Arctic News Roundup: 7-13 June

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) As RÚV has reported, this summer Iceland is preparing to launch its largest array of roadworks projects since the country’s banking crisis of 2008. According to Vegagerðin, (the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration), planned changes include road restructuring measures to improve driver safety, as well as a potential bridge at Ölfusá.

2) According to the Greenlandic news service KNR, Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, expressed her wishes to grant Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both part of the Danish Kingdom, more representation at the Arctic Council. In addition to promising a ‘more prominent and active role’ for both governments during Council proceedings, the Danish leader also called for Greenlandic representatives to speak first at future Council meetings, followed by the Faroe Islands and then Denmark. Greenland also would be the main signatory to any future Council declarations. Greenlandic representation in the Arctic Council had been a political sore point between Copenhagen and Nuuk under previous governments, including in 2013 when then-Greenlandic Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond opted to boycott the Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna over what it saw was unfair treatment.

3) Researchers have begun to look more closely at the phenomenon of snow changing colours during spring months, including to shades of red, (which has often prompted nicknames like ‘glacier blood’ or ‘watermelon snow’). As described in the New York Times, although these odd colourations are commonly caused by algae blooms, climate change, including warming temperatures and extreme weather, as well as agricultural and sewage runoff, can also affect the appearance and intensity of algae within snow and ice.

4) An internship position, for a duration of ten-twelve months, full time, is being advertised at the Arctic Council Secretariat, located in Tromsø, Norway. Please check for details at this link.

5) Pele Broberg, the Minister for Industry, Trade, Foreign Affairs and Climate of Greenland, was invited to an online discussion [video] hosted by the Arctic Circle as part of the organization’s Virtual lecture series. Broberg described the development and further ambition of Greenland’s foreign relations. In addition to confirming that a representative office would be established later this year in Beijing, the Minister also emphasized the significance of strengthening the country’s relationships with other Asian partners such as Japan. 

Arctic News Roundup: 31 May – 6 June

Bankastræti, a main road in downtown Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) Alda Sigmundsdóttir, an author of many well-read publications on Iceland, wrote a commentary in the Canadian news service Globe and Mail about how her home country has been shaped economically and societally by tourism in the last decade. In addition to the national economy being revived by the tourism sector, she described the problems in Iceland which tourism growth had created, including local concerns about Icelandic language protection, excessively pricey hotels for domestic tourists, and inability of some facilities to host foreign guests. However, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the situation drastically and the tourism sector was damaged severely. As a result, tourism-related companies restarted with a focus on attracting local visitors. However, with the gradual recovery of the sector with an increasing number of post-pandemic tourists from abroad, Alda’s piece called for a better strategy for the industry.  

2) As the United Kingdom continues to carve out a post-Brexit trade policy, it was announced, as reported by BBC News, that a deal had been finalised with Iceland and Norway, along with Liechtenstein, to liberalise mutual trade and cut tariffs. All four countries are outside of the European Union, and the British government has been seeking to diversify its trading partners since withdrawing from the EU in 2020. There remain various issues to be reconciled however, including the sensitive subject of access to Norwegian waters for British fishing vessels, and Norwegian concerns about competition from UK cheese and beef products.

3) A policy paper entitled ‘Estonia’s Interests and Opportunities in the Context of Global Developments in the Arctic’ was published by International Centre for Defence and Security (RKK-ICDS) – Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, in May. The paper discusses several aspects of the interests of the country in the High North, such as the impacts of climate change, security concerns, political, economic and scientific involvement of Estonia in regional affairs, contribution to Indigenous communities in the Arctic and other related subjects. A number of recommendations are provided by the authors, including a call for a comprehensive Arctic strategy. Estonia has been seeking formal observer status in the Arctic Council, and has embarked on a number of projects related to Arctic engagement.

4) As the New York Times reported, US President Joe Biden announced the suspension of plans to allow oil extraction leases, issued by the previous Trump administration, within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ANWR is estimated to be abundant in oil resources but nevertheless is also home to diversified fauna and flora, and so fossil fuel extraction there has been opposed on environmental grounds.

5) The Arctic Institute published an overview which covers the latest Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, which took place in Reykjavík, Iceland. The piece summarised the main achievement during the Chairing by Iceland, with a focus on sustainable development, the ambition of Russia for the following two years after assuming the position and its wishes for further dialogues with the Arctic neighbours. 

6) Also from The Arctic Institute, the organisation published an analytical article on marine resource disputes in the Arctic via three case studies, namely the Bering Sea, Barents Sea and the North Atlantic. Despite ongoing conflicts involving fishing rights in these waters, as the author argued, governments still tend to handle these problems carefully, and usually separate them from other subjects. Yet, combined with military related issues, fishing conflicts in the High North may be more aggravated. Existing, and potential, areas of scientific research and cooperation are seen as helping to mitigate these challenges.

Arctic News Roundup: 24-30 May

Fjords in Troms og Finnmark, Norway [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to Scientific American, Greenland’s thawing glaciers are suspected to be one of the sources of mercury pollution in the nearby fjords. This element can cause damage to marine systems and human health. However, at present, as the researchers have explained, there are still numerous potential causes to be investigated in order to better comprehend the situation.

2) The Arctic Institute published an introductory article, discussing conflict in the High North, given the US and some other Arctic states’ further military interests and policies in the region. This piece outlines the incentives for modern militarisation, including eagerness to develop regional natural resources and strengthening national capacities. Nevertheless, this is taking place alongside concerns such as the deterioration of the Arctic environment.

3) As the British news service The Independent has reported, Arctic regions in Russia are witnessing an unprecedented heat wave this month, and in some cases temperatures over 30°C. The Russian Arctic, including many parts of Siberia, have experienced higher than normal temperatures over the past few years, with the city of Verkhoyansk actually reaching 38°C in 2020.

4) The Danish Institute for International Studies / DIIS (Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier in Danish) published a commentary on the relationship between Denmark and Greenland in light of the 300th anniversary of Hans Egede’s missionary journey to Greenland. The authors analysed the variants of this dynamic under several circumstances, including for example, how the relationship has been altered from the perspective of decolonisation and the further pursuit of independence in Greenland, as well as the role of Greenland in Arctic politics.

5) CBC, a Canada-based news service, shared the story of Pepper, a German shepherd finding her own way to reunite with her family in Nunavut. Pepper’s family left home in Rankin Inlet, for a funeral of a family member in Whale Cove, by snowmobile. However, the dog decided to follow them even though she was supposed to stay at home, and amazingly, Pepper finally managed to make her way to Whale Cove, a small community seventy kilometres from home and met up with her family again.

The Arctic Council Goes Back to Basics

Press Conference of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarsson [Photo: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Sigurjón Ragnar]

by Marc Lanteigne

After the tumultuous Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi two years ago, which concluded with no unanimous formal declaration, and with a significant wedge driven between the United States and the other seven members of the organisation, there was an general feeling of relief that this week’s gathering [video] of Arctic foreign ministers in Reykjavík was very much a ‘no drama’ affair. 

There was much general agreement about the need for redoubled efforts to address regional climate change threats, as well as combat sources of local pollution. A Reykjavík Declaration, along with a Arctic Council Strategic Plan which will guide the group’s activities until 2030, was signed by all parties. The meeting, held using a hybrid format due to ongoing restrictions caused by the pandemic, concluded with Iceland passing the Chair position to Russia for the next two years.

In the days leading up to the meeting, there had been two distinct sets of messages from the Russian government regarding its Arctic interests as well as its plans for the Council during its Chairing period. One pointedly spoke of Moscow’s willingness to defend its Arctic interests. Last month, the government of Vladimir Putin cited the Russian Arctic as a ‘red line’ which the West should be wary of challenging. More recently, foreign news agencies were granted a tour [video] of Russia’s Arctic Trefoil military base, (also known as Nagurskoye / Нагурское), on Franz Josef Land (Земля Франца-Иосифа), immediately before the start of the Reykjavík meeting, providing an opportunity for Moscow to demonstrate its augmented military capabilities in its Arctic lands. 

The Putin government also elaborated on various contributions which Russia could offer to regional cooperation initiatives in the Arctic, with an emphasis on sustainable development. The policy document published by the Russian delegation, which outlined the country’s priorities for the Council, placed much emphasis on environmental protection and human capital, including the roles of Indigenous Peoples and youth. The document also acknowledged the economic potential of the Arctic in the areas of shipping and tourism, and called for improved regional cooperation with like-minded regimes, including the Arctic Economic Council

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accepting the gavel of the Arctic Council Ministerial from Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarsson [Photo: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon]

One recommendation made at the gathering by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov which generated some comment was the idea that the option of holding military dialogues in conjunction with the Council should be revisited. In his statement [pdf], Mr Lavrov suggested that although the Arctic was ‘a territory of peace, stability and constructive cooperation’, it was nonetheless necessary to expand cooperation, ‘to encompass the military sphere as well’. This would potentially involve meetings between military Chiefs in the Arctic states, along similar lines as what took place before 2014, when those activities were suspended after the Russian annexation of Crimea. 

Military affairs had traditionally been the ‘third rail’ of the Arctic Council, and it was stated in the original 1996 Ottawa Declaration which founded the Arctic Council that the body ‘should not deal with matters related to military security.’ In a short press conference after the meeting, Mr Lavrov reiterated his support for rebutted military dialogues. However, the host of the gathering. Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, stated he was not in agreement with that proposal.

The Ministerial meeting provided the first opportunity for a face-to-face meeting between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Russian counterpart. The side meeting between the two was positive, and appeared to set the stage for a potential summit later this year with President Putin and US President Joe Biden. The Biden government also agreed this week to drop plans to place sanctions on a firm overseeing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline, a decision which further lowered the diplomatic temperature.

However, Mr Blinken had made it clear before the Reykjavík meeting that Moscow was advancing ‘unlawful maritime claims’ in the Arctic Ocean, suggesting that security concerns had not been removed from Washington’s regional agenda. 

The US Secretary of State’s remarks confirmed that his country was seeking to return to the spirit of greater Arctic cooperation, including in combatting threats to the regional environment. This provided a welcome contrast to the stance of the previous administration, which repeatedly denied the very existence of climate change. Mr Blinken focused on the specific threats of black carbon and methane emissions as well as maritime plastic pollution. He also stated the Arctic was becoming a space for greater competition, but that ‘the Arctic is more than a strategically or economically significant region. It’s home to our people. Its hallmark has been and must remain peaceful cooperation.’

Yes, I’m signing! US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken adds his name to the Reykjavík Declaration [Photo: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon]

Secretary of State Blinken had travelled to Reykjavík as part of a greater Nordic regional tour, starting with a meetup in Copenhagen with Danish officials and Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, (Mr Blinken also confirmed the US government had abandoned the prospect of buying Greenland). After the Reykjavík conference, he then traveled to Kangerlussuaq to meet with Greenlandic Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede on matters related to closer bilateral economic cooperation, including via the October 2020 Common Plan for US-Greenland Cooperation [pdf].

There were few surprises in either the Reykjavík Declaration or the Arctic Council Strategic Plan, reflecting an interest in keeping thorny political and security issues at bay in favour of focussing on the core agendas of the Council: environmental and scientific cooperation. The Declaration emphasized the necessity of ongoing cooperation in the areas of addressing climate change and green energy, sustainable regional development, human security, and marine protection. The paper also called for a further strengthening of the Council and cooperation with related bodies including the UArctic educational network and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

One notable omission from this year’s Declaration, however, was a decision taken on the admission of new Council observers. Four states, (Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland and Turkey), had submitted applications to become formal observers in the organisation, potentially joining the thirteen governments with that status.

However, there was no mention of observer admissions in the final agreement, suggesting any decision in this regard had been deferred, similar to the situation in 2015, when the Council’s Ministerial meeting in Iqaluit also concluded without an agreement on new observers. Switzerland, which had been seeking a formal observer position that year, reapplied and was successfully admitted at the 2017 meeting in Fairbanks.  

There was much fanfare surrounding the publication of the Council’s first ever Strategic Plan. However, the final document did not significantly differ from either the Reykjavík Declaration or previous policy statements made by the organisation.

Again, there was a concentration on climate change concerns, development, human security and strengthening the Council, along with the need to improve regional knowledge and communications. As one commenter noted, there was little in the way of specific reforms as well as a lack of ambition in the paper. With the Arctic continuing to gain more global attention, including from non-Arctic states and involving questions of evolving security concerns, there remains the question of whether the Council may be required to further evolve in order to meet these changed conditions. 

Politics aside, the environmental threats of to the Arctic show no signs of going away. This week, both Russia and parts of central Canada were experiencing record high springtime temperatures, further underscoring the fact that climate change continues to represent a significant challenge to the Arctic, and well beyond. 

Arctic News Roundup: 10-16 May

The Harpa concert hall and conference centre in Reykjavík, where this month’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting will take place [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) A story in the Iceland Monitor (Morgunblaðið) revealed how fish skin has been used for medical purposes in Iceland, by citing a case of a local patient who suffered from skin burns in an accident, and who received treatment which included fish skin is used to promote the healing process.

2) According to the Greenlandic news service KNR, Naaja H. Nathanielsen, (representing the Inuit Ataqatigiit party), the Minister of Raw Materials in the current Government of Greenland, has been planning to propose a zero tolerance policy against extraction of radioactive elements to the Parliament of Greenland (Inatsisartut). The ban on the mining of such materials was lifted in 2013 by the administration of Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond (until now). Minister Nathanielsen also stressed that her party does not oppose mining activities in general in Greenland, but there would be no green light in regards to mining uranium.

3) India’s expanding polar interests were the subject of a study paper by the Arctic Institute. New Delhi had published a draft governmental policy statement on the Arctic in January this year, the first document of its type. As with other countries in the Asia-Pacific, India’s Arctic interests include scientific and economic areas. The paper recommended that India’s Arctic policies include a clarification of how it views the region as a ‘global commons’, and that the Indian government appoint an Arctic ambassador.

4) Over the Circle published a new post, describing how developing Arctic security policies by Russia and the United States might affect the prospects of great power cooperation (or competition) during and after the Arctic Council’s Ministerial meeting in Reykjavík this week. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had expressed optimism about new prospects for multilateralism with the other members of the Council. Russia will be assuming the chair position of the Council for the next two years.