Arctic News Roundup: 13-19 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) The Journal of the North Atlantic and Arctic (JONAA) published an article on polar bears in the high north, with a focus on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. The piece explains why and how polar bears can be dangerous to humans, and describes the regulations and legal protections of the species, as well as providing practical safety suggestions for travellers when visiting locations where the bears are present. 

2) According to Reuters, Greenland is in the process of preparing regulations against uranium mining on the island, which means the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit), a large-scale uranium and rare earths mining project planned in southern Greenland may be unable to proceed. However, some local inhabitants are concerned that this decision might curtail future income from mining. Australian firm Greenland Minerals, the primary backer of the Kvanefjeld initiative, has also expressed determination to defend their interests in the project.

3) As the Canadian news service Eye on the Arctic has written, 19 September marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arctic Council. The Council was founded in 1996, specialising in scientific and research cooperation among the eight Arctic states and detailing the rights of Indigenous communities, while also excluding military and other hard security issues within the organisation.

4) The United States continues to deepen its economic engagement with Greenland, including with a new aid deal for Nuuk designed to bolster Greenland’s education, mining, and tourism sectors. As Reuters reports, the package, worth approximately US$10 million, is the latest in a series of initiatives undertaken by Washington to raise its diplomatic presence in Greenland, especially due to concerns about future security trends in the Arctic. The US Air Force maintains a base at Thule in northern Greenland.

5) This autumn, as explained in High North News, will be especially busy for elections in Arctic states, as Canada, Iceland and Russia are soon holding votes, and Norway completed its election earlier in September with a victory for the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) under Jonas Gahr Støre. Labour is currently in the process of building a new government coalition, which is expected to move the country’s politics, to some degree, leftwards. Among the major topics in the Norwegian election were the future of the country’s petroleum industry, compliance with global environmental regulations, and relations with the European Union.

Arctic News Roundup: 6-12 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) A paper was published, entitled Arctic Indigenous People, co-produced by the German Arctic Office and the Saami Council. This publication describes Indigenous ways of living, including fishing, hunting and herding, as well as how Indigenous groups have utilised their knowledge for generations in societal and cultural development and within local ecosystems.

2) As the Barents Observer reported, Russia and Belarus, with governments which have become closer since post-election protests in the latter country last year, announced that they would soon conduct a joint naval exercise in the Barents Sea. Some vessels working in high-valued fishing grounds in the area faced pressures about financial losses due to the closure of these waters in the coming days, further complicated by the very short notice from Moscow. 

3) The Barents Observer also covered efforts by the Russian energy firm Novatek to obtain natural gas exploration licenses in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, including in the regions of Arkticheskoye and Neytinskoye, which are located in the Yamalsky (Ямальский) nature reserve. Novatek has developed extensive fossil fuel operations in the Russian Arctic, with the most prominent being the Yamal Liquified Nature Gas (LNG) project.

4) The Canadian news site Eye on the Arctic described the results of research detailed in the journal Ecology Letters which warned that climate change and ice losses in the Arctic would permanently alter food sources for marine predators, such as local seal species, in the region.

5) In an opinion piece published by the online journal Polar Connection, Kamrul Hossain, a Research Professor at Finland’s University of Lapland, wrote about the merits of observer status for Bangladesh in the Arctic Council. The author argued that Bangladesh should seek this position in the organisation for numerous reasons, inspire of the country’s location in South Asian, distant from the Arctic. First, rising sea levels and increasing frequency of natural disasters, attributed to climate change, are a great concern for the country, given its low elevation. In addition, the author suggested, the participation of Bangladesh in Arctic affairs via the Council could also contribute to further understanding of the connections of the far north and other parts of the world.

6) This year’s Arctic Circle Assembly was opened for registration. It is an annual event specially focusing on Arctic affairs, with the main venue in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. The 2020 conference was canceled due to the pandemic, and over the past year the organization has held a series on online events. The conference this year will take place on the 14th to 17th of October.

7) The UArctic network celebrated its twentieth birthday this week in Rovaniemi, Finland. The University of the Arctic (UArctic) is a forum for universities, academic institutes and other relevant organisations connecting both the High North and many other parts of the world for joint research in Arctic affairs.

8) A recent report, entitled ‘Risk Assessment of Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq Road Project’ was published by both the Government of Greenland in cooperation with Oxford Global Projects. The document argues that local tourism would benefit considerably should the 170 km long roadway be completed. 

It’s All About Geography: A New Island is Found Off Greenland

Kaffeklubben Island in northern Greenland [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

by Marc Lanteigne

Greenland continues to make the news this year, although this most recent time around for reasons of geography rather than politics. Last month, it was reported that an apparent small island was discovered off Greenland’s northern coast which, if confirmed, would make that particular patch of land the most northern island in the world. 

The island in question, which has been given the provisional name Qeqertaq Avannarleq, (Greenlandic for ‘The Northernmost Island), was originally estimated to be barely sixty by thirty metres in size, and approximately three to four metres above sea level. The island has no vegetation, but rather mud, silt and sedimentary deposits from surrounding ice floes. 

Once the island’s status has been confirmed, it will dethrone the two previous candidates (both also located off the coast of Greenland) for the ‘northernmost island’, namely Kaffeklubben Island (Inuit Qeqertaat) at latitude 83º39’45”N and Oodaaq at 83º40’N. Oodaaq had been discovered in 1978 by a Danish survey team off the coast of Greenland island’s own northernmost point, Cape Morris Jesup. For contrast, the northernmost point in the North American Arctic region is Cape Colombia, on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, which is situated at 83°06’41”N.

As with many like discoveries, this find was accidental. A Swiss-Danish scientific expedition with the Leister Expedition Around North Greenland 2021 project, was surveying the area in July of this year when the five-person contingent made a stopover [in Danish] on what was originally thought to be Oodaaq to collect samples for bacteria testing. The group was interested in whether the island had been created [in German] by an ancient moraine and further shaped by ice and wind. 

It was only after the team left the region that it was discovered, due to an initial GPS error, that they had landed on an islet which was roughly eight hundred metres northwest of Oodaaq’s location. It has been suggested that the reason why the island had not been previously detected was that it had only been recently uncovered due to shifting ice in the area, (although not by climate change). 

Underwater features in the Arctic Ocean [Map via Wikipedia]

Greenland has been the subject of intensive scientific studies of late, including in relation to climate change, due to the country’s ‘front line status’ in observing the effects of Arctic ice loss. The Greenland ice sheet (in Greenlandic, Sermersuaq), covering approximately seventy-nine percent of the country’s surface area and possessing an average thickness of three kilometres, has demonstrated signs of accelerated melting, and may be already reaching a tipping point

During July of this year, record levels of rainfall on the ice sheet were observed, further illustrating the effects of climate change in the region and fostering further debate on what the erosion of Greenland’s ice would mean for the planet. 

If this new island is proven to be a permanent feature, there may also be implications for Greenland’s northern maritime boundary, which has been a complicated diplomatic subject given the disagreement between Greenland, (and the Danish government), Canada and Russia over the status of the nearby Lomonosov Ridge, which all the parties claim as part of their continental shelves.

Whether Greenland’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) will need to be adjusted due to the discovery of this island will depend on whether the feature remains above sea level indefinitely, as it is also possible that the island may at some point be submerged due to shifting ice patterns or storms.

Cruel Summer: Arctic Climate Change Reaches an Uncertain New Phase

Warming strips for the world, 1850-2020 [Image via ShowYourStripes, University of Reading, under Creative Commons]

by Marc Lanteigne

July 2021 has just been confirmed as the hottest month on record for the entire globe, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and to little surprise the Arctic has been taking the brunt of climate change effects since the summer began. As with last year, wildfires have again sprung up in many parts of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, with evidence recently suggesting that smoke from massive forest fires in Siberia had reached the North Pole for the first time. 

Canada has also been battling wildfires over the past few months, and the Canadian northwest has experienced heat levels to the point where local permafrost in both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories has been affected. Parts of the Nordic region, including in northern Finland, are also experiencing near-record summer temperatures. While in Alaska, concerns have been raised about the effects of warmer conditions on local freshwater fish stocks. Many eyes will also be on the state of the Arctic ice cap, which reached its maximum coverage for 2021 on 21 March of this year, as even the most durable areas of summer seasonal ice in the Arctic, north of Greenland and amidst Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, are also starting to show signs of strain. In Greenland itself, researchers recorded a significant melt event at the end of July, suggesting ongoing stresses to the country’s vast ice sheet. 

After a difficult four years, when the previous government in the United States broke away from fellow members of the Arctic Council by refusing to acknowledge climate change in the far north, (and elsewhere), the organisation’s eight members unanimously signed the Reykjavík Declaration [pdf] in May this year which called for accelerated joint action on combatting black carbon deposits and greenhouse gases and promoting sustainable development initiatives. Russia, which as of this May assumed the Chair position of the Council, will be under a microscope in regards to low it will address regional climate change policies. The Putin government, which sees the Arctic as a major emerging driver of the Russian economy, is trying to balance its ambitions in Siberia and the Russian Far East with the potential costs of environmental damage to these plans. 

This past week, climate change discussion has been dominated by the publication of the latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report included the strongest statements yet about the urgency to push back the effects of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change, including warnings that some tipping points may already have been reached. Although the IPCC has been reporting on these issues since 1990, what has changed with this most recent study is that the specific effects of humans on the global climate have been reported on with greater levels of confidence in the evidence and findings. 

The IPCC report covers the Arctic at length, including statements that it is ‘very likely’ that human activities were responsible for significant erosions of both glaciers and the Arctic ice cap over the past four decades, with areas of Arctic ice coverage at their lowest point since the mid-nineteenth century, with trends suggesting that the Arctic will continue to heat up at more than twice the average global warming rates. This will have significant effects on maritime temperatures and permafrost levels, as well as overall Arctic sea ice levels. As one conclusion in the Report outlined: 

Additional warming is projected to further amplify permafrost thawing, and loss of seasonal snow cover, of land ice and of Arctic sea ice (high confidence). The Arctic is likely to be practically sea ice free in September at least once before 2050 under the five illustrative scenarios considered in this report, with more frequent occurrences for higher warming levels.’ [Section B.2.5 of the Summary for Policymakers

[Image by Joshua Earle via Unsplash]

The environmental, in addition to political, effects of an ice-free central Arctic are only beginning to be studied at length. However, some initial steps have been taken to anticipate the probability of open waters nearer to the North Pole in the coming decades. These include the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAOFA), which was signed by ten governments, including the five Arctic Ocean littoral states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) as well as China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, and South Korea, in October 2018. In May of this year, Beijing became the last of the ‘Arctic 5+5’ governments to ratify [in Chinese] the deal. China also agreed to coordinate with the United States, Russia and other Arctic 5+5 governments early next year to further clarify fishing quotas in the Arctic. 

The Central Arctic Ocean, often nicknamed ‘the doughnut hole’ given that it rests outside of a ring of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) overseen by the region’s littoral states, is de facto international waters, and remains at present extremely challenging to navigate. However, the possibility of significant ice loss in the near future has raised a spotlight on differences between Arctic nations on maritime boundaries, specifically the status of the Lomonosov Ridge (Хребет Ломоносова), an underwater feature which extends into the Central Arctic, and is claimed by Russia, Denmark/Greenland and Canada as part of their continental shelves. 

The warning signs of cataclysmic climate change effects continue to dot the Arctic as this summer draws to a close, and with the evidence growing in both width and depth, questions about reversing these effects, as well as difficult debates about regional adaptation, are becoming impossible to avoid. 

Turning off the Taps? Greenland Says No to Oil Development Plans

Greenlandic Prime Minister Múte B. Egede meets with US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, 20 May 2021. [Photo by the US Department of State via Wikimedia Commons]

Mingming Shi and Marc Lanteigne

When the current government in Greenland was formed after the elections this past April, sweeping promises were made by the largest party in the coalition, the centre-left Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) [in Danish], to improve the country’s environmental policies. By far the most visible, and debated, of these decisions was a promise to cancel [in Danish] the long-planned rare earth elements and uranium mining project at Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld). Despite moves by the primary firm behind the project, Australia’s Greenland Minerals, to push for a compromise, there is little sign thus far that the plans will go forward in the near term. 

IA, under the leadership of Prime Minister Múte B. Egede, has insisted that the coalition government’s issues with the Kuannersuit project were with the threat of local pollution and radioactive by-products, not the mining sector per se. However, as a recent article in The Polar Connection explained, any mining activity produces a certain degree of radioactivity, and so now there is a question of whether a limit may have to be decided on. Another factor is interest in Greenlandic rare earths being unlikely to subside, given recent concerns about their growing strategic value [pdf]. This month, Nuuk agreed to join the European Raw Materials Alliance, reflecting Greenland’s value as an alternative source for strategic metal and mineral resources. 

Two mines in Greenland are now in operation, with one extracting anorthosite, and the other rubies. Other similar projects, such as a planned zinc mine at Citronen Fjord [in Danish] in Greenland’s far north, have also not been opposed by the government. This week, another potential mining operation showed signs of moving forward when the Australian firm Conico announced that a sampling survey at its site at Ryberg, in the Kangerlussuaq Basin of eastern Greenland, showed promising signs of both base metal and gold deposits. 

This month, it was also reported that the Greenlandic government was introducing legislation which would forbid the mining and export of uranium, de facto reinstating the 1988 ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on uranium extraction which had been overturned in 2013 to allow the Kuannersuit mine to go forward. At that time, that project was seen as a potential vanguard for the expansion of the country’s mining sector which would allow the greater diversification of the economy away from a heavy reliance on the fishing industry and the annual stipend, now representing about one-fifth of the Greenlandic gross national product (GNP), supplied by Denmark.

In a move seen as further burnishing the Greenland government’s environmental credentials, the Egede government made preparations in June this year to suspend indefinitely any future offshore oil exploration, with the argument that the country should instead work towards developing sustainable energy alternatives. This may include hydroelectric power, which has long been viewed as a potentially lucrative clean energy source for the country. 

Although there has yet to be any oil drilling in Greenland, plans had been mooted in 2018 by the previous government of PM Kielsen to open up hydrocarbon exploration blocks in the Disko Island / Qeqertarsuaq and Nuussuaq Peninsula regions. At that time, international firms, including PetroChina and the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), were expressing interest [in Chinese] in potential investment. As well, there are four oil surveys in Greenland which remain ongoing, overseen by two companies, Britain’s Greenland Gas & Oil (GGO) and Greenland’s own national firm, NunaOil A/S

Disko Island, Greenland [Satellite image created by the MODIS Rapid Response Project, NASA/GSFC, via Wikimedia Commons]

This move by Prime Minister Egede’s administration is a sharp contrast to the oil policies of its immediate predecessors. Kuupik Klelst, who also represented IA, was in office during 2009-13, However, unlike PM Egede, Kleist’s position [pdf] on extraction of oil was far more accepting. His successor, Aleqa Hammond, oversaw a government which was very pro-independence in its leanings, and she viewed raw materials development as key to achieving swifter Greenlandic economic autonomy. For example, at the 2014 Arctic Summit, hosted in London by the Economist, PM Hammond emphasised that ‘we are a frontier mineral and oil nation’ [pdf], and called for more extensive international awareness of natural resource-based sectors of the nation and further foreign investment in this industry. 

Although the subsequent government of Kim Kielsen was more cautious on the subject of independence, arguing that the timetable needed to be constructed in order to ensure that Greenland could be economically sustainable as an independent state, he was also upbeat about the role which extractive industries could play in modernising the country’s economy. As he stressed in 2016, ‘As yet we’re not aware of the mineral potential, how extensive it is. We will not find this out until we have turned the last stone,’. In early 2020, his government released a five-year economic strategy which included the aspiration to develop Greenland as a hub for international petroleum firms, despite deflated prices during the previous five years. 

These plans appear now to be in full reverse. In a presentation, entitled ‘Greenland in the Arctic: Launch of a new Arctic Circle Mission Council’, in June this year as part of the Arctic Circle Virtual lecture series, Pele Broberg, Minister for Industry, Trade, Foreign Affairs and Climate, detailed [video] his government’s interests in developing an array of environmentally responsible policies, including having Greenland join the Paris climate accords, and to move the country’s energy base from fossil fuels to sustainable alternatives, including hydrogen and hydroelectricity, stressing that economic development and green policies could be pursued simultaneously. 

Greenland Government Minister Pele Broberg, Copenhagen, 17 May 2021 [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha / Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

However, there is the question of what the moratorium on oil development will mean for the country’s economy and independence plans, given that they are contingent on the enlargement and diversification of Greenland’s economy to adjust to the end of the annual Danish stipend. Although there are differences between various political parties as to the best timetable for achieving independence, there is nonetheless a consensus within the political actors in Nuuk that it is necessary for the self-ruled territory with the Kingdom of Denmark to expand the sources of its income, in order to gain greater autonomy and ultimately full independence

Another wild card is whether the ban will be sustainable, especially given the possibility of a rapid recovery of oil prices in the next year, (although such an outcome is now more uncertain, given economic pressures and ongoing coronavirus challenges). During his discussion at the online Arctic Circle Virtual talk, Minister Broberg also outlined the diplomatic and trade achievements of Greenland and the outside world, by noting the opening of Greenland representative offices abroad, including in North America and the European Union, and plans for a similar office to be opened in Beijing in the near future.

However, one question which also remains is given Nuuk’s interests in increasing the number of its economic links, and ongoing interest expressed by major actors including China, the European Union and the United States in potential Greenland investment, will the oil moratorium affect this cooperation?