Hello and welcome to Take Five’s special New Year edition! This week and next, we will be covering the top five Arctic stories from the year 2016 as well as the top five stories to watch in 2017. So, from drilling bans and luxury cruises to the Paris Agreement and a new POTUS-elect, sit back, relax, and enjoy our year in review!
The historic ban on Arctic Ocean oil drilling by Obama and Trudeau
In a bid to retain his environmental legacy in the face of the incoming Trump administration, the administration of outgoing US President Barack Obama in late 2016 prevented any new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean from occurring for at least the near future by removing sites in the Bering and Chukchi Seas from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s list of approved sites (BOEM, Fox). While it would certainly be possible for Trump to undo this, it would be difficult and time-consuming, not to mention annoying. And, in a coordinated move, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made all of Canada’s Arctic waters off-limits to new drilling; however, in the case of both countries, this won’t affect existing leases (Bloomberg). But 2016 was a big year for Arctic oil for other reasons, too: Norway’s Goliat, the first oil rig in the Barents Sea, went into production (TBO, Offshore Magazine).
TAKE 1: The changes in the North American Arctic were greeted with a variety of responses, from cheers from environmental groups to groans from the oil and gas industry and politicians like Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) (Washington Post). However, it’s the Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic who stand to benefit—or not—the most. Arctic Iñupiat Offshore offered some choice words for the Obama administration given the need for economic growth in rural Alaskan communities (TAJ)*, but on the other hand, many communities are also quite concerned about the impacts on the environment and wildlife of oil and gas activity such as Clyde River, Nunavut, which has been pushing back against underwater seismic testing (CBC).
The epic voyage of the Crystal Serenity
One of the biggest Arctic headlines in 2016 was this summer’s transit of the 1,000-passenger Crystal Serenity from Alaska to New York City through the Northwest Passage (LA Times, National Geographic). While Canada has been busy investigating the remains of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to the strait, having found the HMS Terror, the second missing ship, this summer (Reuters), the same body of water that used to be perilous for seafarers is now a very different place because of climate change (NYT). Along the way, local communities like Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, eager for the influx of tourism cash, rolled out the red carpet; however, many in Northern communities are also divided on the matter, as increased tourism also increases the risk of environmental damage and could easily disrupt daily life in small population centers (The Guardian).
TAKE 2: As many pundits have noted, although this was not the first luxury Arctic cruise, the ship’s size and capacity heralds the beginning of a whole new kind of mass tourism the likes of which the Arctic hasn’t seen before. Already, Crystal Cruises, the company that owns Crystal Serenity, is planning another Arctic cruise in 2017 (APM), and with a Northwest Passage that is increasingly lower on ice, surely more enterprises will follow in its wake: a trend that some, like professor and Arctic expert Michael Beyers, have decried as “extinction tourism” (NYT).
The Arctic got hotter than ever
With temperatures rising at least twice as quickly in the Arctic as elsewhere on the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s annual “Arctic report card,” the region has seen its hottest year yet in 2016 (NPR). With long-term warming trends becoming more pronounced, Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, called 2016 “the most extreme year for the Arctic that I have ever seen” (Salina). For example, what made for a good year for cruise ships was a bad year for sea ice: data from NOAA indicates that the lowest maximum sea ice extent on satellite record occurred in March, and September’s minimum sea ice extent was tied with 2007 as second lowest (NOAA). As well, for the year ending in September 2016, at a full 3.5° C higher than it was at the start of the 20th Century, surface air temperature was “by far the highest since 1900.” (NOAA, NOAA).
TAKE 3: Warming temperatures in the Arctic affect everything in the region: from thawing permafrost and consequent soil erosion (the Alaskan coastal village of Shishmaref in August voted to move their island community to the mainland because of this (RCI)), to wide-scale ecosystem changes like the northward creep of vegetation and changing fish migration patterns. As an Arctic Council report released this year pointed out, “regime shifts” such as these could be major “tipping points” that propel even more change throughout the Arctic, and by extension, the rest of the world (Arctic Council).
The signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change
There were, however, some brighter spots in 2016. In April, delegates from over 165 countries came together in New York to sign the Paris Agreement, a document that was negotiated in December 2015 at the UN COP 21 meeting in Paris (Yle). The US and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas producers, ratified the agreement in a joint statement a few months later in September (Reuters). Keeping the global average temperature rise below 2° C will take not only signatures, but action, and with the November election of a new and very different US presidential administration that has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, many who champion it like Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, have shown concern over its future (CBC).
TAKE 4: But, if UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s keynote speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland last year is any indication, climate change, especially as it affects the Arctic, is firmly on the global radar, with or without the US (Arctic Circle). And if the US steps back, China, which has been gradually becoming a major player in the Arctic, looks like it will become the world’s leader for action on climate change (The Guardian).
The Russian UN bid to claim more of the Arctic Ocean seafloor
This summer also saw the 41st meeting of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLOS) and Russia’s official bid to the Commission to expand its territorial claims in the Arctic Ocean (UN, Maritime Executive). Its scientific investigations into the geology of particularly the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleyev-Alpha Rise, and the Chukchi Plateau are intended to prove that they are connected to the Russian continental shelf and are therefore eligible to be part of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone under international law. If the Commission decides in favor of the claim, which could take 3 to 5 years (Arctic.ru), Russia would get a bonanza of over 1.2 million square kilometers of new underwater real estate, including the North Pole, that’s full of oil and gas potential…which is exactly what it’s going for (TBO).
TAKE 5: Of course, this is part of a much longer, drawn-out process wherein other Arctic countries, namely Canada, Denmark, and the US, aren’t letting this go down without a legal, science-based, and very orderly fight. There are overlapping claims, especially with Denmark over the Lomonosov Ridge and, therefore, the North Pole. With both Denmark’s 2014 claim and Canada’s 2013 claim still under review (TBO), keep your eyes on this area!
* The Arctic Journal (TAJ) went offline in June 2017.