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.
Climate change headlines at NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Svalbard
From May 8-10 last week, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a collection of lawmakers from NATO countries, convened in Longyearbyen. While the meeting irked Moscow because it saw the choice of location as a bit of a power play (the Svalbard Treaty prohibits war-related activities, but at the same time, the Assembly is independent from NATO itself and involved no military personnel), its official purpose was to discuss the “unprecedented challenges, but also opportunities” that climate change means for the Arctic (TAJ)*.
TAKE 1: And while going to Svalbard is akin to getting front-row seats to seeing climate change in action, while some NATO members expressed their concern over Russia increasing its military activity in the Arctic, on the whole, the spotlight of the meeting was on how climate change, especially what’s happening in the Arctic, will impact countries near NATO members (TAJ, HNN)*. The meeting’s host and Norway’s climate minister Vidar Helgesen put it this way: it’s a “security risk multiplier globally” (TAJ)*. Looking at security, NATO’s approach when it comes to climate change is practical, but most importantly, it acknowledges its reality.
Arctic Council ministerial meeting closes with agreement on science cooperation
One of the biggest Arctic events of the year, the Arctic Council ministerial meeting that saw the 2-year chairmanship pass from the US to Finland also closed with the passing of an agreement to facilitate cooperation for Arctic science (ADN). The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, which was signed by all eight member states and is only the third binding agreement to be passed in the 20 years that the Arctic Council has been in existence, is intended to make it easier to share data and collaborate (ADN).
TAKE 2: This important development couldn’t come at a better time. However, it won’t be in force until states sign a follow-up treaty—which could take a while. There’s also the complicated fact that the US doesn’t yet have an official policy on climate change. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US isn’t going to “rush to make a decision” on the Paris Agreement, he’s also reportedly been urging the administration to stay party to it (News OK, NYT). But with so much up in the air and with the validity of some scientific facts being a political issue for some, the biggest risk could turn out to be status quo, only with nicer language.
Arctic broadband: What’s in a revolution?
Also last week in Fairbanks, the Arctic Broadband Forum brought together leaders, industry professionals, and academics from throughout the region to discuss the telecommunications technology poised to have a revolutionary impact: broadband internet. Big plans are currently underway, in fact: Alaska-based telecom company Quintillion is set to bring far-flung communities like Nome and Utqiaġvik onto the North American network in December as part of a larger three-stage project that could eventually see Europe linked to Asia via the Arctic (TAS, Arctic Deeply).
TAKE 3: These are exciting times, to be sure, as speedier, cheaper internet will have benefits for things like business, healthcare, and education. But cultural impacts are very much on the minds of people, too, with especially some Elders voicing concerns that it could mean younger people end up getting disconnected from their Indigenous roots (APM). It’s a complicated issue because while the risks are real, at the same time, as they also note, there’s also an unprecedented opportunity to keep people connected to each other and creatively using new media as a platform for culture.
Permafrost: A carbon sink no more. Actually, the opposite
A worrisome report published last week says that permafrost has switched from being a carbon sink to a carbon emitter. The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at Alaskan permafrost, found that compared to the mid-‘70s, carbon emissions are 73% higher because warmer temperatures mean more activity from carbon-emitting microbes in the soil (Inside Climate News, ADN). So, being a net emitter because it’s getting warmer means that permafrost is part of a positive feedback loop, where those changes end up driving more of the same.
TAKE 4: But from a different part the Arctic, there’s good news that also happens to involve tiny critters. Another study conducted off the coast of western Svalbard discovered that phytoplankton there are sucking dissolved CO2 out of the water—and that intriguingly, this ability might be getting enhanced thanks to local seafloor methane seeps—on a scale of 2,000 times more CO2 than methane emitted (Silicon Republic, Ars Technica). As usual, science shows us that our ecosystem is complex in often surprising ways, which is important so that we can make the most informed decisions we can.
Controversial Alaska mine gets permit green light from EPA
Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has pulled a 180 on a proposed mine in southwestern Alaska, allowing for Canadian mining company Pebble Limited Partnership to now apply for permits. The proposed site of Pebble Mine consists of a large deposit of copper, gold, and molybdenum, but what makes it so controversial is that it’s also at the headwaters of a fishery annually worth hundreds of millions of dollars that includes the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon (LA Times). The mining company had sued the EPA in 2014 after it had determined then that developing the mine would be too great an environmental risk (LA Times, Petroleum News).
TAKE 5: While the Trump administration’s stated objective of “making America great again” entails developing natural resources, the case of Pebble Mine suggests that some resources seem more important than others, with the balance tipping towards non-renewables with powerful interests at the helm. And while the project could earn $300 billion, the risk to the state’s valuable fishery isn’t understated: mines produce toxic by-products known as tailings, which, because once they’re produced they have to be stored indefinitely, all too often end up leaking into the environment. But the recent EPA decision also hardly means that the mine is a sure bet because of decade-long opposition from Alaska Natives, the fishing industry, local businesses, and environmentalists alike (WP).
* The Arctic Journal (TAJ) went offline in June 2017.