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.
Russia lashes out against presence of United States marines in Norway
The Norwegian government recently decided to extend the duration of the rotational U.S Marine Corps stationed in mid-Norway. The 330 soldiers will continue to rotate throughout 2018 (IBO). On June 24th, the Russian Embassy reacted strongly with a commentary on its Facebook-page. The 8-paragraph post calls it a “deployment of foreign military bases in times of peace,” suggesting that Norway is no longer a fully predictable partner, which can potentially escalate tensions in the Northern regions. The political opposition in Norway has also voiced some critical concerns over the deployment (Reuters). Even though individual soldiers will be rotated, the presence itself is permanent, writes the Embassy (IBO).
TAKE 1: The timing for such Cold War jitters is perfect, as elections are coming up in Norway this fall. The deployment of American troops on Norwegian soil is a cause of concern for many actors in Northern Norway, known for lobbying in favor of a closer dialogue with Russia. We should nonetheless take notice of what appears to be more persistent threats aimed at the heart of the relationship: the Arctic as a place immune to geopolitical tensions. More frequent mentions of political consequences for the Northern regions will be important to follow in the months to come – and whether or not real consequences will follow. However, such heated commentaries must be taken with a grain of salt. American soldiers training on Norwegian soil is, in all likelihood, far from the top of the list of concerns in the Kremlin.
A thousand lakes? Arctic communities are running out of water
Researchers at York University in Toronto have found that many Arctic communities are facing water shortages or threats of shortages to come (rcinet). The capital of Nunavut Territory in Canada, Iqaluit, is already face to face with the problem.The drinking water from the nearby lake is at its capacity, due to increasing populations as well as climate change. With ice and snow melting earlier, the demand for water increases towards the summer. Even though we might see plenty of lakes and rivers, the actual availability of water in these communities is decreasing at drastic rates.
TAKE 2: Perhaps this story has not yet reached the public, or perhaps it is closing its eyes on another upsetting environmental storyline. The gravity of water scarcity in growing communities in the Canadian Arctic can hardly be understated. This research adds up into the already growing pile of environmental issues that must be resolved now, not tomorrow. In many ways this is even more worrisome due to the population growth these communities are experiencing – which they also need. And what about fires? A recent study found that lightning storms are driving up forest fires in Alaska and Northern Canada (eenews), creeping farther and farther north. Communities might be left dry without drinking water in just a few years, yet the infrastructure needed to tackle such a vast challenge is not in place.
Historical shipment of nuclear waste has left Andreeva bay. But should we be celebrating?
Since the 1960s, Andreeva Bay in the Russian Arctic has been a dumping ground for 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies. The submarine maintenance yard is one of the biggest in the world, located between the city of Murmansk and the Norwegian border (Bellona). This week, the first shipment of nuclear waste left for the storage site in Mayak, halfway across the country. This clean-up process is the culmination of more than 25 years of work and cooperation with Russia from Norway, UK, France, Germany and Italy, among others. Prominent stakeholders waved goodbye to the first shipment this week, yet what actually happens to the spent fuel in the future remains somewhat unclear (IBO). According to environmental NGO Bellona, the most difficult work now lies ahead (IBO).
TAKE 3: One could say that Russia is finally facing up to its dark, nuclear legacy, albeit with a significant long-term effort from Norway. This shipment has been much anticipated, yet it is too early to celebrate. Sure, it is another milestone for the growing list of achievements between Norway and Russia. More importantly, this milestone came at a time when it was desperately needed, politically. Yet there is no reason to be overly satisfied. Norwegian journalists were not even allowed to take any photos of the event, and publicity has been low (IBO). More importantly, the final destination site in Mayak is one of the most radioactively contaminated spots in the world, whilst little information exists as to what will now actually happen with the nuclear waste (Bellona).
Oil and gas blocks handed out like candy above the Arctic circle
On Wednesday, the Norwegian oil ministry proposed a record 102 blocks, of which 93 are located in the Barents Sea (Reuters). In his reasoning, Energy Minister Terje Soviknes cited long-term activity, value creation and profitable employment in the petroleum industry across the country (TheLocal). These blocks are offered all across the Barents Sea, but mostly in the fragile far north. This year has already been a record year for oil companies in the Arctic waters. Although expensive to exploit, the Barents Sea contains about two-thirds of the nation’s remaining resources. The licenses will be awarded to oil companies in the first half of 2018 (IBO).
TAKE 4: The time has come, and the message is crystal clear. Norway has never before welcomed the oil industry into its Arctic waters like this. In an arrogant manner, this proposal brushes off any concerns about the dangers of drilling into this fragile environment. Let us not forget that Greenpeace actually sued the Norwegian state for its oil activities. The court date is set to November (IBO). Seen in this light, this massive bid is a blow in the face for all environmentalists. But does anyone care? The national unemployment rate is low, the current government in the wind and the welfare state continues to provide for its citizens. Like it has in the past, Norway will continue to prosper from its ironic facade : A green, progressive and responsible nation on the outside, with a black, crude and sticky identity on the inside.
China confirms its vision of an Arctic economic passage
This week, China has formally incorporated the Arctic into its future plans for maritime cooperation. (Rcinet) The plans for a “blue economic passage” will go along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, leading into Europe. The policy papers for blue economic passages are not fully detailed when it comes to concrete plans for the Arctic. However, it does state that China wants to work with conducting scientific surveys of navigational routes, monitoring stations, research on climate change and improve marine transportation conditions. It further encourages Chinese companies to take part in exploring new Arctic resources and participate in events organized by international organizations focusing on the Arctic (Xinhuanet).
TAKE 5: Nothing surprising here, as China is known to have been somewhat clandestine, diplomatic and inconsistent about their Arctic plans – all at the same time. The country has not yet released an official Arctic policy (Rcinet), yet we are now seeing the outline. Beijing is still carefully framing its investment plans, highlighting cooperation and research as the essence of its policy. Still quite vague, right? This approach has nonetheless charmed the Russian government (Rcinet). Perhaps not so much for its fine wording, but because China has money to make investments, which Russia does not have. Yet, the question of what China really wants remains unanswered. If it wants a real seat at the table, then a specific and credible strategy is still missing.