The Arctic This Week: News for May 19 - May 25, 2012

by Tom Fries Arctic News May 19 - 25, 2012

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Thanks for joining us this week! We take the time to pick out the most interesting stories, the best writing and the developing patterns in Arctic issues. If you like what you read, please share it with others. Your feedback and comments are always welcome; feel free to contact the author directly. All opinions and any mistakes are the author’s own.

The author is on travel this week, and this week's news is focused just on the best reads and the most compelling stories.

Gazprom announced earlier this week, in the vaguest of language, that the Shtokman consortium might be headed for a change in its composition (Chicago Tribune). Initial buzz was that Total might be heading for the exits (Reuters, BN), but as of Friday it looked more as though Statoil is considering a graceful departure, and that Shell might be interested in stepping in in  its place (Reuters).

The Russian gas giant is meanwhile trying to make up for dwindling output by aggressively increasing its infrastructure investment program (BusinessWeek), which is not great for short-term profit but almost certainly an intelligent move for the long term. Newly-appointed Rosneft head Igor Sechin is also emphasizing that company’s Arctic initiatives in his discussions with the government (BO), while Mikhail Grigoriev stated quite publicly that the platforms intended for drilling in the Arctic are unsafe in almost countless ways (BO).

Rosneft this week also found itself part of a select coterie of companies listed for “strategic” status by the Russian government, a group which included RusHydro and the Federal Grid Company (RIAN).

On the other side of the pond, the Globe and Mail provided a good read on Canada’s upcoming auction of further licenses in its own Arctic offshore, including some great infographics. While companies are getting ready for the auction, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt expressed his skepticism that the Arctic “oil boom” will explode as quickly as people seem to think (G&M), and Michael Byers produced yet more excellent analysis suggesting that a shipping choke point between the Aleutian Islands is a likely spot for a next near-inevitable massive spill (Seattle Times). Minister Bildt’s speech at Carleton University is available online via the Swedish government, and it’s worth the read primarily for the four “key areas for further work” that he sees for the Arctic Council.

Google announced plans to track what appears to be most surface military maritime traffic underway all around the world, and publish it via Google Maps. This I find a little frightening, just because it bespeaks a whole legion of things that Google can probably do that I don’t know about. Also because the Daily Mail seems to indicate that this was achieved with expenditures of $3mn on satellites…$3mn seems like a bargain price for this kind of access to information. Meanwhile, NOAA released a new map of waters surrounding a key northwestern Alaska port, Kotzebue, and the efforts to support that mapping are a good illustrator of exactly how underwhelming our data sets in the Arctic remain (Juneau Empire).

Ground Truth Trekking has released an interactive-ish map of all (most?) of the mining projects currently operational, under prospect, or abandoned in Alaska. Incredibly interesting and fun to play with. Thanks, folks. And thanks to Eye on the Arctic for pointing it out and providing some short analysis. This week also saw discussion of the devolution of power over natural-resource questions from Canada’s federal government to Nunavut (National Post), an issue illustrated also by a great analytical piece from Anthony Speca, via the Institute for Research on Public Policy. An appropriately wonky but nice piece on the appointment of the negotiators for the devolution process was provided by Northern Public Affairs. The Walrus Blog features a good piece offering perspective on the mechanics of territorial vs provincial status in Canada, the devolution process, and whither the territories might be going.

Unalaska is considering rezoning of tidelands to accommodate an expected oil boom, whenever that may come (Dutch Harbor Fisherman). The town’s debate about the proposal puts a microscope to the hard-fought battles between oil companies and their adversaries over even the smallest issues. The Atlantic this week also covered the issue of fisheries and the “tragedy of the commons” with a guest post from Jonathan Adler. Mr. Adler suggests the  implementation of property rights-based management systems as a solution, which – if I understand correctly – is the system under which the Bering Sea snow crab stock is managed. The rebound of that stock was covered in last week’s news.

Senator John Kerry is, so the news says, behind a new push to get the US Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been seen in some conservative quarters as a threat to US sovereignty (AD), but as this vote will likely be controversial in the States, Senator Kerry has suggested that any vote will need to wait until after the November election (The Hill).

Some fascinating articles in Arctic science this week:

In another ecological slow-motion car crash that we will all have to watch, the Mountain Pine Beetle is moving ever close to Yukon, having already wrought massive damage across British Columbia (Eye on the Arctic).

Sediment has been collecting at the bottom of an impact-crater lake in Siberia for, apparently, 3.6 million years. Core samples of the sediment which, at its thickest, runs to 1,312 feet are being shipped to Germany for analysis (Frontier Scientists).

Here’s something you haven’t thought about before: fungi that are pathogenic for insects. Considering what an enormous role fungi and lichens play in Arctic ecosystems, this could be really important even though it seems like a tiny scientific cul-de-sac (

There was continued buzz about methane release out of thawing permafrost in the Arctic (NYTimes blog, Wired), including an insane video showing the researchers “flaring” the methane gas straight of the ice. Nutty.

We also read that Siberia’s massive Arctic rivers are looking increasingly as though they are the undiscovered culprits behind high concentrations of mercury found in marine Arctic fauna (

Other assorted stories worth your time from this week’s output:

It’s juvenile to be so enchanted with the notion of a hovercraft doing seismic surveying for Norway, but I am. Norway’s Sabvabaa, as part of the 2012 Fram mission, will be doing mapping of the Lomonosov ridge. In light of the comparative costs and fuel usage described in this article from Upstream Online, it’s difficult to understand why hovercraft aren’t more frequently used for such work.

Russia celebrated its victory over Slovakia in the world hockey championships in Finland. For those of you in Washington, DC, you can see Alexander Ovechkin’s distinct gap-toothed grin smack-dab in the middle of one of the photos (RIAN).

Eye on the Arctic offered a really thoughtful and detailed piece about the tensions that exist within a long-standing United States program to support businesses owned by Alaska Native, American Indian and Native Hawaiian corporations. It highlights that most eternal challenge: getting people to act in concert with the spirit – rather than just the letter – of the law.

And, via Etsy, a  well-crafted video of Sylvester Ayek, an Inupiat elder who has carved out a fascinating combination of modern and traditional living.

Last and, in fact, least, this week in Sweden featured a daring rescue of…a beaver (The Local).