A few days ago in December, I was asked by Eye on the Arctic’s Eilis Quinn to sum up Arctic news this year in just one word. The one I chose? “Record-breaking.” This year at the top of the world, sea ice retreated in November, a time of year when it should be thickening and expanding. The North Pole experienced one of its warmest Christmases on record. The pioneering voyage of the first luxury cruise ship through the Northwest Passage exemplified the explosive growth of the Arctic tourism industry. The Barents Sea’s first oil field, Goliat, and the northernmost oil field in the world at that, went into production in March. At the same time, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments put a moratorium on to offshore oil exploration in North America.
Eilis and I discussed several other issues in the Arctic for the radio program, which will be broadcast in a few days. Eye on the Arctic has already begun featuring other contributors’ interviews, such as with Heather Exner-Pirot, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan.
A preview of my reflections for 2016 is below. I’ll update this post with a link to a recording of the interview once it’s online.
Q: What were the three most important Arctic stories of 2016?
1. Climate: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card stated that 2016 experienced a stronger warming signal in the Arctic than any other year on record. This has been visible in record low sea ice minimum extents in both summer and winter and the freakish retreat of sea ice in November. Fall freeze-up of ice was delayed, too, and on December 25, the North Pole was approximately 50°F warmer than average. These environmental changes are both record-breaking and signs of larger warming trends up north that affect the rest of the world.
2. Offshore Oil: U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau basically jointly said no to Arctic offshore exploration in North America. In a calculated show of bilateral political force, they released a U.S.-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement. The White House has designated most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off-limits to offshore leasing, while Canada is doing the same in the Canadian Arctic, though with a review every five years. Needless to say, folks in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut – the three state and territorial governments with Arctic Ocean shorelines in North America – aren’t very happy about the decision that’s been instituted from above. Peter Taptuna, Nunavut’s Premier, criticized, “We do want to be getting to a state where we can make our own determination of our priorities, and the way to do that is gain meaningful revenue from resource development…And at the same time, when one potential source of revenue is taken off the table, it puts us back at practically square one where Ottawa will make the decisions for us”
3. The voyage of Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage. This historic voyage marks a new era for Arctic tourism and Arctic cruising that’s opening up thanks in part to climate change. Importantly, cruising doesn’t require a huge amount of infrastructure unlike oil and gas to get started – though whether the industry is prepared for contingencies is debatable given the dearth of search and rescue capabilities up north. In any case, recognition of tourism as the Arctic economic opportunity of the moment is beginning to appear at higher levels, too. At the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland earlier this year, a lot of the movers and shakers in the Arctic world were talking about ecotourism as the future of Arctic economic development, whereas it was oil and gas until the bottom fell out of that market a few years ago.
Q: What was the one Arctic story or event of 2016 that you didn’t see coming?
The closure of the Port of Churchill by its private operator, Omnitrax, and the bankruptcy of Northern Transportation Company Limited, a company that has supplied communities in northwest Canada via barge for 80 years. Although long-distance, trans-Arctic shipping is drawing lots of attention, intra-Arctic transportation has not proven especially economically feasible since government subsidies dried up in the years following the end of the Cold War and the push to maintain state presence in the North at all costs.
Q: What was the most overlooked northern story or issue of the year?
Bluntly, the Russian Arctic continues to be overlooked year after year. We hear about snowballs appearing on a beach in Siberia or the killing of thousands of reindeer to prevent the spread of anthrax. The latter is obviously an important issue, but the less click-baity stories still often go unreported. For instance, I’ve read a few articles in the Russian media about a hunger strike by unpaid workers on the Yamal Peninsula, which is the heart of Russia’s Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. I can’t find anything about this story, however, in the English press, even though I think it brings up important issues regarding the human ethics of Arctic oil and gas extraction. Compared to the environmental ethics of offshore drilling, this issue tends to be under-examined.
Q: What will you be watching for in 2017?
A lot of it hinges on what happens after January 20. I’ll essentially be watching for the direction that the U.S. Arctic chairmanship takes, if any, after President-elect Trump’s inauguration, and whether an eventual easing of sanctions coupled with ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s potential appointment as Secretary of State opens up further drilling in the Russian offshore. It will be hard to quickly undo President Obama’s ban of offshore drilling in Alaska, but U.S. companies could somewhat more easily get in on the game in Russia, where Russian companies are already active and where infrastructure is already in place.