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.
2016 Arctic Report Card: “I’d say sea ice cover is a D+…because I’m an easy grader”
That’s according to Donald Perovich, a geophysicist from Dartmouth University, who was commenting on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual report on the Arctic that was just released (Gizmodo). According to the report, sea ice (which saw the lowest winter maximum level in the satellite record in 2016) is but one of the ways the Arctic is close to flunking. The report also looks at factors like surface air temperature (rising at double the rate of the global average) and the Greenland ice sheet (it’s keeping its average trend of increasing in rate of melt) (NOAA).
TAKE 1: While understanding the individual variables is important, it’s equally if not more important to look at the big picture: the Arctic plays a big role in the planetary climate system. As climate expert Jennifer Francis put it, the changes in the Arctic “are affecting weather patterns where you live right now” (Guardian). Yep, even that pesky recurring polar vortex.
Russia-Japan talks: the art of making many deals, minus one
After the conclusion of bilateral talks between Russia and Japan, a lot of deals got made…except for the big one. Since WWII, the two countries have still technically been at war mostly because they’ve never agreed on who the southern Kuril Islands belong to, which the then-USSR took from Japan. Russia’s shown no sign of wanting to give the strategically located islands back to Japan anytime soon (VOA). The talks did result in a bunch of trade deals though, including an agreement between Russian gas company Novatek and three Japanese companies to work on an Arctic LNG project together (EP Mag, Reuters).
TAKE 2: Islands notwithstanding, it’s a good deal for both countries: Japan is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and Russia wants to up its exports and production (Reuters). Japan getting in on Arctic gas is just one more way the region is increasingly global: especially its resources.
Proposed shipping changes at Nunavut mine reflects need for social – environmental “balancing act”
Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., the company that operates and is expanding the Mary River iron mine near Pond Inlet, recently proposed to the community that it would forgo its original plan to use icebreakers year-round. The reason? While icebreakers would increase shipping volume with larger ships, it would impact the busy spring hunting season of nearly communities (NN, NN). Some, like MLA Joe Enook, are in favour of the plan, citing the importance of “balancing” economic growth with maintaining traditions. But others, like WWF-Canada, view the company’s current proposal to extend the shipping season until December 31 “if required” to be “not good enough” as it would negatively impact sea ice formation which is important for wildlife (NN, NN).
TAKE 3: In Canada’s resource-rich north, mining is a key economic driver. But it means that local, largely Indigenous communities have to strike what’s often a difficult balance between development and staying in touch with culture and the land.
“Near-Arctic state” China looking ever Northwards
China continues to make waves in the Arctic. Last week, a new high-tech and fully Chinese-owned satellite station opened in Sweden 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, which will greatly enable “global surveillance capabilities” (Business Standard). And while full diplomatic ties have also recently been restored between Norway and China after a 2010 downgrade, Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen personally intervened to prevent an unused military base in Greenland from being sold to a Chinese company (TAJ, TAJ)*.
TAKE 4: Law expert Nengye Liu recently wrote that while China is branding itself a “near-Arctic state” with its wide array of activities in the region, it doesn’t have an officially stated Arctic policy. It appears that China just doesn’t want to “get left behind” when it comes to Arctic resources (The Diplomat).
Norwegian border county: We’re happy being close to Russia, thank you very much
In spite of recent military interest at the Norwegian-Russian border, the area is also a friendly place… especially if Finnmark, the Norwegian county that shares the border with Russia, can help it. The County Council recently turned down a Norwegian government proposal to merge it with neighbouring counties Troms and Nordland, saying it would negatively impact its relationship with Russia because the other counties don’t have the “foreign policy role” that Finnmark does (TBO). And indeed, Russia last week ratified amendments to expand a bilateral agreement between it and Norway that has provided a 30-km visa-free travel zone on either side of the border for residents since 2012 (TBO).
TAKE 5: The Norwegian border town of Kirkenes especially stands to benefit from the deal: most of the border traffic under the agreement consists of Russian day trippers on a shopping mission to the town (TBO). The mayor, Rune Rafaelsen, calls the bilateral agreement “important for local East-West relations” (TBO).
* The Arctic Journal (TAJ) went offline in June 2017.