Rhetorical or real, Russian expansionism threatens the Arctic

Military bases and airfields along the Northern Sea Route that Russia is restoring.

Military bases and airfields along the Northern Sea Route that Russia plans to restore. The newly acquired “Peanut Hole” in the Sea of Okhotsk is also displayed.

In October 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared, “The Soviet Union is in favor of a radical lowering of the level of military confrontation in the region. Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace.” Today, news stories about Russian activities in the Arctic make that speech seem like a very distant memory.

Russia Today triumphantly reports that Russian military bases will span the country’s entire Arctic coastline by the end of 2014, “just a year after Moscow announced its ambitious plan to build military presence in the region.” Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claims, “By the end of the year we will already deploy most of our units in the region – from Murmansk to Chukotka.” Severomorsk, the city that is the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet, will be the core of the new Joint Strategic Command along with the new strike force. Thousands of kilometers to the east, Tiksi, in the Sakha Republic, will serve as the base for Russia’s Arctic Air Force. Airfields are also reportedly being brought up to speed in Vorkuta, a coal-mining city in the Komi Republic, and Anadyr, at the country’s eastern edge. An article in another state-owned Russian news agency, ITAR-TASS, quoted President Vladimir Putin: “The fact that we restore it – what was lost. I’ll see,” referring to the restoration of all of these former Soviet military bases in the Arctic. This fixation with getting back what the Soviet Union once had, from Crimea to Arctic military bases, is no passing fancy of the Russian leader. A map of Soviet naval bases on Wikipedia, however, illustrates just how much work he might have cut out for him in returning Russia to a Soviet level of military presence in the Arctic, as the USSR invested a significant amount of money and resources into constructing military bases.

Towards “mastery of the North” and the militarization of Arctic environmental protection

Whether or not this military infrastructure is actually ever (re-)built in the Russian Arctic, the Kremlin’s plans fit into a longer history of Russian and Soviet desires to achieve “mastery of the North” (освоение севера) [1]. The word “освоение” (mastery) can also be translated as “development,” meaning that the Russian language takes mastery and development to be one and the same. It’s therefore possible that a typical Russian perspective might not see an area as mastered or controlled unless it was developed – hence why, unfortunately, development would traditionally be preferred over environmental conservation in order to guarantee Russia’s sovereignty over its Arctic region. One exception to that, however, might be the news that the country’s Northern Fleet is planning to create an Arctic environmental center to monitor and improve the region’s ecological status. This represents, in effect, the militarization of environmental protection in the Arctic.

The 20th-century Russian polar explorer Leonid Starakadomskiy (after whom an island in the Northern Sea Route is named) expressed,

“It is enough to note, that the Arctic Ocean washes the whole of the northern part of the sovereign shore of Asiatic Russia and represents the single open ocean connecting our far eastern possessions with European Russia” [2].

One hundred years later, nothing has changed. The Achilles’ heel of Russia’s vastness is that it has always struggled to knit together its enormous territory, causing an obsessive and defensive attitude in Moscow as it attempts to achieve this.The development of the Northern Sea Route can be seen as a maritime counterpoint to the land corridor that some commentators believe Russia yearns to establish from the mainland to the newly annexed Crimea. Development of the Arctic shipping lane would connect western Russia, where the bulk of the population lies, to the country’s newly acquired, resource-rich territory in the Sea of Okhotsk – 52,000 square kilometers of ocean space and seafloor, sometimes referred to as the “peanut hole,” that the United Nations designated as part of the country’s continental shelf this past March in a ruling that slipped under the radar as the conflict in Ukraine was boiling over [3].

Russian state-owned media: speaking too soon?

As a state-owned media outlet, RT could possibly be overstating the extent of Russia’s drive into the Arctic. Someone once mentioned to me during a conversation about Russia’s plans to build ten search and rescue stations along the Northern Sea Route: “When Russia says that something is under construction, that means it’s still in the planning stages. When they say it’s been built, that means its under construction.” In other words, news coming out of Russia might be one step ahead of the game.

Similarly, in describing the plentiful oil and gas resources located in the Arctic, RT mentions how “as technologies have advanced, more and more of those hydrocarbons have become recoverable and viable.” They conveniently forget to note how Western-imposed sanctions have made those very hydrocarbons less recoverable and viable. Earlier this month, for instance, despite the fact that ExxonMobil and Rosneft struck oil in the first well they drilled in the Kara Sea, the American oil major was forced to withdraw due to sanctions, putting the project on thin ice even as Rosneft vows to carry on.

RT also tries to put the militarization of the Arctic in a good light. “Despite concerns from environmentalists,” the story explains, “Shoigu said that the military would play a positive role in safeguarding the unique Arctic environment, and said that units are already engaged in a program of clearing up debris “that has accumulated for centuries.” But where did that debris come from? Largely, military activities in the Arctic. A single storage facility on the Kola Peninsula holds some 20,000 discarded nuclear fuel rods from nuclear submarines and nuclear-powered icebreakers. This debris isn’t just a Russian problem: Alaska, for example, has 700 military sites, many of which have been abandoned, while the Cold War-era Distant Early Warning Line has also left its mark across much of the North American Arctic and Greenland.

Environmental consequences of militarization

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

An article in The Barents Observer highlighted how Putin stressed that militarization would not harm the ever-iconic polar bear. But even if military activities do not directly impact polar bears, militarization of the Arctic will. Polar bears are a circumpolar species that requires international cooperation for protection. In fact, one of the first major circumpolar Arctic treaties was the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, signed in 1973 by Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway (Svalbard), the Soviet Union, and the United States, and it is still in effect today. But when militarization heats up in the Arctic, countries lose the motivation to work towards international environmental agreements.

On that cold day in Murmansk so many Octobers ago, Gorbachev encouraged military détente in the Arctic. Today, as an alleged Russian submarine idles in the Gulf of Bothnia somewhere off Stockholm, one wonders what the former world leader, now spending his days in Moscow, must think of the situation in the circumpolar north. If nothing else, let’s hope he’s popped in an old VHS tape of The Hunt for Red October.


[1] For more on this concept, see John Tichotsky’s book, Russia’s Diamond Colony: The Republic of Sakha (2000).

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

[3] For a deep analysis of the ruling and its implications, see John R. Haines’ article, “Ali Baba’s Cave’: The Sea of Okhotsk’s Contentious Triangle” (2014).

Greenland’s political crisis concerns locals and foreign investors alike

Greenland's Former Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond addresses attendees at Arctic Frontiers, January 2014. © Mia Bennett.

Greenland’s former prime minister Aleqa Hammond addresses attendees at Arctic Frontiers, January 2014. © Mia Bennett.

Yesterday morning, mining company Rare Earth Minerals (REM) announced that it had discovered rare earth minerals within its licensed areas near Narsarsuaq, in southern Greenland. Listed on the Australian stock exchange, REM is one of several companies from Down Under investing in mineral exploration on this Arctic island. REM’s four exploration licenses in Greenland are in close proximity to Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited’s (GMEL) Kvanefjeld project, perhaps the country’s biggest and most promising rare earth minerals site. GMEL, too, is Australian. Thanks to all of the mining that has taken place in the red, sandy deserts of Western Australia, numerous companies have developed expertise that can be applied as far away as the Arctic.

REM’s CEO explained in a press release,

“The discovery of a new Rare Earth Element deposit east of the world class Kvanefjeld REE project is significant for REM….some of these samples contain significant quantities of neodymium oxide, which is a critical rare earth oxide or CREO as defined by the US Department of Energy. This along with the proximity of these results to two of the world’s largest REE deposits, is very encouraging indeed.”

Neodymium oxide is used to make lasers and colored glasses, such as sunglasses. That means that in the future, beach-goers at more southern latitudes could be looking through a little bit of Greenland as they watch the warm waves crash on the shore. But due to the political crisis rocking Greenland, that day has slipped further into the future.

Political crisis could jeopardize mining projects

Just a year and a half ago, the Siumut party cruised to victory following an election dominated by the mining issue and the question of whether to import thousands of foreign workers. After winning a close (15-14) vote in Parliament last October to overturn the ban on uranium mining, Siumut and its coalition partner, Atassut, fulfilled Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond’s promises to promote the extractive sector.

Yet the victories of 2013 have abruptly become a distant memory for Hammond. She has had to resign in the wake of accusations that she used more than DKK 100,000 (USD $17,000) in state funds for personal expenses, including flights, hotel, and minibar expenses for her family members, according to Greenlandic newspaper Sermitsiaq. The allegations are all the more ironic in light of her official biography, which notes,

“Aleqa loves to spend time with her family, which are very important for her. Often the children are brought along, when she goes to work or while travelling. It is important for Aleqa that the children get to know both of her ”worlds”.”

Two ministers from her own party, including the mining and natural resources minister Jens-Erik Kierkegaard, and two ministers from the Atassut party also resigned. The parliamentary coalition has collapsed, as many members of Atassut have now sided with the opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA). Kierkegaard was supposed to travel to China to meet with investors, but that trip has now been cancelled. Siumut party member Kim Kielsen, Minister for Nature and the Environment, has stepped in as acting prime minister. Greenland will now hold elections on November 28.

Greenland’s political instability makes it risky territory for investors from all corners of the world. As I’ve stated before on this blog, however, political instability – whether in Russia or in Greenland – is often good news for environmentalists, since developmental interests shy away from tumultuous investment grounds. While REM’s press release does not mention anything about the political tumult in Greenland, it’s sure to be preoccupying the minds of the company’s board members. Sara Olsvig, the leader of IA, wants to revisit the uranium mining question with a nationwide referendum to make sure that all people’s voices are heard rather than just those of parliamentarians. If the people of Greenland vote to reinstate the ban, that could jeopardize certain agreements that the Greenlandic government has already made with several mining companies.

Little political apathy in Greenland

Never too young to get involved: protestors in Nuuk gathered outside parliament last year to fight overturning a ban on uranium mining. © William Davies, 2013.

Never too young to get involved: protestors in Nuuk gathered outside parliament last October to fight overturning a ban on uranium mining. Photo courtesy © William Davies, 2013.

A referendum would likely attract a lot of public debate in Greenland, where political involvement is already high. 74.2% of eligible voters participated in the 2013 elections. Earlier this month, before Hammond officially stepped down, 600 protesters called for her resignation outside parliament in Nuuk. In a city of about 16,000 people, this represents close to four percent of the population. Imagine an equivalent in a place like London, where the population tops 8 million. This would mean some 316,000 people outside 10 Downing calling for David Cameron’s resignation – numbers that are hard to imagine.

The average person in Greenland might be more invested in politics than the average Westerner because what gets decided in Nuuk can instantly have a bigger impact than it might in, say, the United States, where new policies have to filter down through numerous bureaucracies. In a place where you can walk down the street and run into the (now former) prime minister, who the local newspaper simply refers to by first name, there’s no such thing as high politics. Instead, they’re part and parcel of daily life. A hunter I encountered in Kangerlussuaq this past summer complained about the government policy first implemented in 2013/2014 prohibiting winter and spring hunting. Whereas such a regulation in the U.S. might only affect a small proportion of the population, in Greenland, where ten percent of the population is directly or indirectly employed by the hunting sector, such a seemingly arcane decision exerts a much bigger impact. Scale up such policy debates to the level of rare earth mining, and you have a much bigger issue on your hands with the potential to affect quality of life and the pursuit of traditional livelihoods for a great deal more than 10 percent of the population.

Political crisis could ground Air Greenland flights

Mining questions aside, the political tumult is already affecting the ability for Greenlanders to plan for next year. A decision on whether to operate the summertime Air Greenland route between Iqaluit and Nuuk in 2015 will be up in the air until after the election, according to CBC. The airline needs politicians in both cities to commit to buying seats in order for the route to be financially viable. Worse yet, ten other domestic Air Greenland routes have yet to be confirmed for next year, as they depend on government subsidies that have not yet been decided. In a country with no roads in between communities, these air routes are often the only way of getting around, even between locations that are close to each other as the crow flies, like Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq.  Boats and ferries offer an alternative, but they are slower and not always available due to weather conditions. In short, Aleqa Hammond’s decision to fly her relatives around the world could render it impossible for many in Greenland to take a short plane ride to see their own relatives nearby.

Up to ten Air Greenland routes are up in the air pending government subsidies, which cannot be decided until after the November 28 elections. Photo: © Mia Bennett.

Up to ten Air Greenland routes are up in the air pending government subsidies, which cannot be decided until after the November 28 elections. Photo: © Mia Bennett.

NASA Satellite Imagery Reveals the Arctic at Night

Composite image of night lights in the Arctic, as imaged in April and October 2012 by SUOMI NPP's Day/Night Band. Data downloaded from NASA Earth Observatory.

Composite image of night lights above 60°N (with the Arctic Circle also included for reference), as imaged in April and October 2012 with SUOMI NPP’s Day/Night Band. Data downloaded from NASA Earth Observatory. Click for full resolution.

In winter, the Arctic is considered to be a dark and dreary place save for when the northern lights shimmer and cascade across the polar skies. Yet even on a night when the aurora borealis are not putting on their performance, many parts of the Arctic are still brightly illuminated. Thanks to the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, jointly operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and put successfully into orbit on October 28, 2011, we can now see this in spectacular detail. 

Whereas many phenomena in the Arctic were previously difficult for satellites to image in wintertime due to the lack of daylight, SUOMI NPP’s Day/Night Band can clearly detect manmade and natural developments, like shipping, oil and gas development, and sea ice break-up at night, with or without lunar illumination. Its resolution is a little bit coarse – 750 meters – but its sensitivity is impressive, allowing it to detect light from a source as small as a street lamp. You may have seen some images from the satellite already, such as of the Nile Delta aglow or of the Korean Peninsula, where the contrast in artificial lighting between the two countries is as stark as day and night.

The image at the top of this post, a composite of cloud-free images taken in April and October 2012, depicts the earth north of 60°N, with the Arctic Circle included for reference as well. I downloaded the GeoTIFFs from NASA Earth Observatory and displayed them in ArcMap using the Polar Azimuthal Equal Area projection.

NorwayNightLights Norway’s well-developed Arctic coastline bustles with activity from the Lofoten Islands, past  Hammerfest and around the North Cape (Nordkapp). The lights then continue along Russia’s northwest coastline on the Kola Peninsula. Here, the city of Murmansk – the largest north of the Arctic Circle – forms a distinct point of light.

Iceland, too, has lots of activity around its coasts, especially near Reykjavik. However, south of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s ice cap, there is a desolate stretch of dark coastline, where the unforgiving sandur - glacial sands – stretch out to sea. In Canada, a few places twinkle in the Northwest Passage and along the Dempster Highway leading from Whitehorse to Tuktoyaktuk, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Greenland is dark save for a tiny spot of light at Nuuk, its capital. The shape of the island overall, however, is visible thanks to the reflectivity of its ice cap. Ice reflects moonlight more readily than water, which is why in the above image, polar sea ice has a lighter shade of blue than the surrounding ocean. This phenomenon, the albedo effect, is the same reason why as the ice shrinks, less sunlight is reflected back into space. Instead, more is absorbed by the darker seas, which in turn expand and warm.

UrengoyNightLightsBut the places that blaze most brilliantly of all are the oil and gas production sites. Alaska’s North Slope appears brighter than even the big cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks. In Russia, the sources of light don’t seem to correspond at all with where the population centers are. Looking at this image, one might think that northwest Siberia was full of cities jammed up tight against one another. In fact, these are the lights of the Urengoy gas field, the second largest in the world. NASA already removed the gas flares from the composite image during processing, meaning that these are just the lights from places like camps and small settlements built around the hubs of industrial activity. Were the gas flares to be included, Urengoy would appear even brighter. Russia is the world’s biggest practicer of this wasteful activity, used to burn off natural gas produced during oil extraction that cannot be consumed or exported. It costs the country some $5 billion annually, according to the World Bank.

Sadly, all of these artificial sources of light emitted from the ground can make it impossible to see the aurora. Skyscrapers and neon billboards glitter in global metropolises like New York City or Tokyo, but only a handful of stars are visible in the sky. Just as the Manhattan skyline will never compare to the Milky Way, I doubt the gas flares and bright lights of Urengoy will ever hold a candle to the northern lights. To see them in their full glory, you need to go somewhere unspoiled by artificial lighting. While it’s easier to find pitch black conditions in the Arctic than in most other regions in the world, the image above is a reminder that even places we think are wild and unpopulated – like northwest Russia – are often blindingly lit.

SUOMI NPP is so sensitive to low light that it can even detect swaths of bioluminscent plankton, which sometimes grace the Arctic’s seas. But I’m not sure if there’s any consolation in the fact that even though we can now manufacture satellites that detect everything from aurora to bioluminescence, we’ve become less able to see these phenomena from our earthly perches.

The aurora as viewed from Å, Lofoten, Norway. © Mia Bennett, January 2013.

The aurora as viewed on a dark night from Å, Lofoten, Norway. © Mia Bennett, January 2013.