Planet Earth has completed another rotation around the sun, which has now set on the Arctic for the next three months. As polar winter sets in, I spoke with Eilis Quinn, a Radio Canada International (RCI) reporter specializing in the Arctic, about the events that took place up north over the past year. Our full conversation is available to listen to or read on RCI’s Eye on the Arctic page here. You can read on below for an elaboration on our discussion.
Noteworthy northern events in 2018
Two major developments in the Arctic this year were the release of China’s Arctic Policy and the first documented melting of the oldest, thickest part of Arctic sea ice.
Released in January 2018, China’s Arctic Policy rightly attracted a lot of media and scholarly attention. The white paper discusses the Chinese government’s interest in Arctic science, protecting the environment, making use of northern natural resources, participating in global governance, and promoting peace in the Arctic. The policy more or less announces to the world that up north, China is here to stay – a stance that has provoked some less-than-favorable reactions from Western capitals.
For instance, in a related top story of the year, Greenland’s government decided to fund two airports on its territory with Danish government money rather than consider accepting Chinese loans. Nuuk supposedly made this decision under to pressure from Copenhagen and the U.S., which indicates that there are still a good deal of constraints on the Greenlandic government’s ability to independently decide who funds its infrastructure. Jacob Isbosethsen, Greenland’s first representative to Iceland and a former foreign policy minister, raised this point diplomatically – yet clearly with some displeasure – at the Arctic Circle Forum in South Korea last month. He affirmed, “We are inviting countries from Asia and other places to be a part of this development because international cooperation is a key part of this.”
The second top story involves the melting of the oldest, thickest Arctic sea ice. This ostensibly permanent park of the ice pack, which sits north of Greenland and Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, is sometimes referred to as the “Last Ice Area.” The World Wildlife Fund claims that as the rest of the ice cap melts away, this area “will be essential as an enduring home for ice-dependent life” – species like ice algae, ring seals, and polar bears.
The melting of this portion of the ice cap has never before been witnessed to the extent that happened this year. In past years, cracks would form in the sea ice, but they’d be only about 20 kilometers wide. In 2018, they were 100 kilometers wide, leading open water to wash upon the shores of northern Greenland. This unforeseen alteration to the ice pack is forcing scientists to reconsider how fast and exactly where Arctic sea ice is melting. Now that one of the most frozen solid parts of the ice pack has started to defrost, it’s unclear exactly how long the last ice area will really last.
Open water (dark areas) persists in the #Arctic sea ice along the coast of #Greenland and #Ellesmere Island in the latest #Sentinel1 mosaic (yellow arrows = current MyOcean ice drift forecast) pic.twitter.com/94OOFDXZeL
— Mark Drinkwater (@kryosat) August 24, 2018
In a similarly sobering climatic development, the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting at rates that haven’t been seen in hundreds of years. Luke Trusel, a geologist at Rowan University, worryingly described the Greenland Ice Sheet as going into “overdrive.” In a paper he published with other scientists in Nature last December, this rapid melting is attributed to warming in the Arctic that began with the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. So yes, the smokestacks of London in the 1800s, Detroit in the 1900s, and Beijing in the 2000s are all to blame for Greenland’s disappearing ice.
Overlooked and underreported stories
One story that attracted a good amount of attention in the Arctic but very little south of it was the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ granting of the title of “Best Cookbook of the Year” to a fantastic collection of Northern and Indigenous recipes called Eallu: Food, Knowledge and How We Have Thrived on the Margins. The word “eallu” which means “herd of reindeer” and is also related to the word for “life” in the main Sami dialect. It’s exciting that a cookbook based on little-known cuisines from places most of the world imagines as devoid of life could win such a prestigious award. Even if you might not be able to race out to your local grocery store to pick up the ingredients, it’s an absolute delight to read such sentences as:
“1. An’ukak’ (chapl.) – fireweed (Chamaenerion latifolium)
The leaves and stems of fireweed are used as seasoning for sour caviar, fresh whale or walrus fat and boiled meat, as well as being added to meat broth. In the past fireweed was also used as a tea brew, instead of tea leaves.”
Eallu’s victory also testifies to the creativity and resourcefulness of the under-appreciated workhorses of the Arctic Council: its working groups. While the ministerial commands headlines every two years, it’s the working groups that really put in year-round efforts to carry out important projects up north, from this cookbook to other endeavors like combatting microplastic pollution in the Arctic Ocean.
(It’s a little late for this now, but the cookbook would also make an excellent Christmas present! NB: The book can be downloaded (legally) here, but I can’t seem to figure out how to order an actual hard copy.)
Another big story that was overlooked involves Baffinland’s Mary River iron ore mine, which has been shipping out black powdery pellets since 2015 from remote Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. The mine shipped a record-breaking amount of iron ore this year. The five million tons sent to customers in Europe and Asia represented the largest shipping program ever undertaken in the Canadian High Arctic.
In addition, this year for the first time, two ships delivered Baffinland iron ore to Asia rather than just Europe, which was the sole destination in past years. The delivery of iron ore to Taiwan and Japan signals the integration of one of the world’s most northern mines into global commodity chains.
Interestingly, the ships reached Asia by crossing Baffin Bay in between Canada and Greenland before going on to the Atlantic Ocean and the Northern Sea Route. The easterly routing taken points towards the irrelevance of the Northwest Passage for Arctic shipping at the current point in time. In fact, this year, only two ships transited the entire Northwest Passage, marking a stark contrast with previous years in which Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity, for instance, organized luxury cruises through the legendary route. As the Northern Sea Route continues to develop, welcoming more ships and the expansion of gas development on the Yamal Peninsula, where a second LNG train began shipments this year at Yamal LNG and preparations for Arctic LNG 2 are underway, the Northwest Passage continues to fall behind.
A shift to more comprehensive, uplifting Arctic news coverage
Reflecting both the diversity of events taking place in the Arctic and growing awareness of this complexity within the media, Arctic news coverage is gradually becoming more comprehensive, covering a greater variety of topics than in years past. Stories are going beyond climate change and oil and gas development, with some insightful pieces on topics such as life in Indigenous communities. Last November, National Geographic published some beautiful photo journalism on the diversity of Alaska Native communities. There were shots of people hanging out in the sauna, chopping whale blubber (muktuk), and just being themselves. Stories like these really help to put a human face on the Arctic – and one that importantly shows a happy side to life up north rather than just recounting more depressing tales of climate change adaptation and multi-generational trauma, even though these stories need to be told, too.
The media also seems to be paying greater attention to the fact that processes beyond climate change are affecting the Arctic, namely globalization and the rise of China. There’s is a growing acknowledgement of the different actors involved in the region’s development. This was made especially apparent at the beginning of the year, when China released its Arctic Policy.
Despite this increase in coverage of the role of Asia in the Arctic, there was an unwarranted amount of Sinophobia and paranoia about what China’s “real” intentions are. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, published a story in January 2018 with the clickbaity headline, “A New Cold War? China declares itself a “Near-Arctic State.” To compare, Western news outlets didn’t publish stories with such ominous titles when the United Kingdom asserted in 2013 in its Arctic policy that it was the “Arctic’s nearest neighbor.”
These sensationalist fears of China in the Arctic repeat tropes from ten years ago that a new Cold War was brewing up north after a Russian flag was planted on the seabed below the North Pole. Only now, Russia isn’t the bogeyman: China is. Heather Exnor-Pirot brilliantly pointed out the media’s continued tendency to sensationalize Arctic geopolitics in a sarcastic op-ed for Arctic Today a few weeks ago.
What can we expect in the Arctic in 2019?
Predicting the future is always a messy business, but these three developments are likely to play out in one way or another.
First, the Trump Administration has made clear that it wants to begin leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this year. Yet this is now in jeopardy for two reasons. First, a lot is riding on whether the Department of the Interior can carry out seismic surveys this month or next. A leaked memo obtained by Mother Jones suggests that these tests could unduly harm polar bears, so it’s unclear if they will even take place. Without them, the leasing can’t go forward. Second, a new wrench in the works is the government shutdown. With Washington, D.C. out to a perpetual lunch, permits can’t be issued for the seismic tests, Anchorage Daily News reports.
Second, China will put its second icebreaker, Xuelong 2, into service. The ship was unveiled in September 2018. Unlike the country’s first icebreaker, Xuelong, which is a repurposed Ukrainian cargo ship, Xuelong 2 has actually been built in a Shanghai shipyard using low-temperature steel specially designed by a joint laboratory involving the China Polar Research Institute, Shanghai Maritime University, and Baosteel, the world’s fourth largest steel manufacturer. China has come a remarkably long way in the past 25 years, as only a few countries share its ability to produce ice-class steel, which requires advanced welding techniques. Yang Yansheng, a professor at Shanghai Maritime University, pronounced that the invention of steel that can withstand extremely low temperatures “breaks the bottleneck that has restricted China’s deep sea and polar technology and energy development for many years, and will help China’s polar energy development and polar ship construction and upgrading.”
Third, the Arctic Circle Ministerial will take place in Rovaniemi, Finland in May, at which point Iceland will take over the chairmanship. It will be interesting to see Iceland shift the focus towards the oceans and the coastal Arctic. Whereas Finland tends to look more towards the inland Arctic – with topics like forests, reindeer, and railways typical of conversations about the region there – Iceland will put more emphasize on the marine environment, fishing, and green energy, as indicated by their preliminary program presented at a meeting in Rovaniemi in October.
So with 2018 done and dusted, that concludes another wrap-up of a year in the Arctic.