Arctic Satellite Image of the Week | Bárðarbunga: Of Lava Lakes and Reservoirs

NASA/USGS TrueColor Landsat 8 image of Bardarbunga and Halslon reservoir, September 6, 2014.

NASA/USGS TrueColor Landsat 8 image of Bardarbunga and Halslon Reservoir, September 6, 2014.

Iceland’s temperamental geography has gone haywire again with Bárðarbunga, the latest volcano to erupt under the Vatnajökull ice cap. It’s no secret that Iceland is the land of fire and ice, and the above remotely sensed image from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite captures those elements beautifully (link to full resolution). September 6 proved to be a clear day over southwest Iceland, allowing the ice cap to visibly stand in stark contrast to the streak of red hot lava flowing just to the north of it. The two enormous craters that have appeared in the ice cap are also visible, which Ben Orlove writes about in more detail over on Glacier Hub. It’s thought that the ice may have subsided due not to melting, but rather to the movement of magma underneath the ice. A few day prior, with its Earth Observing-1 satellite, NASA also captured some additional high-resolution images of the volcano and lava lake. Note that in the image above, NASA/USGS has rendered the colors so that the ice cap appears nearly blue. When I processed the image (link to full resolution), the ice cap appears white, but since I was unable to remove the smoke, the lava field is not as visible. I also generated a thermal image, below, using Landsat 8’s band 10. The lava field is definitely hot – especially when compared to the cold ice.

Landsat 8 thermal image (Band 10) over Bardarbunga and Halslon reservoir.

Landsat 8 thermal image (Band 10) over Bardarbunga and Halslon reservoir.

My rendering of the Landsat 8 image over Bardarbunga and Halslon Reservoir. September 6, 2014. Image: NASA/USGS.

My rendering of the Landsat 8 image over Bardarbunga and Hálslon Reservoir. September 6, 2014. Image: NASA/USGS.

There’s a lot more to this picture than just the lava field, however much as it catches the eye, for the satellite image contains both fire and water. On the right side, there is a feature that looks like big spindly lake, which is actually a giant 57-square kilometer reservoir. Called Hálslon Resevoir, this artificially-created body of water didn’t exist prior to 2006, when the area was deliberately flooded during construction of a huge dam, known as the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant. The Icelandic government’s decision to build this facility and associated aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður (east Iceland), owned and operated by the American company Alcoa, was one of the most controversial decisions in Iceland in recent years. The government even contradicted a recommendation by the Icelandic National Planning Agency not to move forward after it determined that there would be numerous negative consequences for the environment in its impact assessment. The government’s decision in favor of construction resulted in numerous protests and even a documentary called Draumalandið (Dreamland)A short clip of the film, which shows why people were so angry, is available on YouTube.

Aluminum production is extremely energy intensive. One kilogram of the material takes 18-26 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, whereas steel only requires 6 kwH, so companies naturally want to locate near powerful and clean sources of energy, like Iceland’s churning glacial rivers. Hydropower is not as environmentally friendly as it may seem, however, especially when it necessitates the flooding of land into which numerous Icelandic lava lakes could fit – not to mention pink-footed geese and caribou, species whose habitat was reduced by the reservoir. But many of the powers that be in Iceland, from the state-run energy company, Landsvirkjun, to the country’s banks, have a vested interest in hydropower and aluminum production. Aluminum – not fish – now represents Iceland’s single biggest export. Bjarni Mar Gylfason, chief economist for the Federation of Icelandic Industries, once noted, “We export energy in the form of aluminum.” Until subsea cables are built to the United Kingdom, there are few other ways ‘s simply no other way for Iceland to feasibly export its excess energy.

“Kárahnjúkar” became a byword for what many perceived to be the sell-out of the Icelandic government to developmental interests. Some have even hypothesized that the huge amount of foreign capital that flooded the country to fund the construction of the project could have been partly responsible for the Icelandic financial crisis in 2007-2008. A consortium of banks, including the UK’s Barclays, lent $400 million to Landsvirkjun to finance Kárahnjúkar ‘s construction, which cost over a billion dolars.

As a consolation prize for environmentalists and others who contested Kárahnjúkar for so long, the Icelandic government created what’s now the largest national park in the country: Vatnajökull National Park. Within the boundaries of this very park, Bárðarbunga is belching out its ash and lava. Had the volcano erupted some 44 kilometers to the east, it would have been right under the Hálslon reservoir, though the distance is almost too close for comfort as is. In the satellite image, you can see the ash cloud billowing out over the man-made lake. That ash cloud could deposit sediment into the reservoir, theoretically shortening the lifespan of the Fljótsdalur hydropower plant downstream. Sedimentation is already a potential problem for Hálslon due to the mineral-rich glacial rivers that feed into it. Once too much sediment becomes trapped in a reservoir, it can no longer provide as much power as intended.

If Hálslon Reservoir overflows, it can generate a waterfall more powerful than Dettifoss. Photo: Flickr/Richard Gould.

If Hálslon Reservoir overflows, it can generate a waterfall more powerful than Dettifoss. Photo: Flickr/Richard Gould.

Crazily, the waterfall that can be created next to the dam when the reservoir spills over can be more powerful than Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. Dettifoss also served, memorably, as the immense waterfall in the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus. Landsvirkjun boasts on its website:

“When the water level reaches the spillover level it creates the waterfall Hverfandi at the western end of the Kárahnjúka Dam, rushing down to the gorge rim and then surging downward 90-100 metres into the Hafrahvammagljúfur Gorge. The waterfall is powerful and can become more water rich than Dettifoss.”

So much for Iceland being a land of wild, unspoiled nature. Man’s ability to build things more powerful than some of the strongest forces in nature is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. What might also fall under those two descriptors is research currently being done by scientists with the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, who have managed to produce geothermal energy from magma. I can already see the commercial opportunities abounding for aluminum products. Coca-Cola cans: forged by volcanoes.

A close-up of the ash cloud and underlying lava. September 6, 2014. NASA/USGS.

A close-up of the ash cloud and underlying lava. Will they one day power the production of soda cans? September 6, 2014. NASA/USGS.

Putin’s Territories: From Crimea to Chukotka

At the eastern end of the Russian Federation, a boy in Chukotka stands with his huskies. Photo: Flickr/Misha Maslennikov

At the eastern end of the Russian Federation, a boy in Chukotka stands with his huskies. Photo: Flickr/Misha Maslennikov, Creative Commons license.

On an overcast day in August, Russian President Vladimir Putin put aside his phone calls to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to speak with graduate students and teachers attending the 10th All-Russian Youth Forum at Lake Seliger near Tver, a city a north of Moscow. Pro-Kremlin youth at the camp asked Putin about topics ranging from Ukraine to teachers’ wages. His responses generated headlines in newspapers like The Guardian (“Putin likens Ukraine’s forces to Nazis and threatens standoff in the Arctic”), with Western journalists fretting over his desire to strengthen the country’s position in the circumpolar north.

Despite the media frenzy, Putin’s statement was boilerplate when it comes to the Arctic. He hardly threatened a standoff. In fact, later in his answer, he mentioned that Russia’s militarization of the Arctic was being done in order to “secure the passage of convoys of ships and trade routes, and not in order to fight and confront someone out there.” Of course, these days, Putin’s words have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Regardless, more interesting than Putin’s boilerplate speech was his discussion of the administration and development of territories in the Arctic and elsewhere in Russia, including Crimea.

Though a seemingly wonkish topic, Putin’s brief overview illustrates the increasing reach of Moscow in the lives of people thousands of miles away from the capital, from Crimean Tatars to Chukchi dog mushers (who, it’s alleged, have “never been conquered by Russian troops” but were once governed by billionare Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and who also developed the Siberian husky breed). Since May 2012, Russia has had a Ministry for Development of Russian Far East. Since March 2014, it has also had a Ministry for Development of Crimean Affairs, and since May 2014, it has had a Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs. With the Russian Far East, Crimea, and the Caucasus all having their own dedicated federal ministries for development, these regions lying at Russia’s most distant ends are now all united under the iron fist of the Kremlin.

RussianFederalDevelopmentMinistriesMap From geopolitical disaster to renewed supergiant

This recent change in Russian governance may have prompted Elena Kryuchkov, a student from Nizhny Novgorod State University, to ask her question. After mentioning the geostrategic importance of the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route to Russia, she inquired (translated from the Kremlin’s official transcript, in Russian):

“What will be the territory of the Arctic zone and how will these the territories or parts of territories in the Arctic zones of Russia’s regions fall under federal jurisdiction?”

Putin, infamous for calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the “geopolitical disaster of the century,” reminded his audience of the vastness of Russia, which now stretches from Crimea in the southwest to Chukotka in the northeast. He began his lengthy answer to Elena’s question with:

“Regarding the Arctic – the most important region of Russia. In general, we have the greatest country in the world by area. You know, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was such a supergiant, still in today’s Russia – the largest country in the world by area – 70 percent of our territory belongs to the north or to the territories of the Far North, we must understand it.”

Putin speaks quite liberally when he says that 70% of Russia falls within the north (a word itself with a flexible definition); only 20% of the country actually falls north of the Arctic Circle. For comparison’s sake, 40% of Canada is considered to be in “The North,” generally perceived as the three territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. In Canada and Russia,  leaders express similar rhetoric about the vastness of their Arctic zones, whose tremendous size accords the regions special places in the national imaginations. Yet the Russian President is perhaps the most territorially minded of any leader of an Arctic state. It’s fitting, then, that at one point during his response about the Arctic, he referred to the region by saying, “Это наша территория” (Eto nasha territoriya) – translated normally into English as, “It’s our land,” but alternatively as: “It’s our territory.”

After noting the size of Russia’s Arctic region, Putin couldn’t avoid mentioning how his country would go about defending what he called “a special region: it is not only severe, but very promising.” Conjuring up images of missiles and submarines – a far cry from Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous speech about letting the Arctic become a “zone of peace” – Putin expressed:

“The Arctic plays for us a very important role in terms of our security because unfortunately, it’s the case that the United States has concentrated attack submarines not far from Norway’s coast, which can strike Moscow within 15 to 16 minutes, I remind you.

But there, too, is our fleet, a significant portion of our submarine fleet. And, you know, today it is easy enough to follow boats, but if they go under the ice of the Arctic, they are not visible. This is a big problem for those who need to monitor them. In general, the concentration of our interests is in the Arctic.”

And, of course, we must pay more attention to and development of the Arctic, and to strengthen our position there. We are doing this now, if you notice.  This applies to our plans to build a nuclear icebreaker fleet, it is for our plans to return to the individual territories, including the islands: to return economically and militarily.

The first sentence of this last paragraph, where Putin discusses strengthening the country’s position in the Arctic, is the one which The Guardian cited. But it’s actually the following sentences that are more interesting. Here, Putin underscores the importance of going back to the individual territories, including the islands, by which he means the islands along the Northern Sea Route. One such place is the New Siberian Islands, which is the site of a new year-round military installation, as the Barents Observer reports. Another island of interest is Wrangel Island,which falls under the jurisdiction of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and lies at the eastern end of the Northern Sea Route. Both the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island happen to fall within the Russian Far East, for which there is a relatively new federal ministry for development, just as there is for Crimea and, even more recently, the North Caucasus. This makes it easier for Moscow to directly oversee the Arctic islands’ development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to youth at Seliger-2014. © Press and Information Office of the President of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to youth at Seliger-2014. © Press and Information Office of the President of Russia.

The evolution of Russian governance – a “mockery of federalism”

Russia, like other federal countries including Canada and the United States, has different levels of subdivisions. Whereas Canada has provinces and territories and the U.S. has states, territories, and American Indian reservations, among others, Russia has six types of federal subjects: krais, oblasts, republics, federal cities, one autonomous oblast, and one autonomous okrug (Chukotka). Krais and oblasts are the most common type of political subdivision, and the two are relatively equivalent. Republics, such as Crimea and also Chechnya, tend to have ethnic minorities and are on paper more autonomous than a krai or oblast. They can have their own official languages, constitutions, and legislatures, for instance. Somewhat similarly, autonomous okrugs, like Chukotka or Yamalo-Nenets, also are home to ethnic minorities and are supposed to have increased legal rights. Federal cities are those such as St. Petersburg and Moscow. The March 2014 treaty (not recognized by most countries) between Russia and the Republic of Crimea turned the latter into a republic of Russia, while the city of Sevastapol became a federal city.


But that’s not all: since 2000, Russia has also been divided into federal districts, a reform made in order to “strengthen the unity of the state,” according to a federal decree. Russian scholar Dr. Cameron Ross, at the University of Dundee, has called these political reforms made by Putin “a mockery of federalism.”  Notably, the federal districts hew closely to the outlines of the country’s military districts. Each has a plenipotentiary representative who is appointed by and represents the Russian president, and the representative is supposed to ensure adherence to the Russian constitution and the execution of Russian federal law. 

The federal districts seem to be only growing in importance, especially given the recent proliferation of federal development ministries. Since the annexation of Crimea, there have been nine federal districts, and three of them now have a dedicated federal development ministry: the Far Eastern Federal District, the Crimean Federal District, and the North Caucasian Federal District. Moscow’s close oversight of these districts’ development outweighs the fact that these political subdivisions are composed of numerous republics and autonomous okrugs which should, in theory, be able to exercise more autonomy than krais or oblasts. The Russian Far East, for instance, is home to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, and a range of other subdivisions, while the North Caucasus includes six republics and one krai.

When Putin answered Elena’s question about the administration of Arctic territories, he actually instead discussed the administration of federal districts. He explained:

“Now, regarding the territorial-administrative division and the organization of work in these areas. We have a federal state and we have some territories that are all immersed in the subjects of the Russian Federation, which have certain rights in the management of these areas. There are some functions, which are assigned to the federal government, and some of the functions are assigned to the regional and local governments. Of course, in some cases, where special attention is required, we create … Yes, by the way, in some countries, in spite of their federal structure, some of the territories are under direct federal submission. This practice exists throughout the world, it’s true. By and large, though nothing prevents us from doing it, those plans have yet to materialize.

Look, now we have organized several regional ministries involved in territorial development: it is in the Far East, it is in the North Caucasus, it is in the Crimea and Sevastopol. We still need to understand how it works; it is necessary to realize it in practice. Even now, when everything is working, some experts tell us: it would be better if a deputy were at each ministry, a directly appointed deputy for some areas. Then, maybe it would work even more effectively. Because the Ministry of Regional Development was created, but in order to decide something, it must run it by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economic Development. But it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. It is necessary to see how it will work in all areas.”

So is Moscow moving towards more centralized administration of its federal districts? Even Putin does not know. But the mere inclusion of Crimea and the Russian Far East in the same sentence is geographically mind-boggling. The proliferation of dedicated federal ministries shows an increasing tendency for the Kremlin to centralize governance of its most far-flung regions, from the southwest to the northeast. To think that bureaucrats in Moscow could administer two areas thousands of miles apart, one near Turkey and the other close to Alaska, suggests that although Russia’s superpower status may have been in doubt, its “supergiant” status, to use Putin’s word, is unquestionable. It may be hard to believe, but already, it’s possible to get from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Asov Sea via the Northern Sea Route and Russia’s inland waterways leading south from Arkhangelsk via Moscow to Rostov-na-Donu.

Chukotka: People walking at the edge of empire. Photo: Flickr/Ivan Frolov, Creative Commons license.

Chukotka: People walking at the edge of empire. Photo: Flickr/Ivan Frolov, Creative Commons license.

Further reading

The entire section of the transcript regarding the Arctic is worth reading, so I have copied it from the Kremlin’s website below, translating it from Russian to English using Google Translate and making a few grammatical corrections myself with my limited knowledge of Russian.

***
All-Russian Youth Forum “Seliger-2014″
August 29, 2014 | Tver, Russia

E. KRYUCHKOVA: Good afternoon! Kryuchkov Elena, Nizhny Novgorod State University named after Lobachevsky.

Our question is this. It is known that the Arctic today represents one of the most important regions in the world, because there are concentrated the main strategic resources. And at the same time, the Arctic is a region of geo-strategic interests of Russia, because we are talking about the development of the Northern Sea Route, the development of land areas, the development of technology in general, the development, of course, resources and at the same time maintaining the stability of the ecological system. In our view, the Arctic can be attributed, perhaps, to the national project of Russia. And in connection with this question, please tell me, what will be the territory of the Arctic zone and how will these the territories or parts of territories in the Arctic zones of Russia’s regions fall under federal jurisdiction?”

If it is possible, let express request from the Nizhny Novgorod delegation – to be able to take a picture with you after the meeting. Thank you.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Regarding the Arctic – the most important region of Russia. In general, we have the greatest country in the world by area. You know, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was such a supergiant, still in today’s Russia – the largest country in the world by area – 70 percent of our territory belongs to the north or to the territories of the Far North, we must understand it.

As for the Arctic, it is a special region: it is not only severe, but it is very promising. Once, Lomonosov said that Russia will grow through Siberia – and in fact the way it happens, it will grow precisely through the Arctic. And not just because there is a huge, global, I would say – general planetary mineral reserves, we are talking about gas, oil and metals on – but also because it is an extremely convenient area for the development of transportation infrastructure.

Here, there is the Northern Sea Route, which we have begun to revive. You’ve probably read about it many times yourself, probably, the students talk about it, it will be quite a strong competitor to all existing transport links, which are designed to minimize the cost of business in transporting goods.


The Arctic plays for us a very important role in terms of our security because unfortunately, it’s the case that the United States has concentrated attack submarines not far from Norway’s coast, which can strike Moscow within 15 to 16 minutes, I remind you.

But there, too, is our fleet, a significant portion of our submarine fleet. And, you know, today it is easy enough to follow boats, but if they go under the ice of the Arctic, they are not visible. This is a big problem for those who need to monitor them. In general, the concentration of our interests is in the Arctic.

And, of course, we must pay more attention to and development of the Arctic, and to strengthen our position there. We are doing this now, if you notice.  This applies to our plans to build a nuclear icebreaker fleet, it is for our plans to return to the individual territories, including the islands: to return economically and militarily.


Just recently, I hope you saw it, (we) carried out a military assault landing there – peaceful, not belligerent. This is our land, we will be there to revive this whole military infrastructure, Ministry of Emergency Situations infrastructure, including because we need to secure the passage of convoys of ships and trade routes, and not in order to fight and confront someone out there.

Many perceive our activities as a wary, scared of this activity. We have said many times that we act solely in the framework of international law. We’ve always acted, and so intend to act in the future. There’s a lot of interests of other states. We will consider these interests and to achieve acceptable compromises – of course, defending their own interests.

Now, regarding the territorial-administrative division and the organization of work in these areas. We have a federal state and we have some territories that are all immersed in the subjects of the Russian Federation, which have certain rights in the management of these areas. There are some functions, which are assigned to the federal government, and some of the functions are assigned to the regional and local governments. Of course, in some cases, where special attention is required, we create … Yes, by the way, in some countries, in spite of their federal structure, some of the territories are under direct federal submission. This practice exists throughout the world, it’s true. By and large, though nothing prevents us from doing it, those plans have yet to materialize.

Look, now we have organized several regional ministries involved in territorial development: it is in the Far East, it is in the North Caucasus, it is in the Crimea and Sevastopol. We still need to understand how it works; it is necessary to realize it in practice. Even now, when everything is working, some experts tell us: it would be better if a deputy were at each ministry, a directly appointed deputy for some areas. Then, maybe it would work even more effectively. Because the Ministry of Regional Development was created, but in order to decide something, it must run it by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economic Development. But it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. It is necessary to see how it will work in all areas.


In addition, some of the things of a social nature, even in the use of natural resources, one way or another, it is necessary to agree with the people who live in the territories. Take, for example, ecological issues: while complying with ecological requirements for the production of raw materials, including hydrocarbons in these northern territories, this production and this work should be carried out so as not to disrupt the natural way of life and the economy, the natural lifestyles that have existed for centuries and the economic activity of the local population. Whether it’s possible to have it all finely adjusted from Moscow, I do not know, not sure. But what you suggested, has a certain sense, we will calmly watch how this work comes, as we have no such plans. 

***

Field Notes from Greenland: The Muskox Economy

A muskox decorates the roof of a house in Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A muskox decorates the roof of a house in Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

“I just had muskox Thai curry at the only restaurant in town,” I messaged my friend after dinner one night in Kangerlussuaq at the Polar Bear Inn.

“Greenland has restaurants?” she replied.

Yes, Greenland has restaurants. This isn’t so surprising once you consider that 57,000 people inhabit this Arctic island. Those restaurants often serve muskox, a staple of Greenlandic cuisine and an important element of many local economies in this corner of the world. In Kangerlussuaq, the furry bovine is even the mascot for the annual “Running of the Moskus,” a 5K/Half Marathon whose proceeds benefit the local school trip to Copenhagen. Muskox originally lived in northern Canada and northern Greenland, yet the species has been reintroduced to southern Greenland, where it now thrives [1]. It’s common to spot the animals from the main road up to the ice, grazing together in small herds.

Five brown lumps, actually muskox, sitting on the banks of the Watson River. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Five brown lumps, actually muskox, sitting on the banks of the Watson River. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Fishing and mining are often the first things that come to mind when discussing Greenland’s economy, for they are the sectors that bring in the most money. Fishing, mostly of shrimp and halibut, generated 89% of exports in 2010. Mining, which resumed in 2006, only constitutes a small amount of exports. Megaprojects like aluminium smelters and iron ore mines grab all the headlines even though more local, artisanal sectors like hunting and knitting – both tied in many instances to muskox – are still of vital importance. Hunting, in fact, employs 10 percent of the population directly and indirectly [2].

A dead muskox hunted by trophy hunters in the back of a truck. © Daniel Nichita, August 2014.

A dead muskox hunted by trophy hunters in the back of a truck. © Daniel Nichita.

In Greenland, hunting takes place under the categories of both subsistence hunting and trophy hunting. Hunters from Denmark, the U.S., Russia, Poland, and Germany, among other countries, pay up to $8,650 to companies like Greenland Outfitters for the privilege of hunting and keeping an animal head. The price which includes the fee for the “trophy,” lodging, flights, food, etc. With trophy hunting, the parts of the body that the hunter doesn’t keep are often used for food or fur in Greenland.

Nowadays, the government prohibits the pursuit of muskox or caribou from an ATV, making it more difficult to provide luxurious trophy hunting trips. This restriction didn’t sit well with some hunters who have felt at odds with the government, especially since pro-mining Siumut became the largest party in parliament (though shy of holding a majority) in 2013. With Greenland’s new tourism slogan “Be a Pioneer,” it’s clear that the government wants to look forward to modern, industrial development schemes like mining rather than backward to hunting and fishing.

Curious curries

Greenland in a nutshell: Muskox panang, a pepperoni pizza, and Coca-Cola. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Greenland in a nutshell: Muskox red curry, a pepperoni pizza, and Coca-Cola bottled in Nuuk. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Muskox meat is sold to restaurants like the Polar Bear Inn in Kangerlussuaq, which feeds locals, scientists, and members of the military staying in town, and also the high-end restaurant Roklubben (Row Club) on the shores of nearby Lake Ferguson, which caters to the more well-heeled tourist crowd. The Polar Bear Inn is run by Thai people, originally from a village northeast of Bangkok [3]. The fact that Thai people are running a restaurant in the Arctic isn’t that unusual, for there is also a large Thai population in Svalbard, the archipelago north of Norway. The Polar Bear Inn’s restaurateurs have adapted their home cuisine in order to work with Greenland’s limited provisions. Most of the vegetables are frozen, the rice is plain, never coconut, and you can forget your Thai iced tea. But on the menu, next to the typical “Chicken,” “Beef,” and “Shrimp” sections is the “Musk” section, which features delights such as muskox curry and muskox tom yum soup rather than the boring old fare of pad thai and chicken satay. You can choose between the standard options of red, green, or yellow curry – though personally, I found the muskox panang to be a real winner.

Musk Section.Thai food is not all that the Polar Bear Inn serves. No town in the world is a town without a pizzeria, even in the Arctic. So naturally, the restaurant also dishes out personal-size pizzas with all sorts of toppings, including muskox. The muskox supreme seemed to be a favorite with the visiting Danish soldiers. A strange combination of thinly sliced muskox, gorgonzola cheese, canned mushrooms, peppers, and chili sits atop a circle of pizza dough. The Guardian recently published an article on Britain’s crimes against international cuisine, but I think it is high time for a follow-up story on the abominations of Greenlandic cuisine, the muskox supreme being one of them.

Out of the frying pan, into the weaving loom

Dyed muskox wool. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Dyed muskox wool on a workshop table and two headbands in the bottom right. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Aside from being chopped up into curries or sliced on top of pizzas, muskox is also used for its wool (qiviut). The brown, fluffy, and incredibly soft fiber is cleaned, shipped to Denmark, where it is turned into yarn, and then sent back to Kangerlussuaq. There, a local artist dyes or hand-paints it, with the colors inspired by scenes from Greenlandic nature. A red, orange, and purple painted yarn recalls the sunset, while the pinkish-purple yarn evokes the niviarsiaq, a flower that grows throughout the tundra. Sweaters, hats, headbands, and mittens are just some of the muskox wool accessories you can purchase at stores like Niviarsiaq. A hat costs about DKK 500 (USD $88 USD), while a sweater goes for about DKK 3000 DKK (USD $528).

Muskox fur. © Mia Bennett.

Fluffy muskox fur. © Mia Bennett.

Having only visited Kangerlussuaq, I can’t say if the muskox economy is as prominent elsewhere in Greenland. But I can say that muskox is not the only animal product sold in Kanger. Dog fur is turned into mittens. Bone is carved into miniature toy dogsled sets. Raw caribou meat is sometimes sold on a tarp right outside the local outlet of Pilersuisoq, the national grocery store chain. (In fact, on second thought, it may be better to say that in Greenland, no town is a town without a Pilersuisoq. Just look at their incredible store locations map – yes, they are even in Siorapaluk, the world’s northernmost inhabited settlement, which is even north of Thule/Qaanaaq.) Sealskin is turned into leather for boots and coats, a product whose export has declined by 90% after the European Union banned its import in 2010 despite limited exemptions for certain Inuit production. The ban has caused significant hardship for people who once depended on sealskin products for part of their income.

Caribou meat for sale outside Pilersuisoq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Caribou meat for sale outside Pilersuisoq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Much of the talk about Greenland’s economy focuses on the fish and minerals, but it’s also the large mammals romping around its tundra and swimming in its seas that provide for many peoples’ livelihoods. This is a fact of life in many places in the Arctic, and one that does not mesh well with the insatiable resource demands of industrialized capitalist economies. In a story from March 2014, the Arctic Journal quoted Leif Fontaine, chairman of the hunting and fishing lobbying group KNAPK, as testifying to the Danish parliament’s Greenland Committee:

“Imagine if the activity you and your ancestors had lived off for centuries was labelled as deplorable and barbaric. That is the label we feel the EU has put on our hunting.”

While the EU bans imports of seal products, it hasn’t outright banned imports of products like gold, diamonds, and rubies, even though there are just as many concerns over their provenance and production. Mining causes large-scale devastation to the landscape and its flora and fauna in a way that is arguably more harmful to the overall health of the environment than sealing. Under the current system of global capital, industrial processes and mega-projects that have the capacity to both generate (and lose) huge sums of money, such as mining, tend to triumph over small-scale, lower-return sectors like hunting and sealing. The irony of discourses surrounding Arctic development is that mining can be marketed as sustainable while sealing is considered barbaric.

The muskox economy versus the Arctic Economic Council

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Sealskins awaiting processing. © Mia Bennett.

The Arctic Council’s newly formed sub-group, the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), is having its inaugural meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada today and tomorrow. Already, Canada, whose priority as Arctic Council chair is “development for the people of the North,” views the AEC as one of its leading accomplishments during its chairmanship, which will end in spring 2015. Looking at the list of representatives from each of the Arctic Council member states and permanent participants who will attend the meeting, it’s clear that mining, oil and gas, and shipping all are well-represented, while truly renewable and sustainable sectors are under-represented.

When many of the people living in the Arctic – those employed by the muskox economy, the caribou economy, or the seal economy – aren’t able to attend the meetings where dramatic changes to their land and resources are discussed, there is a problem. Mining companies like Baffinland and Agnico-Eagle may be headquartered in Arctic countries, but their main offices are in the southern reaches of those countries in places like Toronto. What’s more, these global corporations are footloose: if their investments in mines in the Arctic don’t work out, they can move to Africa or South America, whereas a Greenlander cannot. While plans for mining forge ahead, the muskox economy is relegated to a smaller and smaller corner of the tundra.

The end of the muskox economy? © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The end of the muskox economy? © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Notes
[1] Source: NOAA, Arctic Report Card.

[2] Source: Greenland Representation to the EU, Brussels.

[3] In case you were wondering, Kanger’s two Thai restaurateurs escape the cold by going home once a year, which is probably not too arduous a trip thanks to the direct flight from Kanger to Copenhagen, and then the non-stop Copenhagen to Bangkok long-haul flight, offered by both Thai Airways and SAS.