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 Council ministers gather in Fairbanks to pass torch to Finland
The two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council by the US has come to a close as the position now passes to Finland for another two years. May 11th saw the official hand-off by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Finland Minister of Foreign Affairs Timo Soini (ADN). In addition to the handover, the gathering also featured meetings between all six of the Arctic Council’s working groups who discussed the projects they had undertaken over the past two years ranging from a study of traditional food cultures to a report on the impacts of climate change throughout the region that was released publicly in advance of the meeting (TAJ)*.
TAKE 1: One question hanging in the air, though, is around how the new Trump administration will approach climate change and how this will affect what the Arctic Council is able to do. While Finland has pledged to work towards upholding the Paris Agreement commitments, it’s not certain yet as to where exactly the US will stand regarding it, although it has been toying with the idea of pulling out of it and Trump has elsewhere stated that he believes climate change is a “hoax” (TAJ, ADN, LA Times)*. Because the Arctic Council only makes decisions based on unanimous consensus, such an outlier on such an important issue could be troublesome indeed to cooperation (TAI).
Norway approves merger of northernmost two counties… to Finnmark’s dismay
The verdict is in: the Norwegian parliament has decided to merge Troms and Finnmark as part of a larger plan to whittle the country’s 19 administrative territories down to 11 (HNN). The right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Erna Solberg says that the reforms will help Norway to prepare for the future, but plenty of voices, such as those of the other parliamentary parties and Finnmark itself, are in staunch opposition (RCI). Should Norway go through with the merger plan (the Center, Labour, and Socialist Left parties all have said they would repeal it if they win in the upcoming September election), it is set to take effect in January 2020 (IBO).
TAKE 2: Why isn’t Finnmark happy? The sparsely populated county that borders Russia has its reasons. A lot of this has to do with fears over seeing jobs and local control leave (as a result of the merger, the administrative center is set to move to Tromsø), but another set of concerns involves foreign relations, as an administrative shift could impact day-to-day relations with its neighbor to the east (RCI). And there are possible implications for Norway’s High North Strategy, too, with some questioning whether this might also change with the merger (HNN).
Bering Sea Elders speak out against Trump executive order
Drawing the fierce criticism of Native Alaskans, with the recently-announced executive order to lift the previous administration’s ban on Arctic oil drilling, President Trump also revoked a plan that would have seen the creation of a tribal council focused on sustainability and climate resilience. The Bering Sea Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council would have involved representatives from tribes in the region in advising the federal government on the stewardship of over 100,000 sq. miles of the Barents Sea (TAS). The Trump administration has said that this will aid in regulatory “streamlining” (APM).
TAKE 3: Representing 40 tribes from the west coast of Alaska, the Bering Sea Elders Group said in a written statement that “now there is no seat at the table for Alaskans or our local knowledge” (TAS). Poised on the front lines of climate change and seeing firsthand its effects like beach erosion spurred by melting permafrost, people living in the region depend on the waters of the Barents Sea for subsistence and want to make sure future generations can, too. While this means that Native Alaskans will have a harder time making their voices heard when it comes to governing the resources they depend on, they will be sure to hold their federal representatives to account.
US military undertaking training exercise in Alaska
Since last week, over 6,000 US military personnel have been engaged in Northern Edge, a training exercise happening in the seas and skies of central Alaska. The exercise, which has been taking place since 1993 and runs this year from May 1-11, trains personnel by way of simulating a war scenario (AJOC). Coincidentally, two days into it, Russian aircraft—two bombers and two fighter jets—were intercepted in international airspace near Alaska’s North Slope on a routine training mission (Military.com, CNN).
TAKE 4: The exercise takes place as some in the US train an ever-wary eye on Russia’s increasing military strength in the Arctic…and the fact that the US doesn’t seem to measure up. While the Russian military recently showed off some new Arctic equipment during the annual Victory Day celebrations, US Coast Guard commandant Paul Zukunft also recently made a statement urging the US to step up its Arctic procurement, especially icebreakers (IBO, Norwich Bulletin).
Proposal to re-freeze Arctic ice getting trial run in Switzerland
Remember that proposal some scientists recently came up with to grow more Arctic ice with millions of water pumps? The basic idea is going to get a test drive in Switzerland this summer, albeit on a much smaller scale. At the Diavolezzafirn glacier, researchers will unleash snow machines to see if they can keep a small section of the glacier from melting over the summer by piling a layer of artificial snow on top of it (New Scientist, Science Alert). If they’re successful, they have their eyes on a larger prize: the Morteratsch glacier, which has been receding at the rapid rate of 30-40 meters (98-131 feet) per year because of climate change (Futurism).
TAKE 5: Keep in mind, though, that a large swathe of scientists are skeptical about geoengineering as a way to fix our ecological woes for primarily the reason that it carries a high risk of unintended consequences—which themselves could be too big to fix because nobody knows what their impacts would be. For example, the plan to spray sea water over the top of the Arctic ice cap would probably change the nature of the ice because of how salt behaves: and it’s hard to say what effects this might have (Ars Technica). But as the planet heats up, more people might be warming to a plan such as this, because as far-out as it is, it’s argued that it could buy us precious time while we get to work on what will curb the problem: reducing our emissions.
* The Arctic Journal (TAJ) went offline in June 2017.