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.
Canadian cabinet shuffle deals complicated hand for Russia relations
The recent appointment of Chrystia Freeland as Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs might be heralding a major shift in Canadian-Russian relations. Freeland, fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, is a longtime critic of Moscow’s policy on Ukraine and is also barred from even entering the country, leading some experts like Paul Robinson to think that this could imperil collaboration between the two states (RCI). While this represents a potential source of conflict. Freeland’s expertise on Russian language and culture is also an indisputable asset when it comes to understanding the country.
TAKE 1: Is this a signal that Ottawa is taking a tougher stance on the Kremlin? With Russia’s continued push into the Arctic with new military bases and sustained interest in oil and gas development, Canada is not the only country that has been watching Russia with great interest.
Incumbent US Defense Secretary urges preventing Russian “domination” in Arctic
At his confirmation hearing last week, retired Gen. James Mattis indicated that he would push for a tougher stance against Russia, a position that diverges from Trump’s. In addition to supporting continued US involvement with NATO, Mattis stated that the US needed to counter Russian “efforts to dominate” in the Arctic (NYT, Sputnik). Meanwhile, in Norway, a new unit of Marines has arrived at the border with Russia: a deterrence strategy to counter ongoing Russian shows of force (Military.com).
TAKE 2: While it’s too early to say what the specifics of preventing Russian dominance in the Arctic would look like to Mattis, he’ll need to put the money where his mouth is: Russia has been investing extensively in their Arctic military capabilities, which far exceed those of the US.
Alaska seeking onshore drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Seeing an opportunity in the changing of the political guard in Washington, D.C., Alaska’s congressional delegation has proposed new legislation to allow for oil and gas drilling in ANWR. On the heels of the Obama Administration’s recent decision to block offshore drilling in the Arctic, plans to drill in the “1002 Area” were announced back in 2013 but rejected by the Fish and Wildlife Service (Natural Gas Intel, Kallanish Energy). The proposed site is poised to have some of the country’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas.
TAKE 3: Historically dependent on natural resources, Alaska has been plagued by budget shortfalls since oil prices plummeted. Drilling in the wildlife refuge would, according to Governor Bill Walker, “bring much needed revenue to our state coffers” and be done in as environmentally friendly a way as possible (The Arctic Sounder). But there are also significant drawbacks: the area in question is an important calving ground for porcupine caribou, an animal that people in Alaska and neighboring Yukon rely on for food.
Iceland ponders joining EU again
Now that a new coalition government has been formed after last fall’s elections, Iceland is re-opening the discussion on whether to accede to the European Union, talks which began in 2010 after the 2008 financial crisis (BBC). The center-right coalition, which holds a slim majority in Parliament, says that it would introduce a motion to vote on having a referendum only if the matter is brought up in Parliament first (NYT, BBC). That move tacitly acknowledges the Euroskepticism that originally put the talks on hold.
TAKE 4: Whether a successful referendum actually comes to pass is, of course, a big “if.” However, it would open the door for the EU to have more influence in the Arctic, something that Brussels desires but is limited in its ability to address due to more immediately pressing issues like Brexit (TAJ)*.
- New reports show impacts of climate change on polar bears & Arctic lakes
According to two different recent reports, rapidly melting Arctic ice continues to have far-reaching impacts. A report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service released last week says that “it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered” unless there are “significant reductions” in the trend of warming in the Arctic (CNN). Polar bears rely on sea ice for hunting and breeding, so less ice means tough times for not just the world’s largest land carnivore, but also humans. As the bears are forced onto land, they come into closer proximity to humans and pose serious safety threats to northern communities. But the ocean isn’t the only place where melting ice is a problem. Another study found that most Arctic lakes melt earlier each year, which means lakes will absorb more heat from sunlight and in turn contribute to more warming (CBC).
TAKE 5: The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a plan that, written in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act, is meant to target polar bear conservation efforts in the face of a warmer world (Fish and Wildlife Service, ADN). While the incoming US administration has expressed a lot of climate change skepticism, people who have worked on the plan have high hopes that the plan “is a legal requirement” (ADN).
* The Arctic Journal (TAJ) went offline in June 2017.