Back to the Future: An Arctic conference in 1979

The table of contests for the in 1979.

The table of contests for the Marine Transportation and High Arctic Development symposium held in Canada in 1979.

On a dusty shelf in the library at my university, I came across a volume entitled Marine Transportation and High Arctic Development: Policy Framework and Priorities – Symposium Proceedings. The book had sat untouched for so long that the bar code inside of it no longer even worked, for there wasn’t a catalog entry anymore for it. The blue hardcover book was published in 1979 by the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee (CARC), based in Ottawa, Ontario. CARC still exists today with additional offices in Yellowknife. On its website, the committee describes itself as a “citizens’ organization dedicated to the long-term environmental and social well being of northern Canada and its peoples.” It appears to take a middle-of-the-road approach to Arctic development, as it has supported certain projects such as relocating a mining road to avoid a caribou herd while also in the past accepting donations from organizations like Dome Petroleum, a now defunct Canadian oil company that had pursued exploration in the Canadian Arctic.

1979 seems like a long time ago. The Arctic’s thickest, oldest sea ice still extended almost all the way to the north coast of the Sakha Republic in the Soviet Union, Pierre Trudeau was still prime minister of Canada, Jimmy Carter was president in the U.S., and the oil crisis of 1973 was a recent memory. Weeks after the symposium, the 1979 oil crisis would begin, and in November of that year, a group of Iranian students would take hostage 52 American diplomats and citizens in Tehran.

Yet in reading through the book, which contains all of the speeches and papers given at the symposium held from March 21-23, 1979 in Montebello, Quebec, it quickly becomes apparent how much the Arctic of 1979 seems like the Arctic of 2015. Many of the statements made at the symposium could be uttered verbatim at a contemporary gathering of Arctic-focused scientists, policymakers, businesspeople, and indigenous leaders without anyone blinking an eye. This similarity is all the more surprising given that climate change hardly registered on the agenda in 1979 – the very year satellite records of the Arctic sea ice began – whereas it takes center stage in Arctic matters today.

For instance, François Bregha, of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, pronounced,

“In 1979, the Canadian High Arctic stands at the threshold of developments which could forever alter the way in which we think about our North. Some of these developments are well known: offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait, the proposed transportation of natural gas reserves by LNG tankers, the exploitation of lead and zinc deposits on Baffin Island. What is not so well known is that they also include the potential shipment of oil through the Northwest Passage on a year-round basis.”

While some of these predictions have materialized, others still stand far off on the horizon four decades later. LNG tankers have indeed transported natural gas in the Northern Sea Route to destinations in East Asia, but drilling in the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait, large-scale mining on Baffin Island, and oil shipment through the Northwest Passage (NWP) all remain but fantasies. Were Bregha to repeat his statement at a conference in 2015, representatives of many Arctic countries would likely still believe their countries to be standing on the threshold of the very developments he mentioned in 1979.

Ships on the horizon

The energy with which spokespeople trumpeted the NWP in 1979 is strange considering the enthusiasm with which they continue to talk it up. Thirty-six years have gone by, and neither the boosters nor the listeners seem to have tired of discussing how Arctic shipping passages are just around the corner. In the 1979 symposium’s stance, in his keynote address, Professor Max Dunbar of McGill University declared,

“We are concerned at this symposium particularly with the development of the Canadian Arctic sea routes, which may be considered with some confidence to be on the brink of wide openings. The Northwest Passage first came into the language almost 500 years ago. We are now in a technological position to make the final breakthrough which will make the sailing of that passage a normal day-to-day or week-to-week affair.”

Today, politicians and businesspeople posit that climate change is the reason that the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route are on the brink of becoming bustling shipping routes; previously, people like Professor Dunbar claimed that technological advancements would make it possible. In neither the 1980s nor in the 2000s, however, have climate change or technology brought to life a truly busy Arctic shipping route. The volume of cargo shipped along the Northern Sea Route would peak in 1987, but even then, the tonnage carried paled in comparison to routes like the Suez and Panama Canals.

Oil under the ice

Canmar Kigoriak, one of Dome Petroleum's drill ships, in the Beaufort Sea in 1982.

Canmar Kigoriak, one of Dome Petroleum’s drill ships, in the Beaufort Sea in 1982. From the cover of the magazine ‘Beaufort’ published by Dome Petroleum, Esso Resources Canada, and Gulf Canada Resources, via Recorder.

In the transcripts of the symposium proceedings, the topic of Arctic oil appears to generate much excitement. This is similar to the buzzing atmosphere at Arctic conferences in 2008, after the United States Geological Survey released its Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal. (Now, the tone regarding oil extraction is more subdued in part due to the concern over Shell’s abilities in the U.S. and the nosedive that oil prices have taken globally). Oil’s prominence at the 1979 symposium is unsurprising given that drilling had been occurring in the Canadian offshore Arctic since 1972. The papers presented contained charts such as projections of Canada’s “resources for the future” and the transcript of a talk given by G.R. Harrison, a senior vice president at Dome Petroleum, called “The Need for Action-oriented R and D in the Canadian Arctic.” In it, he declared:

“There are two keys to safe and timely development of the Arctic:

1) Vigorous oil and gas exploration
2) Development of an arctic marine technology through an aggressive R and D programme, emphasizing field experimentation and pilot projects.

If we undertake these two initiatives now, we can develop the Arctic in a safe and orderly way, giving proper consideration to the environment and to the northern people. If we wait until energy shortages cause what President Jimmy Carter has described as “the moral equivalent of war,” the process will be hasty and disorganized and could be heedless, particularly of those in our country who may hold different values and convictions from the majority.”

CanadaOil1979Dome Petroleum would not be the company to “develop the Arctic in a safe and orderly way,” for by 1982, it would be up to its knees in debt. After receiving unprecedented loans from four Canadian banks and government intervention, another Canadian oil company took over Dome Petroleum in 1988 (more on the roots of its demise here). Neither would the Canadian Arctic remain at the frontier of offshore development. In the late 2000s, the consultancy Ernst & Young essentially ranked Canada the least favorable of all five Arctic coastal states in terms of the attractiveness of the country’s Arctic opportunities.

While Dome Petroleum has been relegated to the history books and the Canadian offshore relatively dormant for the time being, oil men and politicians today carry on the company’s tactic of using fear-mongering to champion oil extraction in other parts of the Arctic. Geopolitical insecurities in the Middle East and concerns over energy shortages were cause for concern in 1979, and they remain so today. As Shell’s website conveys, “Developing Arctic resources could be essential to securing energy supplies for the future, but it will mean balancing economic, environmental and social challenges.”

Whether in 1979 or 2015, the Arctic is constantly discussed in the future tense. Rare is the acknowledgement of the past – such as that Dome Petroleum eventually went bust – or of the present, such as the fact that the Canadian Arctic still doesn’t have a university.

A need for higher education

That brings me to a point brought up early on during the symposium in Professor Dunbar’s keynote speech. He remarked,

“It has begun to grow upon me that where the least progress has been made, and where the greatest urgency lies, is in the education of the native peoples of Canada, and especially in the Arctic.”

Thirty-six years later, Canada still does not have an Arctic university. Ironically in 2009, the country’s former governor-general, Michelle Jean, remarked in an interview with the Canadian Press in Clyde River, Nunavut that “Canada is at least 40 years behind” in providing higher education to its northern residents. In other words, Canada has made no progress since Professor Dunbar underscored the urgency of improving northern education at the 1979 symposium. Back then, he attributed the lack of a good education system to an overbearing state. He argued,

“Again the trouble, as elsewhere, seems to have been primarily one of government arrogance. There has been an attitude that assumes that only government – which means the bureaucracy – can organize northern education, as northern science. The Arctic Biological Station at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue has recently become a celebrated instance of this attitude within the scientific context.”

I could find little about the Arctic Biological Station on the internet save for this document, so perhaps it is now defunct. In any case, Dunbar’s comment about the Arctic Biological Station, which was located just west of Montreal, brings to mind the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), which is being built in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s website for CHARS explains that “this station is being built by Canadians to serve the world, and engage Northerners in cutting-edge science and technology.” Once again, the high-minded paternalism of the Canadian government has not abated in forty years, even if other materializations of this attitude like the Arctic Biological Station have. While scientists working at CHARS may engage with indigenous people and knowledge, the express goal of the Canadian government seems to be to impose science and technology from above onto the residents of the Arctic. In four decades, it appears that many government officials in Canada and around the Arctic still have not really learned from previous mistakes. That may be due to the obsession that many in the Arctic have with the future and their disdain for the past. If they only looked back, they would see how the choirs cheering the potential for states, industry, and science to quickly develop the Arctic have been singing a tired refrain for decades.

The Donut Hole at the Center of the Arctic Ocean

The Donut Hole (and two other small ones nearby) at the center of the Arctic Ocean.

The Donut Hole (and two other small ones to the south) at the center of the Arctic Ocean.

On June 4, I wrote about issues surrounding the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. June 5 was National Donut Day. So that makes it a better time than ever to talk about the so-called donut hole in the Arctic Ocean. There also is some misinformation on the donut hole out there that requires clarification. The Pew Charitable Trust’s website, while otherwise very informative, says that the donut hole is a mere 2.8 square kilometers, while Business Insider notes that the donut hole consists of “open water.” In fact, the National Snow and Ice Data Center notes that the North Pole, which lies within the donut hole, likely hasn’t been ice-free in 125,000 years.

The donut hole actually consists of some 1.1 million square miles of typically ice-covered water. The area’s name derives from its shape, which looks like an oddly squished donut hole according to current exclusive economic zone boundaries, which are based on the 200 nautical mile limit. The donut hole currently consists of international waters – the high seas or global commons, in other words. The donut hole’s existence is what gives legitimacy to the statements of officials from countries like China, most notoriously, who have said in the past that “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” The donut hole also opens the door for non-profit environmental organizations to call for the establishment of an Arctic marine park or preserve.

Interestingly, the shared desire of China and NGOs such as Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund means that their interests might be more closely linked than, say, those of an environmental NGO and a littoral state like Canada. A blog post published to Greenpeace’s website in July 2012 by Li Yan, who sailed aboard the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long’s voyage towards the North Pole, reflected on these similarities. He wrote that both the voyages of Xue Long and Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace’s ship which was on an expedition that same summer, “have important and overlapping interests in the future of the Arctic.” Li concluded by suggesting, “This precious place should not be invaded by oil drilling or other commercial activities. It belongs to everyone on the Earth.”

Oil drilling will likely not come to the donut hole anytime soon for two reasons. First, without territorial claims settled and legal regimes in place, oil corporations will shy away from this no-man’s land. Second, it is hundreds of miles away from the nearest landfall, making logistics exceedingly difficult. As it stands now, the donut hole also mostly overlaps with the deeper part of the Arctic Ocean rather than the continental shelf, meaning that drilling would have be both Arctic and deepwater.

One activity that could occur soon in principal, however, is deep sea mining. The United Nations’ International Seabed Authority has already issued numerous licenses for exploration in several parts of the high seas, namely in the Pacific. I wrote more about this issue recently in an article for The Maritime Executive. For the story, I communicated over email with United States Geological Survey research geologist James Hein, who remarked, “I think that a circum-Arctic country will mine in the Arctic much sooner than asteroid mining.”

Yet the Arctic Ocean is changing swiftly, with the ice cap shrinking in extent at least since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Researchers such as Scott Stephenson, a professor at the University of Connecticut, have predicted that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free and navigable by mid-century. This literal sea change could usher in new shipping routes and open new fisheries to exploitation – especially if certain species of fish migrate north in search of colder waters, as they have already been doing.

While it is unclear if shipping companies will actually take advantage of northern shortcuts, if the ice melts, it’s almost certain that fishing boats will try to make their way up there. The owners of some of the trawlers that operate in the North Pacific Ocean, an already treacherous area, staff the boats with workers from developing nations like Burma and the Philippines who have little say when it comes to safety or workers’ rights. This practice is broadly known as “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing” (IUU), and can occur in both territorial and international waters. You can bet that if the ice melts, many shady industrial fishing companies will send their boats north with no qualms. Given the world’s increasing appetite for fish and the rapacious way in which companies vacuum them out of the ocean, one might think their bodies were covered in shimmering gold scales.

In other “donut holes” of the world, like the area between Russian and American waters in the North Pacific or the area between Russian and Norwegian waters in the Barents Sea, IUU has already sparkes crises. Kevin Bailey, an employee of the Alaska Fisheries Center, wrote in an article published in a 2011 issue of Ecology and Society: “The little-known demise of the “Donut Hole” stock of pollock in the Aleutian Basin of the central Bering Sea during the 1980s is the most spectacular fishery collapse in North American history, dwarfing the famous crashes of the northern cod and Pacific sardine.” It took an international moratorium to ban fishing in the North Pacific donut hole, and it would likely require at a minimum international support to preemptively ban fishing in the Arctic Ocean’s donut hole.

When it comes to this remote area of the Arctic Ocean, the five littoral countries surprisingly appear to have the foresight necessary to manage it properly. This is similar to the type of foresight that allowed for the creation of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959 and the setting aside of that continent to science rather than militarization and natural resource exploitation – and the type of perspective that came too late in the North Pacific donut hole. To writ, on May 14, 2015, Russia and the United States were finally able to momentarily set aside their differences on Ukraine and sign an anti-IUU fishing agreement pertaining to the Arctic.

Trapped crab in Alaska. Photo: Boris Kasimov/Flickr.

Trapped crab in Alaska. Photo: Boris Kasimov/Flickr.

New York Times article from May 20, 2015 on the story is slightly misleading. First, while journalist Andrew Kramer claims that “the accord would regulate commercial harvests in an area far offshore — in the so-called doughnut hole of the Arctic Ocean, a Texas-size area of international water that includes the North Pole and is encircled by the exclusive economic zones of the coastal countries,” Undercurrent News reports that the agreement’s main aim is to stop illegal fishing of king crab in Russian waters.

Second, the U.S. and Russia alone cannot regulate what will happen in international waters. Even the five Arctic states together can’t do that. The only way they could regulate activities in the high seas of the donut hole would be to either a) garner support for an international moratorium* or b) somehow delimit the Arctic Ocean so that every square kilometer falls within a littoral state’s exclusive economic zone. If this were to happen, there would be no donut hole, and the Arctic Ocean would essentially be an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea (actually subject to a whole separate set of regulations under Articles 122 and 123 of UNCLOS) and no longer a “Polar Mediterranean” – at least not for fishing. For further reading, the K.G. Jebsen Centre for the Law of the Sea’s blog has a clear and detailed explanation of the history of attempting to regulate fishing in the Arctic Ocean.

Gaining international support for regulating fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean may be easier to do than delimiting the continental shelves. The U.S. initiated a conversation about the status of the Arctic Ocean’s fisheries in 2007. Lots of progress has been made since then, as exemplified by a consensus reached at a meeting of the five Arctic coastal states in Nuuk, Greenland in 2014 on regulating fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, along with Russia’s signing of the aforementioned agreement in May of this year. A few months prior in January, World Policy Institute reported that experts from the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, Iceland, Denmark, and Greenland convened at the Roundtable on Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Issues at Shanghai’s Tongji University – again demonstrating the centrality of China in discussions about both the Arctic and fishing, since their country is the world’s biggest consumer of seafood. Whereas Chinese officials used to raise the ire of Arctic states when their officials claimed the Arctic Ocean to belong to all mankind, today, they tend to be a good deal more diplomatic, while officials from Arctic states increasingly find themselves coming to China to negotiate about issues at the top of the world.

Kleinur, Icelandic donuts. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Kleinur, Icelandic donuts. Photo: Wikimedia commons.


Now, it’s time to chew on all that and enjoy the best donuts the Arctic has to offer: kleinur, Icelandic donuts that are shaped like diamonds. I suppose that means the Arctic’s donut hole really only makes sense in an English-language context. Chinese donuts tend to be long and churro-like, meaning that the “donut hole” might not translate very well into Mandarin, either.

*If you are in favor of an international moratorium, you can check out the Pew International Trust’s efforts to support one at this website.

Throwback Thursday: Nobody lives on Attu anymore

Two weeks ago, I posted three photographs of the Aleutian Islands downloaded from the Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division as part of a “Throwback Thursday” series. (I clearly have yet to come up with a more original title). The photographs, taken in 1938, illustrated the centuries-long imbrication of these islands in global trade flows. Russian fur traders, American entrepeneurs and bureaucrats, and English and Scandinavian fishermen all left their marks on this volcanic island chain. My last post focused largely on the Aleuts, the indigenous people residing in these islands who often interbred with the incoming Europeans.

The Russians in particular left more than just their genes behind. They also imprinted a very specific built environment onto the landscape, one with onion domes and crosses more befitting of Moscow than Alaska. The Orthodox Church got its start in the Americas when eight Russian monks established a mission on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 1794 – the very same island that Shell’s Kulluk rig ran into in December 2013. Alaska has continued to attract devout adherents to the Russian Orthodox Church into the modern era, as this story from The Atlantic details.

Far from being isolated, the Aleutian Islands have long been smack dab in the middle of global events. I closed my last post by mentioning that the set of photos were taken on the brink of a global war which would forever change the lives of the Aleuts living on Kiska, Attu, and elsewhere in the island chain. Previously caught up in trans-Pacific trade flows, the Aleutian Islands would soon be mired by invasions, air raids, and bombings.

Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, March 1938. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, March 1938. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Four years before the Japanese would invade the islands of Kiska and Attu, the photographer O. J. Muriel took this image in Attu Village as spring was arriving. The caption for this photograph reads:

“This is the Russian Orthodox church at Attu Village. It ministered to the spiritual needs of the two score natives living on Attu Island at the time of the Japanese invasion. Some of the Island’s wealth of flowers can be seen coming into bloom beside the church. Visitors to the Aleutians have expressed surprise at finding within easy reach masses of Alpine flowers which, in this country, and in Europe, mountain climbers scale the highest peaks just to see.”

The caption renders the Aleutian Islands familiar and knowable to the American reader by comparing them with Europe’s famous Alps. The flowery vistas are also a surprise to people who might think that the Aleutian Islands are permanently snowbound, rocky outcroppings in the Pacific. Everything seems a bit out of place here: comparisons to Bavarian landscapes and a Russian church, all somewhere in a remote reach of Alaska. All appears quiet on the northern front, though, with nary a person in sight in the photograph. But the island was home to a thriving community, depicted in this copiously illustrated National Park Service publication.

Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, 1943. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, June 1937. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Here is another photo that Muriel took the previous summer in 1937, again before the Pacific Front would open. At the time, Japan was concentrating on its offensive campaign in China, occupying Beijing in July and committing the Rape of Nanking atrocities in December. Yet by 1942, they would turn their sights to the Pacific, ostensibly believing the islands of Attu and Kiska to be strategic for protecting the northern edge of their empire from an American invasion and also possibly to distract from the attack they were conducting on Midway Island, thousands of miles to the south.

Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska

The Americans were unprepared for the invasion, with the Japanese overtaking the islands unopposed. Japanese forces invaded Attu on June 6 with Kiska being taken the next day – exactly two years before the Invasion of Normandy would happen on the other side of the planet. In Attu, an infantry battalion of 1,140 Japanese soldiers took 45 Aleut civilians and one schoolteacher prisoner, all of whom were eventually deported to Japan. When they were released from Japan in 1945, they were relocated to the island of Atka hundreds of miles to the west (but still 1,200 miles from Anchorage), with Attu forever abandoned. Today, a small memorial is all that is left of the village Muriel that photographed in 1937.

The photograph of Attu from above was transferred to the Office of War Information in 1943 with the caption:

“Bleak, mountainous Attu had a population of only about forty people prior to the Japanese invasion. As yet there has been no word as to what happened to these people when the Japanese took over. This is a picture of Attu village situated on Chichagof harbour where much of the recent fighting took place. The tundra, with which the slopes of the hills are covered, may look easy to traverse, but its depth, two or three feet, makes walking difficult and tiring. In June or July, according to experts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these slopes will be covered with flowers of which more than 100 different varieties may be found there.”

While international forces from trading companies to militaries successfully invaded the island, they were ultimately still remote. The Americans were unable to find out what was happening on a piece of their own territory. Even today, there is somewhat of an information lag in the Aleutian Islands, as maintaining reliable high-speed internet is a struggle. The private company Arctic Fiber has discussed plans to build a subsea cable that would bring high-speed internet for years, but nothing has yet materialized. Communication times are a bit better than during the Russian Empire though, when Orthodox clergymen living in the more remote parishes of the Aleutian Islands would only hear from the outside world once every seven years.

During the war, the Japanese built garrisons on the islands of Kiska and Attu and managed to hold them for one year until the Americans invaded the following year. In May 1943, the Alllied forces retook Attu after an intense two-week battle that even involved hand-to-hand combat, while in August, they retook Kiska, finding out that the Japanese had already evacuated a few weeks prior.

Library of Congress caption: “Attu, Aleutian Islands. Landing boats pouring soldiers and their equipment onto the beach at Massacre Bay. This is the Southern landing force.” Photo taken May 11, 1943. Office of War Information.

Continued Aleutian suffering

But the Aleuts would continue to suffer even after their homes were recaptured by the Americans. A lot has been written about the Japanese invasion of Kiska and Attu, such as this National Park Service backgrounder, but less is known about the U.S. government’s forced internment of approximately 880 Aleuts. As this Los Angeles Times article from 1992 recounts, “The Aleuts were interned not because of their heritage, not for fear that they might be subversives, but because their homes on the Aleutian and Pribilof islands were in a war zone.” This internment is an awful mirror image of the relocation of indigenous peoples in Canada in the 1950s, when the government forced many to resettle in distant northern outposts as “human flagpoles.” They were essentially meant to serve as bodily inculcations of Canadian sovereignty during the Cold War, when the threat of a Russian invasion hung over the nation’s north.

Back in the wartime Aleutian Islands, people from nine villages were forced to live in old fishing canneries until 1945, well after the Japanese threat in the Aleutians had ended. Ten percent of interns allegedly died due to inhumane conditions. Even when the surviving interned Aleuts returned home, they found their houses and churches ransacked – and largely not by the Japanese, but rather by American troops.

In 1988, some thirty years overdue, Congress finally passed the Aleut Restitution Act, which offered $12,000 in reparations to individual Aleuts, established a trust fund for the people, and paid for repairs to churches damaged during the war. But nobody lives on Attu anymore, and I’m not sure if its church even still stands.