towards warmer winters having a longer-term impact on traditional ways of life, and are calling for greater government attention to the situation.
Last week, as part of the Virtual Dialogue series created by the Arctic Circle conference to offer an e-platform for policymakers and specialists in Arctic affairs, Tomáš Petříček, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic (Czechia), outlined [video] the developing Arctic interests of his country, which has expanded its polar research interests considerably in recent years. With the announcement by the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in December 2020 that the Czech Republic would be a candidate to join the Arctic Council as an observer government, the country joins two other European Union members, Estonia and Ireland, in seeking that status. (Turkey, which had made previous attempts to join the Arctic Council as a formal observer, has also reportedly applied for 2021).
It is anticipated that the results of these applications will be announced at the upcoming Council Ministerial meeting in May. Earlier this month, the Council announced that due to continuing travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, this gathering in Reykjavík would be primarily virtual as well. Representatives of the eight Member States and the six Permanent Participants, representing regional Indigenous organisations, would be attending in person, and others by remote. During the assembly, the Chair of the Arctic Council will be passed from Iceland to Russia for a two-year term.
The Czech Republic’s application [pdf] for Council observer status differs in some ways from those of its EU colleagues, as the Central European nation does not have the same ‘Arctic-adjacent’ status which formed a significant component of the Estonian and Irish candidacies. However, as Mr Petříček’s comments, reprinted in an information paper [pdf] published by Prague about Czech history and scientific credentials in the Arctic, included, ‘Irrelative to our geographical position our place is by the side of Arctic states.’
As with the other European applications, scientific expertise and diplomacy, as well as technological and education prowess, have formed the core of the Czech Republic’s case to be included in the group of governmental observers in the organisation. Several European states are included within the thirteen governmental observers, including longstanding Arctic actors like Britain, France, Germany and Poland, as well more recent additions Italy and Switzerland.
In recent written and spoken comments by the Czech government about the country’s experience in the far north, historical figures from the nation who participated in polar exploration and research were noted, further illustrating the strong ties between the nation and the Arctic. These include explorer Julius von Payer, scientist František Běhounek, and Alaska pioneer Frances Sedlacek (aka Fannie Quigley).
Modern research conducted by the country in the Arctic is often based at the Nostoc Field Station, located sixty kilometres northwest from the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard. Other components of Czech research in the region, collectively referred to as the Julius Svoboda Station, are the Julius Payer House in Longyearbyen and the research vessel R/V Clione, which frequently operates around the Svalbard archipelago.
In detailing Prague’s widening Arctic interests during the webinar, Mr Petříček cited four specific aspects of his country’s observer application. First, he noted the growing importance of the Arctic in relation to the greater questions of climate change. Since the phenomenon affects Arctic and non-Arctic states alike, it was in the interests of Czech Republic to assume an enhanced role in understanding these challenges. The country has also supported calls by the United Nations and the international community to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Second, the Czech Republic’s history of research into polar issues was cited as a major element in the application. This includes not only the ongoing work in Svalbard but also the opening of polar research institutions at Masaryk University (Masarykova Univerzita) in Brno and the University of South Bohemia (Jihočeská Univerzita) in České Budějovice, with both institutions having extensive contacts with the UArctic educational network.
The country had expressed interest in maximising its expertise in key areas of Arctic study within the work of the Council in the sectors of environmental examination, local conservation, and related development issues. Mr Petříček pointed specifically to the potential for Czech engagement with the Council’s Working Groups charged with Arctic monitoring and assessment, sustainable development, and the protection of flora and fauna. As formal observers do not have voting rights in the Council, most day-to-day observer activities take place within the six Working Groups overseen by the organisation.
Third, Prague’s Arctic interests are also substantially based on educational linkages, including projects relating to the translation of literature and media by regional Indigenous communities, including those of Inuit and Sámi peoples, and increased interests in Arctic affairs within the country. An Arctic Festival, dedicated to spotlighting Czech research and scientific cooperation in the region, (and occasionally featuring punk rock concerts), has been regularly held since 2018.
Finally, it has been stressed that the Czech Republic is seeking to become an Arctic Council observer in order to deepen ties with the eight members of the organisation, considering the growing importance of the Arctic to international diplomacy. This further engagement was viewed as a necessity to both Arctic environmental and economic policies. The Council was recognised in the Foreign Minister’s remarks as an ideal forum for regional dispute settlements.
Prague had already engaged Arctic governments and organisations both bilaterally and via regional regimes, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Svalbard Treaty, which (then-)Czechoslovakia had signed [pdf] in July 1930, (a rarity for a landlocked state). The Czech Republic government stated it inherited that commitment following the dissolution of the Czechoslovak state in 1993, (Slovakia made a similar statement regarding its support for the Treaty in 2017).
The Czech Republic also opted to increase its activity in several Track II organisations which address Arctic affairs, including the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), the Forum of Arctic Research Operators (FARO), and the EU-Polarnet group, (the University of South Bohemia hosted the annual Arctic Science Summit Week in 2017).
During his presentation for the Arctic Circle, Mr Petříček acknowledged growing global concerns about security in the far north as the region continues to open up to international activity. However, the Foreign Minister stressed that the regional priorities for his country remained within the scientific realm, including addressing global warming, the need for vigilant environmental protection, and ongoing cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic actors.
The upcoming Ministerial in Reykjavík will likely be watched closely for several reasons, including the debut of the Joe Biden administration in US regional dialogue, following a shambolic performance by the American delegation during the previous Ministerial in Rovaniemi in 2019. As well, many eyes will be on Russia, the largest of the Arctic countries, as it assumes the leadership position of the Council and continues to outline its plans for the organisation, (including the suggestion that Moscow will appreciate ‘more active engagement’ of the Council observer states), in the wake of ongoing tensions between the Putin government and NATO. The Arctic’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will also almost certainly be high on the agenda, along with ongoing questions about the state of regional climate change.
However, as with previous such Ministerial meetings, the question of new observers will also be watched closely, given the current and potential roles in shaping regional policies, even indirectly, as the Arctic continues to be viewed from many viewpoints as an international concern.