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.
A big deal or not? Russian bombers buzz US, Canadian airspace
Provoking a flurry of media punditry, Russian Tu-95 bombers made a couple of appearances close to US and Canadian airspace last week, prompting both countries to scramble jets to intercept them (Fox, CBC, TASS). The bombers approached the Alaskan coast four times over four consecutive days, and while some interpreted this as a cause for some concern, citing ties with Moscow that “continue to worsen,” most others noted that this used to be a regular practice and just reflects an increase in training missions: nothing to worry about (CBC, CNN). The last time that Russian aircraft approached US airspace in a similar manner was in 2015.
TAKE 1: It’s not like Russia isn’t flying anywhere else: they’ve been conducting similar flights fairly routinely around Asia and Europe in the meantime. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a message in this military chest-thumping: being that Moscow and Washington are already entwined in other parts of the world, especially Syria, Russia is showing the US that its strength should be taken seriously: and that it won’t cave to pressure.
“Wikipedia for Inuit knowledge” launches prototype
It’s called Siku—Inuktitut for “sea ice”—and with a user-friendly interface similar to Facebook, people can record and share observational data of the environment and more. Having been developed over the past several years by the charity the Arctic Eider society, which works with Cree and Inuit communities in the Hudson Bay region, not only is it poised to be an extensive database for info on “anything at all” ranging from ice thickness and contaminants in seal meat to ethnographies and stories, but it’ll also likely change the way that Inuit and Cree share such information (Arctic Deeply).
TAKE 2: The project is also all about validating Cree and Inuit knowledges. While there’s a growing movement in the scientific community that is seeing the immense value and importance of the observations and insight of people who have lived closely with the land since time immemorial, for a long time, scientists have dismissed Indigenous knowledges as merely anecdotal. Ironically, climate change is helping to shift this, because Elders and hunters can tell you exactly what’s changing (Isuma).
Marching for science around the world… and the Arctic
This past Earth Day, April 22nd, hundreds of thousands of people in over 600 cities around the world participated in the March for Science, a series of rallies and marches that drew attention to the continued importance of science. While the event wasn’t officially billed as being overtly political, per se, with budget cuts to US departments like the EPA and the ongoing faceoff between climate change and climate science denial, the march couldn’t have come at a better time (CBS). Arctic researchers got in on the action, too, with one group even trekking up to the North Pole, measuring snow cover along the way (WGN TV, Huffington Post).
TAKE 3: As honorary co-chair of the march, Bill Nye of “Science Guy” fame told the Guardian that we are in “a dangerous place” at present because to some people, what’s objectively true is just as good as an opinion (Guardian). Meanwhile, a massive iceberg complements of climate change that recently blocked shipping lanes off the east coast of Canada is still making headlines (euronews): that the Arctic is rapidly changing in unprecedented ways is certainly not a matter of opinion.
US denies Exxon request to bypass sanctions on Russia
Exxon won’t be drilling for oil in the Russian Arctic anytime soon—or anywhere else in the country, for that matter. After applying for a waiver from the sanctions that would let it get back to working with Rosneft, the Treasury Department hit back with a hard “no,” saying in very unambiguous terms that it would not be willing to bend the rules (CNN, EnviroNews). Exxon had filed a waiver request also in 2015, which was also denied then (The Hill).
TAKE 4: Exxon, which had been operating in Russia for some 20 years prior, obviously wasn’t too pleased when the US government slapped sanctions on Russia over Crimea back in 2014, causing it to pull out of some very lucrative oil projects as well as exploration in the Arctic. With former CEO Rex Tillerson now as Secretary of State, the company saw a possible opportunity to get back to its sidelined projects. While environmentalists see this as a small victory, with oil prices on the uptick (they’re now at over $50/barrel), other companies could just as well be enticed into the Arctic.
NATO plans to have meeting in Svalbard irritates Russia
Calling it a “provocation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry had some strong words for NATO over its upcoming Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Svalbard this May, saying that NATO doesn’t need to be involved in any issues pertaining to the Arctic (Arctic.ru, TASS). While Svalbard, also known as Spitzbergen, is under Norwegian sovereignty, under the unique Svalbard Treaty of 1920, other countries have a huge amount of leeway when it comes to certain things in the archipelago, such as resource extraction. However, it also stipulates things countries can’t do: as a demilitarized zone, one of these is to use it for “war-like purposes,” hence Russia’s comment that the meeting is against the treaty’s spirit (TBO).
TAKE 5: Norwegian analyst Per Arne Totland has fired back, calling the Russian protest “totally without merits” considering that the meeting is for politicians, not military personnel, and that the Norwegian military is regularly present there to nary a comment from Russia (TBO). Relations between the two countries have been souring in recent months, and Totland suspects the controversy has more to do with propaganda against Norway. But the incident also illustrates that how law gets interpreted can depend on context… and whether your interests are on the line. Last year, another kerfuffle happened on Svalbard, but the roles were reversed, with Norway suggesting Russia was using it for war-like purposes when it had planned to use the Longyearbyen airport to fly troops to the North Pole for training (TBO).