Nuuk, Greenland (photo by M. Lanteigne)

Is this on?

Welcome to Over the Circle (OtC), a site dedicated to news, politics and foreign policy in the Arctic region. With the ongoing changes in the circumpolar north due to climate change and ice erosion, the region has become the focus of much greater attention on a global scale, and as a result the politics of the Arctic are also undergoing rapid changes. This site will look at the politics of the ‘Arctic Eight’ (Canada, Denmark [Faroe Islands / Greenland] Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States), but also of non-Arctic states, including in Western Europe and East Asia, which are also quickly developing their own Arctic diplomacy policies.

Among the major topics in Arctic politics are economic development, environmental concerns, energy (oil and gas), shipping and new Arctic sea routes, and new and existing regional organisations, (like the Arctic Council). While there is much discussion about the opening of the Arctic, this site will examine regional and international news with an eye to examining just what this ‘opening’ really entails.


Greenland: The United States’ Fantasy Island

Map of the Arctic Ocean outside of the Arctic Council Secretariat building, Tromsø [photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Under the administration of Donald Trump, US Arctic policy has experienced wild swings ranging between near-neglect and a more recent and rapid focus on countering perceived great power competition from China and Russia. At the same time, the US has sought to make a concerted effort towards avoiding the issue of climate change in the region, despite mounting evidence of the adverse effects of warming temperatures, melting ice and shifting weather patterns. During the past week, however, another facet of US policy towards the Arctic was seemingly revealed, suggesting the region was potential property to be purchased.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, President Trump had more than once expressed an interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark, even going so far as to ask his staffers to investigate the possibility of making an offer to the Danish government, presumably during a planned meeting in early September with Denmark’s new Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

President Trump subsequently confirmed that he wanted to look into the possibility of purchasing Greenland, referring to the process as a ‘large real estate deal’, and going as far as to tweet a photoshopped image of a golden Trump Tower in the middle of Nuuk. For both the Greenlandic and the Danish government, as well as many international commentators, the situation was far less amusing. Greenland’s Foreign Minister, Ane Lone Bagger, stated that while Greenland was very much open for business, it is not for sale, and Prime Minister Frederiksen called the entire notion ‘absurd’, noting that, ‘Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.’ Similar sentiments were expressed by Greenlanders themselves.

Not only did Mr Trump’s musings about purchasing Greenland reflect a complete disregard for Greenland’s population (57,000 persons), but also demonstrated an archaic and condescending neo-colonialist viewpoint, as well as considerable ignorance of Greenland’s current political status. Greenland is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and was granted self-rule and the right to self-determination as of 2009. Greenland is simply not eligible to be ‘sold’ by Denmark.

The United States had previously expressed interest in purchasing Greenland, including in 1867, when Washington was in the process of procuring Alaska from what was then the Russian Empire and talk circulated about possibly adding Greenland (and Iceland) to the list of US acquisitions in the far north. That plan was unsuccessful, but the administration of Harry S. Truman tried again in 1946 with an offer of US$100 million in gold in exchange for Greenland, only for Washington to be rebuffed. However, the United States did negotiate rights shortly afterwards to use Greenland to conduct military operations to counter the rising threat from the Soviet Union, and the US Air Force maintains a base at Thule in Greenland’s far north.

[Photo via Pixabay]
In the abstract, American sovereignty over Greenland could be viewed as an important strategy, given the country’s resources, including metals and minerals, (including rare earths), and fossil fuels, and its strategic location in the Arctic at a time when concerns about Russian military activities in the North Atlantic are growing. As well, China has emerged as an economic player in Greenland, given its involvement in developing mining projects and future investment on the island. The Arctic may be emerging as another arena in what is shaping up to be a solidifying zero-sum game between Beijing and Washington, as illustrated by the ongoing trade conflict between the two great powers.

Mr Trump’s reaction to the Danish government’s dismissal of the Greenland purchase idea was the very definition of sour grapes. Not only did he abruptly cancel an upcoming Copenhagen meeting, but he also criticised Prime Minister Frederiksen’s views about the absurdity of purchasing Greenland as ‘nasty’ and suggested that she had offended the whole of the United States. He then subsequently tweeted that Denmark’s financial contribution to NATO was insufficient, reinforcing his longstanding views of the organisation as being unfair to US interests.

While it remains to be seen whether this situation could turn into a serious diplomatic rift, the affair is still more proof that the Arctic policy chasm between the United States and the other Arctic governments may be widening, as already evidenced by the aftershocks of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pugnacious and poorly received speech at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi in May of this year, as well as the considerable differences between Washington and the other seven Arctic governments regarding the urgency of the effects of climate change in the region. This week, a Nordic Prime Ministers’ Meeting in Reykjavík successfully concluded with a joint statement on sustainable development and the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement on the environment. As well, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir recently confirmed that she would not meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits Reykjavík next month.

Clearly, the ‘buy Greenland’ fiasco has also underscored the degree to which Greenland, and indeed the Arctic as a whole, has assumed a much greater strategic concern to many states, including the US. As Greenland continues to ponder its political future, another important factor may be its ability to successfully navigate regional affairs at a time when the Arctic is under more security than it has been for decades.


Interlude: ‘Chinese Foreign Policy (4th Edition)’ is Published

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Very pleased to announce that the fourth edition of Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, written by OtC editor Marc Lanteigne, has been published this month by Routledge.

The book examines various facets of China’s international policies and strategies using different levels of analysis, including which political actors within China are contributing what to foreign policymaking, international relations and comparative political theories, and specific case studies.

Chinese relations with key Arctic governments, including Russia, the Nordic region and the United States are included, as well as a specific, updated section on Beijing’s emerging regional diplomacy both in the Arctic and in Antarctica.

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Arctic Heatwave: The Fire This Time

[Photo by Pixabay]
This week has seen abnormally high temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere, including in Canadathe US, and much of Western Europe, as well as heat records broken in FranceGermany and the Netherlands. Although higher-than-average summer temperatures are starting to become the norm in many parts of the world, what is also causing specific concern this month is the degree to which the Arctic has been affected.

In addition to increased heat levels being recorded closer to the Arctic Circle, many parts of the Arctic are now being affected by dangerous forest fires, up to one hundred separate wildfires according to reports earlier this month, which are pushing up levels of carbon dioxide kicked into the atmosphere. It was estimated that about fifty megatonnes of COfrom Arctic fires were expelled into the air just during the month of June this year, with smoke from these conflagrations visible from space.

These events in the far month are adding to the warnings about the accumulating effects of climate change, and how the Arctic is being specifically distressed. According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), ‘averaged as a whole, the June 2019 global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest for June since global records began in 1880 at +0.95°C (+1.71°F).’ The end of July may produce further records, and in the Arctic, signs were appearing that the rate of summer melting of the Arctic ice cap as of mid-July were approaching levels seen in 2012, the year that the lowest September sea ice levels were recorded to date,

Both the European and North American heatwaves, along with those in the Arctic, have been viewed as an even louder warning bell about the phenomenon. Moreover, a report published this month by the journal Nature argued that current warming levels have not been seen in over two millennia and certainly not on the scale as seen today. This would punch a sizeable hole in a theory, often used by deniers, that the current climate situation has been part of a longstanding and natural cooling and warming cycle.

Nevertheless, the government of one major power, and Arctic country, the United States, continues to ignore the mounting evidence of climate change while attempting to play up its ‘positive’ environmental record. At last month’s G-20 meeting in Osaka, the United States once again found itself largely alone in refusing to call for greater international action against carbon emissions and other pollutants contributing to climate change.

Since the start of the summer, forest fires have ignited in Yukon, where the situation was only recently declared to be stabilised, as well as across the border in Alaska, where over two million acres (809 thousand hectares) have been affected with the state experiencing temperature hikes at twice the international average. Given less attention has been the spate of wildfires currently plaguing much of Siberia, including the regions of Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Yamal, as well as in Yakutia, affecting a reported 2.3 million hectares. Smoke from these fires was reported in Tyumen, a city far to the west of the fire zones and located more than 2500 kilometres from Irkutsk.

Parts of the Nordic region have also been put on fire watches and alerts, with Sweden having to contend with forty separate fires, while the whole of the region has also experienced higher than 30ºC temperatures this month. Throughout the region, alarms have been raised about the amount of carbon dioxide and methane being released by the wildfires into the atmosphere, and the longer-term effects of black carbon and other particulate matter landing on ice and snow and accelerating the melting processes, contributing to ‘polar amplification’.

A true-colour composite image of broken up sea ice in the Beaufort Sea, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on the NASA Terra satellite on July 8, 2019. [Photo via the Land Atmosphere Near-Real Time Capability for EOS (LANCE) System, NASA/GSFC / National Snow and Ice Data Centre]
Even Greenland has been put on notice for wildfires, two years after the first major incidents of such fires on the island were seen in the Kangerlussuaq region, driving home the fact that the Arctic was now bearing much of the brunt of changed weather patterns and temperature levels. This time around, a short-lived blaze was spotted in the area of Sisimiut in the south-western part of Greenland earlier this month, affecting safety conditions on the island’s Arctic Circle hiking trail and raising concerns about the effects of both regional fires and the heat wave in Europe on Greenland’s already vulnerable ice sheet. The last such accelerated melt of the ice sheet took place in 2012, and there is the question of what the melt this year will mean for Greenland and the surrounding area.

Danish specialists, via the country’s Polar Portal service, suggested that Greenland had already lost about 160 billion tonnes of surface ice just during the month of July. In a statement by the United Nations World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), forecasts suggested that the hot air currently in Europe, which originally arrived in the region via North Africa, will potentially be pushed to the north-west, over Greenland, by the end of the month, placing still more pressure on the ice sheet.

An Arctic University on the Brink

The University of Alaska – Museum of the North on the UA Fairbanks campus [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
Despite recent calls in Washington for an increased presence in the Arctic, albeit one more heavily focused on the development of US military and hard power interests, American Arctic research stood poised to take a giant step backward this month in the wake of deep funding cuts to financial support for the University of Alaska (UA) by the state government. These austerity measures, in addition to threatening the future of the university itself, call into question what sort of role the US will play in Arctic research as the region comes under greater international attention as a result of climate change and emerging economic potential.

The threat to UA’s financial situation came at the beginning of this month after planned cuts to the university by the state government totalling US$5 million as part of the 2020 budget were suddenly altered by Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy, via the use of a line-item veto, resulting in a 41% budget reduction to the university system, representing more than US$135 million.

The decision immediately threw UA’s budget into turmoil, with likely closings of some smaller campuses as well as layoffs and cancellation of some programs, in addition to an eventual exodus of staff and students, given the lack of comparable alternative employment options in the state. An editorial by UA President Jim Johnsen, called for an override of the veto, stating that in addition to the immediate effects of the funding losses, ‘ripple effects’ would appear which would further damage the post-secondary educational system in Alaska, as well as the economy of the state itself.

The University of Alaska system, which includes campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, along with satellite campuses and community centres elsewhere in the state, has over 26,000 students enrolled, employs twelve hundred faculty members, and is a centre for Arctic research, including indigenous studies, local language courses, geo-physical and environmental sciences and general northern studies. UA’s Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses are also members of the UArctic research network, which brings together academic and research institutions from across the circumpolar north and internationally to share research on Arctic studies.

In a stinging critique in The Guardian, it was suggested the negative effects of the cuts and the precarious economic future of UA would be especially felt in more isolated communities, including those with indigenous student populations. There was also the question of long-term harm to needed US Arctic research, including on climate change at a time when its effects are starting to become ever more visible in the Arctic, (Alaska itself has been beset by wildfires this summer, coupled with record high temperatures), and an administration in Washington which continues a policy of overt climate change denial. UA is now facing a potential brain drain as a result of layoffs and the shutting down of programmes and possibly entire campuses, which would adversely affect not only Arctic research in Alaska but also partnerships with other global institutions.

Governor Dunleavy entered office in December last year with a promise to begin austerity measures in Alaska in the wake of the longest recession in the state’s history, sparked by the rapid drop in oil prices since 2015. He has also been adamant about providing Alaskans with a larger share of the state’s Permanent Fund, which had been set up in 1976 to manage the state’s oil and gas revenues, while at the same time reducing public services. Critics, however, have argued that such sharp cuts, including to UA, would likely push the state into an even deeper financial morass.

Alaska state flag hanging at the UA Fairbanks campus [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Nonetheless, an attempt in mid-July by members of the Alaskan legislature to override the veto as well as the dozens of other line-item vetoes implemented by Governor Dunleavy failed due to inadequate support and the cuts are scheduled to come into force this month. UA is now facing the difficult choice of calling for ‘financial exigency’, a step short of announcing bankruptcy, but would entitle the university to begin fast and draconian measures which would include dismissing tenured employees and closing campuses and programmes. The decision to go that route has been postponed until the end of July, but at present there appear to be few other options available.

It was also announced this week that the credit rating of UA had been reduced three levels from A1 to Baa1 by the fiscal services firm, Moody’s, reflecting concerns about the university’s ability to meet its financial commitments, thus making the institution the lowest rated of its type in the United States. According to a new press release from UA, the ratings situation may improve should financial exigency measures be undertaken.

At a time when the United States appears to be drastically redefining its Arctic policies, the looming financial crisis at UA, which is now questioning whether its academic accreditation can be maintained under current circumstances, would be a major blow not only to US Arctic research but also to the reputation of the country as an Arctic actor. Washington has also shown signs of deviating its policies from those of its Arctic neighbours, as evidenced by recent condemnations of Russian and Chinese policies in the region, as well as its steadfast refusal to view climate change as an environmental and human security emergency. The possible marginalisation or even loss of the UA system would send out another signal that the United States is retreating from the Arctic at a time when, as the line goes, attention must be paid.

Addendum: On 22 July, the University of Alaska’s board of regents voted 10-1 in favour of declaring financial exigency, with some of the regents noting that unless serious actions were taken to reduce costs, UA will be out of funds by February 2020.

极地独行狐:76天的北极远征 A Lone Arctic Fox’s 76-Day Expedition

安装了卫星追踪项圈的北极狐 (Elise Strømseng摄于斯瓦巴尔群岛的Fjortende Julibukta冰川,[图片由挪威极地研究所Norsk Polarinstitutt提供] The fox getting fitted with a satellite collar at the Fjortende Julibukta site in Svalbard [Photo by Elise Strømseng/Norwegian Polar Institute]

北极狐,也叫雪狐 (学名 Alopex lagopus) 是北极地区土生土长的小型食肉目犬科动物。虽然名叫北极狐,但是北极圈以下受到海洋暖流影响的冰岛也有它们的踪迹。北极狐皮毛厚实保暖性强,春夏时节呈灰褐色、秋冬时则雪白,身手矫健、反应敏捷,既是天生的猎手,也是更大型动物,比如北极熊的猎物。北极狐一般以旅鼠、鱼类、鸟类、野兔为食,也吃浆果。北极狐们超强的耐寒抗冻能力使得它们在零下50摄氏度的低温下也能生存,冰渣迷蒙的雪原似乎丝毫不影响其超凡的意志,在雪地上发现疑似旅鼠的踪迹后,飞身一跃至空中、猛速扑下,对准目标使劲刨,但是再高明的捕猎者也会失手,有时候判断不准,旅鼠没抓着反而摔跟头。

目前,北极狐在国际自然保护联盟濒危物种红色名录 (IUCN) 属于“无危(LC)”,然而在挪威、芬兰和瑞典,一些特定的种群被列为“极危(CE)”。

这只极地独行北极狐的远征故事得从挪威极地研究所 (Norsk Polarinstitutt) 讲起。该研究所成立于1928年,现在隶属于挪威气候与环境部,主要为南北极地环境管理服务。研究员们在一只年轻的北极狐身上安装了卫星追踪项圈,2018年3月底将其在靠近北极极点的斯匹次卑尔根岛东岸(Spitsbergen,斯瓦巴尔群岛 Svalbard中最大的岛屿) 放回野外。斯瓦巴尔群岛位于北极海盆中部,由于海面季节性结冰,因此理论上,岛上的北极狐有可能踏着海冰一路到达格陵兰岛和北美洲。


21天后,她抵达格陵兰岛北部。格陵兰是世界上第一大岛,位于北美和北欧之间,四面都是一望无际的茫茫北冰洋。以格陵兰为中转站,开始了第二段行程,到达加拿大的埃尔斯米尔岛(Ellesmere Island)。埃尔斯米尔是加拿大北极群岛中最北的岛屿,与东边的格陵兰隔着一条海峡对人类来说,跨越海洋、从一个岛屿到另一个岛屿并非难事,但对体型较小、光靠四条腿的北极狐来说,需要的不仅仅是体力。76天的旅途中,她曾有两次较长时间的停留,研究人员也不能确切得知到底发生了什么事,猜测也许是天气原因,使得她不得不放慢脚步耐心等待。

其实,当研究人员们得知北极狐到达埃尔斯米尔岛这一结果时大吃一惊,研究员Eva Fuglei表示,一开始难以置信,以为她已经在途中死去、被带到了船上,但这个假设不成立,因为这个地区根本没有船只。



Path of the fox between March and July 2018 [Map via Polar Research Journal/Norwegian Polar Institute 上图显示北极狐76天的旅行踪迹。图片由Polar Research Journal/挪威极地研究所(Norsk Polarinstitutt)提供]
这并非人类第一次留意到北极狐令人惊叹的迁徙能力。1885年,挪威探险家 Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) 曾提到自己在冰雪上看到北极狐印迹时内心的激动和惊讶,对这个生灵的活动非常感兴趣。



挪威极地研究所(Norsk Polarinstitutt)为本文写作提供了宝贵协助,在此表示感谢。


欲了解更多关于本次北极狐旅程研究资料,敬请阅读由Eva Fuglei 以及 Arnaud Tarroux 撰写的《Arctic fox dispersal from Svalbard to Canada: one female’s long run across sea ice》 一文。 Polar Research 39(2019), https://doi.org/10.33265/polar.v38.3512.


小时候看过简写版的童话故事《动物远征队》(The Animals of Farthing Wood),这部童话讲述因为森林遭受人类开发,一群动物为了生存不得不离开家园,团结协助排除万难,抵达动物保护区的故事。那时候以为陆地动物“远征”只是故事,后来发现这种事确实是存在的。

How long does it take to travel from Norway to Canada? 76 days, via an epic walk by a one-year old female Arctic fox. 

The fox, outfitted with a satellite collar by the researchers Norwegian Polar Institute / Norsk Polarinstitutt, began her travels on 26 March 2018 in Spitsbergen, the main island of the Norwegian islands of Svalbard. She arrived in Northern Greenland after twenty-one days and continued her trek westward to Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada by June of that year. 

The cumulative travelling distance of the vulpine wanderer was 3506 kilometers in seventy-six days, and 46.3 kilometres per day at an average rate, which made the researchers marvel at not just because the length of her walk, but also the speed of which she covered both difficult terrain and dividing waterways.

Further reading: ‘Arctic Fox Dispersal from Svalbard to Canada: One Female’s Long Run Across Sea Ice’ by Eva Fuglei and Arnaud Tarroux, Polar Research 39(2019), https://doi.org/10.33265/polar.v38.3512.

[Over the Circle would like to cordially thank the Norwegian Polar Institute / Norsk Polarinstitutt for their invaluable assistance in the writing of this post.]