Take Five is The Arctic Institute’s news roundup that gives you everything you need to know about what’s happened in the Arctic this week. Short in length but big on insight, from politics and culture to the environment and security, we look beneath the headlines to see what’s really going on. Published each Friday, our quick and fun redux breaks down the five biggest circumpolar stories with fresh editorial analysis so you can get caught up on the region in under five minutes. Take Five means you’ll never miss a beat on what matters most.
Russia unveils Arctic base—to media sensation
Want to take a tour of the newest addition to Russia’s Arctic military family? Now you can, thanks to a virtual gallery that the Ministry of Defense released earlier this week. The Арктический трилистник, or “Arctic Trefoil” (so named because of the complex’s three-sided shape) is located in Franz Josef Land, an extremely remote archipelago that President Putin paid a visit to just a few weeks ago on his own tour of the facility (BBC). The complex, which is part of a larger base (not part of the virtual tour), is something of a modern marvel: at 5 stories tall and 14,000 square meters, it can house 150 personnel for 18 months in comfort (considering it’s at 80º latitude), boasting a modern medical facility, billiards room, and cinema (TBO, BBC, The Times).
TAKE 1: The Arctic Trefoil is part of Russia’s broader strategy to extend its presence in its massive Arctic territory by improving older facilities left over from Soviet times: a variation on the design of a base that opened up on Kotelny Island in 2015, Moscow plans to build four more of its kind in the Arctic (Newsweek, RBTH). While some media outlets have emphasized the base’s potential to house nuclear-capable aircraft, the reality is that there are a lot of plans for the base, the most important of which being keeping a radar eye on the Northern Sea Route and the skies over Siberia (Fox, Inquisitr, Newsweek).
River in Canadian Yukon disappears abruptly, and it’s because of climate change
“River piracy—“ a term to describe what happens when a river gets diverted to discharge into another body of water—has been known to geoscientists for a while. Usually, this occurs over the course of long periods of time, but as a recent paper in the journal Nature Geoscience reports, in the case of the Yukon’s Slims River, it happened over the course of four days in 2016: “virtually overnight” in geologic terms (G&M, National Post). Now, instead of eventually ending up in the Bering Sea, the water flows into the Alsek and into the Pacific, leaving the Slims riverbed dry and dusty (Guardian). So what happened? During a period of rapid melting in the spring of last year, meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, which has receded some 1.9 km over the past century, suddenly found a new, faster path to a lower elevation through a 30-meter “canyon” it had been carving out (CBC).
TAKE 2: As the authors of the study note, this is an example of climate change producing a “tipping point” of irreversible change, and it has huge implications. For the local region, the Slims was the only water source for Kluane Lake, the Yukon’s largest body of water: now that it’s gone, the lake’s level has plummeted, meaning that a major source of food for the Kluane First Nation is in jeopardy (Hakai Magazine). As for the Arctic as a whole, because the river is pretty far to the south of the Arctic Circle, its fate is a harbinger of things to come for the region as things warm up (Scientific American).
At long last, a year-round road to Canada’s Arctic shore
After years of planning and building, the all-season road to Tuktoyaktuk, located in the Northwest Territories on the Arctic Ocean, is nearly complete, connecting all 3 Canadian coastlines by road (CBC). The road will link Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik, 137 km (85 mi) to the south over patches of permafrost: an engineering feat, considering that the annual pattern of thawing and refreezing is notoriously terrible for permanent structures placed upon it (RCI, CBC). It will also replace the seasonal ice road, which until now has been a lifeline for communities north of Inuvik that was only open during the winter.
TAKE 3: But it’s permafrost that is the reason for having an all-year road: or, more specifically, the way it’s been thawing earlier and freezing later in the year, meaning that people risk running out of supplies like fuel (flying it in just isn’t practical given the expense) because the ice roads open later in the year (RCI). Canada has a network of ice roads covering 3,300 miles, and for many Northern residents, they really are a matter of life and death (ADN).
More oil and gas leak woes in Alaska
After the pipeline leaks in Cook Inlet a few weeks ago, two more leaks from an unknown cause were found over the weekend, this time in oil fields of Alaska’s remote north near Prudhoe Bay and the community of Deadhorse (NYT, The Hill). Releasing natural gas and spraying a “mist” of crude oil onto surrounding gravel, the leaks were at a well owned by BP on state land (NPR, ADN). It took the company several days to get the leaks under control, which was ultimately achieved by successfully repairing one and shutting down the other. (APM, NYT).
TAKE 4: Fortunately, not a lot of oil spilled; on the other hand, BP doesn’t have an estimate on the amount of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, that got released: a point that environmentalists have raised concern over (NYT, Ecowatch). But it doesn’t look like oil and gas production is going to stop in the region anytime soon: with the North Slope and the ocean to its north being a renowned site of hydrocarbon deposits, state politicians have been pushing to ramp up drilling (Ecowatch).
While some mourn loss of Arctic data, others find it’s a perfect home for it
Because of its cold remoteness, the Arctic is a treasure trove of information about the deep past, with thousands of years’ worth of climate data being locked away in its ice. That’s why scientists take ice core samples to bring back home to study: and it’s why a recent freezer malfunction at the Canadian Ice Core Archive in Edmonton was so devastating (National Post). Luckily, only around 13% of the ice was ruined, but as the archive’s director observed, because some of the ice caps represented in the archive are already melting in their natural setting, the record will be lost “in some cases sooner rather than later” (NYT). But on the other side of the Arctic in Svalbard, a very different kind of data is being placed into the icy ground rather than removed from it. The World Arctic Archive (next door to the Global Seed Vault) will store important documents, archives, and literature from around the world in an abandoned mine using a newly developed technology (Smithsonian, Quartz). Says one of the project’s developers, “it is not just seeds humanity needs safely stored for a long time” (Smithsonian).
TAKE 5: But as The Arctic Institute’s own Victoria Herrmann has written, Arctic and climate data has yet another threat: deletion. Since the US inauguration, links to government reports, Arctic policies, and data have been disappearing, which means that it’s harder to draw informed conclusions to make good decisions (Guardian). It’s important to remember, though, that although so many changes can seem inevitable, they aren’t: since Herrmann’s story hit the news, missing data has been republished (CBC).