Mapping and Distorting the Arctic

The view of the Mississippi River from the University of Minnesota's campus. © Mia Bennett

The view of the Mississippi River from the University of Minnesota’s campus. © Mia Bennett

I’m here at the University of Minnesota’s Polar Boot Camp, which is run by the on-campus Polar Geospatial Center (PGC). The PGC was established in 2007 and is funded by the National Science Foundation, a United States government agency. Though it’s only seven years old, the PGC, which has an $8 million budget, already provides a large amount of support in the way of mapping and remote sensing services for scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic. They’ve produced maps on everything from trails around McMurdo Station to mummified seals in the area. This is the PGC’s first-ever boot camp, and its purpose is to teach students skills in GIS, cartography, and remote sensing as they apply to the poles.

Web Mercator - Avoid for the Arctic! © ESRI

Web Mercator – Avoid for the Arctic and Antarctic! © ESRI

Today, Brad Herried, a cartographer and web developer at the PGC, gave a talk on polar mapping. Producing accurate maps of the poles is arguably more difficult than it is for other areas of the world such as the equator. Herried explained that this is due to four main reasons. First, all lines of longitude converge at the poles. 0 degrees west becomes the same as 180 degrees west. Two, you cross the “dreaded” 180° line in mapping. Three, north is not always north; on many polar maps with the North Pole at the center, for instance, going towards the center (as opposed to going “up”) is going north. And four, some defaults and standard projections aren’t appropriate for the poles, such as the Web Mercator projection. This projection makes Greenland appear larger than Africa even though the world’s largest island is a mere 1/14 the size of the continent, an issue which has been called “the Greenland problem.” Consequently, Web Mercator should never be used for mapping the Arctic or Antarctic, unless you really want to give some disproportionate cartographic weight to these parts of the globe.

All projections are going to require compromises. Some will preserve distance and local shapes, such as the Mercator projection, yet area will become increasingly distorted as you move towards the poles, as demonstrated with the example above. 

Example of WGS1984 NSIDC Polar Stereographic North projection. From NSIDC.

Example of WGS1984 NSIDC Polar Stereographic North projection. From NSIDC.


So in the Arctic, as anywhere, some projections are better than others. For this northernmost part of the world, there are two projections that are ideal. First, there’s WGS84 NSIDC Sea Ice Polar Stereographic North. That may seem like a mouthful of acronyms, but basically, WGS84 refers to the World Geodetic System made in 1984, while NSIDC is the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based out of Boulder, Colorado. Stereographic projections are a way of projecting a sphere, like the earth, onto a flat surface, while maintaining angles. The NSIDC uses this projection to map its sea ice data products.

Second, the Alaska Albers Equal Area Conic projection is another good one to use, at least for the U.S. Arctic. As the title suggests, Albers equal area projections preserve area accurately. Since conic projections project the sphere of the earth onto a cone, they differ from stereographic ones, which fall into the category of planar projections. As mentioned above, these project the earth onto a flat (rather than conical) surface. For more on map projections and surfaces, check out Geokov.

The UN Flag uses a

The UN Flag uses a Polar Azimuthal Equidistant projection.

Herried didn’t mention the Polar Azimuthal Equidistant projection, but many use it – most famously the United Nations on its flag. Azimuthal equidistant projections are able to depict the entire planet’s landmass while maintaining accurate distances and directions to all points along a straight line from the center of the map. In a polar azimuthal equidistant map, the center is either the North or South Pole. In the case of the UN flag, it’s the North Pole. It’s no surprise that the countries of the more powerful Northern Hemisphere (the Global North, anyone?) are at the center of the map.

These two above projections focus on optimally representing distance, area, and shape while avoiding distortion. There are, however, many other projections that deliberately alter one or more of these categories. Cartographic accuracy is forsaken for the visual benefit of the mapmaker. This being the Cryopolitics blog, let’s explore those alterations a bit.

Deliberate distortions of the Arctic

The media may focus on maps such as this (in)famous map produced by Durham University’s International Boundaries Research Unit on disputed and potentially disputed Arctic areas. But it can be just as interesting to look at the maps produced by various stakeholders since they subtly reveal the cartographer’s priorities in and visions of the Arctic. While no overt political conflicts are depicted in these maps, by choosing to include some things and not others, a mapmaker asserts his or her own way of viewing the world while silently contesting all others.

Soviet Map of the Arctic

Soviet Map of the Arctic.


First, here is a map of the Soviet Arctic, dug up by one of my colleagues, year unknown. This is one of the few maps I’ve seen that puts the USSR, or Russia for that matter, “upside-down,” at least according to conventional sensibilities of which way is north. The seemingly vast Arctic Ocean stretches out below the USSR in pale blue and is devoid of pesky sea ice in this map. In addition, with the Pacific on the country’s eastern (though oddly in this map, left) coast, there no longer seems to be a problem of sea access for the USSR – at least cartographically. Furthermore, thanks to the map’s beguiling curvature, it’s the North Pole rather than Moscow that captures the viewer’s attention.

ChinaArcticMap

Map by Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration.


Second, it’s interesting to look at Asian-made maps of the Arctic. The above map published by the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration and designed by Hao Xiaoguang is instantly disorienting. It portrays China’s view of the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage and was widely disseminated following the release of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2010 report by Linda Jakobson, “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic” (PDF). I’m not sure what type of projection the map uses, but it manages to incorporate the Arctic, Antarctic, and China all on one page. China, in vivid fuchsia, also manages to remain sort of near the center. This is a map in which north is definitely not always north. The main ports shown are Shanghai, Rotterdam, and New York. The red and yellow labels used for these cities bear testament to the increasing presence of Chinese ships in each of these harbors – a cartographic color revolution, if you will. 

Map found on enha.kr created by JoongAng Daily.

Map found on enha.kr. Created by JoongAng Daily.


A map of the Arctic made by the South Korean daily newspaper JoongAng Daily is also notable for the features it brings to the fore. Three transport routes are shown: the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the Suez Canal route, and Trans-Siberian Railway. The NSR rather than the Northwest Passage is the Arctic shipping lane of interest for South Korea. It offers a significantly shorter route compared to the Suez Canal, which is included at the bottom of this map at the expense of depicting more of the western Arctic. The only bits of that area depicted are Northern Canada and Alaska, whose hydrocarbon resources are represented by oil derricks. Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) has made no secret of its interest in the gas resources in the Mackenzie Valley Delta, while the country’s icebreaker, Araon, has researched methane hydrates in the area. As such, the features represented in this map come as little surprise. Finally, the fact that the Trans-Siberian Railway route is depicted sheds light on South Korea’s longstanding hope to connect to the railway to achieve overland access to markets in Russia, Central Asia, and Europe. President Park Geun-hye’s Eurasian Initiative epitomizes these grand plans, still stymied by the problem of North Korea.

GreenpeaceThird and last, it’s worth examining an infographic made by a non-state actor: Greenpeace, the environmental non-profit organization. In 2012, it launched its Save the Arctic campaign, for which it distributed an infographic, made by the design company Column Five. The infographic includes two maps that illustrate the journeys that year of the NGO’s ships, Esperanza and Arctic Sunrise. A simple white and teal color scheme gives the sleek graphic an icy, pure feel. Compare this to the neon party that is the Chinese map. Notice how all of the political boundaries are erased as the Arctic becomes a uniform, white landmass free of even any dots that might demarcate points of human settlement. The only living creatures in the map are cute, innocent-looking animals: narwhals, owls, whales, walruses, and foxes. The infographic is beautiful in its simplicity, but this simplicity comes at the expense of depicting the more complicated nature of life in the Arctic – life which includes four million humans.

No map is perfect, and no projection is either. Instead, all maps are quite simply ideological. 

Sanctions on Russia: Helping or hindering the Arctic environment?

The future of the Arctic: Alone in the cold? A sole woman walks in a park in Lviv, Ukraine. December 2012. © Mia Bennett

The future of the Arctic: alone in the cold? A sole woman walks in a park in Lviv, Ukraine. December 2012. © Mia Bennett

Many in the Arctic have vowed that tensions outside the region between Russia and the West would not affect circumpolar cooperation. After last week’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, however, the escalation of tension has threatened to spill northward, at least in the political realm.

According to Reuters, in a news conference, European Union energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger expressed, “If they (Russia) don’t decisively try to do something to prevent escalation, then there is no reason for us to help promote the growth of their industry and develop new resources for gas and oil and therefore to put this equipment on the list of sanctions.”

But could the EU seriously affect Russia’s plans for oil and gas development in its Arctic backyard? European companies like Britain’s Tullow Oil, Italy’s Eni, and Norway’s Statoil all have investments in the region, so tougher sanctions could theoretically impinge their plans. Norway is not a member of the EU, but Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende declared, “It is important that Europe stand together in this serious situation. EU’s decision to extend the measures is an appropriate and necessary step.” Norway is arguably Russia’s most important partner in the Arctic, from environmental cooperation to oil and gas development, so its decision to follow tougher EU sanctions could hit Moscow hard.

ExxonMobil and Rosneft move ahead with exploration in the Kara Sea

Still, it’s one thing to get foreign ministers to say something. It’s quite another to stop the immense, multi-billion dollar joint ventures between European, American, and Russian companies from moving forward in the Russian Arctic. This week, U.S.-based ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, began towing Norwegian company Seadrill’s West Alpha oil rig to a site in the Kara Sea that is a four-day sail from Murmansk. Exxon is partnering with Rosneft in a $600 billion project to explore for oil and gas in the Universitetskaya geological formation, which lies within one of three license blocks the two companies hold in the sea. The two companies do not have as much money in the Arctic on the line as Shell, for instance, which has invested $6 billion in looking for fossil fuels in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas with no returns so far. But overall, Exxon and Rosneft’s joint venture in the Kara and Black Seas still totals an enormous $3.2 billion, so it’s unlikely that either company is going to want to allow events in Ukraine to affect their designs.

Especially in the Arctic, exploration activities are planned years in advance given the short operating seasons. Any delay can push back plans by years, so it’s important that companies adhere as closely as possible to the planned schedule. While Exxon Mobil’s activities are not technically in violation of American sanctions, when the West’s states and companies are split, it’s difficult for it to put up a united front against Russia.

With sanctions from the West, Russia looks east

Whether or not European and American sanctions affect Russia’s plans Arctic oil an gas development, increasingly, Russia is turning eastward. The country is looking to Asia not just for export markets for its fossil fuels, but also for investors and technology providers for its Arctic oil and gas projects. Consider the Yamal LNG project under development in coastal central Siberia. China National Petroleum Corporation, with which Gazprom signed the long-awaited $400 billion, 30-year gas deal in May 2014, holds a 20 percent stake in the project. France’s Total holds another 20 percent stake, while independently-owned Russian company OAO Novatek holds the remaining 60 percent stake. In July 2014, it was announced that South Korea company Daewoo would build the nine LNG tankers that will be needed to transport the resource to and from the gas field. Japanese company Mitsui O.S.K. has already signed up to buy and operate three of these tankers. As such, Yamal exemplifies the increasing participation of China, South Korea, and Japan in the Russian Arctic oil and gas sector – participation which sanctions will not affect. As South Korea makes plans to turn into an oil hub for the Asia-Pacific, Russia could have even more reasons to send its oil and gas east along the Northern Sea Route instead of west, at least when ice conditions allow.

Problems ahead for Arctic cooperation on environment, SAR

In short, commercial interests are facilitating Arctic cooperation as geopolitical tensions freeze partnerships elsewhere. This is worrying for polar search and rescue and the Arctic environment because it’s states rather than corporations that partner on these matters. For instance, in March, events in Crimea put the planned Northern Eagle search and rescue exercise between the U.S., Russia, and Norway, on hold indefinitely. And in April, Canada, the current Arctic Council chair, boycotted the intergovernmental forum’s working group meetings in Moscow. Those meetings were over black carbon and methane, pollutants that threaten to have an increased impact on the Arctic as industrial activities in the region increase.

At the time, the Chair of the Arctic Council and Canada’s Minister for the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq expressed, “Canada is proud to show leadership on the world stage through its chairmanship of the Arctic Council. As a result of Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine and its continued provocative actions in Crimea and elsewhere, Canada did not attend working-group-level meetings in Moscow this week. Canada will continue to support the important work of the Arctic Council.” But by boycotting these meetings, Canada was actually not supporting the work of the Arctic Council, especially in the environmental domain. Without international cooperation between Russia, the biggest Arctic country and the one moving forward the most quickly with Arctic oil and gas development, and the rest of the Arctic states, including Canada, oversight of the ever-increasing extractive industries will weaken.

There’s one glimmer of hope for the Arctic environment, though, and that’s if European (and American) sanctions are strong enough to manage to delay exploration and production in the Russian Arctic due to the lack of technology and knowledge transfer. In that case, sanctions would achieve Greenpeace’s goal, which is to delay (if not altogether ban) drilling in the Arctic. If this happens, it would be just another strange twist in how events in distant lands like Ukraine can affect the future of the Arctic environment.

Full steam ahead for Asian icebreakers in the Arctic this summer

R/V Araon and USCGC Healy last summer. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/BM2 Lekich.

R/V Araon and USCGC Healy last summer. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/BM2 Lekich.



The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) governs many of the activities on and below the world’s oceans, including scientific research. On the high seas, which are the global commons of mankind and belong to no country, states may conduct marine scientific research “exclusively for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of mankind as a whole” (Article 143). While much of the research that countries are carrying out on the high seas likely has global benefits, it also generates benefits for individual countries, too. This is especially the case when studies pertain to natural resources. But it also holds true regardless of the topic of interest, since the mere practice of science in the circumpolar north helps to legitimize countries’ claims to have a voice in northern affairs by showing them to be responsible and concerned Arctic actors. It is also a visible display of technological might and prowess, for only a select few countries in the world can send an icebreaker to the Arctic.

Icefloe reports that this summer, seven non U.S. icebreakers will undertake expeditions in Alaskan and Arctic waters. UNCLOS gives countries the right to conduct scientific research in other countries’ extended economic zones, though coastal states can deny permission if they believe that the research could “introduce harmful substances in the marine environment” (Tim Daniel of the law firm Kendall Freeman provides a good overview of how UNCLOS regulates marine scientific research here.)

Although the U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS, the government largely adheres to it under customary international law. Accordingly, the government has granted permission to these seven international expeditions to conduct research in the U.S./Alaskan EEZ this summer. Two expeditions are from Canada, one from Russia, one from Sweden, and one each from China, Japan, and South Korea. The newly created Alaska Platform of Opportunity includes more information about the expeditions taking place in the waters surrounding the state.

Asian Icebreakers in the Arctic

The Chinese expedition on board the country’s icebreaker Xue Long may attract the most media attention for obvious reasons. The story of the “Snow Dragon” in the Arctic is a compelling one and also plays on many people’s fears of a rising China in the region (what British geographer Klaus Dodds has termed “Polar Orientalism”). In 2012, as the Chinese icebreaker sailed to the North Pole, the Siberian Times anxiously announced, “China’s Snow Dragon conquers the Arctic.” It’s not just the media and the average person who are suspicious; even the Norwegian Coast Guard reportedly shadowed the Chinese-owned, Ukrainian-built vessel during its headline-making expedition in 2012.

But it would also be wise to watch the Korean and Japanese expeditions this summer. Previously, I blogged about last summer’s Canada-Korea-USA Beaufort Sea Geoscience Research Program 2013, when scientists from the three countries conducted research while sailing on the state-of-the-art Korean icebreaker Araon, which means “All-Ocean” in Korean. According to the NWT Research Database, the program’s goal was to “acquire geoscience knowledge about the outer shelf of the Beaufort Sea with intent to address knowledge gaps related to thawing of subsea permafrost and gas hydrates.”

Methane hydrates: a natural collaboration between Asian and Arctic states

Gas hydrates, or more specifically methane hydrates or clathrates, exist in the world’s continental margins and in permafrost. Thus, this potential energy sources forms a natural area of collaboration between countries like energy-hungry Japan and South Korea, which have no conventional hydrocarbons of their own but, being coastal states, do have continental margins, and permafrost-laden Alaska and Canada. Methane hydrates are a promising future source of energy, since natural gas can be theoretically extracted from them. Yet they are also a potentially dangerous source since the accidental release of methane through drilling activities could be disastrous for the atmosphere. The EPA notes that methane has a 20 times greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Despite these risks, Japan has been researching methane hydrates since 1995. The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation estimates that methane hydrate reserves could equate to a 100-year supply of natural gas for the country. In 2003, a research team involving Japanese and Canadian scientists, among others, successfully produced 470 m³ methane gas at the Mallik site in the Mackenzie Delta north of Canada (source: MH21).

Map of methane hydrates, which exist around both Japan and Korea and also in the Arctic, making for natural collaboration between the two areas. Map from Wikimedia Commons.

Map of methane hydrates, which exist around both Japan and Korea and also in the Arctic, making for natural collaboration between the two areas. Map from Wikimedia Commons.



Neither Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research nor South Korea’s Polar Research Institute has any additional information about their respective icebreaker cruises this summer, so it’s difficult to specify what research the scientists will be carrying out apart from the brief descriptions given on the Icefloe website. Researchers working on Japan’s Mirai will examine geology, coring, and bathymetry mostly from a point directly north of the Bering Strait. Scientists onboard South Korea’s Araon will study oceanography in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

More details from the expeditions will hopefully emerge later this summer. Regardless of the work being undertaken, Japan, Korea, and China will likely benefit symbolically from their presence in the Arctic. UNCLOS Part XIII explains, “Marine scientific research activities shall not constitute the legal basis for any claim to any part of the marine environment or its resources.” Yet by sending icebreaker expeditions every year to the region, the Asian countries – observers in the Arctic Council since May 2013 – enhance their claims to Arctic stakeholdership. They are not making territorial claims, but they are building their Arctic identities all the same. Japan, Korea, and China may not have land in the north of 66º, but they still have a presence, and they are certainly capable of running tight ships on the Arctic Ocean year after year.