The Arctic This Week - News for March 5 - March 11, 2012

by Tom Fries - News for March 5 - March 11, 2012

Politics and Security

Many guns running around the Arctic this week! The Canadians demonstrated high-level interest by sending Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Commander of the Canadian Army to observe the concluding exercise of Arctic Ram (Gov’t of Canada), and then followed up promptly followed up with another, significantly smaller exercise in Nunavik (CBC). Across the ocean, Exercise Cold Response 12, featuring approximately 16,000 troops from 15 or 16 NATO countries, depending whom you read, is taking place in Norway’s far North (Barents Observer). Among the soldiers representing their countries will be a contingent of US Marines from Company K ( Russia, meanwhile, is preparing to send its Northern Fleet to a joint military exercise with Norway beginning in May (

Alaska’s lawmakers and pundits have been vocal this week. In what may be this writer’s favorite headline of the week, there is roundabout I’m-not-saying-I’m-just-saying talk of concern that China’s sole stealth fighter will be used to attack Alaska unawares (Juneau Empire). Because, really, what won’t the Chinese do? The world’s most populous country did point out that it will undertake another North Pole expedition (it’s fifth) in 2012 (People’s Daily). Senator Mark Begich, who didn’t-say-but-said, also made a pitch for further federal support of Alaska’s oil and security development, describing such support as virtually necessary to create a job boom in the state (The Republic) and speaking before the state legislature about a boom in oil exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas (KTUU). Begich also encouraged Alaska’s state legislators to support programs at the University of Alaska more stoutly (Juneau Empire) and praised the decision to allocate $860mn for a new icebreaker (Alaska Native News). 

Meanwhile the senior senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, expressed concerned about the low $8mn down-payment on said icebreaker (press release), pressed Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus about the Navy’s Arctic plans, and learned that the Navy has three operations underway (Three? Where?) and has, in addition, a “Road Map to the Arctic,” whatever that might mean. Mabus also encouraged ratification of UNCLOS (AlaskaNative News). Also in Alaska, an editorial in the Alaska Dispatch expressed support for the creation of an Alaska Arctic Policy Commission to “ensure that the interests of the state and its people are jealously and rightfully protected.” Finally from the US, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke generally about the intelligence community’s efforts to keep track of polar ice and anticipate any security risks that might arise as a result (Center for a New American Security). Next door, Canada is preparing to take on leadership of the Arctic Council in 2013 while policy observers ask how it plans to balance resource development and “sustainability” (WorldPolicy).

On the European side of things, policy news outlets were atwitter at news of Catherine Ashton’s visits to Rovaniemi, Kiruna and Svalbard in preparation for an EU Arctic Policy follow-up document (the last was released in 2008) (Barents Observer). In meetings with the foreign ministers of Finland, Sweden and Norway, Ashton is supposed to have used the opportunity to “reaffirm the EU's interest in the Arctic region and discuss the bloc's application for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council” (
RTTNews, Public Service Europe). While the EU begs further recognition from the AC, France and Iceland have committed to working together on Arctic issues (, and the Nordic countries meet together in Reykjavik later this month to discuss the wisdom of a collective Arctic strategy ( 

In miscellaneous other news, a doubling of traffic in recent years at the Russia-Norway border crossing prompts talk of a jointly-managed checkpoint (Barents Observer), the governor of Murmansk demonstrated his ability to know on which side his bread is buttered (Barents Observer), Norway allots NOK 105mn for foreign-policy research into Russia and the High North (Barents Observer), and even stodgyish Forbes got in on the discussion of the Arctic as the next hot-button region.

Noteworthy: a truly fantastic map of overlapping sovereignty claims in the Arctic provided by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Definitely check it out.

Energy, Mining and Shipping

Let’s begin this week with anti-drilling activity. The New York Times pointed out that the hubbub regarding Shell’s attempt last week to pre-counter-sue environmental groups is rarely successful, while the Pew Environment Group gathered a forum which called for further measures to improve the safety of offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and the University of Delaware’s Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy published a clearly-wordedpiecesuggesting that Alaska’s offshore should be left untouched, as did Greenpeace. Relatedly, members of the Nunavut government encouraged a shift towards renewable energy (Eye on the Arctic), and representatives of a number of Alaskan marine salvage companies are suggesting that increased oil, tourist and shipping traffic will be a boon and a challenge for their businesses (AlaskaJournal of Commerce). In an interesting and related decision, the Nunavut Impact Review Board ruled that a barge of fuel could NOT overwinter near the Baffinland Iron Ore Company’s Mary River project because of the risk of environmental damage (Nunatsiaq Online).

Despite such opposition, Shell announced that it felt certain that exploratory drilling would commence in the Arctic this summer (Fox Business News), and rumor had it that an ice-class drillship is under construction for Shell at Samsung in South Korea (NHSTMedia Group Asia, cached). Simultaneously, many oil majors are undertaking charm offensives to assuage folks’ fears of spills, from the Norwegian website that gathers spill-response info under one web-roof to Shell EVP Exploration David Lawrence’s reassurances that drilling off of Alaska is “relatively easy” because of the shallowness of the seas ( Much ado about nothing? One person at least is offering a more pessimistic view of the potential for Arctic hydrocarbons (Business Insider), but Alaska’s legislators are excited enough to shut down the state legislature for “Energy Week,” a conference run by the Energy Council, an organization of 10 oil-producing states, 5 oil-producing Canadian provinces, and (weirdly?) Venezuela (Anchorage Daily News).

Norway’s Statoil confirmed the size of major finds at the Skrugard and Havis fields (Reuters), while the second round of licensing for exploration on the Icelandic continental shelf is drawing to a close (NationalEnergy Authority of Iceland), with Norway showing some interest ( Finds are only likely in a discrete area between Iceland and Jan Mayen (

In other news, gcaptain.compoints out that the Northern Sea Route is critical to the development of hydrocarbon megaprojects in the Novatek/Total Yamal LNG project. Certain to help are nuclear icebreakers like the “50 Years of Victory,” the world’s largest, which is heading from its winter duties in the Gulf of Finland back to Murmansk (BarentsObserver). In Inuvik, a dramatic rise in fuel prices means interesting times ahead for the town in the Northwest Territories (Eye on the Arctic).

Society and Economics

Some tough-to-read reporting on the challenges that attend life in isolated Inuit communities came out this week in Nunatsiaq Online and from the Canadian Arctic Service Corps blog. We also came across some good data sources and studies that shed light on many aspects of indigenous life in the Canadian north (, ArcticSounder). For further numbers, this excellent infographic gives a comprehensive (if likely simplified) overview of the distribution of different Arctic indigenous populations.

Also in the Canadian North, Facebook is having a positive impact on the local economy (Eye on the Arctic), while on the European side of things Murmansk is planning a EU20mn renovation to give it greater appeal for tourist boats, among others (Barents Observer). Unrelated but interesting: Norway’s cold-water prawn fisheries have now been certified sustainable by Marine Stewardship Council standards. For more about what those standards are, click here.

Science and Environment

The National Resources Defense Council started the week with a piece advocating a four-part strategy for protecting the Arctic: protect key ecosystems; develop strict Arctic-specific standards for industry; manage with an eye to whole ecosystems; protect the high seas. The US Department of the Interior may be taking note (DOI, UPI). Meanwhile in Canada, the hot and protracted debate over the borders of a proposed Natural Marine Conservation Area in Lancaster Sound continues to run between the Canadian government, industry, and Inuit groups (Montreal Gazette). See here for a full report from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association on the issue.

In news of the changing Arctic, Science released a fascinating study on ocean acidification, reviewed and summarized here, and the Oman Observer, of all things, wrote on a study from Nature Climate Change reducing the estimate of the “tipping point” temperature of the Greenland ice sheet to 1.6 degrees (note that this would take tens of thousands of years, though). Simultaneously, warming of 2 degrees over Canada was announced by researchers from Canada’s Simon Fraser University as an inevitability. How might such warming be impacting your weather (Yale 360)? Other research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab confirmed that, in fact, dark soot on snow and ice makes it melt this news? The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that, though sea ice extent was low overall in February, there were stark differences between the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Arctic Ocean. A personal favorite: it turns out that seismic data can offer insight into how heavy sea ice is in a particular region (MSNBC). Amazing.

At a smaller scale, the Nunavut government emphasized its interest in protecting a fossil forest on Axel Heiberg island from rapacious tour groups (Nunatsiaq Online), a new study is about to get started in Alaska’s permafrost tunnel, built 1963 by the Army (Uni Alaska Fairbanks), and a few ordinary Canadians have been ponying up to try to keep the PEARL research station open (CBC)

Animals from big to small: a trip of Chinese thrill-hunters to Canada’s North to bag polar bears was cancelled almost as quickly as news outlets caught wind of it (Daily Mail). President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Mary Simon wrote an interesting op-ed in response to the negative media coverage, well worth reading ( Meanwhile Canadian scientists have completed and published some of the first research on Arctic wildlife to be based entirely on knowledge of indigenous people (Eye on the Arctic). A strange and awful illness is affecting occasional pinnipeds in the Arctic (Eye on the Arctic), while Arctic bacteria may be showing promise as tiny factories to produce a salmonella vaccine (Alberta Farmer).


In sports, the Arctic Winter Games continued this week. Would you like to see the knuckle hop? It looks as awful as it sounds (CBC). Meanwhile the Iditarod was also underway, yielding (unsurprisingly) some great stories of dogs named after Olympians (Alaska Dispatch), women racing at the head of the pack (Anchorage Daily News) and mouth-to-snout resuscitation ( Alaska Dispatch also provided a useful viewer’s guide. Not involved with either of these things but perhaps even more wacky, Tim Williamson of the UK won the Yukon Ultra, handily covering 314 miles of Arctic territory in seven days. On foot (Sunday Sun).

More money than sense: Will Richard Branson’s help really make a difference for polar bears (ecorazzi)? Is it worth 500,000 pounds of public money to bring a floating island of scree taken from an island off of Norway’s arctic coast and floated to the UK ( How about thousands of pounds to fly a lost hooded seal from the UK to Iceland (BBC)? Tough to say.

Miscellaneous other: 

Russian tourists are flooding to Norway. How they are affording it I cannot imagine (Barents Observer). 
The sun has returned to Svalbard. Sort of (BBC).
Maybe the moon had it in for the Titanic (

Viewing Party

Enjoy watching from thewindow as your plane, which looks like it was built in the forties, descends into Inuvik.

Fun photo of the Arctic Winter Games’ opening ceremonies.

Great Iditarod photos from Alaska Dispatch.

A whole bunch of amazing Arctic photographs.

Series of great shortvideos from the Fram Centre in Tromso.

Great PBS short video on sled dogs.

Forty-five seconds on a walk near PEARL, the Canadian research station preparing to close. Wow, thatdoes look lonely.

For the Washingtonians on our list, this film at NatGeo on 16 March might be a fun date with...yourself?

High-quality production of a movie on Alaska’s Bar-tailed Godwit.

Quick video on life under the arctic ice. Good for those of you with kids or a few minutes of free time.