A recap of three major developments in the Arctic, one underreported story, and what to look for in the US and international circumpolar affairs in 2024.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to speak with Eilis Quinn, a journalist at Radio Canada’s Eye on the Arctic. For her annual Arctic Roundup, a series she has been running for years, she asked me three questions: 1) What I thought were three major developments in the region this year; 2) What one underreported story was; and 3) What to look for in both US and international Arctic affairs next year.
Eilis brilliantly summed up our conversation in a blog post for Eye on the Arctic. I’ve also elaborated on my responses below.
Three major Arctic developments
Burning boreal forests
The Canadian Arctic was ablaze this summer. Huge fires in the Northwest Territories resulted in the evacuation of Yellowknife and other smaller communities like Hay River – and the less-covered destruction of 90% of the community of Enterprise (though the New York Times Magazine’s October 2023 article, ‘It’s Like Our Country Exploded,’) shed important light on the disaster with forensic detail). People think of the Arctic as a place of ice, even if melting, but it seems that now, every summer the region is engulfed in flames.
Risky business in Arctic shipping
Russia sent a non-ice-class oil tanker through the Northern Sea Route for the first time to get crude oil to China. The ship, which departed Murmansk for Ningbo, was permitted by Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration to sail independently in ice-free water and with icebreaker assistance in light types of ice. Russia’s willingness to take such risks to get its oil to markets – particularly China, which has become an even more important (direct) buyer of its fossil fuels following Western sanctions – poses heightened risks to the Arctic environment.
Norway announces support for deep-sea mining
Norway’s petro-economy may diversify with a move into deep-sea mining, which a majority in Parliament now favors. The area being considered for plundering stretches from the central Norwegian Sea up to the Arctic around Jan Mayen and Svalbard.
As I wrote in a blog post earlier this month, geopolitical considerations are a big factor behind Norway’s support for the controversial activity, as are economic ones. Oil won’t last forever, meaning that Oslo will need to eventually look to develop other sectors. Demand for minerals such as manganese, which the deposits are estimated to contain, is rising due to the green transition. Norway is also seen as a much stabler supplier of natural resources than competitors like China, which is also interested in deep sea mining. With Norway replacing Russia as Germany’s main natural gas supplier, the country appears to be positioning itself to become a crucial mineral supplier, too.
The most under-reported story
Ground control to the Arctic
Blast off! This year, two spaceports opened in the Arctic. The first, Spaceport Esrange, opened in Kiruna – a city more famous for housing the world’s largest underground iron ore mine – in January 2023. Illustrating the spaceport’s political importance, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by the President of the European Commission, the Swedish Prime Minister and HM the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf. Spaceport Esrange represents the European Union’s first such facility on the mainland, as its other one is located in the French overseas department of French Guiana.
The second, Andøya Spaceport, was opened in November, with the ceremony attended by Crown Prince Haakon. It aims to become the first operational orbital spaceport in Europe (yet not the European Union, since Norway is not a member). A lot of progress has been made since I visited the construction site of the nascent spaceport in July 2022. The two Nordic spaceports both make use of decades-old infrastructure relating to astronomy and rocketry and are now locked in a head-to-head race to launch satellites, particularly commercial small satellites, into orbit.
From their locations in the Arctic, the spaceports will be able to more easily launch satellites into polar orbits than facilities at more southern latitudes. Polar orbits are used by many Earth observing satellites as they circle the entire globe, crossing over the North and South Poles. While it’s not clear when either site will begin launches, the progress being made demonstrates the growing interlinkage between the development of commercial space and of the Arctic.
What to watch for in the US and internationally in the Arctic in 2024
In the US, the Department of Defense is planning to release its updated strategy for the Arctic in early 2024. The current version was released in 2019 at a time when the Pentagon was already describing the region as in an era of strategic competition. With the Sino-US rivalry intensifying since then – along with suspicions of a tightening Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic – the strategy may take an even more hawkish tone.
At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to improve ties with China. Last month, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for hours and exchanged big smiles at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in San Francisco. Then, on Thursday this week, the top US and Chinese military officials spoke for the first time in over a year. Whether the DoD’s strategy will reflect any of this change in temperature will be interesting to see.
Also in the US, it will be worth watching if substantial progress is made on the polar security cutters that are being built at Bollinger Mississippi Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. No heavy icebreakers have been built in the US in 50 years. Just this past summer, the Southern company began cutting steel on the first prototype model. In the meantime, China is constructing what will be its third polar-going vessel (and the second it’s built itself, albeit at a lesser polar class than the first one it built), scheduled for delivery in 2025.
Internationally, one of the biggest developments likely to take place next year will be the opening of Russia’s Vostok oil project in Yenisei Bay on the coast of the Taymyr Peninsula. Vostok is one of the world’s largest investment projects in the oil and gas sector. It’s equivalent in size to the development of West Siberia in the 1970s and the U.S. Bakken oil region in North Dakota in recent years, which has helped propel America to become the largest oil producer in the world. The Vostok oil project plans to ship approximately 30 million tons of crude annually at first, reaching an enormous 100 million tons by 2030. Exports will be sent via the Bukhta Sever port, which is currently under construction. For the sake of comparison, only 1.5 million tons of crude oil were shipped via the NSR in 2023, coming out of the Baltic Sea.
Environmentalists are worried that the Vostok oil project will severely threaten the Arctic environment. With Russia demonstrating that it is willing to send non-ice-class tankers through the Northern Sea Route and with so little dialogue and cooperation going on between Russia and the West, the cause for concern is genuine.
With that, stay tuned for more from Cryopolitics in 2024.