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.

Tillerson’s hearing: Would U.S.-Russia partnership worsen Arctic climate?

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A protester disrupts ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State.

At today’s Senate confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, expected topics like Russia, nuclear weapons, and Mexico came up. Climate change did, too, but the Arctic received short shrift. In searching the transcript of the lengthy proceedings, I found that the region was only mentioned twice: once by a protester and once by the oilman himself.

Yet even though it was little mentioned, the Arctic possesses a broader connection to the global issues that were discussed at the hearing, particularly the possibility of improved relations between the U.S. and Russia if Tillerson, a recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship is confirmed as Secretary of State. If the U.S. and Russia partner together in developing Russia’s offshore reserves, this could exacerbate global warming and the melting of the Arctic – a point that a protester made loudly clear above the calm and calculated voices of the senators in the room.

At one point, as Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) was pressing Tillerson hard on Russia, a “RejectRexx” protestor interjected and unfurled a banner. The woman yelled, “Why is Tillerson friends with Putin? Because they both want to drill and burn the Arctic. That will ruin the climate and destroy the future for our children and grandchildren. Please don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department. Protect our children and grandchildren – please don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department.”

The protester was escorted out of the building, but her observation regarding the shared interests of Putin and ExxonMobil are correct. Both the Russian state and multinational corporation want to exploit the Russian Arctic’s supposedly vast reserves of oil and gas. Sanctions, however, have halted the pursuit of a joint project between ExxonMobil and Russian-state owned oil company Rosneft. This point, a rather sore one for ExxonMobil, came up later in the discussion when chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Texas), asked whether ExxonMobil had lobbied against the sanctions.

Tillerson responded:

“I never lobbied against the sanctions. To my knowledge, ExxonMobil never lobbied against the sanctions. ExxonMobil participated in understanding how the sanctions were going to be constructed and was asked and provided information regarding how those might impact American business interests.

The only engagement I had really came after the sanctions were in place. ExxonMobil was in the middle of drilling a well in a very remote part of the Russian Arctic in the Kara Sea, several hundred miles way from any safe harbor. When the sanctions went into place because of the way they were written, they took immediate effect. There was no grace period, there was no grandfathering period. And I engaged immediately with the State Department and with Treasury and OFAC to explain to them that there was significant risk to people and the environment if  – and we were going to comply with the sanctions, fully comply – but that compliance meant immediate evacuation of all these people, which was going to put lives at risk and the environment at risk because this was a wildcat exploration well that was at a very delicate position at the time. [We] provided a lot of technical information to OFAC and the State Department [and I was] thankful that it took about five days for them to understand that.

ExxonMobil stood still while they were evaluating that, and, in the end, did grab a temporary license to allow that work to be completed safely so that we could get all the people then out of the country and get all of the equipment that was subject to sanctions out of the country, including the rig. That was my direct engagement, really dealing with an effect of the sanctions. So the characterization that ExxonMobil lobbied against the sanctions is really not accurate.”

Playing Russian roulette with global climate

ExxonMobil may or may not have specifically lobbied against sanctions. But it’s clearly in the company’s long-term economic interest to drill in Russia and to drill in the Arctic, two activities which would inevitably add to global carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change. Thus, it’s pretty hard to imagine that Tillerson, as Secretary of State, would continue the Obama administration’s legacy of getting big climate agreements signed.

Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) expressed, “The world expects us to be the leader on climate change. Please give us those assurances, that you will guarantee that the State Department will be the leader as it has been in advancing a climate agenda for our country.”

Tillerson gave no such assurances, as Emily Dreyfuss wrote in an article for WiredHe didn’t even confirm that he believes humans are causing climate change.

He was, however, more forthcoming regarding his hopes for a rehabilitation of relations between the U.S. and Russia. Tillerson felt that Russia is “predictable” in its activities, as they are “very calculating, very strategic in their thinking, and they have developed a plan,” he claimed. “There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today,” added the Texan native.

The irony is that if cooling the temperature of the U.S.-Russia relationship leads to a lifting of sanctions and a resumption of joint exploration of Arctic offshore oil, it could raise the planet’s thermostat. This potential chain of events adds another dimension to the Arctic paradox. Generally, this catchphrase describes the fact that as climate change melts the Arctic ice cap and jeopardizes northern ways of life, it opens up more opportunities for economic activities like oil drilling and shipping that will further destabilize the climate.

Now, a new twist to this paradox is that if relations between the U.S. and Russia are improved under a Trump administration with pro-oil Tillerson at the helm of the State Department, this could worsen the outlook for the global climate. A lot of positives could come out of improved relations between these two countries, but playing Russian roulette with the global climate by drilling in the Arctic isn’t one of them.

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Perhaps all that may be left of the frozen landscapes of the Russian Arctic one day will be photographs, like this one on display in Moscow in summer 2015. Photo: Author.

Looking back on 2016, a record-breaking year in the Arctic

Arctic piano concert, Greenpeace

In 2016, pianist Ludovico Einaudi played an elegy for the Arctic aboard a floating plastic platform. Let’s hope that there will be more than floating icebergs in future decades.

A few days ago in December, I was asked by Eye on the Arctic’s Eilis Quinn to sum up Arctic news this year in just one word. The one I chose? “Record-breaking.” This year at the top of the world, sea ice retreated in November, a time of year when it should be thickening and expanding. The North Pole experienced one of its warmest Christmases on record. The pioneering voyage of the first luxury cruise ship through the Northwest Passage exemplified the explosive growth of the Arctic tourism industry. The Barents Sea’s first oil field, Goliat, and the northernmost oil field in the world at that, went into production in March. At the same time, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments put a moratorium on to offshore oil exploration in North America.

Eilis and I discussed several other issues in the Arctic for the radio program, which will be broadcast in a few days. Eye on the Arctic has already begun featuring other contributors’ interviews, such as with Heather Exner-Pirot, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan.

A preview of my reflections for 2016 is below. I’ll update this post with a link to a recording of the interview once it’s online.

 

Q: What were the three most important Arctic stories of 2016?

1. Climate: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card stated that 2016 experienced a stronger warming signal in the Arctic than any other year on record. This has been visible in record low sea ice minimum extents in both summer and winter and the freakish retreat of sea ice in November. Fall freeze-up of ice was delayed, too, and on December 25, the North Pole was approximately 50°F warmer than average. These environmental changes are both record-breaking and signs of larger warming trends up north that affect the rest of the world.

2. Offshore Oil: U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau basically jointly said no to Arctic offshore exploration in North America. In a calculated show of bilateral political force, they released a U.S.-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement. The White House has designated most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off-limits to offshore leasing, while Canada is doing the same in the Canadian Arctic, though with a review every five years. Needless to say, folks in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut – the three state and territorial governments with Arctic Ocean shorelines in North America – aren’t very happy about the decision that’s been instituted from above. Peter Taptuna, Nunavut’s Premier, criticized, “We do want to be getting to a state where we can make our own determination of our priorities, and the way to do that is gain meaningful revenue from resource development…And at the same time, when one potential source of revenue is taken off the table, it puts us back at practically square one where Ottawa will make the decisions for us”

3. The voyage of Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage. This historic voyage marks a new era for Arctic tourism and Arctic cruising that’s opening up thanks in part to climate change. Importantly, cruising doesn’t require a huge amount of infrastructure unlike oil and gas to get started – though whether the industry is prepared for contingencies is debatable given the dearth of search and rescue capabilities up north. In any case, recognition of tourism as the Arctic economic opportunity of the moment is beginning to appear at higher levels, too. At the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland earlier this year, a lot of the movers and shakers in the Arctic world were talking about ecotourism as the future of Arctic economic development, whereas it was oil and gas until the bottom fell out of that market a few years ago.

Q: What was the one Arctic story or event of 2016 that you didn’t see coming?
The closure of the Port of Churchill by its private operator, Omnitrax, and the bankruptcy of Northern Transportation Company Limited, a company that has supplied communities in northwest Canada via barge for 80 years. Although long-distance, trans-Arctic shipping is drawing lots of attention, intra-Arctic transportation has not proven especially economically feasible since government subsidies dried up in the years following the end of the Cold War and the push to maintain state presence in the North at all costs.

Q: What was the most overlooked northern story or issue of the year?
Bluntly, the Russian Arctic continues to be overlooked year after year. We hear about snowballs appearing on a beach in Siberia or the killing of thousands of reindeer to prevent the spread of anthrax. The latter is obviously an important issue, but the less click-baity stories still often go unreported. For instance, I’ve read a few articles in the Russian media about a hunger strike by unpaid workers on the Yamal Peninsula, which is the heart of Russia’s Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. I can’t find anything about this story, however, in the English press, even though I think it brings up important issues regarding the human ethics of Arctic oil and gas extraction. Compared to the environmental ethics of offshore drilling, this issue tends to be under-examined.

Q: What will you be watching for in 2017?
A lot of it hinges on what happens after January 20. I’ll essentially be watching for the direction that the U.S. Arctic chairmanship takes, if any, after President-elect Trump’s inauguration, and whether an eventual easing of sanctions coupled with ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s potential appointment as Secretary of State opens up further drilling in the Russian offshore. It will be hard to quickly undo President Obama’s ban of offshore drilling  in Alaska, but U.S. companies could somewhat more easily get in on the game in Russia, where Russian companies are already active and where infrastructure is already in place.

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Who knows where 2017 will lead in the Arctic?