The Arctic This Week: News for May 13 - May 20, 2012






By Tom Fries Arctic News 13 May 2012 – 20 May 2012

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Thanks for joining us this week! We take the time to find the most interesting stories, the best writing and the threads that tie it all together. If you like what you read, please share it with others. Your feedback and comments are always welcome; feel free to contact the author directly. All opinions and any mistakes are the author’s own.

Please note: there will be no Arctic News next week, as the author is on travel.

BEST READS OF THE WEEK

If you’ve only got a few minutes this week, spend your time on these particularly useful, informative, creative or well-written pieces.

The top read this week is a fantastic article from Rossiyskaya Gazeta via the Telegraph. I don’t necessarily feel that the author is right on all points, but the arguments are daringly made, and the writing is engaging.

To understand some of the complicated politics that are at play in the Arctic, take the time to read both Olivier de Schutter’s statement on food security in Canada and Minister of Health Leona Agluqqak’s response to it. This is a fascinating and contentious debate.

The Norwegian MFA’s statement on its role as an energy supplier to Europe is, despite being a government document, information-packed.

We all know that the review process for huge mining projects is complicated. But Nunatsiaq News’s reporting on the Mary River review process has been really excellent, and even the bullet list of considerations in this brief piece should make your eyes widen a little bit.

BLOOD AND TREASURE

The Pomor-2012 exercises between Norway and Russia provided most of the material in the military category this week, though a notable exception is this excellent article from Rossiyskaya Gazeta via the Telegraph which, though it sounds more than  bit Cold War-ish, does an excellent job of cataloguing the various sticking points in the military relationship between Russia and NATO. Back to Pomor, though – the exercises, which involved “anti-submarine warfare drills, anti-piracy operations, and search-and-rescue missions,” according to Eurasia Review, concluded after 800 nautical miles of travel and 20 training activities, including search-and-rescue practice (Naval Today). A nice article from Trude Pettersen includes a great photo gallery of the various ships involved (BO). There was other cooperation underway, though; a group of Russian troops headed to the US for the first-ever US/Russia joint anti-terror drills (Voice of Russia), and Finland appears to have agreed to be part of a Nordic coalition responsible for patrolling Iceland’s airspace (whatsupfinland.org).

Meanwhile the fallouts and failures of military activity require looking after as well; Bellona reported on an old Russian battle cruiser wrecked on the shores of Finnmark that, finally, might be up for real dismantling. The National Post also offered up a damning piece on the Harper government’s failure to commit to its Radarsat project, a cornerstone of its original Arctic sovereignty plan that has fallen by the wayside.

THE POLITICAL SCENE

Much of this week’s politics was bilateral after one fashion or another. Regional officials from Murmansk and Finnmark met to discuss, among other things, visa-free travel across their shared border (BN), while the ministers of foreign affairs of Canada (John Baird) and Sweden (Carl Bildt) met in Ottawa to discuss a number of shared interests (Gov’t of Canada). During Minister Bildt’s trip, he was slated to meet as well with Minister of Defense Peter MacKay, Minister of Health Leona Agluqqak, and Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak (Gov’t of Sweden).

Also this week, Greenland premier Kuupik Kleist was in Brussels to do some politicking for Greenland’s future (Greenland Today), while representatives of Germany’s oil industry expressed their solidarity with Norway in its resistance to EU-proposed rules for offshore safety (AB). Elsewhere, Canada and South Korea appear to have worked out an agreement permitting the South Korean icebreaker Araon to, for the first time, conduct scientific research and explore for methane hydrates within Canada’s exclusive economic zone in the Beaufort Sea (Yonhap News, AD), while Chinese developer Huang Nubo appears to have solved his issues with the Icelandic government, and seems to be moving forward with plans to develop a tourism resort in the tiny country (IceNews).

In Russia, investors from both South Korea and China were welcomed to the Kurils, apparently with some connection to planned oil-&-gas projects there (ITAR-TASS), and a proposal to set up a second capitol in Vladivostok has garnered some interest (FT blog). Probably not a bad idea. Elections on the Solovki archipelago in the White Sea appear to have been less than squeaky-clean (BO), and President Putin’s decision to skip the NATO and G8 summits merited musings from the Chicago Tribune on his possible reasons, including irritation over missile defense and human rights impasses.

Across the Bering Strait in Alaska, continued challenges mean that new state-senate districts may or may not be in place in time for the next round of elections, making it difficult for candidates to know where to campaign and for voters to know for whom they might ultimately be able to vote (FNM). Next door in Yukon, a $1bn spending plan has passed with plenty of grumbling about inadequate preliminary debate (CBC), and, one province over, the government of the Northwest Territories has elected to move towards greater transparency by publishing its cabinet members’ mandates.

In other miscellaneous political news, the website canadiancharitylaw.ca aggregated many of the articles that have been published recently regarding foreign money going to Canadian NGOs. Unrelatedly, the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank, provided a nice graphic on the United States’ extended continental shelf.

ENERGY

A small spill from a wrecked Brazilian ship trapped in sea ice in the Antarctic (New Zealand Herald) is serving as a spark plug to ignite further debate about the wisdom of permitting oil drilling in the Arctic. New Scientist published a very popular piece this week pointing out what I think has always been clear: our knowledge of Arctic ecosystems is not deep enough to ensure that oil & gas work won’t have an appreciable impact on them. But it should be obvious to all that environmental considerations are not the only thing at play here, as TAI’s Andreas Østhagen (among others) has pointed out.

Environmental challenges to, in particular, Shell, have come from many sectors, including the Center for Biological diversity, which wrote a strongly-worded letter to the SEC (Summit County Voice), and from the Indigenous Environmental Network. Simultaneously, a project by Apache Alaska Corp further south in Alaska is also facing a lawsuit (EOTA), and petitions against BP’s exploration plans in Alaska went live (Champions for Cetaceans). Amnesty International has meanwhile criticized Statoil’s decision to partner up with Rosneft to work in Russia’s Arctic (AB). In Washington itself, what looks to be a pretty small but well-publicized protest against Shell’s drilling plans took place in front of the White House (storify, Alaska Public, care2.com, HuffPo).

Shell is fighting back against such efforts with a countersuit against the Center for Biological Diversity and other related organizations (care2.com). Jake MacArthur, in a guest post on TAI, talks at a more local level about the challenge of developing a robust and dependable energy supply in the Arctic itself.

The Moscow Times, in a long-form and nicely-written piece, covered Russia’s upcoming drilling efforts and the potential costs and benefits that they entail, while also following up on the recent oil spill on land in the Yamal-Nenets with reports that some senior officials at Bashneft are being relieved of their posts. The Norwegian MFA released a statement on that country’s roles and responsibilities as a primary gas exporter to Europe, while the foreign ministers of Canada and Sweden met to discuss, among other things, the prospects of an Arctic oil boom (G&M). Sweden, which currently chairs the Arctic Council, will hand it over to Canada next year.

During the foreign ministers’ bonding time, Canada announced that it would auction exploration rights to an additional 905,000 hectares in the Beaufort Sea (G&M), news to which WWF’s Canada chapter reacted with a really quite moderate statement about the prematurity of such an initiative. Canada’s oil sands are a tender point for Norwegian champion Statoil, whose shareholders are voting increasingly against the company’s involvement (AB), despite the company’s increased dividend payout this year (AB – also, this one’s entertainingly written). The Norwegian Climate Foundation has suggested that Statoil split its oil sands division into a separate company (AB). Meanwhile prospects in Baffin Bay and Greenland run by Cairn Energy et al are being further explored, while Cairn’s shareholders appear to be getting tetchy about board chairman Bill Gammell’s £3mn bonus (BBC) in light of the failures of the company’s Greenland explorations to date.

More on Norway: the oil industry is set to bring in still more revenue for the state next year as a result of increased activity and high oil prices (Upstream Online), but for the time being Statoil’s Snøhvit LNG plant has been shut down for planned maintenance (Bloomberg). Statoil is also proposing a 10% cost cut to the Shtokman project and taking a firm stance on the project’s future in LNG vs pipeline (RIAN, BN, BO).

Lastly, on the Russian side of things, the federal government’s budget considers $80/barrel of oil a stress situation (ITAR-TASS), while the Nenets regional administration is looking to partner with Gazprom on a new LNG facility including “new gas transportation infrastructure, a gas processing plant, a LNG plant and a terminal” on the coast (BO). The Russian oil champion announced that LNG sales to Japan following a shutdown of the island nation’s nuclear power post-Fukushima were a substantial part of exports last year – 20% of overall production, and 69.5% of production from Sakhalin (MT). Novatek, the country’s second-largest producer of natural gas, is lobbying to gain export rights (Bloomberg) while announcing that its net profits rose 13.2% in Q1 2012 vs. Q1 2011 (Reuters). In contrast, the need for continued investment in pipeline projects means that Transneft will not be upping its dividend in the near future (Bloomberg), and RusHydro announced that it’s putting the brakes on a tidal plant in the Murmansk region (BN).

MINING

In Russia, the cozy relationship between business and government is playing well for Norilsk Nikel in Murmansk (BN), but doesn’t seem to be doing phosphorus-mining giant Apatit any good in their battle against regional tax authorities (RAPSI). Norilsk is also starting a scientific expedition to make assessments of the polar bear population in the Kara-Barents Sea region (4-traders.com). Close by in Sweden, a $500mn offer from Aditya Birla Group of India to take over Australian company Northern Iron has been rejected (BO, Mining Journal). The Swedish federal government has also overruled local authorities’ effort to stifle development plans for the Tapuli iron mine, owned by Northland Resources, in the country’s North (BO).

In Canada, the exhaustive and exhausting hearings regarding Baffinland’s Mary River iron project offer a seemingly endless source of stuff to report on; thank god Nunatsiaq News has good writers on staff. Meanwhile Newmont Mining will be essentially shutting down its Hope Bay gold mine, meaning that a significant number of employees will soon be out of work (NN). In contrast, Uranium North Resource Corp has announced a significant graphite discovery at the Amer Lake property, which has the company all atwitter (NN), and Canadian Orebodies is expanding exploration this summer at the Haig Inlet iron project on Nunavut’s Belcher Island (NN). Similar growth in mining in the NWT is setting power companies at one another’s throats vying to supply power to new projects (CBC).

In a miscellaneous tidbit, a Whitehorse residential development is the scene of a debate between the development company, which owns surface rights, and a second company that owns the subsoil rights (CBC).

BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY

Buzz about entrepreneurship in the High North is increasing, with the well-established Arctic Startup covering the continental Nordics and, now, the first-ever Startup Iceland conference (IceNews). Canada’s Northwest Territories, instead of looking at entrepreneurship, is celebrating Tourism Week and acknowledging how indispensable tourism is to the NWT economy (Gov’t of NWT).

[Shipping]

The first whispers of partnership between Norway and South Korea - which would be sensible, as the two countries probably see eye to eye more easily than, say, Norway and China – appeared this week (WSJ), as anticipation grew of the first Norway-Japan Northern Sea Route transit for an LNG ship. That will take place this summer, and the ship is Korean-built. To assist with such transits, Japanese company Weathernews Inc is launching the first privately-owned ice-monitoring satellite (Japan Times). Seems like that’s a market niche somebody could make a bundle in. Murmansk, one possible stop on the Northern Sea Route, is considering bolstering its harbor capacity to enable acceptance of passenger traffic as well (BN).

[Fisheries]

A study released by NOAA’s fisheries arm cited excellent (relatively speaking) statistics on the rebuilding of key commercial fish stocks in US waters, including – most notably for our purposes – Bering Sea snow crab (FNM, AD). Similar results in the Barents have been taken as a sign of improved policing of illegal fishing (Fish Site), while the possibility that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council might develop management guidelines for fishing in the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons in the Bering is being greeted with enthusiasm by a Greenpeace representative (Bristol Bay Times). Unusually heavy sea ice cover in the Bering Sea, however, has caused the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to announce a two-week extension to the season, from 15 May to 31 May, offering fishermen a longer opportunity to reach their allowable catch (KUCB). Alaska Dispatch says that “fishermen own percentages of the season’s harvest limit, called quota shares, with the option to let other boats to fish for them for a price.” Those fishermen who lease shares assume all the risk for a bad season. Taken so far is 68.14mn pounds (!!), with a total allowable catch this year of 88mn pounds (Cordova Times). That is a lot of crab.

This week we also heard that hatchery salmon might be outcompeting wild salmon in the Bering Sea (earthfix), that Russia and the Faroe Islands are bartering fishing rights (worldfishing.net), and that Russian and Norwegian representatives have been meeting to see about lifting the Russian embargo on Norwegian fish imports that was put in place a few weeks ago (BN).

In an odd tidbit that I have a tough time believing, IceNews reports that Iceland’s only hunter of fin whales is hanging up is harpoon this year. I don’t know much at all about whaling (clearly), but the article makes it sound like Mr Loftsson has personally harpooned 280 whales in the past six years to export the meat to Japan. Can one person do that, with a harpoon? It seems like that would be quite a job for one guy, even with some energetic and ambitious support staff.

SOCIETY

Access to food in Canada has been a point of serious contention this week. Issues like rising food prices, leading to boycotts in Nunavut (APTN), and increased difficulty accessing “country food” (NN) led Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, to Canada this past week. His complete statement reported some surprising numbers and concern for a “deep and severe food insecurity faced by aboriginal peoples across Canada.”  The Harper government really did snap back (NN), and Health Minister Leona Agluqqak was particularly vehement, saying (my paraphrase) that environmental activists’ efforts to protect animals (like a proposed ban on Canada’s seal hunt – NPA) come at the expense of the aboriginal peoples who depend on them for food (EOTA, NN). Minister Agluqqak also pointed out that Mr. de Schutter had not made the effort to actually visit northern aboriginal communities during his visit. Her complete statement – and a comment stream that, for once, is actually worth checking out – is on Facebook. Meanwhile, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon announced her agreement with Mr de Schutter’s findings (NN). Northern Clipper’s great blog post on civil society-led efforts to deal with the issue is really worth reading, as is this quick article from Nunatsiaq News on the Government of Nunavut’s efforts to build a food security coalition. Note the photograph of a jar of Cheez Whiz coming in at CDN$29.

In a more general sense, health in Canada’s North is in many ways less than awesome. A recent study cited in the Winnipeg Free Press pointed out that Nunavut is doing much more poorly than all other Canadian provinces in metrics like suicide rates, tuberculosis and educational attainment. Frightening risk factors make tuberculosis an enormous issue in Alaska’s native communities as well (NPR). Canada announced its first nationwide mental health strategy last week, and a representative of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc says that, if implemented, it would be a boon to Inuit communities (NN), although the plan may leave one role-model facility severely underfunded (CBC). The Nunavut government is also planning to open a mental health facility in Iqaluit this fall (CBC), but Nunavut’s language commissioner is investigating the Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit after complaints that Inuit-language services are often inadequate (EOTA).

The relationship between RCMP staff and aboriginal people in Yukon may be on the mend after years of stress (CBC), while engagement between the US federal government and Alaska’s tribal representatives appears to be a regular and reasonably amicable thing (USDA blog). In Canada, the contest to succeed ITK president Mary Simon will be between Terry Audla of Nunavut Tunngavik and Robbie Watt of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (NN). Proposals to mandate inclusion of radio programming in aboriginal languages in Canada would contribute to continued survival of many native languages (map of Inuktitut dialects here, via Wikipedia) and the cultures that they sustain (Northern Clipper).

Yellowknife and Dawson City are both looking at expensive replacements of water and sewage infrastructure (CBC, both), while new technologies may be helping one Siberian city to improve its power infrastructure with a minimum of new construction (press release - but interesting! – via MarketWatch). In terms of air transport, StatsCan cited Goose Bay as the busiest “small airport” (which seems to mean no control tower) in Canada in Feb 2012. The brief article from Nunatsiaq News is worth a glance for the comparative numbers. Also this week, another airline made its inaugural connecting flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse (CBC), and vicious spring floods of various kinds in Nunavut (NN), Alaska (EOTA, AD) and Finland (EOTA) brutalized several Arctic communities.

SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENT, ANIMALS

A really exhaustive – and I use the word in its fullest sense – post from thinkprogress.org will offer you 9 groups of images, with full explanations of what they show in terms of the Arctic’s climate and ice cover. It is decidedly not a quick snack, but if you’re up for it it’s got lots of info. Interesting word from the Max Planck institute, summarized on the NSIDC website, suggests that, in fact, increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations are the only major culprit behind loss of sea ice. It’s interesting, because they considered a host of different factors that are also commonly cited as contributors. A blog on the Washington Post also took a closer look at the oft-reported record ice extent in the Bering Sea, while the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme released its Snow, Ice, Water and Permafrost in the Arctic report, which is a great resource if you’re doing more in-depth research (released April 2012). Finally, a sort of confusing piece from IceNews points out new research from the U of Washington suggesting that melting of Greenland’s ice sheet may not lead to the rapid sea-level rise that has been predicted, and a nice piece from Frontier Scientists on the 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire in Alaska, the largest recorded tundra fire, discusses the possible net carbon impact if such fires occur more frequently.

Budget cuts in Canada continue to concern scientists who rely on federal funding to conduct research (Edmonton Journal), but the Inuit village of Resolute Bay in Canada continues to do yeoman duty supporting Northern science (Guardian). Across the sea in Russia, the World Wide Fund for Nature is – quite reasonably, by all accounts – pointing at energy efficiency in Russian housing as the key to reducing that country’s environmental impact (RIAN). The WWF also released its 2012 Living Planet Report this week showing that, if all earth’s citizens lived as the average Norwegian does, we would require 2.7 earths to sustain it (AB). That seems like a lot, until you hear that, if it were an average American, we would need 4 earths.

Aerial wolf kills have been ruled out in Yukon as a method of boosting prey-species populations (Whitehorse Star), while late-season snow helped some biologists with their polar bear research (Polar Bears International) – note a couple of great photos in the latter post. In Alaska, the US Attorney for the District of Alaska is prosecuting some Alaska Native hunters for selling polar bear hides and walrus ivory to non-natives (illegal) vs. other natives (legal) (AD). In news of smaller creatures, little auks – which are adorable – are helping to demonstrate that some creatures can, in fact, adapt to changing environmental conditions (phys.org), and scientists are beginning to ask where the phytoplankton that live inside ice during the winter spend their summer months (AD). 

THE SPORTING LIFE

The world hockey championship provided much of the sports news in the great white North this week. You may want to go straight to the IIHF website to get the standings (click on “Playoff Round”), as by the time you’re reading this, the winner will have been decided. The quarterfinals must have had some drama to them: Slovakia knocked out Canada, the Czech Republic dismissed Sweden with best wishes for a comfortable trip home, and Finland squeaked by the USA in what was apparently a nail-biter (YLE). Margin in each of those cases was 1 goal, while Norway was soundly schooled by the Russians in a 5-2 game. The semifinals are SVK-CZE and RUS-FIN.  [UPDATE: Russia routed Finland 6-2, and Slovakia asserted its superiority over the Czech Republic 3-1. Final on Sunday, Russia-Slovakia for the gold.]

The week was not without other curious Arctic athletic news: 42 year-old Ryota Yamada, of Japan, faced a weather delay during his 10,000-mile solo kayak trip from Washington State across the Bering Strait (Seattle Times), and Alaska Dispatch published a two-part dissection of a 2011 climb of Mt. McKinley / Denali gone terribly, terribly wrong.

GRAB BAG

Barents Nova informed us that material for an e-book with 1,000 reasons (!) to love Murmansk is being aggregated by Murmansk’s local netizens.

Tyumen is not in the Arctic. But one must make an exception for a BBC story about a young man who got trapped in a trash chute he’d jumped in to to escape his girlfriend.

Don’t forget, folks! Those pretty photos of the Northern Lights probably belong to somebody. Give credit where it’s due, and don’t get yourself trapped in a situation like these two gentlemen in Yellowknife (Whitehorse Star). In a related tidbit, I was recently made aware of what is apparently a stock of HD videos of Greenland’s glaciers available from iTunes for $40. Maybe you need this?

Voice of Russia provided a clearly political but interesting piece on that country’s history on Svalbard.

A drift card dropped into the Bering Sea 33 years ago was picked up by an Alaskan boy and returned, still in completely readable, barely-bruised condition (MSNBC). I guess plastic doesn’t degrade too quickly.

Dion Kaszas has been cataloguing indigenous tattoos of Canada’s indigenous people. It’s interesting.

Shell has begun training those of its employees who ride in helicopters with mandatory at-sea survival courses (ADN).

VIDEOS, PHOTOS

I get a lot of pleasure from Frontier Scientists’ collection of videos. Here’s one on a crazily-tilted house, sinking into the melting permafrost.

Here’s a video interview from Arctic Portal with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt about the legacy he hopes to leave behind after his country’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Here is Nils Andreassen’s presentation at TedX Anchorage 2012 on Alaska’s role both as part of the US and as a polar entity in its own right.

Here’s a video podcast from NOAA on the effects of soot (or black carbon) on the Arctic climate.

It’s not going to win an Oscar, but this video of masses of ice moving quickly down the Lena River is impressive to watch (eyakutia.com).

NASA image of the day; smoke from Siberian wildfires spreads in a gauzy stream across the Bering Strait (spaceref.com).

ABBREVIATION KEY

Aftenbladet (AB)
Alaska Dispatch (AD)
Anchorage Daily News (ADN)
Barents Nova (BN)
Barents Observer (BO)
BusinessWeek (BW)
Eye on the Arctic (EOTA)
Fairbanks News Miner (FNM)
Globe and Mail (G&M)
Moscow Times (MT)
Natural Gas Europe (NGE)
Northern News Service Online (NNSO)
Northern Public Affairs (NPA)
Nunatsiaq News (NN)
Ottawa Citizen (OC)
RIA Novosti (RIAN)
Russia Today (RT)
Voice of Russia (VOR)