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.
Arctic sea ice breaking more records
The Arctic’s record-breaking streak continues. This month has seen the lowest winter maximum of the extent of Arctic sea ice in the entire 38-year satellite record, according to researchers at NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (The Guardian). Already on the heels of a record-warm 2016, the latest developments are in part the result of an already-unseasonably warm winter combined with three major heatwaves throughout the season (The Times). While Antarctic ice has also taken a record-breaking hit this past summer, scientists see 2017 as maybe already having entered “truly uncharted territory” (The Guardian).
TAKE 1: It bears repeating: what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Already world climate systems are feeling the impact of less polar ice with extreme weather (The Guardian, Irish Times). But more worryingly, some scientists think Arctic ice may have passed a tipping point, where ice loss now will feed back into even more ice loss in the future (TBO).
“Spectre” of US challenge to Canadian Arctic sovereignty claims haunting the horizon (again)
A December report to the US Congress from the Department of Defense would appear to be encouraging of challenging Canada’s claim to disputed parcels of northern waters, including the Northwest Passage and part of the Beaufort Sea. Without naming names (but also kind of naming names since the US-Canada dispute on the Northwest Passage is a long and sore one), the Report to Congress on a Strategy to Protect United States National Security Interests in the Arctic Region makes mention of challenging other countries’ “excessive maritime claims” in the region by invoking freedom of navigation (National Post). Currently, the two countries agree to disagree. Still, the US obliges Canada by having its ships ask for permission to travel through the disputed areas prior to actually doing so.
TAKE 2: But does this ruffle Canadian feathers for good cause? Given the region’s stable history, no one really wants to upset the balance for something so minor in the grand scheme of things. It might end up not amounting to much. Still, with a newly revised Pentagon Arctic strategy released over the winter, the US might just be the dormant Arctic nation everyone has been waiting for.
Canada talks military satellite cooperation with Denmark, Norway, & US
Although the idea has been swirling around since at least 2008, the Arctic NATO states (minus Iceland) are talking about going in on communications satellites for Canada’s Far North, which is vast, sparsely populated, and notoriously difficult to keep an eye on (Space News, Toronto Star). The satellite system, which would serve mostly military purposes but would also be used for communication between government offices in the region, is estimated by the Canadian Department of National Defence to cost at least $1.5 billion. The hope is that the other three states will chip in so that the satellites could be launched in 2024 (National Post).
TAKE 3: Timing is everything. While the Canadian Arctic is long overdue for some communications infrastructure upgrades, Russia’s current Arctic activity is no doubt an important source of motivation.
Moscow pondering tighter rules on oil polluters along Siberian coast
While the EU parliament was recently busy debating whether they would ban oil and gas drilling in the Arctic to protect the environment (they ultimately decided to restrict drilling only in “icy waters” in part thanks to some serious lobbying efforts from Norway), Russia is considering new environmental legislation of its own (EOTA, TBO). Sergey Ivanov, the Russian special representative on environment, has called for stricter regulations against polluters along the coast, finding it “unreasonable” that coastal areas currently have less protection than the open ocean (TBO). At the same time, the Ministry of Natural Resources has raised their own red flag about oil companies being unprepared for a spill (TBO).
TAKE 4: Bans on oil drilling are definitely unlikely in Russia’s immediate future. As a matter of fact, thanks to the combined effects of melting ice and increasing resource exports, Moscow is preparing for an increase in shipping traffic through the Northern Sea Route, as evidenced by moves like these.
French would-be North Pole explorer loses case against Governor of Svalbard
Back in October, Gilles Elkaim, an adventurer from France on his way to the North Pole in a specially designed sailboat, got sidelined from his journey by bad weather and ended up dropping anchor in a remote part of the Svalbard archipelago where he was found by authorities and slapped with a fine (TBO). While he argued that under the Svalbard Treaty they had no right to restrict his free movement, the Governor’s position was that they were acting in accordance with their obligation to environmental protection. Well, the case has been resolved and Elkaim is now 40,000 NOK ($4,715) poorer (TBO, The Local).
TAKE 5: Not a great day for Elkaim, but the decision adds heft to future considerations of environmental protection in the remote archipelago. In a region that’s subject to increasing pressures from climate change and tourism, such a small case can be a big deal precedent.