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.
After weeks of winter-like weather, and concerns about whether summer would actually arrive in Iceland this year, the sun finally came out last week on most parts of the island. Nonetheless, Iceland remained a comparative cool spot compared with other parts of the world, including North America (especially Québec, where more than ninety of heat-related deaths were recorded this summer), Western Europe, China and Japan, which were experiencing record high temperatures. More worrisome has been the fact that much of the Arctic has also been breaking temperature records, culminating in serious forest fires in far-northern Sweden and neighbouring regions.
Even before the fires in Northern Europe began, the Nordic Arctic had been experiencing unprecedented warm spells this summer, with the Finnmark region in Norway recording a record high of 33.3ºC last week, and Siberia also seeing unusually high temperatures in recent weeks, with Murmansk, currently experiencing ‘white nights’ , with the sun never going below the horizon, also recording temperatures well above thirty degrees in the daytime.
The fires in Sweden, which fortunately have not caused injuries, have been blamed on draught and high temperatures since the summer began, as well as a ‘heat dome’ which had situated itself over much of the northern part of Europe this month. There was also the suggestion that some of fires may have been set accidentally despite a ban [In Swedish] on disposable outdoor barbecues which had been put into place since the high temperatures began. Overall, it was reported that eleven of about sixty fires recorded were burning north of the Arctic Circle.
The Swedish government under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called for international assistance to combat the blazes, and this weekend the European Commission announced that it would further coordinate a joint European Union response to the crisis. Fire-fighting aircraft have already been dispatched [video] from Italy and Norway over the past week. Although forest fires in Sweden are not unusual, this year was significant given the number of fires, and the wide land area affected. Next-door Finland and Norway have also recorded ‘hotspots’, and severe fires were also reported on the border between Finland and Russia in Sápmi (Lapland) regions.
These incidents may be the latest in a series of indicators of how climate change and the melting ice cap is beginning to have more visible effects on the Arctic. Despite ongoing climate change denial in some parts of the world, the evidence is mounting that the Far North is starting to experience the effects of changing weather patterns and warmer temperatures more acutely in recent years. For example, a warning bell was heard last year when Greenland experienced mass wildfires to a greater degree than ever before, raising fears of black carbon deposits which could further accelerate the erosion of the island’s ice sheet.
Greenland saw another giant piece of climate change evidence earlier this month in the form of a massive iceberg, weighing an estimated eleven million tonnes, which drifted close to the town of Innaarsuit, in the north-western part of the island, threatening a possible tsunami if the ice breaks or calves.
In 2014, the Northwest Territories in Canada reported more than a hundred forest fires which were caused by both lightening and human agency. It was also reported in an article in June of this year by Norwegian researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change that the Arctic Ocean might be taking on some of the characteristics of the adjacent Atlantic, with evidence suggesting that the Barents Sea may have warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past eighteen years. Other studies which were released at the recent Polar 2018 conference in Davos, Switzerland estimated that glaciers on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut showed signs of rapid diminishment between 1999 and 2015. And the summer is not over yet.
Football fever had too-briefly gripped Iceland over the past few weeks, as the country’s team sought to advance out of its original group of four in the World Cup and enter the final sixteen teams in the knockout round this weekend. Unfortunately, things went off script in unexpected ways. The 2014 World Cup runner-up, Argentina, played the Iceland team first, with the result being a promising 1-1 draw.
A great start, but then the team lost 2-0 to Nigeria and had to face dark horse Croatia, which was fresh from their 3-0 victory over a faltering Argentinian squad. The Croatian team beat Iceland 2-1 after a stressful match, culminating in the winning goal scored at the 90-minute mark, preventing the Icelandic team from advancing and disappointing many fans back home who were watching the match both in Iceland and in Russia.
Outdoor screens were set up at Hljómskálagarður Park as well as in other parts of Reykjavík, and football jerseys and other Iceland Football Association [In Icelandic] gear could be found for sale all over the capital.
Despite the loss, Iceland distinguished itself as the small country by population to enter the World Cup, and had quickly became known as the Cinderella story of this year’s event. The captain of the Icelandic team, Aron Einar Gunnarsson, expressed his satisfaction with the Croatia match, even though the results were not what was hoped.
Meanwhile, Iceland’s fellow Nordic teams, Denmark and Sweden, did advance into the knockout round, playing Croatia and Switzerland (Hopp Schwiiz!), respectively next week.
The Government of Denmark announced this week that it was going to enter into discussions with Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat about potential Danish financial support for the expansion and refurbishment of three Greenlandic airports, a decision which couldshut down a bid by a Chinese firm for that contract. The declaration, confirmed by the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Greenland, may be a further indication of Copenhagen’s growing unease about expanded Chinese economic interests in Greenland as Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ (一带一路), or BRI, trade routes begin to expand further into the Arctic.
A statement[In Danish] released by the Danish Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Copenhagen’s interest in negotiations regarding Denmark potentially underwriting the development of the airports in the capital of Nuuk as well as Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. At present, Kangerlussuaq and Narsarsuaq are the only (civilian) airports [In Danish] capable of handling large aircraft. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark pledged his support for improving Greenlandic infrastructure in order to improve the island’s economic competitiveness and fledgling tourism industry.
High on the priority list for the new coalition was the improvement and diversification of the island’s economy, which at present remains heavily dominated by the fishing industry. Siumut has been open to the prospect of increased foreign investment in Greenland, including potentially by Chinese interests, and has suggested [In Danish] that a Greenland representative office should open in Beijing.
When it was announced that a contract to develop the airports would be open for bidding in cooperation with the Greenlandic state-owned firm Kalaallit Airports, one of the main contenders was a Chinese firm, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which was shortlisted along with five other firms, with a final decision originally scheduled to be announced later this year. However, the Danish announcement may place the Chinese bid in doubt, especially if some sort of cost-sharing deal can be achieved over the next few months.
Danish officials had previously expressed concerns about the Chinese company’s bid due to reservations about Greenland’s economic sovereignty, especially at a time whenthe debate about the eventual independence of Greenland from the Danish Kingdom continues tocirculate. Siumut has been open to the possibility of eventual independence, while Nunatta Qitornai is strongly pro-independence, as is PN, which at one point suggested independence from Greenland could be achieved as early as 2021. Atassut has been traditionally supportive of greater Greenlandic autonomy from Denmark, but with conditions short of complete independence. After the election, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a member of NQ and Greenland’s new Minister of Independence, recently called for a jump-start [In Norwegian] of debates about constitutional reform in preparation for potential independence.
Any move towards independence would require Greenland to seek out deepened trade agreements to offset the annual stipend from Copenhagen, and China has been very visible in current and potential development projects on the island. In addition to the airports bid, Chinese firms are also involved in two potential mining projects [paywall] in Greenland, and there was previous interest expressed by Beijing in a potential scientific base [In Danish] there. It was also revealed last year that Hong Kong company General Nice had sought to purchase abandoned US-built military facilities at Grønnedal, but was interdicted by the Danish government due to security concerns and worries about the reaction from Washington, which operates an active air force base at Thule in the northern part of the island.
As detailed in China’s first Arctic White Paper which was released in January of this year, over the past year, China has made greater expressions of interest in adding the Arctic to its expanded network of trade routes as part of the BRI. For example, on the sidelines of this past week’s leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Qingdao, an agreement worth approximately US$10.1 billion was completed between Russia’s Vnesheconombank and the China Development Bank for joint investment initiatives, potentially as many as seventy projects, in the Russian Far East (RFE), including along the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR). Exactly how far the Arctic tier of the BRI will extend towards the Nordic region including Greenland is not clear, but as a presentation [video] at the recently concluded Arctic Circle conference in Tórshavn detailed, China retains a strong interest in developing various economic partnerships with Nuuk.
In May of this year, the Danish leader stated publically that he was not in favour [In Danish] of a Chinese firm winning the airports contract, and noted that a decision of this magnitude had significant effects on Greenlandic foreign policy. Under the 2009 self-rule [pdf] agreement between Copenhagen and Nuuk, the Danish government retains oversight of Greenland’s international affairs.
The Danish-Greenlandic discussions this week did not mention specific Danish financial contributions to the airports project, which was expected to cost approximately 3.5 billion DKK (US$550 million). However, the two governments agreed [In Norwegian] to reach a decision by the autumn session of the Greenlandic parliament on a possible partnership, as well as to discuss other initiatives designed to improve overall Danish investment in Greenland. Both the independence factor and the possibility of deepened Chinese investment have appeared to be guiding the calls in Copenhagen for enhanced economic engagement with Nuuk.
Even if the Chinese company ultimately does not succeed in winning the bid, it is unlikely this issue will be last word on the subject of the delicate balancing act which has been taking shape between Denmark, which wishes to maintain its leading role in Greenland’s economic future, and China, a rising power with growing interest in Arctic diplomacy and investment.
[Many thanks to Mingming Shi, Mikkel Møller Schøler and Lau Øfjord Blaxekjær for their assistance with the researching of this post.]
As the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins this week, a lot of attention has been paid to one of the two newcomers to the global football championship, namely Iceland, (the other country making its debut is Panama). Yet, the Icelandic team has already made history by being the smallest country by population to enter the World Cup finals, and has quickly redefined the word ‘underdog’ in many ways.
The team faces an uphill battle to make it to the knockout round, given that its partners in Group D are Croatia, Nigeria, and two-time Cup winner Argentina. Iceland was able to enter the finals after defeating Kosovo in a qualifying match last October, and the team had previously distinguished itself by holding its own again much more established squadrons. Iceland will play its first match on Saturday local time, and there will be much anticipation about how well the Icelandic team fares, especially given its newfound reputation as both a ‘dark horse’ and an occasional giant killer.
The latter moniker was a result of a shock defeatof the English team, 2-1, in the Euro Cup in June 2016, a victory which brought the Icelandic team, and the country’s football culture, international attention for the first time, (and likely added yet another boost to the country’s already burgeoning tourism industry). Iceland fans’ signature ‘Viking clap’ [video] became an institution all its own, and the team itself also became known for its humility, including by being coached by Heimir Hallgrímsson, a part-time dentist.
In addition to the host country, the Arctic is also represented by Denmark (Group C) and Sweden (Group F). This week, it was also announcedthat the World Cup 2026 would be co-hosted by two other Arctic states, Canada and the United States, along with Mexico. This North American team-up may face difficulties in the early planning stages however, given the ongoing brittle relations between the US and Mexico, and the recent chill over American relations with Canada in light of harsh criticism President Donald Trump levelled against Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Canadian trade practices after the G7 Summit in Québec this month.
The Icelandic team has been called a ‘sleeper’ entry into the World Cup, as well as a fan favourite, and even made the lead story in this week’s edition of Timemagazine as the squad which ‘crashed the party’ and demonstrated that ‘Iceland stands for more than Instagram-ready glaciers and volcanoes, and a banking collapse,’. Despite the long odds the team faces, (estimated at 200 to one to actually win the Cup), the group’s breakout goal scorer, Eiður Guðjohnsen, said that his team was ‘in a good place’ for the start of the event. Regardless of the outcome of the first matches, Iceland has already secured its place in football history.