In Norway, a railroad of dreams and nightmares across the Arctic Circle

A brief stop along the Nordland Railway. © Mia Bennett, 2015.

A brief stop along the Nordland Railway. © Mia Bennett, 2015.

After the High North Dialogue wrapped up in Bodø, Norway on March 19, most participants returned home via airplane. Air travel is hugely popular in Norway, much more so than in neighboring Sweden or Finland. The country’s mountainous terrain, fjord-lined coast, and long distances make flying generally the fastest way of crossing intermediate to long distances within Norway. In 2011, three of the top twenty of Europe’s busiest air routes were within Norway, a surprising statistic given that the country only has five million inhabitants. Oslo-Trondheim took sixth place, Oslo-Bergen eighth, and Oslo-Stavanger seventeeth. So when a blizzard forced Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport to shut down for two hours on Thursday, right before one of the busiest travel weekends of the year for Norwegians looking to escape the winter over the Easter holidays, chaos ensued.

Despite the practicality of air travel in Norway, I elected to leave Bodø by train on the day that the solar eclipse blanketed Svalbard in darkness. For years, I have wanted to make a journey through the Arctic by train. I traveled along the Nordland Railway from its terminus in Bodø to its southern end in Trondheim 700 kilometers to the south, crossing the Arctic Circle en route. Until 2004, the train used to actually stop at this geographic landmark, as noted in the opening pages of Charles Emmerson’s A Future History of the Arctic. While Bodø isn’t home to the northernmost train station in Norway – that title falls to Narvik, about 300 kilometers to the north – it is as far north as you can go in Norway by only traveling on the Norwegian State Railways (NSB) network. To get to Narvik, you’d actually have to travel from Sweden along the Ofoten Line.

The views out my window along the Nordlandsbanen, as it’s called in Norwegian, on that sunny day were everything I had hoped for. Riding aboard a bright red train zipping under blue skies by blue lakes, red cottages, and white snow, it was like Mondrian had taken a paintbrush to the Arctic. But this peaceful veneer of primary colors obscures a much darker history.










Trondheim by day.

Trondheim by day.

A railroad built by prisoners of war

During World War II under the Nazi occupation of Norway, nearly 13,000 Soviet and Yugoslav prisoners of war constructed the stretch of the Nordland Railway from Mosjøen to Dunderland with the NSB’s full approval. Much of this information has been thrust back in the spotlight in a new book by Bjorn Westlie called Fangene som forsvant (The Prisoners Who Disappeared). The Nazis sought to build the railroad all the way north to Kirkenes, but this proved impossible due to insurmountable conditions and terrain. By the time the war was over, the railroad had only made it as far as Dunderland, still some 200 kilometers from Bodø. In 1962, construction was finally completed on the Nordland Railway as it reached its terminus in this northern Norwegian city.

The Nordland Railway can be added to the long list of massive construction projects in the Arctic that took place during the war. Given the seemingly pristine, untouched nature of much of the Arctic, it’s easy to forget that militaries, forced laborers, and prisoners of war have been responsible for a great deal of its infrastructure. Jernbaneverket, the Norwegian National Rail Administration, admits on its website, “The huge numbers of prisoners of war and the railway became, effectively, an appalling slave camp with atrocious conditions and a high mortality rate.” Yet the NSB website aimed at tourists fails to mention any of this history, instead noting, “The 729 km. long railway crosses the Arctic Circle and takes you through stunning Norwegian scenery…The train is an easy and comfortable way of exploring Northern Norway, whether you are travelling all the way to Bodø or visiting a destination along the route.” But none of this ease or comfort would be available without the suffering of tens of thousands of POWs.

With this dark era now in the past, the railroad has become increasingly important for northern Norway in recent years for both cargo and passengers. Ore, timber, and other goods are moved along the line. Jernbaneverket noted that by 2012, 80% of all goods between southern Norway and the Bodø/Salten area would be transported by rail, mostly on special goods trains. On the day I traveled on a passenger train, it was packed with young adults returning home from their school in the Lofoten Islands playing cards and drinking sjokomelk (chocolate milk), a middle-aged woman knitting, lots of older couples, and one stumbling drunkard. Two trains per day leave Bodø, Norway’s twelfth-largest city, for Trondheim, its fourth largest. One departs during the day while the other is a sleeper train that coasts along the rails under skies frequently lit up by the aurora.

The iron roads of the Arctic

If you’re interested in making a journey in the Arctic by rail, there are several other options in addition to the Nordland Railway. There’s the aforementioned Ofoten Line running from Sweden northwest to Narvik. The main purpose of that railway is to transport iron ore from Kiruna, Sweden to the ice-free port at Narvik, but it also moves people. One railroad in northern Scandinavia that is not open to passengers, however, is the short, 8.5 kilometer-long Kirkenes–Bjørnevatn Line. This privately-owned railway moves iron ore from the Bjørnevatn Mine to the port at Kirkenes. It was the world’s northernmost railway until early 2011, when Gazprom opened the Obskaya-Bovanenkovo Railway to supply the massive natural gas development projects on the Yamal Peninsula. The construction required hefty engineering feats, including building a 3.9 kilometer bridge over a permafrost-laden floodplain.

Though this railway, too, is meant to move cargo, for a pretty penny (€1995.00 in “Premium Class” and €5695.00 in “Platinum Class”), passengers can travel for six days along the so-called “Yamal Polar Express” in a private train organized by the British rail tour company Yamal Polar Express Limited. This rail journey actually connects a number of Arctic railroads in Russia, including the Pechora Railway and the “first part of Stalin’s abortive Trans-Polar Railway.” As part of his delusional vision of transforming and industrializing the Arctic, Stalin had envisioned connecting western and eastern Siberia with a 1,000-kilometer railway. Despite the forced efforts of tens of thousands of prisoners, the railway was never completed. RussiaTrek has some incredible photos of all that remains of the gnarled, rusting iron tracks. Perhaps because the landscapes of forced labor and torture are not so easily hidden in Russia as they are along the Nordland Railway, it is easier to simply mention it up front. “From here the train takes the 1,570-kilometre Pechora Railway with a brief stop to explore Kotlas, centre of the Gulag system of prison and forced labour camps used to construct the railway,” the Yamal Polar Express website plainly states. Tourists, oil barons, and Russian oligarchs now move in the same spaces as the prisoners forced to do back-breaking work in frigid winters and mosquito-ridden summers just fifty years ago. And equally along the Nordland Railway, German rail freight company DB Schenker moves goods and cargos along a railway constructed under Nazi supervision, exemplifying the transformation of militarized spaces into commercial ones across the Arctic.

A German freight rail company presence at the rail yard in Bodø Train Station, Norway. © Mia Bennett, 2015.

A German freight rail company presence at the rail yard in Bodø Train Station, Norway. © Mia Bennett, 2015.

As the train pulled into Trondheim Central Station under the cover of night, I reflected on the journey I had just taken across the Arctic Circle. Northern Norway was a dreamscape of canoes balanced against cheery red cottages perched on the water and ski tracks sliced into the snow. Yet I could not help but think that seeing all of this from the comfort of my heated carriage was only possible due to the nightmarish experiences that the prisoners of war had to endure.

At High North Dialogue, outlook appears bright for Norwegian Arctic

All ears at High North Dialogue. Photo: Mia Bennett.

All ears at High North Dialogue. Photo: Mia Bennett.

In Bodø, Norway, a city of 50,000 people just 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, over two hundred students, academics, business leaders, and government representatives gathered to discuss the Arctic at the tenth annual High North Dialogue. While many students were from Russia and also the United Kingdom, most of the invited speakers flew in from the urban centers in the south that are directing Arctic development: Moscow, Copehnagen, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Los Angeles, to name a few. Furthermore, those that came from the North tended to hail from its industrialized urban centers, like Bodø and Tromsø. Thus, the conference reflected a particularly Norwegian view of the future of the Arctic. Notably, the name of the conference was changed two years ago from “Arctic Dialogue” to “High North Dialogue,” using the official name for Norway’s Arctic region exemplified in the government’s “High North Strategy” first released in 2006. Clearly, this was a conference about the future of the Norwegian Arctic first and foremost, which arguably sees itself as a role model for the rest of the Arctic.

So over the two days of the conference, two things became clear. First, the Arctic is a diverse place with many different sub-regions. Second, the Norwegian Arctic is outstripping the “other Arctics” on a number of different measures thanks to a combination of forward-looking government policy and fortuitous geography.

A (snow)globe of many Arctics

Several speakers noted that the Arctic is a diverse place. Laurence Smith, a professor at UCLA, contrasted the increasingly accessible maritime Arctic with the terrestrial Arctic, where infrastructure is literally sliding into the melting permafrost. The Canadian Ambassador to Norway, Artur Wilczynski, proclaimed, “Our North is fundamentally different… The geographic north of Canada is four million square kilometers – the size of the European Union – but the population is 115,000.”

The Arctic is also pristine in parts but a real wasteland in others. Alexander Sergunin, a professor at St. Petersburg State University, noted that 15 percent of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) is “polluted or contaminated.” The AZRF extends across approximately 9 million square kilometers (Conley and Neretin, 2015), so if 15 percent of that is truly polluted, that equates to 1.35 million square kilometers. In other words, the polluted area of the Russian Arctic is equivalent in area to approximately three and a half Norways or one Peru. This is a shocking figure by any stretch of the imagination. It’s so hard to fathom all of Peru being covered in nuclear waste, trash, oil, and other detritus that I think a clearer definition of what Sergunin means by “polluted or contaminated” is necessary before making any conclusions. Regardless, it’s clear that Russia, whose Arctic region has been industrialized for far longer than any other Arctic state, could benefit from environmental clean-up on a massive scale. Putin has ordered such environmental restoration projects even as other extractive projects come online.

One of the few presenters to portray the Arctic as a uniform region was Nathan Frisbee of the International Energy Agency (IEA). He claimed that through 2040, “We don’t see the Arctic as being an economically viable source of fuel on the global scale,” adding, “Future Arctic investment is likely to be driven by strategic rather than commercial needs.” This statement flies in the face of what companies like Statoil and Norway at large see as the next frontier for the national oil industry. The Statoil representative declared, “We don’t go to the Arctic because it’s there. We go there because oil is there.” Yet the oil is not simply “there.” New technologies, advanced expertise, a supportive government, and a friendly regulatory climate all combine to turn the Barents Sea’s oil into an accessible and exploitable resource for Statoil and other companies like Lundin Norway, which sent a delegate to discuss its aspirations to drill in the offshore Arctic. The construction of this resource, the source of so much wealth for Norway both now and in the future thanks to its well-managed sovereign wealth fund, is why the Norwegian Arctic can tower above almost all the the rest of the world’s northernmost areas.

The High North on high
If the Arctic is a diverse place, then the Norwegian Arctic is one of the brightest spots – and I mean that literally: here’s a satellite image of the Arctic at night that I’ve posted a number of times to Cryopolitics. The top of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the Kola Peninsula, and northwest Russia are the most extensively lit-up places in the Arctic. There are other concentrations of light on Alaska’s North Slope and in the nickel-producing city of Norilsk, Russia. But nothing compares in luminosity to the area more formally called the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR), an Arctic sub-region that enjoyed its moment in the spotlight when Claus Bergersen, adviser to the Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes, Norway, spoke on the second day of the conference.

BEAR is more than just a hodgepodge of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Russian counties that find themselves next to each other thanks to accidents of geography yet separated by international borders. People have moved back and forth throughout this region for centuries, from the Sami people who roamed with their reindeer throughout Fennoscandia and the Kola Peninsula to the Kola Norwegians, settlers from Norway whom Russian Tsar Alexander II permitted to settle in the Kola Peninsula beginning in 1860. Persecuted under Stalin, almost all of them returned to Norway in the 1990s once the opportunity arose. The Pomors, a people living in the White Sea basin (an inlet of the Barents Sea), traded so often with northern Norwegians that a new pidgin language developed called Russenorsk.

A map of the Barents-Euro Arctic Region, from Nordregio.

A map of the Barents-Euro Arctic Region, from Nordregio.

Today, the high rate of development in this part of the Arctic, particularly in Norway’s High North, has partly to do with geography and partly to do with a pro-active government. First, the Norwegian and Barents Seas have more amenable climactic conditions that almost all other parts of the Arctic. Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, the ocean does not freeze over in winter (though harsh conditions still lead oil companies to pull out their rigs and drlll ships in winter).  As one speaker mentioned, 80% of Arctic shipping occurs in Norwegian waters. The trickle of ships through the Northern Sea Route pales in comparison to the hustle and bustle of maritime activity off of relatively mild northern Norway.

Second, the government in Oslo seems determined to make the North an example for the planet. Anne Kari Ovind, Deputy Director General and Head of Department for Security Policy and the High North within Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared, “Our goal is for north Norway to become the most innovative region in the world.” This statement comes as residents in some parts of the Canadian and American Arctics barely have access to potable water or plumbing year-round. Norway has clearly been able to meet the basic needs of all of its northern denizens, allowing it to move on to things like building universities and even new concert halls. On that note, High North Dialogue attendees were given free tickets to attend a concert at the new Stormen Concert Hall by a world-renowned Norwegian pianist.

Northern Norway has two universities, the University of Tromsø and the University of Nordland. This is impressive for a region with a population of only 500,000 people. The Canadian Arctic, for instance, does not have a single university (though it also only has one-fifth as many people). In northern Norway, universities are crucial for driving continued regional growth because they help to attract new students and churn out a talented workforce that hopefully continues to reside in the area following graduation. In 2013, as Trude Pettersen wrote for The Barents Observer, the region’s unemployment rate was only 2.7%, a rate so low it threatens to slow growth. Perhaps in the hopes of attracting more people to come and study in northern Norway, the conference had an entire session dedicated to promoting the host university, particularly its masters programs in energy management and sustainable development. These courses highlight the focus of Norway’s two Arctic universities on creating applied knowledge specifically targeted at helping industry and resource extraction (perhaps at the expense of basic research, however). The University of Nordland also has strong ties with Russia and specifically the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where its energy management students go on exchange. In the other direction, many Russian students attended the week-long masters course offered during the week of the High North Dialogue. The continued participation of Russian students in the course at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West speaks volumes about the efforts of the conference organizers and Norway at large to maintain good bilateral relations.

Nuances in the North?

Towards the end of the conference’s last day, one speaker remarking on the existence of various Arctic regions offered, “We need to take these differences into account to have a meaningful and nuanced conversation on Arctic development.” The very inclusion of the word “development” in this statement, however, reveals the way in which this conference, like many others on the Arctic and especially those in the Nordic Arctic, takes capital-intensive development as a given. The Arctic’s oil and gas will be sucked up out of the seabed, its fish plucked out of the ocean, its fjords filled with cruise ships, and its rivers dammed. This being the Nordic Arctic, and a conference where the university’s business school played a role, the exciting potential of Arctic development overshadowed worries about climate change or the rights of indigenous peoples. In the words of the BEAR adviser, “We cannot hinder business development in the Arctic.”

The undercurrent of the conference seemed to be that Norway’s high North represents the most well-positioned and well-developed of all the Arctic regions. Admittedly, however, possibly due to the plunge in the price of oil and the threat of climate change looming ever closer, one Norwegian admitted that things are looking a bit dimmer this year. “We all see a bright future, but that is not really the same kind of future as last year,” he said. But the Norwegian Arctic still seems to be shining brighter than the rest.

Bright lights, big city, all looking pretty. Bodo, Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Bright lights, big city, all looking pretty. Bodo, Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett.

With Arctic investment, China rediscovers its northern roots

China's icebreaker, Xue Long (Snow Dragon), on the ice. Photo: Timo Palo/Wikipedia

China’s icebreaker, Xue Long (Snow Dragon), on the ice. Photo: Timo Palo/Wikipedia

In May 2013, China gained observer status in the Arctic Council, the preeminent intergovernmental organization of the world’s northernmost region. China, along with South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, and Italy, joined the ranks of existing observer states like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain, to name a few. China’s newfound status does not allow the country any significant powers in the body. The group’s actual decision-makers remain the member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – all of which possess territory north of the Arctic Circle, and the permanent participants, constituting six indigenous peoples’ organizations. Despite the relative lack of power China has in the Arctic Council, many in the Arctic and elsewhere in the West still perceive a threat from the east to a northern region seen as a place that has always been “theirs.”

A closer examination of history reveals that the Arctic is hardly a frozen, isolated region unchanged since time immemorial. Nor has Asia always been so far removed from it. In 1644, the Manchus invaded Beijing from the north and established the three-century long Qing dynasty. As a Tungusic people, the Manchus trace their roots to Siberia, and prior to that, all the way back to an ancestral homeland in present-day northern Russia. After nearly four centuries, Han Chinese culture has almost completely assimilated Manchus. Many, however, can still be found in northeast China today, especially in Heilongjiang – China’s northernmost province and one that pops up in Chinese officials’ contemporary claims to being a “near-Arctic state”. Manchu, a highly endangered language, is part of the same Tungusic language family as Evenki. This is the tongue spoken by a traditionally reindeer-herding people living across the enormous swath of tundra and taiga stretching from the Arctic Ocean to Manchuria. In this light, China’s links to the Arctic are not just the result of a 21st century race for natural resources. They are more ancient and invisible than that.

China’s involvement in the Arctic and sub-Arctic is therefore less surprising given the long history of exchanges and encounters between various peoples in northern Eurasia. What is remarkable now though is the scale of Chinese investment across the Arctic. Chinese companies are investing in an iron ore mine in Greenland, offshore oil deposits off Iceland, natural gas development in Arctic Russia, and the construction of homes and schools in Sakha, to name just a few projects.

Of the Arctic countries, Russia has especially welcomed Chinese investment, exemplified by the $400 billion, 30-year gas deal between China National Petroleum Corporation and Gazprom in May 2014. The Kremlin recognizes that Chinese capital is crucial to developing its resource rich eastern region now more than ever due to U.S. and European sanctions. At the same time, many in Moscow fear that severe depopulation in the Russian Far East is turning this peripheral region into a vacuum, opening the door for a Chinese “invasion.” The situation in the Russian Far East is a microcosm for the Arctic, where many northern countries greet potential Chinese investment with equal parts anxiety and excitement.

Fears of Chinese, or more broadly Asian, activity in the extreme latitudes exemplify what Klaus Dodds, a professor of geography at Royal Holloway, has termed “Polar Orientalism.” A recent story in The Financial Times described the takeover of Greenland’s Isua iron ore mine by a privately owned Chinese mining company as “the first Arctic resources project to come under the full ownership of China.” For comparison’s sake, Cairn Energy, an independent Scottish oil and gas company, holds eleven licenses in Greenland with stakes that are close to full ownership, ranging from 87.5% to 92%. But when the company was awarded these licenses, journalists did not express similar concern about Scotland or the United Kingdom owning part of the Arctic.

The Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Six: Entering Suzhou and the Grand Canal, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), dated 1770. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Six: Entering Suzhou and the Grand Canal, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), dated 1770. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When considering the activities of the Chinese government and firms in the Arctic today, it is helpful to once again situate them within the longer history of the Middle Kingdom. Whereas the aforementioned Qing dynasty vastly expanded China’s territory through war and conquest, the preceding Ming dynasty spread its influence by encouraging expansive trade networks. Contemporary China draws more parallels with the Ming dynasty’s world of trade, transportation, and exchange rather than the Qing world of territorial expansion. Chinese officials have expressed interest in using the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which follows Russia’s northern coast, as a shipping shortcut between Asia and Europe. This recalls the Ming dynasty’s restoration of the Grand Canal between 1411 and 1415, which improved efficiency of domestic trade. Furthermore, China has no territorial claims to the Arctic. In 2010, China’s former Ambassador to Norway, Tang Guoqiang, remarked at a conference in Tromsø, Norway, “China respects the sovereignty of the Arctic regions of the countries which, in accordance with international law, enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Arctic.” Many other Chinese officials have since echoed his statement.

Certainly, Arctic residents have reason to be wary of Chinese investment. The country’s voracious appetite for commodities like minerals, oil, and gas may seem overwhelming at times. As the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide since 2007, there can be no doubt that China is partly responsible for exacerbating Arctic climate change. It also seeks to benefit from this massive environmental shift. State-owned China Ocean Shipping Company, for instance, was the first to send a container ship via the NSR, which is increasingly accessible due to melting sea ice. Although the Arctic shipping route promises to reduce shipping time between Europe and Asia by up to 40 percent, it will not compete with established sea lanes like the Panama Canal any time soon.

The same could be said of other Arctic resources that interest China, like oil and gas: expensive, hard to access, and still relatively unknown entities. Yet China continues to examine these transportation and resource alternatives in the northern latitudes because the country’s policymakers and businesspeople take a long-term view. This is a perspective that, if they are wise, will incorporate the environment, too. For though the Arctic is bountiful, it is also vulnerable to threats much more serious and real than Chinese “invasions.”

This post first appeared on March 16, 2015 on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog as part of a special series on China and the Arctic.