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.
Just as the Arctic is threatened by climate change, so is the safety of its waterways
In the past week we have seen warm temperatures wreak havoc on Canada’s Hudson Bay. Warm temperatures prevented the formation of ice arches that stop thick ‘multiyear ice’ from being pushed out of Arctic straits and into open water. This made it impossible for fishing boats, ferries, and fuel tankers to operate safely and a Canadian icebreaker full of scientists was forced to cancel its study (Arctic Deeply). Similar conditions were present off the eastern coast of Newfoundland with ‘boulder-like pieces of ice’ causing a crew of fishermen to need an airlift rescue (NO).
TAKE 1: Although many of the headlines found elsewhere for this story highlight the irony of a climate change study thwarted by climate change and the money wasted on sending those scientists to the Arctic and back (The Guardian), there is more to this story. For local communities that depend on ice-free waterways for fishing and delivery of fuel and other supplies, conditions like these are a threat to survival. As plans for resource exploitation, tourism, and development of the Arctic gear up due to melting sea ice, it is important to remember that changing conditions may bring just as many dangers as opportunities.
Canada turns to Arctic in new defense policy
The Government of Canada has developed its most ambitious defense policy yet, which will increase yearly spending more than 50% over the next decade. The spending will be focused on improving the capabilities for maritime Arctic defense, surveillance, and search and rescue as well as the expansion of the Royal Canadian Navy’s fleet (Maritime Executive). Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland mentioned the importance of updating Canada’s military capabilities to deal with threats to the security of the Canadian Arctic including climate change and Russian aggression (Newsweek).
TAKE 2: This expansion is coming at a strategic time when military support from the USA is seen as less dependable to NATO-allies than ever before (Radio Canada International) and Russia is ramping up Arctic development (CBC). Despite political uncertainty, the need for international cooperation in the Arctic has never been stronger as climate change and development alter the landscape, making human activities more dangerous.
Rising water levels: no longer a threat of the future
Since they voted to relocate their small Alaskan village in 1996 to save it from rising water levels and melting permafrost, the people of Newtok have been preparing for the move. The town is planning to relocate to an area about 16 km (10 miles) away where they should be protected from the receding coastline, but the future is uncertain because the recently proposed federal budget does not include funding for the move (Color Lines). Similar issues with flooding are currently causing problems in Churchill, MB where recent damage due to flooding has cut off all access to the town except for costly flights (CBC).
TAKE 3: Newtok is set to be one of the first of many global communities whose 350 residents will have to relocate as rising sea level causes coastal erosion (Quartz). The inactivity of the federal government since the decision to relocate does not bode well for the community, whose shoreline decreases by up to 70 m per year, or for larger US communities that may need the same aid in the future.
Global demand for coal decreases two years in a row
2016 marked the second year of decline, and the biggest decline ever, in global coal use (Bloomberg). The largest drop was seen in the UK, where coal use has returned to levels seen only in the time of the pre-industrial revolution, but significant drops have also been seen in China and other high population countries (The Guardian). Even in the USA, where President Trump campaigned on bringing back coal jobs, people employed in the solar industry now outnumber those in coal by more than double (Public Radio International). The interest in renewable energies and other coal-alternatives since the signing of the Paris Accord is expected to continue in the coming years, especially as they become cheaper than coal in large countries like India (Bloomberg).
TAKE 4: Although one of the biggest benefits to the Arctic of reducing coal mining would come from the closure of Arctic coal mines to stop accelerated melting due to the spread of black coal dust on white snow, the opening of a Russian coal mine on Svalbard in 2015 does not indicate that this will happen anytime soon. However, the global decrease in burning coal should not be taken for granted as it releases toxins like mercury that accumulate in the Arctic in addition to contributing to climate change.
Underwater Methane Domes Ready to Blow
Researchers from the the UiT The Arctic University of Norway say that several domes of frozen methane, called gas hydrate pingos, on the floor of the Arctic Ocean could be at risk of exploding. These pingos are continually leaking methane into the ocean, but are held relatively stable by the cold temperatures 390 m below the surface. Researchers are worried that the water temperature increases too much, the domes will explode, producing a large crater on the seafloor and releasing methane into the Arctic Ocean (Science Alert).
TAKE 5: Which of the pingos will explode and when remains to be seen, but researchers say that it is unlikely that they will all blow at once. Several shallower pingos exploded nearby around 12,000 years ago due to warming temperatures. If these intact pingos do explode, the event will offer scientists a ‘replay’ of the past. A similar terrestrial phenomenon has been observed in Siberia, where around 7,000 gas bubbles in the melting permafrost are destabilizing and threatening to burst (ScienceAlert).