Arctic News Roundup: 28 September – 4 October

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, humpback whales in Alaskan waters have enjoyed the vast spaces for themselves without cruise ships, as the Guardian reported. Usually, the tourism sector, including cruise ships, has contributed to the income of the region. However, as researchers explained, these human activities had also prompted local whale species to change their behaviours, including their methods of communication with each other.

2) As RÚV reported, the economy of Iceland is estimated to decline 8.6%, according to the latest macroeconomic forecast by Íslandsbanki. However, according to Jón Bjarki Bentsson, the Chief Economist of that financial institution, the economic performance of the country may still experience a relatively healthy recovery if a vaccine against COVID-19 is made available for the public before next summer, as quoted the Grapevine.

3) An editorial was published by the journal Nature which argued that a lack of cooperation amongst the Arctic states may further damage the regional climate, and adversely affect lives in the Arctic which are already vulnerable. The article also pointed to the potential problems caused by reduced cooperation by the United States in the Arctic Council, especially in the light of the upcoming US presidential election and Russia assuming the Chair of the Council next year.

4) This week, the Government of the United Kingdom announced that it had signed its first ever fisheries agreement, as an independent coastal state since the termination of its European Union membership, with Norway. Members of the EU are included in the organisation’s Common Fisheries Policy, which the UK is about to leave in December. Norway is also outside of the Union, and pursues its own independent fisheries policies, albeit with much contact with the EU.

Arctic News Roundup: 21-27 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor at OtC, authored an Interlude article for the blog which looked at the offbeat connections between the Arctic, including Russia’s widening policies in the far northern region of this world, and the recent discovery in the skies of the planet Venus of a gas associated with life on Earth.

2) As the CBC reported, US President Donald Trump was about to issue an approval for a railway link between Alaska and the Canadian province of Alberta. The rail line would mainly be used to transport natural resources such as oil, iron ore and other raw materials, but also possibly passengers. According to the subsequent news reports, the permit has been authorised, and the railway may be completed in 2025.

3) Four foreign visitors in Iceland were arrested and fined 250,000 ISK (about US$1800) per person, before being sent back to their home country, due to their violation of the current quarantine regulations in Iceland, according to RÚV. Iceland, like many other countries in Europe, are currently struggling with a uptick of new coronavirus cases since the beginning of the autumn.

Interlude: The Kitten Shortage of Iceland

Rósalind, the unofficial mascot of the University of Iceland, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

Where would the world be without cats? This year, under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Icelanders are actually suffering from a cat shortage, in particular of young kittens [in Icelandic]. Cats are a common sight in Iceland, especially in the capital, Reykjavík, and some of them have attained celebrity status in the city and beyond. So talk of a lack of felines is an unusual event to say the least, one that made the headlines this week at RÚV, the country’s National Broadcasting Service.  

What happened? In Iceland, there is generally a higher number of cats waiting to be adopted than potential people who are looking for a new feline pet. However, this year, things have been turned upside down. According to Kattholt, the Icelandic Cat Protection Society, which provides services including a cat shelter and hotel, summer is usually the season when ‘kitten booms’ take place, and so the organisation is usually busy with matching their cats with new families. Three years ago, there was even a popular online feline reality show, ‘Keeping Up With the Kattarshians’, which featured Kattholt cats and captured international attention. Nevertheless, this year, there are fewer animals waiting for adoption, and there are no kittens on the organisation’s waiting list during the time of writing.

Móri, the never-to-be a great grandfather+, used to be a free-roaming cat. [Photo by Mingming Shi]

Jóhanna Ása Evensen, the operational manager at Kaltholt, believes that the regulation on cat keeping issued by Reykjavíkurborg [in Icelandic], the City Council of Reykjavík, is partially responsible for this turn of events, given that in addition to micro-chipping cats, owners are also obliged to have their free-roaming male outdoor cats neutered. She argues that the influence of the policy created both benefits and disadvantages, since on one hand, the rules have eased the problem of feline overpopulation, but some families may have to wait a bit longer to be joined by a cat.

Interlude: Venus Favours the Bold? Russia and the Second Planet

Venus dayside synthesized false color image by UVI (2018 Mar 18) No.1 [Photo: (C) Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)]

by Marc Lanteigne

For years, the planet Venus [video] was considered the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of the Earth’s global warming, given that the world’s cloud-shrouded atmosphere is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, with surface temperatures reaching over 460ºC, (a record for any planet in the Solar System, including Mercury). Adding to the hostile conditions are atmospheric pressures ninety times that of Earth, winds that can reach 360 kilometres per hour, intense volcanic activity, and clouds (and rain) made of sulphuric acid. These conditions have been blamed on a ‘runaway greenhouse effect’ caused by ancient oceans evaporating due to extended periods of sunlight, and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere, which eventually heated the planet in extremis.

As Stephen Hawking warned in 2017, climate change trends on Earth could result in our world becoming much more Venus-like in the future. Climate change continues to affect our planet this year, despite the slowdown of economic activities caused by the pandemic, and the results can also continue to be seen in the Polar Regions. Updated research published this month provided further evidence of a ‘new Arctic’ emerging, marked by warmer air, melting ice and more frequent precipitation in the form of rain as opposed to snow.

Venus has often been referred to as ‘Earth’s twin’, given the similar size, and overall composition, (both are ‘terrestrial planets’, meaning a telluric / rocky planet), of the two worlds. Yet the radical differences in other aspects including atmospheres, (Venus has no magnetic field and spins clockwise, or ‘retrograde’), include the fact that Venus is lifeless.

Or rather, potentially lifeless. A paper published earlier this month in the journal Nature Astronomy by Prof Jane Greaves (Cardiff University) et al. detailed evidence, via chemical traces during long-range observation, of a gas which has most commonly been linked with life processes on Earth in Venus’ cooler upper atmosphere . (An additional paper looking at this phenomenon, prepared for the journal Astrobiology, can be read here [pdf]). The apparent detection of phosphine (PH3) detailed in these studies may be caused by a previously unknown natural chemical reaction, or could also be a sign of life in the clouds of Venus. Phosphine is a colourless gas but is flammable, corrosive and toxic, and is found in many places on earth, being associated with various life processes.  

Venus had been almost entirely ignored by scientists seeking life in other parts of the Solar System, as its temperatures and overall conditions made it a dubious candidate at best. Some papers in the last century had indeed posited the possibility of life forms in the Venusian higher atmospheric levels, including a watershed 1967 study published in the journal Nature by Harold Morowitz and Carl Sagan, (Mr Sagan, during his doctoral research in 1960, had also hypothesised that Venus had been subjected to an extensive greenhouse effect long ago).

However, far more attention has been focused in another direction, namely towards Mars and the outer planets, (and their moons), in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Mars had long been seen as an optimal location for potential life, or possibly fossils, to exist. The planet has been the focus of numerous exploration operations, including most recently the American Perseverance rover mission, China’s Tianwen-1 (天问一号) probe [in Chinese] and the Hope (الأمل‎ Al-Amal) mission led by the United Arab Emirates, all of which were launched in the middle of this year. More recently, two satellites of Saturn, namely Enceladus and Titan, as well as Jupiter’s moon Europa, had also been placed high on the roster of life-bearing worlds. With the discovery this month, however, Venus may just have been catapulted to the front of the line.

It is at this point where Russia entered, (or rather re-entered, as will be explained), the picture, and there are notable links to this involvement and Russian Arctic policies in recent years. Since the tentative phosphine discovery was announced, calls have been made for new missions to the planet. At present, only a single satellite, Akatsuki (あかつき Dawn), operating since 2015 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is taking readings over Venus. NASA is also considering four new potential probe missions at present, including two to the second planet from the sun. One option, DAVINCI+, would entail a survey of the Venusian atmosphere.

Moscow is now also coming forward to express its interests in missions to Venus, including an announcement by the Russian space agency Roscosmos (Роскосмос) of a national effort to encourage independent exploration of the planet. This would be in addition to the Venera-D (Венера-Д) Venus project, which Russia proposed in partnership with the United States, but which may or may not be affected by the difficult diplomatic relations between the two powers.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin shake hands following a television interview, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)]

However, in announcing renewed Russian participation in Venus exploration, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, seemingly took matters a step further by noting [in Russian] that Venus was a ‘Russian planet’. Also last week, a statement [in Russian] from Roscosmos weighed in on the matter by stating that during the cold war, even American commentaries referred to Venus as ‘the Soviet Planet’ (советской планетой) in recognition of the wide lead which the USSR had in regards to exploring that world.

Whether these remarks were actually meant as an intention to eventually stake a claim, or were simply reflecting the long history of Russian, and before that Soviet, missions to the planet, was unclear, but they received much international attention last week. The Soviet Union was the first country to successfully land probes on Venus, via its Venera (Венера) missions between 1967-84. Venera-7 (1970) was the first victorious attempt to place a lander on Venus, and the Venera-13 (1981) mission transmitted the first colour images of the planet’s surface. The first US mission to the planet took place in 1978 with the arrival of the Pioneer orbiter.

For all the current controversy, an actual attempt to claim the planet for the Russian Federation would face the international prohibition of such actions as detailed by the Outer Space Treaty, which came into effect in 1967. Article II of that document [pdf] specifies that ‘Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ Russia / USSR, as well as the United States and China, are amongst the 110 current signatories to the Treaty.

Mr Rogozin, who has been the Director-General of Roscosmos since 2018, has had a previous history of being somewhat of an iconoclast when it came to certain international laws and norms, including those covering the Arctic. In April 2015, he courted controversy, as well as criticism from the Norwegian government, when he appeared in Svalbard despite being subject to a travel ban in Norway and the European Union, in the wake of the Russian-backed invasion of Crimea during the previous year. At that time, Mr Rogozin was Deputy Prime Minister (Defence / Space) under President Vladimir Putin.

Artist’s concept of lightning on Venus, 2007 [Image by J. Whatmore via the European Space Agency / ESA]

The Russian government reacted negatively to Norwegian criticism of the visit, (which included pictures [paywall] on Twitter), by arguing that the sanctions did not apply to Svalbard, which is Norwegian territory but governed under the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty. The visit was seen as one of a long series of challenges which Moscow has issued regarding Norwegian oversight of Svalbard, as well as part of expanding Russian interests in developing a stronger and more visible Arctic presence, which included a controversial flag-planting under the ice of the North Pole in 2007.

Such an event is unlikely to be repeated on Venus, as the flag would melt, (unless it, like the North Pole flag, was also made of titanium, which has a melting point of 1668ºC or so), but the events of the past week do demonstrate links between that planet and the Arctic, politically as well as environmentally.

Arctic News Roundup: 14-20 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to RÚV, ten pilot whales were discovered stranded on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, in western Iceland, and almost all had perished on the beach. Attempts to move one of the whales back to sea were also unsuccessful. The reason behind the tragedy was not immediately confirmed by researchers. 

2) An alarming article was published by High North News on climate change, and its influence on both the Arctic and the rest of the world. Experts warn that climate change, and the thawing of glaciers in the Polar Regions were affecting not only human lives, but ecosystems as well, such as the migration of fish stocks in the oceans. There is the argument that information-sharing and cooperation are now essential in tackling these trends.

3) The carcass of an ice age bear was found by reindeer herders in the Lyakhovsky Islands (Ляховские острова) in northern Russia, thanks to melting permafrost in the region, as the CBC reported. The skeleton was well preserved, and scientists assumed that the animal was living between 22,000 to 39,500 years ago.

4) Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor of Over the Circle, published a commentary on trends in the debate over Arctic security. The article concluded that even though much more attention is being paid to military affairs in the region, other security areas, including gender, health, and the affects of the COVID-19 pandemic, were also worthy of greater notice.