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 better to see you with, my dear: US military finishes upgrades at Thule
The Pentagon has just completed a $40 million round of refurbishments to its Greenlandic outpost, Thule air base. Located in the northwestern part of the island, Thule, which is an important part of the US’s early-warning missile defense system, just got a major overhaul to both its radar and its computer software: making its remote eyes and ears that much more sensitive to items such as the “bigger gift package” Kim Jong Un recently said he’d send express (CBS, 45th Space Wing).
TAKE 1: Thule itself is a bit controversial in Greenland. First built during the Cold War, to many Greenlanders, it’s symbolic of American imperialism and Danish colonialism. To their frustration, there’s not much they can do about it because under although they can do a lot under home rule from Denmark, negotiating with foreign countries isn’t one of them (NN). In the meantime, it helps fuel the fires of independence.
Aimed at North Slope, US Secretary of Interior signs order to “jump-start Alaskan energy”
Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just one step closer: last week, Interior Secretary Brian Zinke signed an order to reassess and revise the current management plan in place for ANWR’s “1002 area” and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Newsweek, Kallanishenergy). Although the goal is to get more of the North Slope producing oil, this is but one step of many that would take place on a scale of years. And although the price of oil is still quite low, acting as a disincentive for oil companies to get involved in remote, expensive places to drill such as Alaska, some recent findings significant oil deposits have piqued their interest (APM, E & E News).
TAKE 2: With its close timing to President Trump’s bail out of the Paris Agreement, the order, which comes as part of a plan for US “energy independence” (ADN), is polarizing along familiar lines. But even with Alaska’s economy in rough shape (thanks to the aforementioned low oil prices), more Alaskans, knowledgeable about environmental impacts as well as the risk associated with tying one’s revenues to the volatile raw materials market, are coming out against more drilling (Daily News-Miner). This is but the latest chapter in a long and protracted fight.
No laughing matter: nitrous oxide emissions on the rise in Arctic
Laughing gas: chemically known as nitrous oxide, it’s also a little-known and little-studied greenhouse gas. But with the capability to trap heat at 300 times that of CO2, it’s no joke, and after a recent study, climate scientists might decide to start looking at it more closely. That’s because the study found that when deeper layers of permafrost previously untouched by warmth melt, they release a lot of the gas (although only where there isn’t vegetation, as plants will absorb the nitrogen) (Scientific American, Quartz).
TAKE 3: Right now, N2O emissions aren’t included in climate models because their influence has been relatively small: surface layers of permafrost don’t release all that much, and scientists don’t really know how much is released anyway because it’s not been a focus of their research. But as climate change keeps trundling onwards, that might have to change. As deeper layers of permafrost melt, the release of more nitrous oxide will probably feed into the positive feedback loop that is Arctic warming—making the changes taking place happen all the more quickly.
Northern Fleet gets capability boost amid budget cuts
Russia’s powerful Arctic military branch has gotten two new nuclear submarines, a diesel one, and a new ship; other ships are due to get overhauls, such as to enhance missile capabilities (BI). This is all part of the 2011-2020 State Armament Program, and is part of Russian pushback against NATO’s military presence in the Arctic (Sputnik). However, amid budget cuts, planned additions to the Northern Fleet have been put on hold (China Topix). But, in no sense does this mean that Russia’s going to put everything on ice: at the same time, the Ministry of Defense just announced plans to establish a new center for Arctic military research (Sputnik).
TAKE 4: Russia has been eyeing NATO’s increased military presence in the Arctic warily, and NATO certainly hasn’t shown signs of backing down. But Russia has a lot at stake: pouring investments into developing its Arctic energy and mineral resources, it’s sensitive to what could threaten its sense of national and economic security. As far as the proverbial eggs in a basket goes, Russia has many in the North: and with a sluggish economy, it’s not feeling like it can afford to lose any.
Making the Arctic great again one ton of garbage at a time
The Arctic might get portrayed often as a pristine wilderness, but in some places, that’s far from the truth. The Cold War left a legacy of more than just chilly political vibes: it also left a trail of garbage in its wake, such as in the remote Siberian archipelago Novaya Zemlya, where the Russian military is now working to rid the area’s old military bases of scrap metal—on the scale of thousands of tons (Russian Peacekeeper). And some of the Arctic’s garbage is hazardous: in Greenland, a decommissioned US base called Camp Century near Thule has buried nuclear waste: which, with the melting of ice in the area, is now causing concern over environmental contamination (NN).
TAKE 5: The Arctic Council has been working on the problem of environmental contaminants since its very beginning: this is a problem that can have strong impacts on people who live in the region, especially Indigenous peoples—and it’s often hard for them to get the people responsible to take action. Russia’s approach to environmental protection has been called “pragmatic” because although lawmakers do pay attention to environmental issues and put cleanup into action, they often only look at short-term solutions: and avoid anything that might conflict with economic goals (News Deeply). Meanwhile, in Greenland, the government just last year called out Denmark for failing to follow through on an agreement to ensure Indigenous Greenlanders’ right to a clean environment as it’s been slow to deal with the situation at Camp Century (NN).