The Arctic Institute’s Take Five is back. From this week onwards, Ella and Karen will provide you with the five biggest circumpolar stories of the 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. Take Five means you’ll never miss a beat on what matters most.
China releases its official Arctic Policy
On January 26, China released its first official Arctic Policy. To some, it’s considered an extension of the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to build infrastructure linking China to Europe and Africa via land and sea routes that involves more than 60 countries (The Straitstimes). The new phase focuses on building a Polar Silk Road by developing the Arctic shipping routes, reducing the travel time by almost 20 days compared to the traditional route through the Suez Canal. China wants it all – oil, gas, mineral resources, fishing, and Arctic tourism in cooperation with the Arctic States to boot (while respecting and recognizing the territorial sovereignty, traditions, and cultures of the North, of course) (The Diplomat, The Straitstimes).
Take 1: China’s Northern engagement is a reminder of just how global the Arctic has become. Despite its lack of territorial claims in the Arctic, China is becoming more active in the polar region. Its permanent observer status in the Arctic Council and more recent official Arctic Policy clearly identify China as a “near-Arctic State.” At first, not everyone was on board with China’s polar ambitions, but, with time and investment, China has slowly gained acceptance as a stakeholder. The backside of all those fuzzy feelings? As China advances in the polar region, the more we’re reminded of the United State’s lack of engagement in the region. The US still doesn’t have a real deepwater port along Alaska’s Arctic waters. It has little military presence, and insufficient diplomatic engagement. Calling DC…
Scientists find large amounts of mercury in the Arctic
According to a scientific study released this week, scientists have discovered massive amounts of natural mercury in northern permafrost soils (American Geophysical Union). Between 2004 and 2012, scientists drilled 13 permafrost soil cores at various sites throughout Alaska. They measured the total amount of mercury and carbon in each core, using these values to calculate the total amount of mercury stored in frozen permafrost soil. That amount is more than 793 gigagrams — 10 times the amount of mercury released from human activity over the last three decades. The study also shows that frozen and unfrozen soil in the permafrost regions contains a total of 1,656 gigagrams mercury, making it the largest reservoir of mercury on earth. It is a pool so big that it contains nearly twice the amount of mercury in the atmosphere, ocean, and soils in the rest of the world combined (AGU Newsroom).
Take 2: All data is good data. The findings increase our understanding of how mercury is stored, and how it affects human and environmental health. And no problem exists if mercury remains frozen. However, as Earth gets warmer, air temperatures increase the thawing of permafrost, which in turns release all that mercury. Mercury can be transported across waterways, be taken up by microorganisms that transform it into toxic methylmercury, and travel up terrestrial and aquatic food chains that can have significant implications for human health. The short of it? The new results are bad news (polar) bears. (AGU Newsroom, Washington Post).
Environmental groups file appeal over drilling in the Norwegian Arctic
On February 5, Greenpeace Norway and Nature and Youth launched an appeal after the Oslo District court ruled against the two groups on January 4 in a trial over Arctic oil (Reuters). During the trial, the court rejected the groups’ arguments that Norway’s oil and gas exploration in the Arctic violated citizens’ rights to a clean environment as stated in Article 112 of the country’s constitution. The court acknowledged that there is a constitutional right to a healthy environment in Norway but did not find the government’s decision to offer drilling licenses in the Barents Sea as a breach of this obligation. The two environmental groups disagreed with the verdict, and have now appealed directly to Norway’s Supreme Court, hoping to bypass the Appeals Court (The Maritime Executive, Verdict).
Take 3: With the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement there has been a growing desire among countries and people to reduce the carbon threat to the environment. The latest lawsuit from Greenpeace and Nature and Youth follows this trend. The groups’ case does have some merit, as the Norwegian constitution does guarantee a safe environment. Their argument aims to clarify the definition of what a safe environment is, and how a government by its actions or lack thereof guarantees it. This is the first time in 20 years that a new pristine area has opened up for oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea. Oil and gas drilling has the potential of negatively affecting future generations, and a case like this can be the first of its kind to hold a government accountable for failing to protect its citizens from climate change (Greenpeace). While the case might not win in court, it does raise awareness about government responsibility.
Finland reveals plans for Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel to connect the Arctic with rest of Europe
The government of Finland with the help of the EU recently published the results of a feasibility study about the possibility of a Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel (Finnish Government). This study shows that an underwater railway connection is possible between the two cities. It has the potential of bringing social and economic benefits to both cities and Europe overall. By 2050, 23 million people and eight million tons of cargo can travel through the tunnel (The Independent Barents Observer).
Take 4: As the Arctic region increasingly becomes more important, it is absolutely necessary to have infrastructure in place. Sustainable development and growth in the region can only happen with well-functioning transport and telecommunication connections. The Baltic tunnel is therefore key. Together with the Arctic railway line and the Rail Baltica railway project, the underwater rail connection can link the Arctic region with the rest of Europe, and create a network. It will also be able to support Finland’s goal of becoming a European logistics hub.
Polar bears might go extinct sooner than previously thought
Polar bear populations are decreasing as a result of declining arctic sea ice. Previous research has shown declines in abundance, body condition and survival of polar bears, yet it has been hard to quantify how much energy polar bears need, and how many seals they need to eat. Improvements in animal research technology has now made it possible for scientists to successfully study the polar bears’ behavior, metabolism and movement on the sea ice (PBS). The results of a new study of nine polar bears in the Beaufort Sea reveals that polar bears expend about 1.6 times more energy than scientists had previously thought (Science). A female polar bear on the spring sea ice requires one adult, or three juveniles, ringed seals every 10-12 days to meet its energy demand. The study shows that as sea ice declines bears use more energy than they consume, thus negatively affecting their populations.
Take 5: As the Arctic sea ice continues to melt at the fastest pace in 1,500 years, there is an even greater need to understand how polar bears will respond to these dramatic changes (CBS News). Polar bears are the apex predator in their ecosystem, keeping the populations of other species in check. Their loss can result in the overpopulation of other species, such as seals. This disturbs the balance of the ecosystem by affecting the food chain, and can result in the extinction of other species. The new study helps to better understand the rate of polar bear decline. The fact that polar bears have higher metabolisms than previously thought means that they also need more prey in order to survive. It is clear that polar bears can go extinct much sooner than scientists previously thought (The Guardian).