New feature: From the Arctic archives

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Newspaper headlines tend to recycle certain contemporary tropes about the Arctic. Climate change is accelerating, the race for resources is heating up, and “the Russians are coming!” are some of the most common threads. Given the consistency of themes in reporting on the Arctic, it can be hard to imagine how the region was discussed in previous decades before climate change began to rear its head and before offshore oil and gas became the north’s hottest commodity. Yet the media has discussed and portrayed the Arctic for hundreds of years in ways both surprisingly similar and starkly different from today.

With this new blog feature, Arctic News in Review, I’ll showcase old newspaper reports of Arctic happenings. From perusing through the Library of Congress’ digital archives of newspapers from 1789-1924, the printed pages of the late-19th century and early 20th-century reveal stories filled with characters like self-aggrandizing explorers, overzealous prospectors, and a handful of Native Americans who managed to make money out of the gold and fur rushes that at the same time were desecrating their lands. There are even a few comics about the adventures of strapping young men in the wild and untamed Arctic.

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A comic strip, “Adrift in the Arctic,” from the New York newspaper, The Evening World, on April 22, 1915. 

The historic newspaper pages also show that the more things change, the more things stay the same. The first old newspaper clipping I’m including for this feature, shown above, is the front page of the now defunct Topeka State Journal on December 30, 1905. The front page’s two sole stories concern immigration and the Northwest Passage. These two topics have come up repeatedly in the past few weeks and months, the former most saliently with Trump’s temporary ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and the latter with Crystal Serenity’s pioneering cruise through the Northwest Passage last summer.

The topics are the same, only the characters have changed. In 1905, referring to a newly published report from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, journalist Adelbert Strong writes, “No one who reads the report even superficially can fail to realize the magnitude and gravity of the problems suggested by the rapid increase of America’s alien population.” The differences is that a century ago, the immigrants Americans feared were coming from Europe rather than the Middle East. Italians, Russian Jews, and Polish people topped the list of largest immigrant groups. Italians were even still categorized according to whether they came from northern or southern Italy, for the country had not yet unified.

Strong also betrays a deep fear of “orientals,” specifically Chinese people. He cautions that although the number of Chinese immigrants is low (only 1,971 came in 1905) and largely concentrated in the western U.S., the “problem” could spread to the rest of the country at some point. He warns, “It is only when the total annual influx reaches formidable numbers that the uneasiness which is confined almost entirely to the Pacific coast becomes manifest.”

The irony of American society’s fear of the Chinese is that the story on the bottom half of the Topeka Journal’s front page, which covers the Northwest Passage, illuminates just how obsessed Western explorers were with finding a shortcut to Asia. On December 5, 1905 – a few weeks prior to the edition’s publication on December 30 publication (also showing how relatively slow news traveled in those days), Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first expedition from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada’s Northwest Passage. Reporter Elbert Woodson, contextualizing Amundsen’s historic journey in the context of previous expeditions, described, “For many generations the avowed purpose of these undertakings was to find a navigable short route from Europe to Asia.” Amundsen was nominally more interested in locating the magnetic north pole, but his journey is still embedded within a history of Arctic exploration that was hell bent on finding a route to Asia even as the Americans were trying to keep Asians out of their own territory.

One hundred years from now, a concerned citizen somewhere may look back and reflect on the hypocrisies of current events in January 2017. Sadly demonstrating how little we have progressed from the past, ours is a world where the U.S. bans citizens from the very countries that its state and corporations seek to exploit for their natural resources. Case in point: within the span of a few days this month, Trump on the one hand brazenly remarked to the CIA on the subject of Iraq, “We should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance,” while on the other hand banned travel by Iraqi citizens and six other countries to the U.S.

Immigration and Arctic shipping routes may very well still be controversial issues in 2117. The subjects might be a little different: perhaps America will fear environmental refugees from, say, Southeast Asian countries ravaged by climate change and deforestation (one of the regions whose countries are most subject to long-term climate risk, according to a German report), while the developments in northern navigation may involve the first navigation of a trans-polar route across the North Pole, which could be ice-free in summer as soon as this year if this Cambridge ocean physicist is proven right.

But while the stories of 1905 have repeated themselves in 2017, we can’t always be guaranteed of having a second chance to repeat our mistakes.

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One hundred years from now, will refugees from a region like Southeast Asia be placed on a U.S. travel ban list? Photo: Inle Lake, Burma, 2012. Mia Bennett.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe: The surrealism of Russia’s three new Arctic pipelines

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Russian President Vladimir Putin before giving a speech by teleconference to commemorate the opening of three new Arctic pipelines. Photo: The Kremlin.

On January 18, Russia’s state owned gas company, Gazprom, opened a new pipeline stretching from the frozen Bovanenkovskoye gas field of the Yamal Peninsula in Russian Arctic to Ukhta, a city in the country’s north. The 1,265-kilometer long Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 pipeline runs parallel to an existing pipeline with the same name. Its opening thus doubles capacity to a combined total of 115 billion cubic meters per year.

Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 connects with other Russian pipelines that eventually feed into the Nord Stream pipeline. Opened in 2012, the Gazprom-supported project runs from Russia under the Baltic Sea and terminates in Germany. In other words, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 can now theoretically double the amount of Arctic gas that flows to Europe every year.

The Yamal Peninsula: strength in imaginary numbers

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovo gas fields in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovskoye gas field in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

The Yamal Peninsula lies at the heart of two of Russia’s national strategies: first, to breathe new energy into its oil and gas industry by exploiting  the country’s northern resources, and second, to develop the Arctic. Gazprom notes on its website that for the gas production center in Yamal, to where its main resource base is shifting, the company has built “a railroad, which includes the world’s longest bridge beyond the Arctic Circle, and the first airport in Russia’s modern history.”

It should thus come as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gave a speech by videoconference commemorating the Arctic pipeline’s opening, proclaimed in his first few sentences, “This is not just a pipe” [full transcript in English/Russian]. Visions of Magritte paintings floated in my head when I read those words. Before getting too distracted by pipes, apples, and tophats, however, it’s worth situating Putin’s surreal words within their broader context. He expressed,

We continue developing Russia’s pipeline transportation system. I believe that not only professionals but also people perhaps far from the energy sector are well aware that the facilities we are launching today are not just pipelines, but complicated, large-scale industrial facilities.

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René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images [La Trahison des Images], 1929. 

Putin underlined the fact that not just one, but actually three pipelines opened on Wednesday. In addition to the main attraction, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2, the Arctic pipelines Zapolyarye-Purpe and Kuyumba-Taishet were also unveiled. A few sentences later, Putin continued,

Their launch will substantially expand our oil and gas sector’s possibilities and will have tangible benefits for the entire Russian economy. This is indisputable. What is particularly important is that they will contribute to the [Russian Federation’s] regional development as well.

Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller took over next, extolling how his company laid more than 450 kilometers of pipeline “in the harshest climatic and geological conditions of the Far North.” At the same time, he stressed that the pipeline is the “most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (oddly, the Kremlin’s English transcript more modestly translates this sentence as “one of the most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (emphasis author).

Miller also plainly states that Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 will operate until 2087, a year that is almost farcically precise given how far it is into the future. For all we know, all of the permafrost underlying the pipeline may have turned to mush by then. Climate models suggest that the Yamal Peninsula may be over 6°C warmer by 2090.

IPCC climate projection with Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

IPCC projected surface temperature changes for 2090-2099 as compared to 1980-1999, with the Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

Nikolay Tokarev, President of state-owned Transneft, the world’s largest oil pipeline company, gave the following speech. He lauded the 8,000 specialists and 4,000 pieces of heavy machinery (“We used only Russian-made equipment”) that were involved in the construction of the other two Arctic pipelines. Making sure to mention the social sphere, Tokarev also explained, “…We also took care of social issues. We built 16,000 square meters of housing, created 1,500 new jobs, built 7 bridges, and energy facilities, while budgets at different levels have received around 3 billion in taxes.”

Phew!

The announcements of numbers so large as to be incomprehensible (what, after all, constitutes 16,000 square meters of housing in human terms? Four of this Russian mansion in Rublyovka?) make the pipeline seem like an even more impressive achievement for the Russian state. It was not enough for Russia to simply open a pipeline that will ceaselessly pump Arctic gas to warm the gingerbread houses of Germany and beyond. Instead, the heads of industry and the Russian state itself, Putin, had to herald the magisterial symbolism of pipelines to the Russian nation.

The lines of steel that unify the nation

In nineteenth-century America, the opening of railroads spurred the nation’s people imagine themselves as more physically unified. In twenty-first-century Russia, the opening of pipelines is key to the country’s mastery of the Arctic, picking up a task that the Soviets left off as the twentieth century was drawing to a close. But whereas railroads at least connected communities (along with the wheat fields, cattle ranches, and orange orchards whose products they brought to market) pipelines really only connect resources to terminals. They do little to connect people or strengthen a nation’s social fabric, except when people use them in unexpected ways as has been documented by geographers like Michael Watts and others working in Nigeria. That is why it is even more important for state and business officials like Putin, Miller, and Tokarev to speak of pipelines in sublime and magical terms. If leaders endow pipelines with a certain national mystique, then the people may support them as national “infrastructure objects,” to use Putin’s words. Otherwise, citizens may ask: Where is the benefit for us? (Oh, right, it’s in the 16,000 square meters of housing.)

The Germans smoke the (Arctic) pipe 

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Griefswald, Germany: Where Russia’s Arctic gas touches down upon the European continent. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Nord Stream terminates in the German city of Greifswald. The coastal Baltic metropolis once belonged to the Hanseatic League, which was etched into the deep recesses of my brain during 10th-grade history class. While the trade alliance of the Middle Ages is most well-known for its activities around the Baltic and North Seas, there is some evidence of its involvement in the “early penetration of the North,” according to German scholar Klaus Friedland.

In a fascinating paper, he suggests that an Icelandic family may have lived in the Westphalian city of Lübeck. Using art and poetry rather than historical documents to base his findings, he determines that members of the “Ysland” family used their connections to import 12 hawks every year from Iceland. Falconry was all the rage in Europe at the time, and the North Atlantic nation was seen as having some of the most prized birds. These hawks were sent to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Recently, the media has fawned over how former president Barack Obama managed to read a bevy of books in office (and even publish a paper in Science). But Frederick II wrote an entire treatise on hawking in his spare time, which is believed to have been the longest written work by any European monarch of his time or prior. In De Arte Venandi cum Avibus [The Art of Hunting with Birds], he proclaimed Icelandic birds to be the best birds, sending European hawkers and bird bandwagoners into a tizzy. The 12 hawks imported from Iceland every year were delivered to the emperor as a sort of duty, in return for which they received enough money to feed cereals 100-200 people for a year.

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Hawks – a 13th century Arctic export. From De Arte Venandi cum Avibus

The buck didn’t stop with Frederick II, however. In fact, in the late 1300s, one Lübeck trading company’s bread and butter was transporting Icelandic hawks alive all the way to Alexandria, Egypt via Venice. Much as Queen Elizabeth has her Welsh corgis today, the aristocrats of Alexandria had their hawks.

Hanseatic League members later became involved in other lucrative Arctic commodity trades, like stockfish (cod). Yet today, former Hanseatic league members like Greifswald are turning to the east for northern commodities, namely Russian gas. Und so, while Emperor Frederick II once demanded Arctic commodities in the way of Icelandic hawks, today, Russia’s president is pushing Arctic commodities onto Germany in the form of Russian gas. Coincidentally, Gazprom’s CEO, Alexey Miller, comes from a Russian family of German descent.

Nord Stream II: doubling down the exploitation of Arctic gas

Gazprom is heavily pushing Nord Stream II, a pipeline that would run parallel to the current one. It is highly geopolitically contested, for it could decrease Russia’s dependence on using Eastern European countries as thoroughfares to export its gas to markets in Western Europe. Even without Nord Stream II, Gazprom’s ownership of European gas markets has been rising: it reportedly increased from 31% in 2015 to 34% last year.

In a press release published the other day on Gazprom’s website, Miller expressed,

“The new gas pipeline, Bovanenkovo – Ukhta 2, commissioned today as part of the northern gas transmission corridor, reshapes the geography of gas flows for both domestic supplies and exports. The northern corridor becomes fundamental to gas supplies throughout European Russia and integral to the shortest, most reliable and efficient new route for gas exports to Europe, stretching from Yamal to Germany across the Baltic Sea. It is the Nord Stream 2 project, whose implementation is running on schedule.”

The development of Russia’s Arctic via the exploitation of the Yamal Peninsula is inseparable from the construction of Nord Stream II under the Baltic Sea, thousands of miles away. While the pipelines bring the Arctic closer to Germany, these enormous cylinders of Russian steel cut up the peninsula’s vast reindeer pastures into smaller and smaller parcels. Their construction constricts the mobility of the nomadic indigenous Nenets people, who are already under severe pressure from climate change. As a spokesman for Greenpeace Russia remarked, “Our research shows that the biggest fear nomads have is not global climate change, but the fear of being pushed out of the tundra.”

The pipeline’s impacts on lives and lands at both ends thus prove Putin right: this is not just a pipe.

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Nenets reindeer herders on the Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

2016: The Arctic in Photos

In 2016, I traveled to far-flung parts of the Arctic I’d never before visited. I spent over two months of last year in the North, bundling up for deepest winter in Russia’s Sakha Republic and seeking shade from the unrelenting sun of an Arctic summer spent above the treeline in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I also returned to more familiar grounds in Iceland’s charming capital, a city that seems to metamorphose with every visit.

The North’s stark and impressive beauty never ceased to amaze, but more memorable were the people I encountered during my long journeys across tundras and mountains. At times I wouldn’t see another person on the road for hours, and then suddenly I’d be offered a cup of tea made from wild herbs, a bowl of hot borscht, or a piece of fresh-baked bannock in a welcome resting spot.

The hospitality that fills out the wide spaces of the Arctic is what makes it a place that keeps calling me back year after year. Sometimes, in moments when the mercury drops to 40 below, I’ll have fleeting thoughts of switching my research focus to a place like Southeast Asia. But then I’ll remember the mornings sipping Nescafe 3-in-1 out of a quickly melting plastic cup while staring at Soviet apartment buildings, the long evenings playing checkers inside a community center on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, losing every time to a man wearing a ring he had carved into the shape of a polar bear, and the nights spent swimming in the Arctic Ocean under the midnight sun with a sun dog arcing across the orange sky, and I know I’ll be back.

Below are a selection of photos from my journeys across the Arctic in 2016. Most of them haven’t appeared on my blog before.

As for how this year is shaping out, so far, I’m planning to make a trip to Barrow, Alaska for Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s Arctic Business Development tour. In March, I’ll make a return visit to the Northwest Territories to travel along what will likely be the last-ever ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Later this year, a permanent highway connecting the two towns – and therefore connecting Canada to the Arctic Ocean by land – is supposed to open, thereby replacing the seasonal ice road. I’m also hoping to return to Russia and to Iceland, possibly to hike in the Westfjords. Readers, if you will be in any of these places, feel free to drop me a line.

I look forward to another year sharing writings, photos, and maps from the northernmost places on Earth with you and thank you for accompanying me on the journey so far.

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Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia. The city sits on the edge of the giant Mir mine, the second-largest open pit mine in the world. A plume rises from the city on the right, and a sun dog sits in the sky on the left.

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Our little bus waiting for us to finish looking at the open-pit mine in Mirny City.

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Children throwing snowballs in the main square in Mirny City.

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The cafeteria lady at the Mirny Polytechnic Institute in the Sakha Republic.

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Our fur-hatted tour guide explaining the local sights. A large poster commemorating “70 Years of Victory” in World War II hangs on a building in the background.

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A Yakut woman selling fish, vertically frozen, at a market in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic and one of the coldest cities on earth.

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Schoolchildren learning about traditional Yakut culture in a school in Namtsy, a village north of Yakutsk.

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Schoolchildren in music class, with portraits of classical composers hanging over head.

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Hikers walking on pebbles alongside the Ogilvie River on Canada Day Weekend in the Yukon.

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A rainbow at 1am, and a dog, in the Yukon.

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Taking photos of the midnight light from Goldensides, a trail in Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon.

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A moose swimming in the pink fluorescent rays of the 4am sunrise at Two Moose Lake in the Yukon.

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A panorama of the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. Full size here.

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A girl, her little sister, and their pet dog in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.

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Kids on their bicycles in the community of Reindeer Point. An abandoned oil rig floats in the water, where it has drifted since the 1980s.

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Fishing at midnight in Tuktoyaktuk. The dome-shaped objects on the horizon are some of the world’s largest pingos, which are ice-cored hills.

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A family out for for some fun at the beach in Tuktoyaktuk. Coastal erosion has caused the ocean to creep up much farther inland than it has in the past.