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.
The road to ANWR: Paved with a Congressional budget?
The US House of Representatives just released their budget this week, and critics are saying that its wording is directed right at opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) up for oil drilling: even if it isn’t coming right out and stating it. There are two key elements here: first, the 63-page budget blueprint specifically calls on a process called budget reconciliation to get the budget through, which can’t be filibustered and only needs 50 votes to pass; and second, page 56 indicates a budgetary “savings” of $5 billion on the part of the Natural Resources Committee through the reconciliation process (Washington Post, House.gov).
TAKE 1: Putting two and two together, The Wilderness Society’s senior managing director for government relations Drew McConville called the budget out as a “shameless attempt” to push oil interests through the “back door of Congress,” and other environmental groups as well as Democrats were similarly vocal (Inside Climate News, The Hill). There is precedent for their concern: attempts were made in 1995 and 2005 (Inside Climate News). ANWR has reignited as a hot topic in recent months as the Trump administration has clearly indicated its interest in more aggressive development of Alaskan hydrocarbons.
Russia ordered to shell out $6.25 million for seizing Greenpeace ship in 2013
It’s not easy being Greenpeace, but a recent international court order has provided some vindication. The Permanent Court of Arbitration has just ruled that Russia needs to pay up €5.4 million ($6.25 million) to the Netherlands in damages for its 2013 seizure and detainment of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which was flying the Dutch flag (Moscow Times). In September 2013, Greenpeace staged a protest in the Barents Sea against oil drilling in the Arctic, prompting the Russian authorities to board the ship and arrest everyone on board (who later became known as the “Arctic 30”) (Energy Voice). The money will go towards damages to the ship and compensation for the Arctic 30 (Seattle Times).
TAKE 2: The ruling highlights the ever-present tension between state sovereignty and the interpretation of international law. Russia, which did not participate in the hearings, maintains that it had a right to exercise its sovereignty because the protest took place in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, the arbitration panel argued that under UNCLOS, an EEZ is still international waters, meaning that the Russian actions were out-of-bounds (Reuters). As several sources have noted, the fact that Russia has stayed out of the hearing altogether could be a signal that it won’t pay up; it has also stated that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the court (Reuters, Maritime Executive).
Chinese icebreaker sets off on research mission to Northwest Passage
With the summer in full swing, it’s icebreaker season in the Northwest Passage. Several voyages are either currently underway or imminent: Finland’s Nordica is currently plying its waters, having left Vancouver on July 5th, and the US Coast Guard cutter Maple also set off from Alaska on the 12th (Seattle Times, Maritime Executive). But besides the usual suspects of Arctic states, there’s a country not typically associated with the north of 66 club that is also sending a ship through the Passage: China. China’s 8th expedition to the Arctic kicks off this week, with its icebreaker Xuelong heading for the Northwest Passage via Beijing (Shanghai Daily).
TAKE 3: All signs are pointing to China getting even closer with the region, though. After this year, Xuelong will be heading north annually to conduct regular research: important for being able to record systematic observations. Although the country doesn’t have an official Arctic policy yet, between expanding scientific capacities and economic alliances (especially with Russia in the Belt and Road initiative) in the region, China’s influence is also rising (Newsweek). And while the payoffs might not be immediate, playing the long game in a changing region with a bounty of resources is a savvy strategy.
Nunavut drone company snags federal contract to shape Canadian UAV rules…and Canadian UAVs
Arctic UAV, an Iqaluit-based drone company, just landed a contract worth at least $300,000 (CAD) from the Canadian government that will see them help Transport Canada shape the future of aviation rules for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). At the ripe old age of 18 months, the Inuit-owned company, which specializes in remote photography, is taking off: drone technology is booming and comes especially in handy in the Arctic, where it can be used for purposes as diverse as surveying, search and rescue, and surveillance (NN, CBC).
TAKE 4: With drone technology expanding so rapidly, regulatory agencies like Transport Canada are scrambling to figure out how to make sure it plays nice with existing uses of airspace like civil aviation (NN). But there’s also a bigger set of regulations proving to be a greater annoyance to Canadian drone ambitions: an international arms control agreement signed back in 1987 called the Missile Technology Control Regime. Originally intended to prevent the proliferation of Cold War weapons of mass destruction, UAVs that are more than 500 kg and can travel more than 300 km were later added to the list of forbidden projectiles: meaning that a 2015 Canadian project to develop an Arctic surveillance drone is delayed because the UAV is so big it’s considered a missile (CBC). Hence the other reason to call in the experts: to design a drone that doesn’t violate international regulations.
Mummies from medieval era found at Siberian necropolis
More than just hydrocarbons lie beneath the Siberian permafrost: two mummies believed to be from the 13th century were found recently at Zelenyy Yar, an archaeological site near Salekhard in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (International Business Times). The site was originally discovered in 1997, and over 100 burials have been found there since as well as, among other things, a workshop for bronze casting dating from the sixth and seventh century (Newsweek). The remains were found covered head to toe in copper, which helped to preserve them, and were encased in birch bark sarcophagi (Newsweek).
TAKE 5: The fascinating find raises a lot of questions: namely, who were these people? Preliminary DNA testing from mummies found earlier at the site as well as artifacts like bronze bowls links them with Persia (Newsweek, Siberian Times). Further research on Zelenyy Yar could shed light on not only the history of the Indigenous peoples of Siberia, but also western Asia and the Middle East.