Iceland Postcard #1

Skating rink in downtown Reykjavík [Photo by Mingming Shi]

by Mingming Shi

(Iceland Postcard is a new occasional feature at Over the Circle which looks at stories around Iceland for those interested in this-always fascinating part of the Arctic!)

Christmas Is Here, (Still) Accompanied by Covid

Christmas season has finally arrived, and so has the statue of Jólaköturrin (the Icelandic Christmas Cat). Locals and tourists in downtown are happy to take pictures and selfies with this giant shining monster. Another attraction nearby is the open-air ice skating, which I have not tried yet.

Decorations are up, lights are on, music is playing, and even the weather has shown some mercy (usually Icelandic weather is infamous to be fierce and changeable). However, the pandemic is not yet interested in vanishing, and not leaving us alone. Iceland is not able to be an exemption from the latest variant of the pandemic. Due to the recent infection spikes (522 diagnosed cases on 24 December), new restrictions have come into force, with a focus on number limits at restaurants, swimming pools and other facilities.

Do keep an eye on our furry family members who may get into trouble during holidays, especially because they tend to be curious about small things. A cat in Iceland was reported by Vísir to have swallowed a needle and a twine by accident. However, luckily the feline turned out to be fine after some medical treatment.

Reykjavík’s Yule Cat [Photo by Mingming Shi]

The Triplets 

For many, 2021 marked another year of staying alone, or meeting fewer people. However, this was not the case for a local family who welcomed newborns. A couple with new triplets arriving overnight in April this year may be more busy than government ministers, as at least the latter do not have to change diapers for other members in their ministries. With an older kid, they have four kids in total so far. What super parents!

Bónus Has A New Look

The logo of the local grocery brand Bónus, a pale pink pig, often gets the attention of foreign visitors for its hilarious appearance. However, this decades-old image has subtly changed its look this year, with a brighter colour and more symmetrical eyes. The concept of the previous icon was made to resemble a classic piggy bank, due to economical prices of the products sold at the chain.

Can you spot the difference? [Photo by Mingming Shi]

(Additionally, the opening hours of Bónus are also expanding.)

Comment: Thanks and Thoughts for the New Year

by Mingming Shi

I am thankful for our readers, especially given that in this information age where surges of news are appearing around everyone, many of us have been scrolling up and down the screens of our mobiles and computers more frequently, given the current pandemic. Every hit on our articles matters, which has fuelled our volunteer (equivalent to ‘unpaid’!) editors’ inspirations for our next news topics. Besides, it is a great pleasure and honor to be told online and in person that our writings are useful in others’ studies and research.

Among all my work this year, the article From Denmark to Greenland: A Long-awaited Apology is one of my favorites. I had been gathering data on this issue for a while before a belated official apology from the Government of Denmark. The message from Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, sparked my determination to complete of this article. A Danish phrase was appearing many times while I was reviewing the materials of this historical tragedy: gode intentioner, meaning ‘good intentions’. I am not arguing that the planners meant to mistreat the Greenlandic children. However, I am not persuaded that this phrase is supposed to be the most appropriate way that we should look at the past, in this period, when colonialism seems to be far behind. Well-intended colonialism is/was still colonialism, no matter how gentle and subtle it presents/ed itself.

There is no secret to composing these articles, where searching and gathering for materials, reading, discussing, rethinking and rewriting have repeated themselves numerous times. It requires a great quantity of extra caution when it comes to a language which I am not fluent in, such as Danish. Friends and colleagues have also given a helpful hand to make helpful comments and kind suggestions. I would especially like to thank Mikkel Schøler and Marc Lanteigne in particular, without whom, my work would not have found such a wonderful audience!

I am very proud to say that 2021 is a special year in my personal life, as I have a full time job working at a fast food place while keeping up publishing on the blog. Making a living through hospitality and customer service is a great contributor to my deepening understanding of Iceland, an Arctic state. 

The Arctic, and the greater circumpolar regions, are of course the core of our blog and one of the major fields of research in my (part-time) academic career. However, I also want to raise some questions for all of us, for example, do we care about people and other creatures inhabiting the high north and other parts of the globe? Are they simply numbers and data in our publications? How else can we better comprehend this world? Is there anything more profound to experience in life than just academia and writing?

2022 will be an historical phase with an uncertain future, and I genuinely wish everybody a safe and sound New Year and look forward to communicating via our writings and other occasions. –M.S.

20 (More) Questions about Iceland – Answers!

Skútustaðahreppur, in northern Iceland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

Are you an Iceland expert? See how well you did with the second quiz about the country!

1) What does “vatn” mean in the word “Vatnajökull”, the name of Iceland’s largest glacier?

a) “Power”
b) “God”
c) “Water”
d) “Ice”

2) In which of the following countries has Iceland not established an embassy?

a) Australia
b) China
c) Japan
d) United States

A bus in Reykjavík advertising the 100th anniversary of electrical power in Iceland [Photo by Mingming Shi]

3) In which year did electricity become available in Iceland?

a) 1891
b) 1903
c) 1921
d) 1936

Iceland celebrated the centenary of its electric power this year.

[Photo by Mingming Shi]

4) Where is this famous puffin statue (pictured above) located? 

a) Akureyri  
b) Egilsstaðir
c) Mývatn
d) Heimaey

It is hard to miss this huge statue at the harbour in Heimaey, the main island within the Westman Islands!

5) Who was the first president of Iceland?

a) Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
b) Sveinn Björnsson
c) Friðrik Sophusson
d) Davið Oddsson

Sveinn Björnsson was the first President of Iceland, serving from 1944 to 1952. Davið Oddsson used to be the Prime Minister of the country from 1991 to 2004. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was the fifth president of Iceland, serving from 1996 to 2016. Friðrik Sophusson is a local politician and former finance minister.

6) Please identify which letter is not used in the Icelandic language.

a) þ 
b) á 
c) ö 
d) ø

7) Iceland was a founding member of which one of these international organisations? 

a) United Nations
b) League of Nations
c) North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)
d) European Union

Iceland is a founding member of NATO, but not of the United Nations, even though it was an early addition (in 1946). Iceland was not yet independent during the time of the League of Nations, and is not a member of the European Union, (although the country does have many cooperation agreements with the EU).

8) Which of the following international brands does not have a brick and mortar store in Iceland?

a) H&M
b) Uniqlo
c) Ikea
d) Costco

9) What is the Icelandic name for the country’s famous “Blue Lagoon”?

a) Bláa lónið
b) Bláfjöll
c) Bláskógabyggð
d) Bláklukka

10) How many cities are there in Iceland?

a) 1
b) 7
c) 11
d) 15

There is only one official city in Iceland, namely its capital, Reykjavík (population 132,000).

11) Which of the following activities cannot be done in the Reykjavík’s main shopping street, Laugavegur? 

a) Find a stuffed polar bear toy
b) Enjoy Vietnamese cuisine
c) Try local spirits
d) Go swimming at the Laugardalslaug pool 

Laugardalslaug swimming pool is not on this street, even though their names look similar!

12) Which location in Iceland was not used for locational filming of the series ‘Game of Thrones’?

a) Þingvellir national park
b) Hallormsstaðaskógur national forest
c) Þórsmörk mountain ridge
d) Grjótagjá hot springs

Many parts of Iceland were used in the filming of this series, (after all, winter was coming!), but not the Hallormsstaðaskógur region.

13) What is the name of the first female Prime Minister of Iceland?

a) Mette Frederiksen
b) Mingming Shi
c) Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir
d) Katrín Jakobsdóttir

(Although thank you to anyone who guessed b) !)

1 króna coin [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

14) What is the marine animal pictured on the Iceland one króna coin? 

a) salmon
b) cod
c) halibut
d) lumpfish

15) What is the English translation of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík? 

a) “Windstorm”
b) “Northern Lights”
c) “Bay of Smoke”
d) “High Waves”

The name comes from the steam from geothermal vents which Viking explorers witnessed in the area.

16) Which character in “The Simpsons” was raised in Iceland?

a) Jeff
b) Carl
c) Lenny
d) Moe

Carl Carlson was raised in Iceland, although Lenny and Moe (along with Homer) had visited the country.

17) In which Icelandic town does the United States maintain its military presence?

a) Keflavík
b) Selfoss
c) Höfn
d) Húsavík

The United States military maintained a naval air station in Keflavík until 2006, but recently US forces have used the facilities for various Arctic operations.

Not the real Yule Cat! [Photo by Mingming Shi]

18) Which of the following activities does Jólakötturinn (the Icelandic Christmas Cat) do at Christmas, according to Icelandic legend?

a) Brings gifts to the poor and homeless
b) Eats people without new clothes
c) Rescues lost puffins on glaciers
d) Flies (to catch falcons) and swims (to catch fish)


19) Which following statements about Iceland’s Surtsey Island is incorrect?

a) It appeared from an undersea volcano eruption in the 1960s
b) It is open for tourism
c) It is the second largest island of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) archipelago
d) It is a World Heritage Site, recognised by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

Due to the island’s newness, and delicate ecosystem, only approved scientific personnel are permitted to visit Surtsey at present.

20) Which street does Reykjavík’s famous Hallgrímskirkja Church face?

a) Skólavörðustígur
b) Hallgrímstorg
c) Eiríksgata
d) Bergþórugata

Gleðileg jól!

Russia’s Nuclear Arctic?

The Russian floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov, in 2019 [Photo by Elena Dider via Wikimedia Commons]

by Marc Lanteigne

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the escalation of the tense border situation between the Russian Federation and Ukraine in recent weeks, Moscow has continued its plans to develop its far northern regions, in preparation for growth in regional shipping and demand for oil and gas. The government of Vladimir Putin continues to tout the importance of Russia’s Northern Sea Route (Северный морской путь) as an emerging artery for global maritime trade, especially as demand for fossil fuels may rebound depending on the trajectory of the global economy next year. 

In 2020, sixty-four vessels made use of the NSR for cargo transits, up from thirty-seven the previous year. In September of this year alone, 33 ships reportedly traversed the route, and the Putin regime remains confident that it will be able to transfer thirty million tonnes of cargo using the NSR by 2030, (last year, that figure was 1.3 million tonnes). With ice levels in the Arctic Ocean continuing to erode each year due to climate change, Russia is banking on its Arctic energy resources, as well as metals, minerals, and rare earths, to play a greater role in the country’s economy, at a time when Moscow continues to face trade pressures from the West. 

The NSR will be central not only in delivering these resources to global markets but also in allowing the Russian Arctic to eventually become a commonplace secondary sea route between East Asia and Northern Europe. It was no coincidence that in March of this year, when the cargo vessel Ever Given became stuck in the Suez Canal, causing a major bottleneck in global shipping until it was freed six days later, that the Russian State Nuclear Energy Corporation, or Rosatom (Росатом), with extensive interests in the Northern Sea route, took the opportunity to advertise the NSR as a less accident-prone alternative. 

However, the route remains far from being in a position to challenge traditional sealine like the Suez or the Malacca Straits, and the challenges of using the NSR were further illustrated when two dozen vessels became trapped in the waterway by an unexpected early freeze last month, forcing two Russian icebreakers, the Novorossiysk (Новороссийск) and the Vaygach (Вайгач) to participate in rescue operations. 

In addition to the still-unpredictable weather patterns in the Russian Arctic, as well as ongoing challenges in balancing economic development and environmental concerns in the region, (as the Norilsk incident last year underscored), infrastructure is another major challenge facing any plans to fully develop both the NSR and the surrounding lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE), and element of Moscow’s drive to better utilise its Arctic assets has been the movement of nuclear components northwards. 

Pevek, in the Russian Far East [Photo by Boris Solovyev via Wikimedia Commons]

The deployment of the vessel Akademik Lomonosov (Академик Ломоносов) to the Russian Arctic is the most visible example of the growing role of nuclear energy in the building up of NSR infrastructure projects. The ship, which acts as a waterborne nuclear power plant, is key to supplying energy to various facilities and projects along the NSR in preparation for increased sea traffic.

Despite initial scepticism about the viability of such a vessel, the ship nonetheless began operations in 2019, and this month was stationed in the town of Pevek (Певек) in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug of the RFE. Pevek lies near promising deposits of base and precious metals, including gold, but its isolation required an external energy source for mining to take place. Rosatom is now looking at the next phase [in Russian] of these types of vessels, and plans were reported [in Russian] to build five more such ships to assist with extractive industries along the NSR. Such ships could also be sold to other governments. 

At issue, however, is whether floating nuclear power plants can be a safe provider of energy to the Russian Arctic, given the extreme conditions in the region, and whether the economic benefits of developing resources and opening shipping in the NSR is worth the risk of using such ships. Critics, including from Greenpeace, have argued that an accident would be devastating for the Arctic, and that there remain questions about how spent fuel would be stored and whether these plants will also contribute to further environmental degradation of the Arctic by supporting further oil and gas drilling. Moreover, Russia, (and the Soviet Union before it), has at best an imperfect record regarding nuclear safety. In August 2019, a radioactive explosion, under unclear circumstances, took place at a military site in Nyonoksa (Нёнокса), in the Arkhangelsk Oblast, which resulted in seven casualties. 

The Akademik Lomonosov is hardly the only nuclear vehicle in Russia’s far north, as the country has also sought to expand its fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers also in anticipating of increased demand for the NSR. At present, five out of the country’s fifty or so icebreakers are nuclear powered, with the latest being the Arktika (Арктика), and the Putin government has called for that number to rise to nine by 2035. Russia is the only country to operate nuclear-powered icebreaking ships, although China had expressed interest in building their own such vessel, and is also seeking to develop heavy icebreakers [in Chinese] for anticipated use of the NSR. 

Russia’s advances in this area has caused much consternation in the United States, (including fears of an ‘icebreaker gap’), given that the US Coast Guard only has one (barely) operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, and the deployment of its first replacement Polar Security Cutter [pdf] is now facing delays.  

Concerns have also been raised about how nuclear materiel may factor into Russia’s ongoing interests in building up its military capabilities in the Arctic. The Putin government has frequently framed such activities as necessary from a defensive viewpoint, given Russia’s long Arctic coastline and the need to monitor it, especially as more ships are expected to operate within the NSR. Nevertheless, reports in April this year of the testing of a nuclear powered stealth torpedo, the Poseidon (Посейдон) 2M39, as well as updates to its Northern Fleet policies have called into question whether Moscow’s Arctic strategies are purely defensive in nature. 

As an April 2020 report [pdf] concluded, the ongoing additional of new nuclear materials into the Arctic has not only had effects on regional security thinking, including amongst the other Arctic governments, but it has also increased the threat of an accident leading to catastrophic damage to the marine environment and local populations. 

The Russian nuclear icebreaker Valgach leading ships through the Gulf of Finland, 2011 [Photo by Vadim Zhernov via Wikimedia Commons]

As well, one of the Working Groups within the Arctic Council, on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), published a study [pdf] in January this year which outlined the dangers of nuclear contamination from a variety of sources, including from nuclear powered ships, waste storage facilities, and floating nuclear power plants. Many scenarios involving nuclear accidents in the Arctic were judged to be low risk, however the risks of an accident involving either a nuclear-powered vessel or a waterborne nuclear power plant were judged as ‘moderate’ and increasing. Much will depend, however, on what (and how many) nuclear materials are further introduced in the region in the future, what safety protocols are in place to accommodate them, and whether any sort of Arctic nuclearisation can ever truly be safe. 

This month, it was announced that five Norwegian Coast Guard ships would begin to carry drones designed to detect radiation in the Arctic Ocean, primarily as a response to the rising number [pdf] of nuclear-powered vessels and reactors Russia has deployed to its Arctic waters. The Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (Direktoratet for samfunnssikkerhet og beredskap / DSB), also detailed an exercise, Arctic REIHN 2022, which will be held in Bodø in May of next year to simulate an emergency response to a radiation accident. Despite Russia’s nuclear ambitions having a focus on domestic economic and political benefits, its decisions regarding polar nuclear usage are now beginning to have serious effects across much of the Arctic.