Remembering when the Arctic was a war zone


Members of the Royal Navy clearing ice off the deck of HMS Inglefield during convoy duty in Arctic waters. Copyright: © IWM (A 15403).

The media today seems to get a thrill out of announcing that war is around the corner in the Arctic. But 75 years ago, the icebound region really was wracked by battles and bombings. The deserts of north Africa, the jungles of Southeast Asia, and the cities of Europe are commonly imagined as World War II battlegrounds. But the frozen lands and waters of the Arctic were, too.

Actual battles in the Arctic made headlines every so often, with newspapers telling readers in places like Spokane, Washington and Bend, Oregon of ships lost and men saved in frigid climates. On this Memorial Day, here are five such news stories that capture a time when the Arctic made news not because of climate change or resource bonanzas, but rather because of war. In the 1940s, the Arctic represented not a hope for humanity as the last pristine, untouched place on Earth, as it does today. Instead, it showed just how far humans would go to try to destroy the enemy: literally, to the edge of the world.

March 1940


Kentucky New Era, April 20, 1940

In the 1940s, cod liver oil – “bottled sunshine” – was a common supplement provided by American parents to their children. So naturally, a potential shortage of cod liver, much of it sourced from Norway at the time, could cause a real problem for “Junior,” as the Kentucky New Era worried. Eleven days prior to this newspaper article, the Nazis had invaded Norway and Denmark. A little less than a year later, British commandos taking part in Operation Claymore would raid the Lofoten Islands, the Arctic archipelago in northern Norway that produced some 50% of the country’s fish oil.

The Lofoten Islands were strategic for the Nazis, as they sourced glycerin from fish oil to make explosives. In their surprise raid, the British burned thousands of gallons of fish oil, causing thick, black plumes of smoke to choke the skies. With pristine imaginings of the Lofoten Islands drawing thousands of tourists each year nowadays, it’s hard to imagine such fiery scenes as depicted below unfolding in the recent past. On the other hand, cod is still everywhere on the island – hanging on wooden racks to dry, being sold in the supermarket, and being served up to eat.


Royal Engineers preparing to blow up barrels of fish oil on the quayside at Stamsund, Lofoten Islands, Norway. March 4, 1941. © IWM (N 418)


Burning of fish oil stockpiles on Stamsund, Lofoten Islands, Norway. March 4, 1941. Source: WW2 Today.


Today: Cod racks in Reine, Lofoten Islands. Fog, rather than black smoke, hangs in the air. Photo: Mia Bennett, January 2013.

December 1940


St. Petersburg Times, December 14, 1940

Early on, before the U.S. had even entered the war, American commentators like Damon Runyon of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times were urging the U.S. to purchase Greenland from Denmark. After all, as Runyon argued, “Greenland is of no commercial profit to Denmark. It has long been a considerable deficit. Its value as a possession can at best be only sentimental.” Underscoring his dismissive view towards the world’s largest island, he continued, “A few years back, Greenland was of no importance to any nation, save that it gave our industrious explorers a place to spend their summers.”

A few years after the war, the U.S. offered Denmark $100 million to purchase Greenland. The kingdom refused the offer even though it would have been a massive financial boon, as one blogger has calculated. Why? As noted by the blogger, Danish Prime Minister Hans Hedtoft explained at the time, “Why not sell Greenland? Because it would not be in accordance with our honor and conscience to sell Greenland.” Thus, Runyon was correct in saying that Greenland’s value to Denmark was largely sentimental. But he underestimated the value of that sentimentality to the Danish Kingdom.

Similarly, in his op-ed, Runyon also raised the idea of buying St. Pierre and Miquelon, the two small islands near Canada, from the French. Yet that hasn’t come to fruition, perhaps for reasons of sentimentality as well. Nearly 80 years later, Macron, and not Trump or Trudeau, is the head of state for the 6,000-odd people residing on these two islands off Newfoundland who use the euro rather than the dollar or the loonie.

March 1942


Ellensburg Daily Record (Ellensburg, Washington), March 17, 1942

In the late winter and early spring of 1942, there were fears that the Nazis would attack U.S.-protected Iceland. Since August 1941, Allied convoys had sailed from naval bases in Hvalfjörður and Reykjavik in Iceland to northern Soviet ports, generally Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Hvalfjörður is pretty quiet today, though it is home to Iceland’s last remaining whaling station (the name itself means “whale-fjord” in Icelandic). I once accidentally close to an hour driving around the whole fjord rather after missing the shortcut (an underwater tunnel opened in 1998 that takes about 7 minutes to drive through.) Arkhangelsk, too, is now a pleasant coastal city in the Russian Arctic where people play beach volleyball during the long summer days.


It’s pretty quiet at Hvalfjord, Iceland nowadays. Photo: Mia Bennett, October 2013.


Playing beach volleyball on a summer’s day in Arkhangelsk, Russia. Photo: Mia Bennett, August 2015.

May 1942


The Bulletin (Bend, Oregon), May 4, 1942

In spring of 1942, Tirpitz’s supposed raid on Iceland still hadn’t materialized. The Western Allies continued sending ships from posts in the North Atlantic to help send vital supplies to the Soviet Union. In April, Allied Convoy PQ 15 set forth from Reykjavik, bound for Murmansk. Nazi raids sunk three of the 25 ships in the convoy, but the others managed to safely reach their destination. It was difficult to travel covertly in the Arctic in summer due not to ice, but rather to the persistent daylight that made it impossible to hide under the cover of night.

Map of routes taken by Allied Arctic convoys.

Map of routes taken by Allied Arctic convoys. Source:

September 1943


The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), Sept. 10, 1943

During World War II, the Germans bombed Allied positions on the island of Spitsbergen, within the Svalbard archipelago, with the aim of destroying “military establishments, coal mines and ports”. While unknown at the time by The Spokesman-Review, German battleships Tirpitz – the very one that was once feared to be on its way to striking Iceland – and Scharnhorst carried out the attacks.

Today, Svalbard is now a place for global science and polar bear sight-seeing. It’s even home to the Global Seed Vault – the last repository for the world’s seeds – partly by virtue of it now being deemed one of the safest, most secure places on Earth. Nazis may no longer threaten Svalbard, but earlier this month, the entrance to the Global Seed Vault unexpectedly flooded after a spate of warm temperatures. The biggest threat to Svalbard now may be one for which anyone who has ever emitted greenhouse gases bears some partial responsibility: climate change.


The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv. (Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Drilling in Arctic Refuge to close deficit? Let’s be real.

The White House's Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s budget will be delivered to Congress today. Called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the 62-page document proposes the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Selling leases in Area 1002, as it’s known, would begin in 2022/2023, providing $900 million in revenue, which would help close the federal deficit. The budget estimates drawing in another $900 million from a second leasing round in 2026/2027. In total, the Trump budget proclaims in an associated document, called “Major Savings and Reforms,” that opening ANWR to drilling would reduce the federal deficit by $1.8 billion.


The “Major Savings and Reforms” to be made by drilling in ANWR.

The White House proposes to share revenues “equally with the State of Alaska.” The $900 million or so that would come in the next ten years, however, will just be a drop in the bucket for a state that has faced year after year of severe budget deficits since the price of oil crashed in 2014. This year, the budget deficit was estimated to be $2.92 billion. If faced with a worst-case scenario where an approximately $3 billion budget deficit becomes the norm for the next ten years, $900 million looks like an even paltrier amount in comparison. Revenues and royalties could be generated once commercial drilling began in ANWR, but that would take years. In the meantime, Alaska could have been striving to develop alternative industries like wind and tidal energy rather than banking on potential profits from opening up an ecologically sensitive area to drilling.

Obama and Trump’s budgets compared


A comparison of Obama’s 2017 budget with Trump’s 2018 budget reveals that the former mentions climate change 36 times, while the latter only mentions it once.

As the potential opening of ANWR indicates, the replacement of Barack Obama with Donald Trump in the White House has caused federal priorities in the Arctic to shift dramatically. Comparing Obama’s final budget, for fiscal year 2017, with Trump’s 2018 budget further illustrates those contrasts.

The Obama budget highlighted topics like “Coastal Resilience,” explaining, “The Budget also provides the Denali Commission—an independent Federal agency created to facilitate technical assistance and economic development in Alaska—with $19 million, including $5 million to coordinate Federal, State, and tribal assistance to communities to develop and implement solutions to address the impacts of climate change.” The Obama budget also sought to invest $100 million across a number of additional agencies to deal with climate change while allocating $150 million for a Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic to tackle related problems.

Issues like improving American Indian and Alaska Native access to healthcare were also prioritized under the Obama budget. One line-item for 2017 estimated that standardizing the definition of who qualifies as American Indian and Alaska Native under the Affordable Care Act would increase the budget deficit by $520 million over the next decade. While the previous White House was spending money to try to improve healthcare for vulnerable and historically disadvantaged populations, the current White House wants to “save money” by cutting billions of dollars in funding to the Medicaid healthcare program for low-income individuals and food stamps.

Climate change or “other change”?

Another stark contrast is that the Obama 2017 budget mentioned climate change 36 times. The Trump budget mentions it zero times.

That should come as no surprise seeing that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardly dared utter the phrase while speaking at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks earlier this month. Reading stiffly from a set of prepared remarks, Tillerson said, “And finally, the Council has strengthened resilience at the national and local levels in the face of environmental and other change.” When the nation’s top diplomat won’t even call a spade a spade, the prospects for agreement between the U.S. with the other Arctic Council member states, let alone the rest of the climate-concerned international community, are dim.

(For fun, you can compare Tillerson’s stilted six-minute remarks in Fairbanks with former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 23-minute off-the-cuff speech at Iqaluit two years prior:)

The last few bipolar months of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship are ending


President Obama during his visit to Alaska, which focused on climate change. Source: White House Archives.

Two years ago in Iqaluit, Canada’s “heart of the Arctic,” the U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the region’s leading intergovernmental organization. The U.S. sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the event, continuing the recent tradition of the country sending its highest ranking diplomat.

Tomorrow at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will continue that tradition. Other than that, however, there’s a world of difference under the hood of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship.

The U.S. agenda for its chairmanship, which rotates every two years between the eight Arctic Council member states, was “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities.” The three themes within this vision involved improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities, Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and addressing the impacts of climate change. If we measure the U.S. by its own yardstick – in other words, the goals in set out to accomplish two years ago – it’s probably done the most in the second and third areas. The U.S. presided over the establishment of the U.S. Arctic Coast Guard Forum in October 2015, which has helped to maintain dialogue between Russia and the West in the Arctic. This is probably one area in which the previous and current administrations in the White House agree on its importance. At a time when tensions remain high between Russia and the West, the U.S. chairmanship has continued to emphasize a unified Arctic. Its theme of “One Arctic” has fostered strong levels of cooperation at sea and on land in the North and continued the project of region-building in the Arctic, helping member states to see shared priorities and concerns.

But it’s in the area of climate change where the U.S. chairmanship has been arguably the most successful in galvanizing action — and where the current administration has been trying to reverse a lot of the progress made. That’s why in Fairbanks tomorrow, it will be interesting to watch what remarks Tillerson delivers. Will he downplay the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area, which were all made by his boss’ predecessor, President Barack Obama, in order to focus on Trump’s goals of economic development, America First and climate last?

If he does that, this will be a disservice to the many accomplishments made by the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship with regard to climate change. Just a few months after the U.S. took over from Canada, in September 2015, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. He traveled to the North Slope town of Kotzebue and flew over the village of Kivalina, whose shoreline is eroding away. When Obama tweeted, he directly linked his love for Alaska to his passion for the “fight on climate change” – a fight that Trump clearly does not want to keep up. (Ominously, the video that was included is “no longer available”.) He even wrote a blog post on Medium describing how touched he was by his visit.

The U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship also focused on promoting Arctic science. It targeted reducing short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, which exacerbates Arctic climate change by covering up snow that would otherwise reflect away sunlight, supported Arctic climate adaptation and resilience efforts, and launched an initiative to create a two-meter digital elevation model (DEM) of the Arctic, which should be finished by this summer. The White House also hosted the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016, inviting researchers from around the world to discuss their work. Capping off all these scientific efforts, the U.S. and Russia co-chaired efforts to draft what will become the third-ever binding agreement under the Arctic Council once it is signed in Fairbanks tomorrow: the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

It is difficult to imagine Tillerson, who has stated in writing that he does not believe that fossil fuels are a “key” factor behind climate change, to laud the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area. Instead, he may choose to focus on the chairmanships’ work in promoting economic development, which have not nearly been as monumental. Canada, the previous Arctic Council chair, focused much more on this issue, as underscored by its establishment of the Arctic Economic Council. Already, the Trump administration has tried to make some nominal headway in this area. On April 28, he signed an executive order attempting to reverse the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which some Alaskans cheered. However, in so doing, Trump also controversially eliminated a tribal advisory council established under the Obama administration to provide recommendations and guidance on maritime activities in the Bering Sea.

So even if Tillerson attempts to shift a little bit of the U.S. chairmanship’s focus away from climate change and towards industry and development, this has to be taken with a big grain of salt. As I wrote previously, among other cuts, Trump’s proposed budget threatens to eliminate the Essential Air Service, the Economic Development Administration, and the Denali Commission, all of which provide vital services to rural and Native Alaskans. While the current administration is pro-development in Alaska, it’s hardly the type of sustainable, local development that is needed across the Arctic today.

As Finland takes over, it will renew the Arctic Council’s focus on climate change, returning to the organization’s early roots of being focused on environmental issues when it was established 20 years ago. The first sentence on the Finnish chairmanship’s website states how the country “emphasizes the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change,” which Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of.

Outgoing Chair of the U.S. Senior Arctic Official David Balton said yesterday via teleconference, “The U.S. will remain engaged in the work that the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout.” The question, however, is really what level that engagement will be. With the White House deleting scientific data on climate change and trying to stimulate the very industries that will exacerbate black carbon emissions and Arctic warming like oil and coal, Finland and all other Arctic Council stakeholders would be wise to be wary.


And so the Arctic Council chairmanship goes back to Finland, where food from its Arctic region, Lapland, can be easily found in the capital of Helsinki. Photo: Mia Bennett.