The Arctic Institute’s Take Five is back. Our 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.
Researchers travel to far corners of the Arctic, find plastic
Marine biologist Tim Gordon and explorer Pen Hadow were surprised to find chunks of polystyrene foam and other garbage on their recent expedition to the North Pole with a team of scientists from the University of Exeter. The plastic chunks were found between 77° and 80° north, in an area previously covered by year-round sea ice. It’s believed that the plastic was either trapped in ice and released or carried by one of the many rivers that empty into the Arctic Ocean (The Guardian, University of Exeter). Plastic chunks like these are a concern because of the damage they can do to wildlife when consumed or when wildlife becomes entangled by them (The Atlantic).
TAKE 1: Another concern with this finding is the implication that microplastics are also likely to be present in this region, which the team will test for in water samples. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that originate from beauty products and the breakdown of larger plastics (NOAA). Scientists speculate that they may be consumed by filter feeders and magnified as they move through the food chain leading to negative outcomes, but this is currently poorly understood. Unfortunately, plastic isn’t even the only form of litter plaguing the Arctic. In fact, the Russian Defense Ministry has just finished a environmental cleanup where they collected over 3,900 tons of scrap metal left behind from their previous activity in the Arctic (Arctic.ru).
Environmentalists worry that this is not a drill: Concern mounts over oil exploration in Arctic refuge
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a controversial and partisan issue in the US for decades, but with the Trump administration now looking to the Arctic for oil and gas, the fight could be ramping up all over again. The Department of the Interior, which manages public lands including wildlife reserves, along with several republican senators, is working to authorize seismic testing and exploration in the region (Business Insider). Drilling can only go forward if relevant legislation is passed by Congress, but there is also a chance it will be included in the 2018 budget reconciliation package, so the future is uncertain (Alaska Public Media).
TAKE 2: Seismic testing has been prohibited since the 1980s in the 19 million acre refuge for its impact on local wildlife, including female polar bears who overwinter there with their cubs and over 200 species of migrating birds (Glacier Hub). These species are already inherently at risk because of their dependence on the changing Arctic landscape and adding seismic testing or drilling could push sensitive species past the point of no-return. Drilling could also threaten the way of life for local indigenous groups, like the Gwich’in people who hunt caribou that calve within the refuge (CBC). Still, there is strong support for drilling within Alaska where it would be of economic significance, but it is hard to justify the true cost of this economic activity.
Warming Arctic ironically the cause for colder, snowier winters in south
A controversial theory called “Warm Arctic, Cold Continents” has been supported with evidence from a new study to be published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The theory says that as the Arctic warms up faster than more southerly regions, it causes a displacement of cold air to regions where it usually doesn’t go like to Eurasia and North America. Melting sea ice may also be contributing to this pattern as the icy barrier holding in some of the Arctic Ocean’s heat is released into the atmosphere and further alters weather patterns (The Washington Post).
TAKE 3: The displacement of cold air is the result of a weakening in the stratospheric vortex usually found above the pole (Mashable). When weakened, the westerly winds that normally keep cold air over the North Pole do a poor job and allow the cold air to ‘leak’ out of the Arctic. This theory is also being used as an explanation for harsh winters seen across Europe and Asia in recent years. Future study is still required on how global warming can affect atmospheric circulation patterns like these so that we can get better at predicting and preparing for anomalous seasons such as these (Science Daily).
Months after catastrophic flooding, Churchill still suffering
One year after the closure of their port and five months after the flooding that destroyed the single rail line to the northern Manitoba town, Churchill residents are leaving. Although they were already used to a remote existence, the combination of job loss, increased cost of living, feelings of isolation, and a poor tourist season seems to have been too much for the community. Unfortunately, the effects of the railway closure are being felt across Northern Canada because Churchill served as a transportation and shipping hub for the North (SteinbachOnline). The town is also home to an important research station, The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, but now that the only way into the town is a costly flight, many research programs have been put on hold.
TAKE 4: The Town of Churchill tried to purchase the track themselves when it was first up for sale by the Federal Government, but OmniTRAX wound up purchasing both the port and the rail line and are now unwilling to maintain either. The Government of Canada committed to restoring rail service to Churchill in early September, but it is unknown when the work will be finished and if Churchill will be forced to survive the winter cut off from the rest of Canada (The Reminder, Arctic Deeply). Either way, the Churchill experience may bolster the argument for giving northern communities more control over their own connectivity in a changing Arctic.
China charts course through the Arctic
Last Saturday, a Chinese cargo ship arrived in Denmark after sailing through a new Arctic route, dubbed the ‘Ice Silk Road’. The route took the ship from the Yellow Sea northeast to the Arctic Ocean where they sailed north of Russia and around Scandinavia. The route is part of China’s Belt and Road initiative as one of three “blue economic passages”, which seek to connect China with Africa, Europe, and the South Pacific and facilitate trade (GBTimes). In addition to investing in making the Ice Silk Road a feasible route, China is also interested in scientific exploration of the Arctic and is investing in a second icebreaker for such pursuits (IBO).
TAKE 5: The Ice Silk Road is a tantalizing new shipping route for China because it is a 40% shorter trip than the conventional from route China to Europe through the Egyptian Suez Canal. China is also looking to invest in a port near Arkhangelsk in Northwestern Russia, making the Ice Silk Road more likely to be widely adopted (Splash 24/7). This route could also help open up natural resource extraction from the Arctic by China and other countries. Other countries are likely to follow suit as investment and opportunities ramp up in the “world’s last emerging market” (The Diplomat).