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.
There’s a wildfire happening in Greenland
While it’s better known for its ice, Greenland is currently host to a wildfire that’s been burning for just over two weeks. First detected in late July, the fire, located in the western part of the island about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Sisimiut, has since been spotted by several satellites (NASA, Popular Science, Forbes). While wildfires have occurred in Greenland in the past, they are extremely rare. This one was probably caused by human activity of some kind and appears to be fueled mainly by peat; normally rather moist, the semi-decomposed vegetal matter in western Greenland is much drier than usual due to the region having seen below-average rainfall since June (NPR, Mother Jones).
TAKE 1: It’s been a hot and fiery summer for many places in the Arctic or near-Arctic, such as in Canada’s Northwest Territories (CBC). In Greenland, it’s not the fire, but the smoke, that has scientists more concerned; since it emits a large amount of black carbon, some of it will accumulate on Greenland’s ice cap, bringing more melting (darker colors absorb heat and sunlight) (NPR). In addition to that, burning peat is particularly troubling because it’s “basically pure carbon,” and unfortunately, it’s also particularly sensitive to climatic changes (NPR).
The Arctic: Future home of world’s largest data center
A Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle could soon to be the site of a data center that’s the largest in the world. According to plans that were recently made public, an abandoned airstrip nestled between fjords and hills in the tiny Nordland municipality of Ballingen is the future home of a data processing center that will sprawl 6.5 million sq. ft (about 600,000 sq. m) and draw on a record-setting 1,000 mW of power (CNBC, High North News). While Kolos, the company behind the project, is yet to secure all the investments it needs, it says that when in operation, the center will bring 2,000-3,000 jobs to the town of 2,500 (eWeek).
TAKE 2: Along with the Arctic World Archive in Svalbard, the Scandinavian Arctic appears to be emerging as a data hotspot. In the case of the Kolos facility, the location in Norway’s Arctic is ideal due to its proximity to good telecommunications infrastructure, cool temperatures (perfect for chilling out hot servers), and abundance of renewable energy. In fact, it’s going to run entirely on inexpensive hydroelectric and wind power: because data centers require whopping amounts of energy (and currently draw mainly from fossil fuels), having such a massive facility fueled totally by renewables could be a good model for others to follow (BBC).
Svalbard to be site of new NASA-Norway laser ranging facility
On August 7th, NASA and the Norwegian Mapping Authority signed an agreement to begin developing a new satellite laser ranging station at the Ny-Ålesund scientific base on Svalbard (EurekAlert). While the facility won’t be up and running until June of next year, when it goes into operation, it will be used to track satellites: and with its prime location at 72º N, it will be especially helpful for tracking the positions of ones that are in orbits that go over the Arctic (RCI, Phys.org). Laser ranging tracks satellites with, you guessed it, lasers, and the technology is accurate to within a millimeter.
TAKE 3: The new facility will join a global network of similar stations that measure space geodesy: the earth’s location in space as well as its precise size and shape and how it changes over time. This is useful for anything that uses GPS like ship navigation systems, but the Svalbard facility will be especially important to tracking changes in the Arctic’s ice sheets at a time when data is crucial (Marinelink).
Thanks to melting Arctic ice, ocean currents may be slowing down
A study recently published in Nature is suggesting a link between the slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and an increase in melt from Arctic ice. The AMOC is what brings warm tropical water northwards and helps to keep Western Europe toasty via one of its components, the Gulf Stream; it’s also a “key driver” of ocean currents around the world (Inhabitat). Linked to this is a pocket of cold water in the subarctic North Atlantic called the “Warming Hole” that has resisted the global trend of rising average ocean temperatures (Nature, Forbes).
TAKE 4: Although Europe has been experiencing record-breaking heat recently, a diminished AMOC would have the opposite effect, especially for places like Iceland and Scandinavia. But the ripple effects would likely go even farther afield to impact things like fish stocks and weather patterns, although at this point, given the sheer complexity, it is very difficult for computer models to make precise predictions. Yet also, this complexity extends to our own impacts on global climate in terms of carbon emissions; living as we do in the biosphere, we are too a part of it and we have the ability to change it.
Russian icebreaker sets speed record to North Pole
79 hours is now the fastest time it takes to get from Murmansk to the North Pole by icebreaker; the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy left port on August 14 and arrived at its destination on the 17th. The voyage was in commemoration of the 40th year anniversary of the Soviet icebreaker Arktika‘s expedition to 90º N, becoming the first surface vessel to do so (MarEx). Back then, it took 176 hours, or over twice as long, as this year’s voyage following the same route (IBO). 50 Let Pobedy was also host to a conference that focused on the development of year-round ship traffic in the Northern Sea Route (Arctic.ru, Vessel Finder).
TAKE 5: One thing this year’s expedition highlights is how much things have changed in 40 years, with thinner sea ice unsurprisingly leading to much quicker travel (IBO). But sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same, with the North Pole remaining a focal point for the demonstration of national interests just as it has been for well over a century. It was also 10 years ago this month that a Russian sub planted a flag on the sea floor at the North Pole, inspiring ruffled feathers and sharp editorials in other circumpolar countries, particularly Canada. Today, while UNCLOS deliberations over the official political boundaries in the Arctic Ocean trundle forward, more informal activities shape politics and identity in the region in ways that may not always be as tangible, but are no less meaningful.