Arctic News Roundup: 15-21 March

Simulated volcanic activity at the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur, Iceland [Photo by Mingming Shi]

by Mingming Shi

1) The volcano at Fagradalsfjall, on the Reykjanes Peninsula (Reykjanesskagi) in Iceland, experienced its first eruption shortly before 21:30 on Friday, according to Morgunblaðið (and the English language Iceland Monitor). The eruption itself was seen as unlikely to cause risks for inhabitants, thanks to its location in a sparsely populated region. Experts were also concerned about gas being carried by the wind to the eastern part of the country. The eruption is still continuing at the time of the writing of the Roundup.

2) The Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law, Arctic Centre, University of Lapland announced that it was seeking a new university researcher. The position would cover multidisciplinary research in the fields of international environmental law and policies, as well as human rights in the Arctic. This facility is located in Rovaniemi, in northern Finland.

3) The Guardian news service in the UK reported, noting a story by NRK, that the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, was being investigated for violating Covid-19 crowd restrictions implemented by the Norwegian government. PM Solberg conveyed an apology through her Facebook account. Local police also confirmed at the time that an investigation of this case would be conducted.

4) As the Sermitsiaq news agency in Greenland revealed, a group of international scientists estimated, based on recent research on some old discovered samples of natural materials, along with other evidence previously uncovered, that Greenland actually used to be green, specifically, covered by forest, approximately one million years ago. This story was subsequently picked up by the High North News service.

5) According to The Local NO, immigrants are more likely to suffer from loneliness than others in Norwegian society. The situation among immigration in Norway are highly related to less human interaction, lower incomes on average, limited Norwegian language skills and other factors.

Arctic News Roundup: 8-14 March

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) CBC News North featured an opinion article by Gloria Song, a Ph.D. Candidate in Law at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, and a member of the Law Society of Nunavut, on the subject of understanding family violence and helping victims in Nunavut, Canada. In her article, the author argued that in addition to legal protections, greater societal cooperation should be also taken into consideration in combatting this crisis.

2) As Morgunblaðið (and the Iceland Monitor in English) reported, Icelandic authorities originally announced that the country would not accept non-Schengen country’s vaccination or antibiotics certification against COVID-19. This would have meant that visitors from outside of the European Union’s Schengen Area would encounter more difficulties in trying to enter Iceland. According to Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the CEO of SAF, the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, tourism in Iceland from outside the EU would suffer significantly from this policy, especially given that many tourists in the country arrive from Britain, China and the United States. However, as Icelandic broadcaster RÚV later confirmed, the Government of Iceland decided to lift the prohibition and allow vaccinated non-Schengen visitors, with medical certificates approved by European Medicines Agency, to visit the country.

3) RÚV also reported that Air Iceland Connect would be merged into the Icelandair Group. Air Iceland Connect, formerly a subsidiary of the larger Icelandair, oversaw flights within Iceland as well as to points in Greenland, including Nuuk and Kulusuk. All of these flights will now operate under the aegis of Icelandair.

4) Danish military forces have been transporting vaccines to remote areas on the west coast of Greenland, as the Local DK and Agence France-Presse revealed. Residents of Greenland began to receive vaccinations starting in early January this year. At present, six percent of the approximately 56,000 citizens of Greenland have been vaccinated thus far.

New Article: ‘The Polar Policies in China’s New Five-Year Plan’

[Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

This week, Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor of OtC, wrote a comment for the online journal The Diplomat about how the Arctic and Antarctic have been included in China’s just-released Five-Year Plan (2021-5), which will be guiding the country’s economy as it continues to expand.

Beijing is seeking to continue to develop the Polar Silk Road (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路) as well as engage the Arctic and expand its interests in Antarctica. However, there remains the question of what the economic and political challenges are to these plans.

M. Lanteigne, ‘The Polar Policies in China’s New Five-Year Plan,The Diplomat, 12 March 2021.

Arctic News Roundup: 1-7 March

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, which last erupted in 2010 [Photo by Mingming Shi]

by Mingming Shi

1) The Reykjavík Grapevine, a local media service in Iceland, published a short educational video about the pronunciation of a potential volcano, (Sundhnjúkagígaröð in Þráinsskjaldarhraun) which has been closely watched in recent days in the wake of numerous earthquakes in southwestern Iceland.

2) As reported by the Reuters news agency, the ‘Polar Silk Road’, which has been developed by the government of China as a ‘northern tier’ of the Belt and Road Initiative, was included in the latest Five Year Plan, covering 2021-2025, published by Beijing to outline Chinese economic priorities in the near future. The Polar Silk Road was first developed in 2017, and included in the country’s first Arctic White Paper published the following year.

3) The Travel section of CNN posted an exposé of frozen ‘ghost towns’ surrounding the mining city of Vorkuta (Воркута) in the Komi Republic of the Russian Arctic. Vorkuta used to be a gulag city during the Soviet Era, and the photographs of frozen abandoned buildings were taken when the winter temperatures had dropped to -38ºC.

4) According to the Barents Observer, the Government of Norway has agreed to observe the decision by the European Council’s to place EU sanctions on four high-level government officials in Russia, in relation to the case of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

5) Mikkel Schøler, the CEO of Sikki, published an article for Over the Circle, about the regional ban on humpback whale hunting in the Nuuk fjord system by the municipality of Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq in Greenland. He explained the significance of traditional whaling in Greenland, as well as the political background for the adoption of this new policy based on the potential expansion of whale sightseeing trips for tourists.

6) Two cases of the British variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus were confirmed in Iceland during the past weekend, the first such cases in the country, as reported by RÚV. Þórólfur Guðnason, the country’s Chief epidemiologist, conveyed his concerns over whether a possible ‘fourth wave’ of the pandemic in Iceland would soon begin.

Feedback Loop: The Voyage of the Christophe de Margerie (and Its Aftermath)

[Photo by Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay]

by Marc Lanteigne

Last month, a record was set within the Northern Sea Route (NSR), in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia, when the civilian icebreaking vessel Christophe de Margerie successfully completed its voyage from Jiangsu Province in China to the Siberian port city of Sabetta (Сабетта). The vessel, owned by the Russian shipping firm Sovcomflot (Совкомфлот) and designed to carry liquified natural gas (LNG) to markets from the Yamal facilities in the Russian Arctic, left Chinese waters after offloading its LNG supplies and returned to Sabetta on 19 February. The last leg of the journey, from Cape Dezhnev (Mыс Дежнёва) on the Chukchi Peninsula in the Russian Far East, to Sabetta, saw the vessel escorted by the heavy Arktika-class nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 лет Победы) for the trip through the NSR. This transit was also featured in a short promotional video, released as the vessel was about to complete its journey.

This transit by the Christophe de Margerie marked the first such run using the NSR so early in the year, as normally such voyages are restricted to the summer months. In May 2020, the vessel conducted a previous experimental trip through the NSR outside of the normal shipping window. These voyages not only illustrated Russia’s determination to extend the use of the Northern Sea Route for longer periods, but also the fact that changed climate conditions in the Arctic Ocean have made such winter transits more viable.

Mr Igor Tonkovidov, President and CEO of Sovcomflot, praised the successful test run and suggested that the time was soon coming when the NSR could be usable throughout the year. This experiment in ‘off-season’ NSR shipping takes place in the wake of previous calls by the government of Vladimir Putin to bring the amount of cargo transported through the NSR annually up to eighty million tonnes by 2024. This goal was challenged by the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020 and the resulting drops in global energy demands. However, with fossil fuel prices beginning to return to pre-Covid 19 levels, possibly reflecting growing international financial confidence, the prospects for gas shipping from Siberia may be looking up in the short term.

As well, with China’s economy showing stronger signs of a rebound going into 2021, energy demands in the country may also be rising. At the same time, Beijing has recently been calling for the resumption of efforts to move away from coal and towards greener alternatives, including natural gas. Last month, it was announced by the Russian gas concern Novatek (НОВАТЭК) that it had penned a fifteen-year LNG sales agreement with Shanghai-based Shenergy Group (Shenneng jituan youxian gongsi 申能集团有限公司), further reflecting Chinese energy needs.

It was announced this week by Russia’s Federal Marine and River Transport Agency (Rosmorrechflot / Росморречфлот), that the total amount of cargo carried through the NSR had reached 4.81 million tonnes during January-February 2021, with LNG and natural gas condensate representing two-thirds of the cargo transported. Weak ice conditions contributed to a busy shipping season in the NSR during 2020, with the number of vessels using the waterway reaching sixty-four last year, up from thirty-seven in 2019.

Arctic ice levels during 2020 were at their second-lowest ever recorded, (with 2012 still holding that title). Thus, the transit of the Christophe de Margerie was described by a British expert as ‘an irony of our time, filled with symbolism,’ given the direct links between fossil fuel burning and sea ice erosion.

Naming ceremony for the Christophe de Margerie LNG carrier, June 2017 [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

Although discussions about the exact timetables have varied, an August 2020 report in the journal Nature Climate Change argued that under current conditions the central Arctic could be free of ice in the summer months by 2035. This month, another set of alarming statistics were published regarding the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, (formally known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or AMOC), which may be weakening to levels not seen in centuries, with the cause being cited as anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

The Gulf Stream, which carries water from tropical regions northwards to the Atlantic-Arctic region, is a major source of planetary heat redistribution, and has been affected by Arctic climate change, including the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet in recent years as well as the appearance of a ‘cold blob’ of comparatively cooler water south of Greenland, which would appear to indicate that less warm water is reading that part of the ocean. Should the AMOC cease functioning completely, (a ‘tipping point’ scenario), among the predicted results [pdf] would be cooler temperatures in the northern hemisphere, increased precipitation in Europe, as possible cascade effects in other parts of the world.

New reports from Russia itself have also pointed to an ongoing warming trend in the Arctic, as according to studies referred to the country’s news agency TASS, the end of this century could see greenhouse gasses raising the average temperature of the Arctic by twenty degrees.

The story of the Christophe de Margerie illustrates the two-sided coin that climate change in the Arctic is producing in Russia, as on one hand the opportunities for increased shipping and extractive industrial activity continue to grow, but on the other, the local environmental effects, including incidents of sinkholes in the Siberian tundra, along with thawing permafrost, demonstrate the dangers facing the region as these economic activities continue. And Russia is hardly alone in facing the question of how to balance the Arctic’s economic opportunities with growing evidence of potentially unstoppable environmental effects in the far north.