Greenland: Barrels of oil and bottles of water

Greenlandic Ice: Coming soon to you in a bottle> Photo:  Göran Ingman/Flickr

Greenlandic Ice: Coming soon to you in a bottle? Photo: Göran Ingman/Flickr

In the past week, there have been two interesting stories about Greenland in the news. The first is in The Economist, entitled, “Greenland and oil: Independence on ice.” The article explains how the falling price of oil is making Arctic oil extraction less likely, and by extension, Greenlandic independence an even more distant dream. The second story is in The Arctic JournalArctic Ice Cap, a company headquarter in Greenland, is considering exporting bottled water to China and Indonesia made from chunks taken off icebergs in Disko Bay. The company already has a 20-year license from the government to harvest water from icebergs, so the business seems like it could be within sight. Arctic Ice Cap has already set up a website where it proclaims:

“Occasionally, mother nature breaks the ice into floating icebergs from where millions of ice pieces natuarally scatter into Diskobugten, west of Illulisat (sic), creating the purest natural drinking water on earth.”

On the face of it, oil seems to be the dirty industry and water the clean one. Exporting water might therefore seem to be an eco-friendly move for Greenland. The Arctic is full of freshwater, so perhaps it would be a good idea to export this commodity to assist more parched parts of the world from California to China.

The history of the ice trade

While exporting icebergs may seem like a novel idea, there was actually a bustling ice trade in the nineteenth century. Ice was cut from rivers and lakes in places like the U.S. and Norway for use in refrigerating products like meat, fish, and produce, and later to keep cities like New York and Philadelphia cool during their hot, humid summers. The Library of Congress has archival films such as these of ice being cut and then housed. Even well before the nineteenth century, smaller networks of ice trade existed with ice being taken down from mountain ranges such as the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas for use at lower elevations in making everything from ice cream to cool drinks. The Mughals employed horses to carry down ice from the Hindu Kush for use in frozen desserts, while the Persians engineered yakhchal, or ice houses, to store ice brought down from nearby snow-capped peaks for their frosty fruit ices and syrups.


Ice being cut and harvested in the U.S. sometime between 1900 and 1910.


Ice being loaded.


People waiting in line to buy ice sometime between 1909-1920. All photos from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Though it may appear innocuous, exporting water, particularly bottled water, still comes with an environmental price tag. Like almost every industry in the world, it’s also dependent on fossil fuels. Coal-powered locomotives moved ice in the nineteenth century, while bottled water today tends to be packaged in petroleum-based plastic bottles.

For Fiji Water, a golden lining

One of the most famous brands of bottled water worldwide is FIJI Water. The brand has brought the South Pacific island nation increased global recognition and export revenues, along with schools and access to drinking water thanks to the company’s non-profit division. But Fiji Water also supported the military regime of Frank Bainimarama, prime minister since a coup in 2007, and, as has been widely exposed, is hardly as eco-friendly as it seems.

According to the official website for Fiji Water, the brand is a “leading export of the Fiji Islands” and the “number one imported bottled water in the United States and is enjoyed in over 50 countries across the globe.” Mother Jones reported in 2009 that Fiji Water accounts for 20 percent of exports and 3 percent of GDP. Were Arctic Ice Cap to reach the same level in Greenland, it would be as important an export as processed crustaceans, which currently make up 21% of exports according to the MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Fiji Water’s website heralds that in 1996, the company was established “out of the desire to share the earth’s finest water with the world.” What the website doesn’t say is that, as Mother Jones reported, Canadian mining and media tycoon David Gilmour established the company after founding ventures such as Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company. Barrick’s activities at its Porgera gold and silver mine in Papua New Guinea, such as the dumping of tailings directly into the river, were found to have been so environmentally devastating that the Norwegian Government Pension Fund chose to divest from CAN $229 million worth of shares in 2009. The fund’s Council on Ethics decided that holding the shares posed “an unacceptable risk of the Fund contributing to serious environmental damage.” The Council may have ruled against divesting from fossil fuels in December 2014, but it did decide to divest from Barrick Gold.

Fiji Water makes no mention of its association with Barrick Gold. The beverage brand wants to tell a different story. Scrolling through its sleekly designed website, one comes across a page for “The Water.” “It all begins as a cloud,” the origin story begins. “High above Fiji, over 1,600 miles from the nearest continent. Tropical rain falls, purified by equatorial trade winds, in a pristine rain forest surrounded by ancient, dormant volcanoes.” So the story continues until the last image, captioned, “Discover Earth’s Finest Water: Bottled at the Source, Untouched by Man.” Untouched by man, but it is only man who makes it possible for water from an artesian spring in Fiji to be shipped and consumed around the world.

Photo: /Flickr.

Photo: M Sundstrom /Flickr.

Bottling the Arctic

Of the approximately 3,000 brands of bottled water that exist worldwide, there already are several Arctic water drinking brands. One is Berg Water, a Canadian company formed in 2005 that sells bottled, melted iceberg water. Based in Newfoundland, the company captures icebergs that have floated west from the Greenlandic coast and melts them into drinking water. The marketing brochure (PDF) elucidates, “Nowhere on earth will you find an environment more unspoiled than on the island of Newfoundland on Canada’s majestic East Coast.” As if to conflate the act of drinking iceberg-sourced water with the intrepidness required to explore the Arctic, the company website proclaims, “Harvesting icebergs is a dangerous task. They are very unstable, shift frequently and can roll over in seconds, which make the possibility of drinking iceberg water an accomplishment in itself.”

Iceland, however, seems to have really cornered the market for Arctic drinking water. For starters, there’s Icelandic Glacial (“when you open a bottle of Icelandic Glacial you are opening a part of the purity of Iceland itself!”). The brand, certified as carbon neutral, was distributed in copious amounts at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik in 2014, much to the consternation of several attendees I spoke with who were concerned about the unnecessary amount of plastic rubbish generated by the drinking bottles, which barely seemed to contain even one serving of water.

Then, there’s Iceland Spring, which according to its official website “has never been touched by man since the pristine snow fell on the Blue Mountains of Iceland centuries ago.” Lacking the carbon-neutral certification that its competitor Icelandic Glacial enjoys, Iceland Spring instead aspires to plant trees in Iceland to offset its emissions. The company website announces, “For every container of water we produce and ship,” they explain, “we will plant the corresponding number of trees in Iceland to offset the carbon emissions. Our goal is to reforest Iceland to the level it was before the Vikings.” Whether or not this is a good idea is unclear, since the soil by now has probably been denuded and eroded to the point that trees might not thrive in the changed terrain. But Iceland Spring will probably go on planting trees, since the activity seems to be in vogue as of late: China is busy building a “Great Green Wall” of trees in the Gobi Desert.

Then there is SNO Water, which comes from the Eyjafjalljokull glacier. The website states, “SNO™ comes from a time when the world was unspoiled and un-polluted” (don’t forget the trademark.) Purity is the theme of all of these Arctic waters, and indeed, it probably is less contaminated than many other sources of drinking water on earth. But the idea of places like Iceland being “pure” and “untouched” are complete and utter farces. Icelandic Spring ironically points to this themselves when they talk about planting trees on Iceland in order to reverse the enormous levels of deforestation wrought by the Vikings well before the industrialized era. When the Norse settlers arrived in the ninth century, trees covered 25% of the landscape. After a couple of centuries of intensive sheep grazing, trees covered just 1% of the island. Almost all of the pure landscapes we talk about in the Arctic have, in fact, been made and remade by man.

Sins of omission

The most glaring omission from the websites of Arctic bottled water brands is any significant mention of Arctic climate change, let alone references to the changing dynamics of fresh water in the region. Scientists have found that the Arctic Ocean is freshening due to a number of factors including the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and strong Arctic winds affecting ocean circulation patterns. The idea of quickly melting glaciers clashes with the pure, timeless aspect of the Arctic that the bottled water brands promote.

Another major issue that the bottled water brands fail to mention is the lack of modern water treatment plants and sanitation facilities in much of the Arctic. As this presentation by planner and engineer Ken Johnson explains, it costs CAN $49.80 to supply 10,000 liters of drinking water to Canada’s north compared to just 40 cents in its south. Despite the increasing abundance of freshwater in the Arctic Ocean, water has to even be trucked in to many rural communities on land. In the Canadian Far North, for instance, water is delivered to places where the ground is so frozen that conventional water supplies don’t exist. And in Alaska, as the “Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge” website details: 

“4,500 rural Alaska homes lack running water and a flush toilet. Many more depend on aging and deteriorating piped and haul systems…Lack of in-home water and sewer service in rural Alaska causes severe skin infections and respiratory illnesses. Residents of Southwest Alaska suffer rates of invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD) that are among the highest in the world.”

Some residents even have to deposit their urine and feces into a bucket lined with a plastic bag (called a “honey bag”). This repository is then dumped unceremoniously into a sewage lagoon, splattering the myth of the pristine Arctic.

Photo: Water & Sewer Challenge /

A sewage lagoon in Alaska with “honey bags” Photo: Water & Sewer Challenge /

Packaging purity and exclusivity

Small communities in the Arctic suffer from a lack of water while corporations carve off sections of icebergs and export them to southern locales like China and Indonesia. These are booming markets, and their consumers are thirsty. The water from the tropical islands of Fiji and the Arctic locales of Iceland, Newfoundland, and possibly soon Greenland are sold as aspirational products. Berg Water proclaims, “Such a unique product has been designed for the selected high end market. Berg is the perfect companion in an exclusive setting. It is a product that differentiates itself from the rest of the waters not only from its elegant and distinguished packaging but also from its content.” The Arctic gets packaged into a neat little bottle of purity for the consumer in search of luxury goods.

Lastly, if bottling companies want to preserve the myth of the pristine Arctic, it might be in their interest to campaign against offshore oil extraction. If an oil spill were to occur off Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland, could their bottled water still really be marketed as pure? It is often said that oil and water don’t mix, and this is probably more true in the Arctic than elsewhere. The bottled water industry should take note.

Ilulissat. Photo: Guido Appenzeller/Flickr

Ilulissat, Greenland. Photo: Guido Appenzeller/Flickr

Russia’s Arctic Military Build-Up is Real, and You Can See It From Space

Satellite imagery reveals Russian military activity on the New Siberian Islands.

Satellite imagery reveals Russian military activity on the New Siberian Islands.

For centuries, sea ice and forbidding conditions made Russia’s north coast all but impassable to foreigners. The Russian Empire worried about threats on its western, eastern, and southern fronts, but the northern front never really seemed vulnerable. The harsh climate was essentially its first line of defense in the Arctic. During the Cold War, however, the Arctic became a frozen battleground between the Soviet Union and the West. On both sides of the Arctic, militarization ensued. The Americans and Canadians built the Distant Early Warning Line across Alaska, Canada, and even into Greenland. This series of radars was meant to warn of any incoming incursions from the north. For their part, the Soviets built .

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, demilitarization of the Arctic ensued, particularly in the Soviet Union. This development was not by choice: dreadful economic circumstances forced Russia to stop maintaining many of its military installations in the Arctic. The New Siberian Islands were one such place where Russia closed down its research station and a naval base for the Northern Fleet, which had been in operation from 1933-1993.

A new century, a new dawn for the New Siberian Islands

The New Siberian Islands in relation to the rest of Russia.

The New Siberian Islands in relation to the rest of Russia.

After a twenty year hiatus, the Russian military is back in action on these forbidding islands at 75°N. Located off the coast of the Sakha Republic in the Russian Far East, the New Siberian Islands are near potential oil and gas reserves and straddle the Northern Sea Route. It’s therefore unsurprising that Russia seeks to remilitarize these strategically located islands. Paul Josephson writes in his captivating book published last year, The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, that in a speech made in 2012, President Vladimir Putin referenced Stalin’s “legacy of building military industry in the 1930s with his instructions for ‘developing the Navy, first and foremost in the Arctic areas and in Russia’s Far East with the aim of protecting the Russian Federation’s strategic interests.'”

In September 2013, The Barents Observer reported that Russia had begun delivering new personnel and equipment to the old military site on Kotelny Island, the largest of the New Siberian Islands. Photographs from the Russian military of soldiers raising the tricolor over the barren tundra proved their point. In December 2013, The Aviationist explained, “Currently, an air traffic control service is present, along with accomodation, own water supply, a power station and heating. The airfield is not to be a minor one, since it will be able to accomodate landings of planes as large as Il-76 cargos.” Nine months later basically marked the ribbon-cutting ceremony. In September 2014, Russia Today reported that Russia officially reopened a military base on Kotelny Island after it had been closed for over twenty years.

Still, due to a number of factors including Kremlin secrecy, poor reporting out of Russia, and a Western media that is inclined to report aggressive Russian behavior, it’s hard to say objectively whether or not a Russian military build-up is taking place in the Arctic. That’s where satellite imagery comes in handy. Since it shows phenomena on a larger scale than flags simply being raised, it can help reveal whether or not Russia is in fact building bases and increasing the amount of military infrastructure in its Arctic region. In Ukraine, for instance, satellite imagery was able to detect convoys of Russian vehicles opening up a new front.

Leveraging new capabilities in Arctic remote sensing to observe Russian activities

On the whole, useful satellite imagery in the Arctic is hard to obtain. The long periods of winter darkness make it all but impossible for the majority of satellites, which have sun-synchronous orbits (meaning they take images of the earth when it is lit by the sun), to produce useful data in the Arctic year-round. Moreover, even when the sun is shining, the thick clouds and storms prevalent in Arctic weather systems can obscure satellite imagery.

But in the past two years, the availability of useful satellite imagery of the Arctic has improved dramatically thanks to the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (SNPP) satellite. Launched by NASA and NOAA in October 2011, SNPP can acquire data in a range of wavelengths, including the visible spectrum in its Day-Night Band (DNB). All of this imagery is available for the public to download. I’ve written about the wonders of the DNB before, which collects images of the earth at night. Anthropogenic lights from features like cities, gas flares, military bases, and ships all show up in stunning clarity in DNB nighttime imagery.

SNPP passes over the North Pole every 101 minutes. That means it regularly flies over various parts of the Arctic from its orbit 824 kilometers above Earth. The high rate of frequency enables capabilities like ship tracking in the Arctic, as documented by researchers in a new paper published in Remote SensingIn the image below provided courtesy of William Straka, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies and the paper’s lead author, a nuclear icebreaker believed to be 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), is seen making its way southeast. Straka had been tracking the ship for several days and watched it travel to Kotelny Island, where it possibly dropped off some material before leaving again (the actual cargo delivery was not visible in the satellite imagery, as it may have occurred while the satellite was not overhead).

50 Let Pobedy in , . Images courtesy William Straka/CIMSS

50 Let Pobedy just south of the New Siberian Islands, Russia, on October 31, 2014. Images courtesy William Straka/CIMSS

Night light images around Kotelny Island, just to the northeast of the area in the images Straka provided, reveal even more activity, as the time-series image at the very top of this post shows. The animated GIF includes an image taken approximately every 24 hours over the span of six days in late October and early November 2014. (Images before October 30 and after November 5 were too cloudy to make out anything in sharp detail.) In the above animated GIF, it’s possible to see the bright lights emanating from the new base for the Northern Fleet on the northeast corner of the island along with a number of ships moving in the waters just offshore. What appears to be 50 Let Pobedy sails around the islands before seeming to head north.  Interestingly, some astronomical phenomena are visible, too: the aurora borealis also makes an appearance on October 31 and each image is subsequently brighter than the previous as the moon grows fuller each night.

For comparison’s sake, we can see that in July 2013, a couple of months before the Barents Observer reported on the military activity at Kotelny Island, no lights were visible. By contrast, an image taken over the same area in October 2014 shows a bevy of lights both on and offshore.

July 27, 2013: Lights out on Kotelny Island.

BEFORE: July 27, 2013: Lights out on Kotelny Island.

November 2, 2014: Ships and the base are lit on Kotelny Island.

AFTER: November 2, 2014: Ships and the base are lit on Kotelny Island.

Russia is militarizing, but it is not alone

What are we to make of these satellite images? First, they simply show light. Remote sensing is all about indirect measurement and analysis. Since we’re not on the ground, we can’t say for certain that these lights are from military activities. But they may be a good proxy for them. This inference is validated by the news articles reporting on the uptick in military infrastructure and activity on the New Siberian Islands since September 2013.

Second, more analysis of satellite imagery across the Russian Arctic in places like the Kola Peninsula, Wrangel Island, and Cape Schmidt is needed to determine whether a full-scale, region-wide military build-up is really taking place. Until then, all we can say for now from this short analysis of satellite imagery is that Russia is installing a lot of resources on Kotelny Island.

Third, while Russia may be increasing the number of bases and personnel in its Arctic regions, it is not alone. The United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark are all enhancing their northern military capabilities albeit to varying degrees. Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, argued in the Canadian newspaper The National Post: “The militaries of most Arctic states are taking on new and expanded roles in the region that go beyond their traditional responsibilities, which may create friction in the region.” He even believes that the Arctic Council should begin talking about militarization, which is currently barred from the discussion table.

Lastly, what the satellite imagery doesn’t show are the actual sources of the lights. One of those sources may be a small onion-domed house of worship, of all things. Earlier this month, the Russian Military published a story on its website concerning a new Russian Orthodox chapel on Kotelny Island, which was opened just in time for Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Northern Fleet servicemen on the island can now worship at this small chapel. Priests from Tiksi, a settlement on the Russian mainland not far from the New Siberian Islands, will visit from time to time.

Soldiers and priests in the Russian Arctic? That’s one big difference between contemporary Russia and the atheist Soviet Union.

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses the media at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan in September 2014, a few days before launch. Will this priest bless the soldiers on Kotelny Island soon, too? Photo: NASA

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses the media at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan in September 2014, a few days before the launch of Expedition 41 Soyuz. Will this priest bless the soldiers on Kotelny Island soon, too? Photo: NASA

Landmark UCLA study reveals melting of Greenland ice sheet from top to bottom

The UCLA research team at work in August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The UCLA research team at work in August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Many scientists have studied how the glaciers and big chunks of ice breaking off the edges of the Greenland ice sheet are contributing to sea level rise. Yet a new research study led by geographers at UCLA is the first to comprehensively examine how the rivers on top of the ice sheet drain meltwater and contribute to sea level rise. Importantly, the researchers found that current climate models, which do not account for subglacial processes, could be overestimating sea level rise because they do not consider the fact that a significant portion of meltwater is stored inside and below the glacier. Not all of the meltwater, in other words, immediately flows out to sea.

Both fieldwork and remote sensing were used to develop the models behind their results, which were published in PNAS, a leading science journal, earlier this week. Vena Chu, a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Geography, explained to Cryopolitics, “This is the first big study focusing on the rivers on top of the Greenland ice sheet. It brings attention to how much water is being transferred over the surface down into the ice sheet through moulins – in other words, sinkholes in the ice sheet.”

The fact that there are rivers and sinkholes on top of the ice sheet may come as a surprise to a lot of people. The ice sheet is far from a flat, white, pancake-like sheet. Dr. Laurence Smith, the lead author of the study (and my PhD advisor), instead likens it to “swiss cheese.” Through these holes in the “swiss cheese,” water flows from the top of the ice sheet and down into its inner glacial plumbing system. Chu elaborated, “We’re seeing moulins – these sinkholes – at relatively high elevations, and the water’s flowing into the interior of the ice sheet.”

The melting ice coalesces into flows ranging in size from babbling brooks to rip-roaring rivers that carve waterfalls and canyons into the ice. Most of these rivers terminate in moulins, which either drain at the front or the bottom of the ice sheet, where meltwater can be stored subglacially. The melting happens only in summer, when the ice sheet becomes a dynamic place – what Smith called the “world’s biggest water park.” Chu added, “The rivers are transporting a ton of water, and we’re not seeing any storage in lakes on top of the ice sheet for more than one season. All the lakes that we see are breached – they’re all flowing out.” Once winter comes, the top of the ice sheet freezes up again, and the sapphire rivers and lakes turn snow white.

Rivers and cryoconite on top of the ice sheet. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Rivers and cryoconite on top of the Greenland ice sheet. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Need for further observations

In the data that they gathered, the researchers could not account for all of the water that their models demonstrated to be melting off the ice sheet. Chu emphasized the need for more observations to back up their models. She noted, “While on the one hand, a lot of the water is moving on the ice sheet, we can’t account for all of it in the proglacial rivers. This leads us to believe some of it is being stored subglacially.” As noted, one possible implication of the team’s findings is that existing climate models may slightly overestimate sea level rise. Currently, climate models such as the Modèle Atmospherique Régional, which is incorporated in the set of models used in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) reports, assumes that all of the meltwater is flowing directly into the ocean, but this may not be the case. 

While the UCLA study represents a major advance in understanding the transportation and storage mechanisms of the Greenland ice sheet, the researchers still need to make a lot more observations to better calibrate the model. Plans are already underway for field campaigns and even an ice camp, where researchers live in tents on top of the ice sheet for weeks at a time, in the summers of 2015 and 2016. The findings from the next several years of fieldwork should help scientists to better understand the significant role that the Greenland ice sheet plays in global sea level rise and climate change.

Field notes (and a video) from Greenland

Since Smith is my advisor, last summer, I got the opportunity to travel to Greenland with his research team to participate in two weeks of fieldwork. During my time there, I shot some video footage, which I’ve turned into a short video. I also posted several accounts from my time in Kangerlussuaq, the town in east Greenland where we were based, and up on the ice sheet, which are under the category “Field Notes from Greenland.”

On two different days, we flew in an Air Greenland helicopter about 60 kilometers inland, looking for the ideal rivers to study and drop drifters into. Words can barely begin to justify the experience of flying a couple of hundred feet above huge waterfalls at the front of the glacier, gliding over the sharply undulating crevasse fields, and then following deadly rivers of melting turquoise upstream. It was a terrifying and sublime sight to see some of these rivers suddenly disappear into the ice through a moulin, down into the dark depths of the ancient ice sheet. One of our most memorable adventures involved flying extremely low over a river filled with white-water rapids and waterfalls – so low that the helicopter began to rattle. Some of this fly-over is captured in the video above. Our flight had a purpose, of course: we were trying to take hundreds of photographs of the river with DSLR cameras mounted on the side of the helicopter in order to map it.

Remembering Alberto Behar

Alberto Behar (R) and Daniel Nichita (L), who together helped design much of the UCLA team's research equipment. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Alberto Behar (R) and Daniel Nichita (L), who together helped design much of the UCLA team’s research equipment. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The idea for sticking DSLR cameras out the side of our helicopter came from Alberto Behar, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Scientist, ASU professor, and co-author of the study. Alberto tragically passed away on January 9, and the PNAS paper is dedicated to his memory. Many of the results from the paper were found thanks to equipment specially designed for the team’s research by Alberto, who employed everything from high-tech drifters to rubber duckies to unlock the secrets of the ice. He was a father of three, scientist, engineer, and explorer with a big mind and big smile. Alberto knew how to turn up the heat when the pressure was on and how to kick back when we had a moment to relax. I worked with him in the field in Greenland this summer, and after a long cold day on the ice, I remember laughing with him when I discovered that he had found – and eaten – all of the chocolate chip cookies I thought I had secretly stashed in the back of the helicopter.

Alberto’s loss is a tremendous one for polar and space research, and we will dearly miss him as we try to carry on his legacy.

The UCLA team and company right before our first day on the ice in August 2014.

The UCLA team and company right before our first day on the ice in August 2014.