Chinese companies: Mining and housing the Arctic

Greenland: There be iron. Photo: Mia Bennett © 2014.

Greenland: There be iron. Photo: Mia Bennett © 2014.

Last week, I reviewed China’s past year in the Arctic. In its first full year as an Arctic Council observer, a status it won in May 2013 along with four other Arctic countries, the country carried out an Antarctic rescue, purchased a stake in an Icelandic offshore oil field, and carried out an Arctic icebreaker expedition to name just a few activities. Although the Year of the Sheep has barely begun, China is already off to an explosive start in the Arctic.

Mining the Arctic

Earlier this year, General Nice, a Chinese company headquartered in Hong Kong, purchased the recently bankrupt London Mining Company. The defunct British-based company had two main projects underway: one in Greenland at the Isua iron ore mine and one in Sierra Leone at the active Marampa iron ore mine. Due to the drop of iron ore prices and the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, where the bulk of the company’s efforts were focused, the company was forced into administration and taken over by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Soon thereafter, the Marampa mine was taken over by the Africa-focused mining company Timis Corporation in November for a mere $20 million. Completing London Mining’s dismantling, in January, General Nice decided to purchase the Isua project for an undisclosed amount.

According to Bloomberg, General Nice engages in “engages in coke production, metal scrap operation, non-ferrous metal processing, and ore mining.” It is one of China’s largest domestic traders and exporters of coke, a material made from bituminous coal used in iron smelting. Iron, in turn, is used for making steel. In 2013, China produced nearly half of the world’s steel. The iron-carbon alloy is used in building ships, icebreakers, tanks, airplanes, and all sorts of other construction. As this primer on the steel industry explains,

“Steel production at an integrated steel plant involves three basic steps. First, the heat source used to melt iron ore is produced. Next the iron ore is melted in a furnace. Finally, the molten iron is processed to produce steel. These three steps can be done at one facility; however, the fuel source is often purchased from off-site producers.”

For General Nice, those off-site producers of fuel are largely located domestically in Shanxi, Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Shandong.

A steel mill in China. Photo: Zlatko Unger/Flickr.

A steel mill in China. Photo: Zlatko Unger/Flickr.

So why did General Nice buy out London Mining’s Isua project? In short, to pursue what appears to be a strategy of vertical integration. Right now, General Nice imports most of its iron ores from India, Australia, Chile, Indonesia and Mexico. But as a growing company, it needs more sources of the silvery-orange mineral. General Nice’s 2008-2018 Mineral Resources Development Plan aims for the company to “rank forefront” in iron ore and import 15 million metric tons per year. Coincidentally (or not), London Mining had projected that the Isua iron ore mine, with 1.1 billion tons of iron ore deposits, would be capable of exporting 15 million tons annually. The Isua iron ore mine is still very much in its infancy and General Nice faces a difficult situation in bringing down capital costs there, estimated to be well over USD $2 billion. But if it is successful, then the company will add a very high-quality source of iron ore to its portfolio while assimilating the Arctic into the industrial commodity chains that more and more often lead to China. All roads once led to Rome. Now they lead to the Middle Kingdom.

It is important to note that General Nice is a private company, unlike, say, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which holds the stake in Iceland’s Dreki field. This distinction is important, as it is somewhat erroneous to say that the Isua iron ore mine is “the first Arctic resources project to come under the full ownership of China,” as the Financial Times reports. This type of rhetoric by the media feeds into Western fears of China taking over the Arctic. China does not own the iron ore mine; instead, General Nice, as a private company, does (more on the company management team here).

Housing the Arctic

Yakutsk: Not a dump, but still overcrowded. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Yakutsk: Not a dump, but still overcrowded. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Amidst the frenzy over a Chinese company’s designs in Greenland, the story that may have fallen by the wayside is Zhuoda Group (桌达)’s plan to spend 40 billion rubles over the next six years building much-needed homes and social infrastructure in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Located in the Russian Far East, the city is closer to Beijing than Moscow. I first came across the story on Jichang Lulu’s blog, which regularly posts fascinating tidbits about Asian involvement in Arctic development. The construction costs will probably be a steal for Zhuoda Group given the 40% plunge of the ruble over the past six months. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the project, which would have cost a little over USD $1 billion half a year ago, will only cost $640 million now.

Zhuoda Group has managed several projects abroad before including in Malaysia and Russia. The company’s core development philosophy is “to follow the strategies of the State.” The website goes on to describe that the company’s projects and operations “are all developed to meet the needs of the country and the future of the Group,” a statement which signals that private Chinese companies are more closely linked to the state than their Western counterparts.

All of the steel that China is producing has to go somewhere. Other Chinese companies like Landsea have announced billion-dollar housing projects in places like California. An article in DV Kapital (in Russian) notes that Zhuoda Group will build 300 homes, kindergartens, and schools. The construction in Yakutsk will take place atop permafrost, which will prove challenging. But the project is timely and will meet many local needs, provided construction is tough enough to withstand the local environmental and climatic conditions. As I wrote in 2011 in a post called “Pollution, Shipping, and Kindergartens in the Russian Arctic,” a survey in Arkhangelsk found housing and kindergartens to be residents’ main priorities. 
Lack of housing and overcrowding has historically been a severe problem across much of the Arctic from Canada to Russia, even though it is somewhat counterintuitive given the region’s sparse level of population. Paul Josephson writes in his book, The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, “With their interest in creation and resurrection of heavy industry Soviet leaders rarely gave housing the investment it needed or, if so, as an afterthought.” Even though many cities in the Russian Arctic have experienced dramatic depopulation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Yakutsk’s population has grown in recent years.

In 1992, an article in Bloomberg (with a headline, “A Crumbling City Built On Diamonds And Ice,” typical of Western newspapers in the early 1990s that triumphantly describes the decaying decadence of the collapsed Soviet Union) described the sorry situation in Yakutsk. Not having been there, I’m not sure whether the city really is “a dump” 23 years on. But I imagine still some of what is quoted below still holds true today:

“Impoverished local villagers moved to the city in search of a better life. Now, Yakutsk is overcrowded and underdeveloped. “It’s a dump,” says Tamara Shamshurina, the editor of Youth of Yakutia, a former Communist Party paper that has gone independent. “We’re rich in gold and diamonds, and we live in poverty.”

Like any business-minded company, Chinese companies like General Nice and Zhouda Group are expanding across the world in search of profits. Zhouda Group’s plans, however, run counter to the common narrative of rapacious Chinese companies exploiting the Arctic for raw materials. They are also building much-needed social infrastructure in the Arctic at a time when many governments are not delivering. China may end up as a sort of Arctic middleman facilitating the transformation of Greenlandic iron ore into a home in Yakutsk via a steel mill in Hebei.

China’s Year in the Arctic: Far from Sheepish

Sheep in Iceland. Photo: Vincent/Flickr

Sheep in Iceland. Photo: Vincent/Flickr

Thursday marked the first day of the Year of the Sheep (or ram or goat, depending on how you translate it). Hundreds of millions of people in China, across Asia, and in diaspora communities around the world rang in the new lunar new year with light and sound. With China looking ahead to the year 4713, this provides an opportune time to look back on the country’s year in the Arctic.

This week also coincides with celebrations in China of thirty years of polar expeditions and a permanent polar presence, as Xinhua’s Han Song reports. Exactly three decades ago, on February 20, 1985, China opened its first permanent polar research station: the Great Wall Station (长城站) in Antarctica. China has since added three stations to the continent and plans to open an additional one in Victoria Land in eastern Antarctica later this year. In the Arctic, China has one permanent research station in the town of Ny-Alesund in Svalbard, Norway. It’s called Yellow River and has been open since 2004. It’ll be another two decades until China celebrates thirty years of a permanent presence in the Arctic, but the country is still making strides in the High North. Here are the month-by-month highlights of China’s past year in the Arctic.

January 2014

Just nine days before 2014’s Lunar New Year celebration, controversy erupted in Iceland after it was revealed that the National Energy Authority had granted Chinese state-owed oil major CNOOC a license to explore for oil in the Dreki Area, an area offshore northeast Iceland. China and Iceland have ramped up economic cooperation since signing a free-trade agreement in 2013. CNOOC Iceland, a subsidiary of CNOOC, holds a 60 percent share in the new offshore license, while Icelandic companies Eykon Energy and Petoro Iceland AS hold 15 and 25 percent, respectively. Sixty to seventy protestors gathered in Reykjavik outside the Culture House (Þjóðmenningarhúsið) to protest the decision. Arni Finsson, chairman of the Iceland Nature Conversation, stated to AFP,

“Iceland should not bet on oil at a time when it is doubtful that humanity can reach its (greenhouse gas) goals.”

February 2014

Denmark’s Arctic Ambassador Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen and Greenland’s former Deputy Foreign Minister Kai Holst visited China to discuss increased cooperation in the areas of fishing, mining, and scientific research, Xinhua reported. The Polar Research Institute of China also invited the Danish and Greenlandic visitors to participate in a Q&A session, which focused on “Greenland’s future potential, human capital, infrastructure and the northern sea route,” according to the Danish Embassy in China.

March 2014

It was widely reported in outlets like SinoShipNews that China would complete its national polar shipping guidelines by June, although no update since then appears available on the country’s progress. Since October 2013, the Ministry of Transport, Polar Research Institute of China, and the Ship Navigation Engineering Research Center at Fujian Jimei Univeristy have been preparing the guidelines. The fact that China is undertaking this effort signals that it is preparing for more of its merchant marine vessels to sail in the Arctic.

April 2014

One of just two private parcels of land in Svalbard went up for sale, sparking fears that China would swoop in. The South China Morning Post quoted Willy Østreng of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research as saying, “China has expressed an interest in the resources and shipping lanes of the Arctic…This land would provide a permanent foothold.” It appears that Østreng conflated “China” with Huang Nubo, the private investor who attempted to purchase a tract of land in Iceland to develop an ecotourism resort before being foiled by the government. Nubo had expressed a specific interest in buying the private parcel on Svalbard, called Austre Adventfjord, in an interview with NRK. Yet the lawyer of the family selling the estate claimed to VG, a newspaper, that Nubo had in fact not contacted them and that no such talks were underway.

The next month, the Norwegian government announced plans to purchase the land and take over it in the interest of “managing Svalbard for the common good.” If successful, the move would mirror the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private Japanese owner in 2012. The Norwegian case seems to have overblown fears of a Chinese invasion in the Arctic written all over it. If anyone was worried about China being in the Arctic, they should have spoken up when the country opened its Yellow River Station on Svalbard in 2003.

China already has a permanent home on Svalbard at its Yellow River Station. Photo: Rerun van Holt/Flickr

China already has a permanent home on Svalbard at its Yellow River Station. Photo: Rerun van Pelt/Flickr

May 2014

China and Russia signed a $400 billion, 30-year gas contract, which I blogged about last year. According to the terms, Gazprom will deliver 38bcm of gas per year to China beginning in 2018. Much of the gas will come from the Chayandinskoye field in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) via the Power of Siberia pipeline, which is still under constructed. Analysts generally saw the terms as favoring China, but in reality, both sides will benefit. Russia will be able to diversify its export markets away from Europe, while China will get a much-needed new source of gas to help lessen its dependence on coal, especially in northeastern China where air pollution is particularly severe. The China-Russia gas deal could also help facilitate future Chinese involvement in offshore Arctic oil and gas development by enhancing cooperation between the two countries (although the plunge in the price of oil has since dramatically changed the calculus of Arctic offshore energy projects).

June 2014

China announced that it would put an absolute cap on carbon emissions beginning in 2016, reported Reuters. The next day, however, China’s Chief Climate Negotiator Su Wei clarified that China was actually seeking to merely reduce emissions rather than set an absolute cap. In either case, a few days before, the United States had stated that it would attempt to reduce emissions from power generation. These announcements from the world’s first and second largest carbon emitters were welcome news for the Arctic, where the dramatic increase in global carbon emissions is having an intense regional effect.

July 2014

Xue Long docked in Taiwan. Photo: Yi-Lin Hsieh/Flickr

Xue Long docked in Taiwan. Photo: Yi-Lin Hsieh/Flickr

China’s icebreaker, Xue Long, departed Shanghai for its sixth Arctic expedition. (By contrast, the vessel had undertaken 30 Antarctic expeditions at the time of its departure for the north.) The icebreaker planned to travel some 11,057 nautical miles over 76 days through the Bering and Chukchi Seas and Canada Basin while scientists on board studied Arctic marine hydrology, geology, and biology, according to Xinhua.

August 2014

Prime Minister Stephen Harper banned reporters from two Chinese outlets, Xinhua and the People’s Daily, from attending his annual trip to the Arctic. Xinhua is China’s official state news agency, while the People’s Daily is the official newspaper of the Communist Party. Ottawa explained the ban as due to “past incidents and behaviours.” During Harper’s trip north in 2013, People’s Daily reporter Li Xuejiang was accused of pushing one of the Prime Minister’s spokeswomen. Harper’s decision, however, was likely more just for making (populist) headlines; as next month would show, economic cooperation between Chinese and Canadian corporations continues to move full steam ahead in the Arctic.

September 2014

Canadian shipping company Fednav’s MV Nunavik (which I blogged about in April 2014) departed Canadian Royalties’ nickel mine in Deception Bay, Quebec for Bayuquan, one of China’s northernmost ports. Despite the name, Canadian Royalties is actually owned by China’s Jilin Jien Nickel Industry Company (though it is still managed by Canadians). The icebreaking bulk carrier sailed from Quebec through the Northwest Passage carrying 23,000 tons of nickel concentrate. Fednav allowed readers to follow the ship’s historic journey on its website, which still has an archive of all the entries. In his last entry, MV Nunavik’s Chief Engineer wrote:

“I want to thank everyone at Fednav for giving me this privilege as Chief Engineer to take new delivery of the Nunavik in Japan, travel through the Panama Canal to Deception Bay, and then later back to China through the NWP to, in essence, circumnavigate the big island of North America.”

This statement encapsulates the emerging circuit of commodities like nickel that are transported from the Arctic to Asia, where they are used in the process of building infrastructure like steel-hulled ships like MV Nunavik, which was built in a Japanese shipyard. In turn, vessels such as these travel back to the Arctic to ship out even more resources. Coincidentally, the ship arrived to Bayuquan with its cargo of nickel on October 15 – five days before the China Mining Expo would open in Tianjin, a city six hours away by car.

October 2014

Two of the world’s largest annual mining expos were held in China, with the China Mining Expo in Tianjin and Exploration Exchange China in Beijing. These fairs are important for attracting investor interest, particularly Chinese companies since China is the world’s largest consumer of metals and minerals. Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, which had made a showing at these expos in previous years, had to cancel its attendance at the last minute due to the political scandal embroiling former Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond and the subsequent collapse of the coalition government in Nuuk. This month was difficult overall for mining prospects in Greenland, as London Mining Corporation, which had allegedly planned to fly in hundreds of Chinese employees to work in the Isua iron mine, collapsed.

November 2014

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, where the country’s icebreaker Xue Long was docked in port. During his visit, Xi signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on bilateral cooperation in Antarctica. The signing took place while researchers at China’s Zhongshan Station and Australia’s Davis Station watched via a live video link. Among other topics covered by the MoU, China agreed to use Hobart as its main gateway to Antarctica, dealing a blow to Christchurch, New Zealand, which Xue Long has visited several times before en route to “the Ice,” as the continent is sometimes called. Before leaving, the Chinese President visited the bright red icebreaker and gave a pep talk to the researchers onboard.

December 2014

Winning photograph, "Arctic Peoples" in CAFF's "Through the Arctic" contest. Jiannan Wang

An Inuit hunter in Greenland looks for seals with his dogs. Photo: © Jiannan Wang/CAFF

Chinese photographer Jiannan Wang, who described himself on his LinkedIn profile as having been born in the “Ice City” of Harbin, won first place in the “Arctic Peoples” category of the “Through the Lens” photography contest, which was sponsored by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Secretariat. His award-winning picture depicted an Inuit hunter and his dogs tracking seals near Qaanaaq. Given that it was taken in backlit conditions with sharp contrasts between light and shadow, the photograph is especially impressive.

Over the past seven years, Wang has traveled to the Arctic 18 times and has visited 124 northern villages in all eight Arctic countries. Wang writes on his profile that he plans to continue traveling and taking photographs across the Arctic until he has visited all of the significant Arctic settlements as listed in the Arctic Human Development Report, which could take at least ten years.

Additionally in December, a traveling exhibit of Wang’s work, titled “Life in the Arctic,” was held at Peking University to stimulate the interest of young Chinese students in the Arctic. A video of the exhibit reveals the immense breadth of work on display, taken from Wang’s collection of 30,000 photographs. He has also published his photography in a book called 66 Degrees North Latitude: The Arctic from Alternative Angles (北緯66度).

Wang’s endeavors reveal that China is not just in the Arctic in search of oil, minerals, and shorter shipping routes. Chinese individuals are simply intrigued by the Arctic, too, just like millions of other people around the world. Their curiosities don’t necessarily have to do with national interests, nor do they need to be perceived as threatening. When it comes to reporting on Chinese activities in the Arctic, it’s important to separate the people from the state, which the media often fails to do.

January 2015

China sent a sizable delegation to the Arctic Frontiers conference, held every year in Tromsø, Norway. Huigen Yang, head of the Polar Research Institute of China, Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, and Sun Xiansheng, president of the Economics and Technology Research Institute at China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), all gave presentations, for which the Powerpoints are available on Arctic Frontiers’ website. Yang’s presentation (which is especially fascinating to read through) noted,

“If the ice sheets of Arctic Greenland and Antarctic all melt, coastline of China, would retreat as much as 400km inland and the most populated and prosperous areas, such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Tianjin etc., would be totally submerged.”

Disastrous, indeed – and China would also have to find a new venue for the annual China Mining Expo in Tianjin. It would also have to find a new place to base the operational headquarters for General Nice Development Limited, which are located in Tianjin. The Chinese company, one of the biggest coal and iron ore importers in China, is the new backer for the formerly bankrupt London Mining, the company that wants to mine iron at Greenland’s Isua project.

Of the Chinese officials’ speeches at Arctic Frontiers, the CNPC president’s was the most widely covered. Outlets like Newsweek announced that China was “going polar.” Xiansheng stated that although China didn’t have any independent oil and gas exploration projects in the Arctic, “We will cooperate with other companies if there’s a chance….We are just starting.” This shouldn’t have really been news to anyone, though, for almost exactly one year prior to his talk, China won the license to explore for oil off Iceland. Dreki forms only one place, too, where China is assisting with Arctic oil and gas development. The Yamal LNG project, in which China National Petroleum Corporation has a 20 percent stake, is another.

February 2015: Another (lunar) year begins.

The moon over northeast Greenland. Photo: Michael Studinger/NASA Earth Observatory

The moon over northeast Greenland. Photo: Michael Studinger/NASA Earth Observatory

“We were inspired by the instructions of President Xi Jinping.”

So said Wang Hailang, vice leader of one of China’s Antarctic research teams, on February 18 as his country celebrated thirty years of activity on the southernmost continent. The fact that President Xi traveled all the way to Hobart, China’s new gateway to Antarctica, and stepped aboard Xue Long symbolizes the growing importance of the polar regions to China’s leadership.

A year of Chinese activities in the polar regions concludes as the Snow Dragon looks forward to a new one in which China likely hopes that it will not be treated like a black sheep in the Arctic. If it is, such treatment will more likely stem from the media than Arctic states (Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s media snub aside). Back in November, The Arctic Institute posted an insightful article on exactly this matter entitled, “How We Learned to Stop Worrying About China’s Arctic Ambitions.” If we cease to be inordinately concerned about China’s polar activities and instead give them the same amount of scrutiny as those of other countries, that will actually allow a more level-headed analysis of what the world’s largest country is doing at the extreme latitudes in the Year of the Sheep.

Will China be the Arctic's black or white sheep? Photo: Atli Harðarson/Flickr

Will China be the Arctic’s black or white sheep? Photo: Atli Harðarson/Flickr

Norilsk, Russia: The Inescapability of the Company Town on the Tundra

A copper plant in Norilsk.  Photo: Stanislav Lvovsky/Flickr

A copper plant in Norilsk. Photo: Stanislav Lvovsky/Flickr

There are many ways of framing Arctic climate change. On the one hand, countries in the south often see themselves as potential victims of the melting Greenland ice sheet and rising sea levels. On the other hand, in the north, Arctic residents often view themselves as the victims of massive levels of industrialization and urbanization in the south. Most of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions, after all, can be traced to the United States, China, Europe, and Russia [1]. These emissions are driving environmental changes like warming temperatures and ocean acidification, which are exacerbated in the north by the polar amplification effect. Arctic residents then wonder whether it is fair for them to have to pay, often with their traditions and livelihoods, for people in the south to enjoy all the creature comforts of modernity.

But it’s not so simple as that. The Arctic, too, has sooty, polluting cities, some of which have a higher carbon footprint than cities in the middle and southern latitudes. Several of these can be found in the Russian Arctic, which is more industrialized than any other Arctic country’s northern area. Starting in the 1930s, the Soviet Union began a massive push to industrialize and conquer the north. Millions of people were forced to move to inhospitable places like Vorkuta and Magadan, which quickly mushroomed into burgeoning cities on the tundra. They were, in essence, temples to Soviet delusion. From 1926-1989, the urban population of Siberia (not all of which is in the Arctic) rose by 448%. In 1926, Siberia’s level of urbanization was only 13.3 percent; by 2010, it had reached 72 percent [2]. Today, Siberia has a higher level of urbanization than countries like Italy and Turkey. Far from living in pre-modern dwellings and using only Siberian huskies to get around, many denizens of the Russian Arctic live in high-rise apartment buildings, drive cars (specially outfitted to cope with -40 temperatures), and upload videos to YouTube about daily trials and tribulations.

Life can be pretty normal in Norilsk, too. Photo: Сан Саныч/Flickr

Life can be pretty normal in Norilsk, too. Photo: Сан Саныч/Flickr

While only eight percent of Russia’s population lives in the Russian Arctic, the region produces some 60 percent of raw materials [3]. Given all of this large-scale natural resource extraction, the per capita carbon emissions in the Russian Arctic are likely extremely high. Russia’s most polluting metropolis is Norilsk, the world’s second largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The city was the main center of operations for the Norillag gulag camps, where thousands were forced to work in the mining-metallurgical complex.

Today, in this city that now has a population of 175,000 people, nickel ore continues to be mined and smelted at great expense to human health and the environment. After watching this official Norilsk Nickel video, which describes in celebratory terms how metallic dust, fire, and water all combine to smelt nickel, it’s no surprise that the city is one of the ten most polluted places on earth. The narrator lauds, “Horizons are illuminated with the sparks of the polar lights, and hot flames blaze in the manmade furnaces. Work never ends under the surface in the mines.” The Soviets’ worship of technology, modernization, and labor lives on in Norilsk.

The city is basically a giant company town for Norilsk Nickel, which produces more nickel and palladium than any other company in the world. Nickel, in turn, is used to make stainless steel – a product that is used in all sorts of infrastructure, including icebreakers and ships, which in turn help to advance development even further into the Arctic.

Since Norilsk Nickel is not affected by the U.S. and European sanctions on Russian energy companies, lately, it has become an even more important source of foreign currency for Russia. The Moscow-based firm is also selling off stakes it holds in operations in other countries as it focuses on furthering its Arctic activities. Last month, as Reuters reported, Norilsk Nickel began pilot operations at the Talnakh concentrator just north of Norilsk. The company’s also gotten slicker at promoting itself, as seen in this newer YouTube video (it’s in Russian, but language skills aren’t necessary to catch the drift).

The Arctic industrial-urbanization complex

Whereas the economies of many cities in the south are service centers, urban centers in the Russian Arctic by and large depend on natural resource extraction. This means they need to import large amounts of supplies to fuel production. This is an issue that faces cities across the Arctic, especially those that are poorly connected to national transportation grids. I would venture a guess that many northern cities have relatively high carbon footprints due to the sheer amount of fuel, food, and other supplies that must be trucked, shipped, and flown across vast distances every year to keep them running. It’s not just oil and coal that are being brought in, either. The drive by societies based in the south to industrialize the Arctic brought everything from bulldozers to bread to alcohol to the northern latitudes. Many residents of the Arctic became used to receiving these amenities, too.

Delivering all of these resources produced more cheaply in the south comes at a price in the Arctic, both in terms of the greenhouse gases emitted to transport an item from a place like Moscow to Norilsk or California to Alaska and the sheer cost of the item that the customer pays. A recent story in The Moscow Times highlighted the difficulty with providing staples at an affordable price to Norilsk’s residents. The price of sugar and eggs have risen more than in the rest of Russia. Norilsk Nickel runs, at a loss, a chain of seven grocery stores called “Sunflower.” They sell milk, bread, and other essential groceries at a discounted price compared to other stores, but there are not enough of them to significantly lower the average price of goods for residents of Norilsk.

Still, a fortune can be made in Norilsk, and that is what lures many people to work there. The Russian government subsidizes the cost of living in the Arctic by providing housing subsidies, while both public and private sector employees receive higher-than-average wages. Some companies even provide longer holidays or occasional free plane or train tickets out of the Arctic for much-needed getaways. Bread and circuses in the Arctic, in other words.

Norilsk: The exemplar of the Anthropocene

In a 2012 article in the Swedish journal Ambio, Seitzinger et. al. wrote,

“The sustainability of a city can no longer be considered in isolation from the sustainability of human and natural resources it uses from proximal or distant regions, or the combined resource use and impacts of cities globally.”

In this light, Arctic cities like Norilsk appear drastically unsustainable. But without it, the world would be short a large amount of nickel – especially since Indonesia, which produces 30% of the world’s supplies, renewed an export ban on the commodity last August in order to help stimulate the domestic smelting industry. Without strict environmental regulations and enforcement, however, remote islands across the Indonesian archipelago could turn into the Norilsks of the tropics. 63 smelters could be built in Indonesia by 2017, many of which are receiving investment from Chinese companies, according to Bloomberg. China, which purchases a third of Norilsk Nickel’s nickel exports, is partnering with the company to expand operations in Chita, in southeastern Russia not too far from Lake Baikal.

NASA explains that Norilsk, which has one of the world’s biggest heavy-metal smelting complexes, produces one percent of all global emissions of sulfur dioxide. Additionally, Time Magazine, referencing a report from The Blacksmith Institute, notes that “more than 4 million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc are released into the air every year.” Land degradation has reached such extremes that the heavy metal pollution around Norilsk “is so severe that it is now economically feasible to mine the soil, which has been polluted so severely that it has economic grades of platinum and palladium.” Norilsk’s environs constitute a landscape that has reached a new nadir of pollution: one that has been so saturated with chemicals and metals that it has transformed against all odds into economically productive land. This is all the more ironic given the pervasive myth of the pristine Arctic.

The view from space

So the Anthropocene – the era in which humankind’s impact on the planet is visible in the geological record – has undoubtedly made it to Norilsk. But, unless you are Russian, good luck getting there yourself: due to its “strategic importance,” the city has been closed to foreigners (except Belarusians) since 2001. This is where remote sensing enters the picture. Thanks to Google Earth, one can now explore Norilsk without having to breath in the noxious fumes or watch the acid rain drops fall.

Seen from above, the sharply gridded city blocks strikingly contrast with the organic forms of the lakes that dot the surrounding tundra to the east. The apartment buildings’ bold paint jobs are the result of city planners’ attempt to bring some color to the sulfur-dioxide-filled surrounds. To the west, where many other cities might have a lake or an ocean, Norilsk has a tailings pond (not visible in the photo, in which the body of water on the left side is a lake).


The city of Norilsk.

At the mine site just to the west of the city, the tracks of individual trucks plowing and moving the earth can be seen.


Tracks made in the dirt by mining trucks in Norilsk.

And in Talnakh, Norilsk’s neighbor to the north the new concentrator has entered into pilot operations, Soviet apartment blocks appear to rise out of the ground in Google Earth amidst rusting machinery. An eleven-car sits silently on the railway. The train will, in all likelihood, deliver freight to the nearby port of Dudinka on the Yenisey River, which will then be carried on one of the five-ice class vessels owned by Norilsk Nickel across the Northern Sea Route. Norilsk prides itself on its “transportation independence,” but this is a sham. The only transportation independence is for the nickel, whose route to ports like Rotterdam and Hamburg is rendered smooth and seamless. People, it seems, have fewer ways out of Norilsk than the alloy. Without any passenger railways or roads connecting to the rest of Russia, the only way out is to fly.


Apartment blocks and the railway in Talnakh.

Norilsk Nickel operates its own airline, called Nordstar, with service to resort towns like Sochi and cities in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Egypt. But it appeared that at the end of 2013, the company was mulling selling off Nordstar because “managing the two airlines has proven too complex and intricate an investment to sustain for a non-core asset.” A company can manage one of the world’s largest mining and smelting complexes, but it apparently struggles to operate a passenger airline, whose benefits to the company itself are not as obvious.

In Norilsk, on Vokzalnaya Boulevard (Boulevard of the Railroad) stands a railway station that epitomizes all the false promises of the Soviets when they tried to conquer the Arctic. The grand building was erected under Stalin in anticipation of a rail connection to Moscow, but when he died, construction of the railroad ceased. This photo of the decrepit railway station taken by Peter Prokosch for GRID-Arendal captures the lack of mobility of people in Norilsk and many other cities across the Arctic.  All the talk about Arctic transportation shortcuts, new ports, and faster shipping routes will benefit the movement of commodities first and foremost – not people.

The railway station in Norilsk. Photo:

The railway station in Norilsk. Photo: Peter Prokosch/GRID-Arendal

A comment by a person who claimed to be born and raised in Norilsk on a fascinating National Geographic photo essay about Norilsk offered,

“All Norilsk people think and many say: “We all love this place very much and we all dream about leaving (get out of) this place as soon as possible.”

The nickel will be leaving town sooner than the miners, even though they have, in the words of Norilsk Nickel, put their hearts into the product. The older, propaganda-style company video mentioned above proclaims,

“The human heart is the main component of any alloy, and it cannot be replaced by a machine. Should one not give his heart to this complex business, nothing will come out of it.”

To a certain extent, this is true: no nickel would be produced without the dedication of the people who sacrifice decades of their lifespans to work in the mines and smelting facilities. And so the city that sprang up out of the Russian tundra continues to churn, pumping out shiny smelted nickel that will be shipped by rail and sea to the rest of the world while the people and pollutants remain on the ground.


[1] World Resources Institute (2014).
[2] Brunn, S. D., Williams, J., & Zeigler, D. J. (Eds.). (2003). Cities of the World: World Regional Urban Development. Rowman & Littlefield (p. 242).
[3] Ingram, J. (1999, April 4). “In Russian Arctic, Government Subsidies Dry Up and Residents Want Out.” Associated Press.