By Tom Fries The Arctic This Week – 4 August to 10 August 2012
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The author is on travel this weekend, so this week’s briefing is slightly shorter than usual. Reads of the Week is expanded slightly, and several other popular sections appear in their usual length, while others offer a subjective selection of the week's best articles in those areas.
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READS OF THE WEEK
A surprising quantity of excellent writing emerged this week on the highly contentious proposed Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, one of the world’s most notable salmon fisheries. Eye on the Arctic tells the story up through this week beautifully, and International Business Times covers the fight from the Washington perspective. The blessings and curses of rapid development in the Arctic are highlighted in an engrossing article on cleanup at a DEW-line station in Canada (Star) and in an article on decrepit nuclear vessels in the area of Murmansk (Moscow Times), while the many different practical challenges that face Shell’s Arctic efforts (the mundane but important corporate challenges, not just icebergs) are competently and thoroughly covered by the Baker Institute both in writing and video.
For the historical, you’ll enjoy a review of past efforts to standardize the writing of Inuktitut from Nunatsiaq News, as well as a moving retelling from the BBC of the story of Lynne Cox's Cold War-era swim across the US-USSR border between Little and Big Diomede Islands.
For the frivolous but captivating, you’ll enjoy an article on Arthur Conan Doyle’s time aboard a Greenland whaler as a youth (Daily Mail) and a review of the quirky “Awesome Warrior Challenge” in Whitehorse, Yukon, which does actually sound awesome (Whitehorse Star).
Some of this week’s various photo collections are also enlightening and amazing. Of special note are: (1) a fantastic photo series from the Avanna expedition in Greenland (coldunited.com); (2) an unbelievable photo essay and story on a polar bear attack near Ungava Bay, that I think demonstrates how photojournalism ought to be done (waseyaimages.net); (3) photos on Facebook from the recent visit of Nunatsiaq News to Nuuk, Greenland and (4) a heartwarming video showing the last-minute transfer process that took the Students on Ice out to their research boat.
Lastly, a really wonderful article from Fairbanks News-Miner covers the Point Hope whale hunt in all its richness, history and detail. Nicely done.
BLOOD & TREASURE
Canadian Forces’ Operation Nanook, with 1,250 participants, is underway in the Beaufort Delta and near Churchill, Manitoba. Operation Nanook is scheduled to last until late this month (CBC). Elsewhere in the far North, the Cold War persists in the form of intense pollution on the old DEW line stations (thestar.com). It's not just pollution, either; the lightning-speed industrialization that came to the region because of military interest made a lasting impact on residents. Also pertinent to Canada is a newly-released paper from Wilfrid Greaves via the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Gordon Foundation, which poses the interesting question: “What explains the failure of [Canadian] indigenous efforts to securitize Arctic climate change?” Mr Greaves intends “securitization” in this sense to mean the conversion or upgrading of climate change to a security issue, rather than a purely environmental issue.
In the US, underwater drones of a sort that could be extremely useful for Arctic observation are undergoing testing in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island (HuffPo), while the USCG cutter Juniper, also based in Rhode Island, is on its way to the Arctic to participate in Operation Nanook with Danish and Canadian forces (boston.com). The USCG is of course preparing for its role supporting Shell’s operations in the North, but it seems like Shell is relying on the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard is relying on Shell (Seattle Times). Let’s all just pray nothing goes wrong.
An article from Wired rolls its eyes hard at both Russian and Canadian efforts to build muscle in the Arctic, addressing itself partially to the news that Russia will be beefing up its naval stations and its submarine fleet (RIAN). Details on the stations came from RIA Novosti, as did the news that work on the stations has already been substantially delayed. The nuclear sub Yuri Dolgorukiy is getting ready to enter service, and the Alexander Nevsky is soon to follow (ITAR-TASS), while the SSBN Smolensk was also launched for some trial runs from the Severodvinsk repair facility near Arkhangelsk (Naval Today). Russia is also of course adding to its nuclear icebreaker fleet, and the blessing of being Atomflot’s hub for nuclear vessels will go to Murmansk. But it’s a mixed blessing, as the city’s environs are already home to several rotting nuclear-vessel hulks (MT). Russia's most recent $1.2bn tender for a new icebreaker has gone with no competition to Baltiysky Zavod (Shipping Herald). What will be the world’s largest icebreaker will be able to break “through ice up to 2.8 metres thick at a speed of between 1.5 and 2 knots” (World Nuclear News).
Looking to the future, Russia’s destroyer the Admiral Chabanenko completed firing drills in the Barents in preparation for the upcoming US-Norway-Russia exercise Northern Eagle 2012, to start late this month (Naval Today).
The Open Skies treaty permits US and British forces to overfly and photograph Russia and Belarus, and vice-versa. The most recent round of Russia/Belarus overflights took place from 6-10 August (ITAR-TASS). In Sweden, the voice recorder from a Norwegian plane that crashed into a mountain earlier this year has, after much arduous searching, been discovered. It has been sent to Britain for analysis, in hopes that the cause of the crash can be identified (BO, IceNews).
[Around the pole]
Nunatsiaq News reported on research to be conducted on the threat posed by actual ice islands, like the enormous chunk that broke off of Greenland’s Petermann glacier, to drilling operations and other activities in the Arctic Ocean. And indeed, no amount of stabilization or hardiness-preparation is going to stop one from getting well and truly hammered by a chunk of ice the size of a major city. Upstream and Bloomberg reported that increasing calving of massive ice islands might mean that risk estimates for drilling off of Greenland are outdated, and that Moeller-Maersk is working with the Danish Meteorological institute to set up a new monitoring program for these ice giants. If and when a spill should take place, a full plan of the equipment and personnel required to successfully deal with it year-round has been prepared by Norwegian students at the DNV summer school (Marine Link, Marine Log). An agreement governing spill-response preparedness around the Arctic, currently under discussion, was the topic of an Anchorage-Tromsø conference call organized by Arctic Alliance (Arctic Portal). Finally, though not directly related to the Arctic, a good piece from the New America Foundation points out that global markets for oil are not, in fact, free and efficient. They are riddled with inefficiencies and complications.
In Norway, the biggest story of the week was what many have been expecting; Statoil’s ultimate exit of the Shtokman project. A nice piece from Bellona covers most of what you need to know, including the news that Total may also be looking to sell its stake as well (Barents Observer sees it otherwise), and that Shtokman might then continue independently as a daughter company of Gazprom. Unbelievably, Statoil appears to have left the door open, at least publicly, for future re-involvement (NGE). Statoil wrote down $336.19mn after exiting the consortium (AB, FT). Rumors are that Shell may step in to take over the stake (Reuters). Statoil meanwhile has a little bit of egg on its face in the form of a modest ($.5mn) fine for misreported information on insider trading (Statoil).
In other Norwegian news, three different options (reinjection, pipeline, tanker shipping) are under consideration for the Goliat project's yield. I've been acting under the assumption that such things were worked out beforehand, but apparently not. The Goliat field was supposed to begin to produce in fall of 2013 (AB), but towards the end of the week Eni Norge came out with the news that production would in fact not begin until Q3 of 2014 (Reuters).
Stable oil prices are pushing day rates for drilling rigs through the roof (BO), and soon ultra-deepwater rigs will be completely spoken for for 2013. The debate over whether or not to build a pipeline to deliver Barents Sea hydrocarbons to a thirsty Europe continues, and - though it looks as though the pipeline idea is losing - the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise came out strongly in support of the idea (AB). Norway itself is a big user of renewable energy as well, and the country may soon receive a “monster mill” – a wind-power mill with blades spanning 154 meters and capacity of 6MW, or enough to power 1,150 Norwegian homes if all is running well (AB). Hydro power is also a major contributor there, and it’s coming very cheaply right now as reservoirs are filled to overflowing (AB). The neighboring Faroes, meanwhile, are bright-eyed as they think of the possibility of a future Faroese oil industry (AB).
Across the border in Russia, incentives for brilliant new engineering solutions are clicking into place as Rosneft and ExxonMobil submit tenders for Arctic-ready rigs (RIAN). Rosneft and Itera have meanwhile created a joint venture to produce and market gas from the Yamal-Nenets region (Oil & Gas Journal). Nick Cunningham with the American Security Project points out in a short piece that tapping the assets in Russia’s Arctic won’t be that easy, and Greenpeace is on its way with the Arctic Sunrise now to the Barents and Pechora seas to see how a geophysical survey underway by Rosneft is affecting local beluga populations (BO). It could be that the Russian military is keeping an eye on the Arctic Sunrise, though no formal statement to that effect has been released (MT).
Across the Bering Strait in the US, the Coast Guard is enjoying (?) plenty of attention for its engagement with Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. An indignant op-ed in Alaska Dispatch says that USCG Commandant Admiral Robert Papp should be ashamed of his implicit approval of the risk of an oil spill in the Arctic, while the Coast Guard managed to complete a spill-recovery exercise off the coast of Barrow, Alaska – the first of its kind in the Arctic (Marine Log).
A commendable post from the Baker Institute covered the several different dangers that lie ahead for the Shell project, and it published Shell’s estimates of the government’s expected revenues from its Chukchi and Beaufort activities, 2008-2057 (!!). My thanks to these folks for bringing some numbers to a data-starved debate. A post on the New York Times gives an overview of the countdown to the start of Shell’s 2012 activities, while Jennifer Dlouhy informs us that the Arctic Challenger is getting closer and closer to its final go-ahead from the USCG. Let me again commend any of Ms Dlouhy’s excellent and comprehensive coverage to your attention. A former official from the US Department of the Interior believes that the stop date for Shell’s Arctic activities should not be extended, no matter how late the start date may go (The Hill).
Briefly in non-Shell news, a fight between different portions of the federal and Alaska state governments over the appropriate level of taxation for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline is heating up (AD), while the Congressional Budget Office has just come out with its own projections of the federal revenues that might be expected from opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling; these differ substantially from the estimates delivered by industry (LA Times). Go figure.
The Northern Gateway pipeline through BC is proving difficult to shepherd to success. Even religious leaders are coming out against the idea (HuffPo), and resistance is already shaping up against a similar proposal for the Trans-Mountain pipeline to Vancouver (G&M). Premier of the Northwest Territories Bob McLeod made oblique mention last weekend of his willingness to consider an option that would create a pipeline from Alberta through to Tuktoyaktuk on the NWT’s Arctic coast instead (CBC, G&M). Northern aboriginal groups seem at first glance opposed to such an idea, preferring rather to focus on getting the Mackenzie Valley pipeline accomplished (CBC), but I doubt Canada's northern indigenous peoples are speaking in one voice on this.
Oh my, how excited everyone was at the news that ArcelorMittal, Baffinland’s parent company, had paid for Okalik Eeegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, to go to the Olympics (CBC). Ms Eegeesiak said the trip would not hurt QIA’s ability to negotiate on the Mary River project, but Mining Watch Canada fairly clearly indicated its sentiment that QIA should adopt a code of conduct that would outlaw such things, though that was not stated explicitly (CBC). The best op-ed on the Mary River project as a model, positive or negative, for mining in Canada generally comes from John Crump via rabble.ca, and the best analysis comes, as always, from Nunatsiaq News. The latter points out that QIA is not a public entity but a private company, that QIA was quite openly critical of the Mary River project during hearings, and that the Nunavut Impact Review Board (not QIA) would be making the final call on the project anyway. There are, however, other important pieces of the puzzle still up for negotiation. Premier Kuupik Kleist of Greenland, another potential future minerals powerhouse, came to Nunavut to meet Premier Eva Aariak on his first official visit (CBC). The two spoke about ways to work together and learn from one another on resource and human development issues (NN).
[Pebble Mine / Bristol Bay]
In Alaska, the EPA is being torn between indigenous groups, who are asking for an extension of the public comment period on the proposed mine, and the companies behind the project, who are pointing to the EPA’s watershed assessment as hurried and slipshod (AD). The quality of the EPA's original assessment was reviewed in Anchorage on Tuesday by an independent panel (EOTA). The politicking has been fascinating, as a “Save Our Salmon” initiative banning open-pit mining in the area squeaked by on a local vote, after which the state’s Department of Law challenged the initiative since the proposed mine would be on state-owned lands designated for mining (AD). For clear Q&A on the project, turn to Alaska Dispatch, and for an analysis of the political issues at stake from the Washington perspective, go to International Business Times. Stay tuned.
The Cree of James Bay, Québec have instituted a complete moratorium on uranium mining on their territory (Canada Newswire), while Agnico-Eagle, the company behind the Meadowbank and Meliadine gold mines, celebrated 55 years of being listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (NN). An article from Voice of Russia describing how great technology will prevent environmental disasters in the Arctic makes me think of the pride that goeth before a fall, while Russia generally is looking at relaxing laws on strategic mineral deposits to permit foreign countries to be more intimately involved. Such a move would doubtless incentivize greater foreign participation (BO). Lastly, Russian diamond firm Alrosa is bidding for a smaller competitor in an effort to gain access to some of the latter's diamond sites (Bloomberg).
ENVIRONMENT, SCIENCE and WILDLIFE
The management of marine mammal stocks is an issue that crosses politics, culture and science, and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has stepped right in the middle of it with a proposal to tag narwhal tusks with permanent metal seals in order to help track trade in narwhal ivory (CBC). Also in Canada, Eastern Arctic bowhead whales – thanks to a recovery of their population – are now legal to hunt, and hunters from Taloyoak are undertaking a 35-km journey to the Gulf of Boothia to do their own seasonal hunt (EOTA). Further west, gray whales are having a banner year in Alaskan waters (akbizmag.com). Much further down the food chain, ocean acidification appears to be causing marine creatures' shells to grow thinner and thinner (NN).
On land, the anthrax death toll of bison in the NWT is now above 420. It’s not clear in this CBC article whether the bison are part of the Mackenzie bison population; if so, data from 2000 suggest that the outbreak might have knocked out 1/5 of the population. Other research now suggests that those male sandpipers that sleep least are the most successful reproductively (BBC). Don’t go home early, fellas. Warmer weather is driving beautiful Lesser Purple Emperor butterflies northward in Europe (IceNews), and the Arthropod Ecology blog out of McGill University again offers a sensible and educational pitch for Arctic entomology in particular: unusual food webs; change so rapid that you can watch it happen; good baseline data; and – best of all – biting flies!
[Weather and environmental news]
The news of a large and unusual cyclonic storm hovering over the Arctic made broad news this week, including Andrew Revkin’s blog on the NY Times. The weather and ice geeks among you will want to turn to the more detailed information available on the Arctic Sea Ice Blog (parts 1, 2 and 3), with great links to other primary sources, and the rest of us will mostly want to look at NASA’s awesome photograph of the storm. NASA also provided a great infrared image of the wildfires burning across Siberia and a natural-color image of the ice island that broke away from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier gradually drifting away.
In two small bits of possibly positive news, the “punctuated equilibrium” in which the Greenland ice sheet exists may be cause for optimism regarding its ultimate longevity (Reuters) instead of terror that it will all melt tomorrow, and – according to the Herald-Tribune – a dramatic increase in fresh water emptying into the Arctic from Siberia’s rivers might – might – eventually mean a dampening of the strength of Atlantic hurricanes. That of course is an enormously complicated system, so who can really say?
This year’s Students on Ice Expedition almost looked like it wouldn’t take place, but the Canadian Coast Guard stepped in at the last minute and, with some creativity and elbow grease, got the students out to their ship (OC). The Coast Guard’s icebreaker Des Groseilliers was part of the effort to get the students to the MV Akademik Ioffe, their home for the next few days (NN). You can follow some of the students’ blogs via WWF Canada, but even if the blogs don't intrigue you, you’ll definitely want to take the time to watch the video of the “rescue” effort. They just look like they’re having such a great time in their survival suits.
A much more expensive expedition that successfully landed an SUV-sized research vehicle on Mars made ‘round-the-world headlines this week, and NASA chose to name the Curiosity rover's landing spot on the red planet “Yellowknife” in recognition of the fact that the NWT capital city is home to the world’s oldest-known rock, at 2.7bn years (CBC).
Two new developments in Arctic science are worth noting: Russia’s research vessel the Akademik Treshnikov, built for the Federal Service on Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, is getting its first trial runs in the Gulf of Finland (BO); and a new political-economy research project on the Barents region is getting underway at Rovaniemi’s University of Lapland (uarctic.org).
Most of you are probably not Björk fans, or at least not anymore. I am a holdout in this sense, so I was thrilled to read that the elfin Icelander would be teaming up with naturalist superstar David Attenborough to explore, among other things, the relationship between music and the natural world (IceNews). Also thrilling is the fun you can have playing with ERMA, a multi-layer mapping site for the Arctic from NOAA, U of New Hampshire and the EPA. There is an incredible variety of information that you can overlay (menus on the right-hand side); the tool/toy is greatly to be recommended. Two other tidbits: the US announced the reappointment of Charles J Vorosmarty and Warren Zapol to academic seats on the US Arctic Research Commission (Sacramento Bee); and better coordination of the EU’s research efforts is being pursued by NordForsk and others (norden.org).
THE POLITICAL SCENE
Renewed whispers that a bill might one day be introduced to Canada permitting First Nations citizens to own (and sell) their own land on-reserve drew a lot of notice, as it would completely change the dynamic of interactions between indigenous groups and extractive industries. For a primer on this important issue, turn to Canada.com.
A professor at the University of Helsinki suggested that a modern Hanseatic League incorporating nations around the Baltic Sea might be a viable EU alternative if the Euro crisis just drags on and on and on. I cannot imagine that such a thing would ever come to pass, but it’s fun to imagine (YLE).
Russia and Japan have agreed to disagree on the Kuril Islands while they work towards a solution and pursue further economic ties (ITAR-TASS).
Québec premier Jean Charest’s Plan Nord is facing a challenge from the Québec Solidaire party in the form of a “Plan Green,” which “is the opposite of the Plan Nord, which ‘swallows billions of dollars in public funds to service large foreign companies here to siphon off our natural resources’" (NN).
According to groups supporting the Alaska Coastal Management Program, more than 70% of the opposing camp’s war chest comes from interests outside the state of Alaska (alaskacoastalmanagement.org).
The Xue Long, China’s only icebreaker, has finally made it around into the Barents Sea after its long traverse of the Northern Sea Route (BO). Congratulations!
A really wonderful article from Fairbanks News-Miner covers the Point Hope whale hunt in all its richness, history and detail. Nicely done.
Apparently Point Hope has been just lousy with journalists recently. The Washington Post published an article on how warming temperatures are affecting precisely the cultural traditions that FNM talked about in the above article.
Materials from the sealift in Iqaluit are gradually beginning to move ashore (NN).
Fascinating! A wonderful history of efforts to standardize the writing of Inuktitut (NN).
BUSINESS & INDUSTRY
Russia opted to open up the formerly Norilsk Nickel-only port of Dudinka to international cargo and passenger traffic. The city is more northerly than Murmansk or Arkhangelsk, so it takes over as the northernmost port with international facilities in the world (Bloomberg). The first vessel to enjoy the eased processing was Norilsk’s vessel, the creatively-named Norilskiy Nickel, headed to Europe with metals (BO). Another new port – Sabetta, in the Ob Bay – jointly developed by Novatek and federal authorities, will also add meaningfully to Russia’s Arctic infrastructure (BO).
Japan’s Transport Ministry also released word this week that it estimates using the Northern Sea Route instead of the Suez Canal would save Japanese shipping companies an average of 40% on the route to Europe (shipandbunker.com).
THE SPORTING LIFE
By the time you’ll be reading this, the Olympics will be done; so let me go through a current medal count for the five littoral states as of 10:00 AM GMT on Sunday 12 August:
USA – 102 total, of which 44G, 29S, 29B
RUS – 78 total, of which 21G, 25S, 32B
CAN – 18 total, of which 1G, 5S, 12B
DAN – 9 total, of which 2G, 4S, 3B
NOR – 4 total, of which 2G, 1S, 1B
Now to a couple of articles…
The Yukon Roller Girls have their new recruiting class for the year. Looks like fun! (WS)
The newly-inaugurated Awesome Warrior Challenge near Whitehorse gets my vote for best all-around competition. Modern heptathlon? Pfui. Does the modern heptathlon have walls of fire, math, and NO-LOOK FACE PAINTING?! (WS)
The purse for the 2013 Yukon Quest is set now at at least $100,000. (WS)
THE GRAB BAG
Couldn’t you just have guessed? Arthur Conan Doyle’s earliest work is a manuscript based on his diaries of his time aboard a Greenland whaler in the 1880s. Was Sherlock Holmes “born” in the Arctic? It could be (Daily Mail). The work will be published in September of this year.
Lynne Cox is justifiably famous in certain circles for her ridiculous feats of open-water swimming. I still remember reading a wonderful and inspiring article about her exploits in the New Yorker several years back called “Swimming to Antarctica”, worth reading if you can dig it up – I can’t find it online. This week the BBC published a look back at her 1985 Cold War-era swim across the US-USSR border between Little and Big Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait. It’s a beautiful article, it’s a beautiful story. Read it. From BBC.
Do hybrid blimps have a future as cargo vessels in the Canadian Arctic? Stay tuned (CBC).
An energy company in Murmansk might have stolen €25.5mn from its customers over the course of the past few years, says Russia’s interior ministry (BO).
Norway’s long-term project to bring Amundsen’s ship the Maud back from its resting place in shallow Canadian Arctic waters took another step forward this week, if only a small one (NN).
An absolutely fantastic photo series from the Avanna expedition in Greenland (coldunited.com).
Another unbelievable photo essay and story on a polar bear attack near Ungava Bay (waseyaimages.net).
A great collection from Nunatsiaq News, taken from their recent trip to Nuuk.
A very good photo-essay on Tromsø, Norway’s rising northern capital (newsinenglish.no).
Some great individual pictures of (1) the ice offshore near Iqaluit, (2) ice and moonlight, (3) moon and an inuksuk, (4) a road completely washed away in northern Russia.
The students in the Students on Ice program finally made it out to their ship at the last minute. Watch their obvious excitement and enthusiasm during the transfer process in this video.
It’s not brand-new, but a recent video (note: it’s a full-length documentary) on the last family living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is worth a view.
An eerie video from NOAA with sounds of the pack ice moving in the Arctic is…well, eerie.
Alaska Dispatch (AD)
Anchorage Daily News (ADN)
Barents Nova (BN)
Barents Observer (BO)
Eye on the Arctic (EOTA)
Fairbanks News Miner (FNM)
Financial Times (FT)
Globe and Mail (G&M)
Huffington Post (HP)
Moscow Times (MT)
Natural Gas Europe (NGE)
New York Times (NYT)
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)
Wall Street Journal (WSJ)
Washington Post (WP)
Whitehorse Star (WS)
Winnipeg Free Press (WFP)