Remembering when the Arctic was a war zone

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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

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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.

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

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

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

December 1940

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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

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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.

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

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

May 1942

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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: naval-history.net

September 1943

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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.

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

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.

Eimskip in Maine: a saga for the 21st-century Arctic

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Last week, I wrote about my visit to the state of Maine, an up-and-coming actor in Arctic affairs. One of the primary drivers of Maine’s recent northern forays is Eimskip, Iceland’s oldest shipping company. In 2013, it moved its North American operations from Norfolk, Virginia to Portland, Maine’s biggest city. Larus Isfeld, Managing Director of Eimskip USA, observed to me over the phone, “Eimskip triggered Maine’s interest in the Arctic.”

While Eimskip is relatively new to Maine, the company has been operating in North America for over 100 years, first in New York and most recently in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk served as Eimskip’s North American port of call because the company had a contract moving cargo from the enormous naval station there to the U.S. naval air station in Keflavik, Iceland.

Once the Americans pulled out of Iceland in 2006, Eimskip revisited its business plan. The shipping line decided to move to Maine for a number of reasons. Shorter transit times and the large market for North Atlantic seafood in New England meant that Portland made more sense than Norfolk. In other words, U.S. military shifts, geography, and seafood lovers conspired to bring Eimskip to Maine.

Thanks in large part to Eimskip’s operations, Maine is now looking northeast to a market in Europe that it hadn’t really noticed before. Officials in Maine have also realized the cultural similarities between their state and Scandinavia, all of which have longstanding ties to the North Atlantic’s stormy waters. Maine is also now trying to expand upon business opportunities in the Nordic countries, such as with the Maine International Trade Center’s upcoming Scandinavian Trade Mission to Norway and Sweden. 

Portland-based photographer Justin Levesque captured the emerging cultural and economic linkages between Iceland and Maine during his artist’s residency aboard one of Eimskip’s vessels trawling the Green Line between Reykjavik and Portland. His resulting Icelandx207 project will be displayed at the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting in Portland later this fall. 

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Photos from Justin Levesque’s Icelandx207 project, featured with permission by the artist. Explore his work at icelandx207.com.

All abuzz in Portland

I had the chance to visit Eimskip’s port facilities just outside the center of town. To get there, I walked down Commercial Street. Until just a couple of decades ago, this stretch was fairly run-down; now, it boasts a gluten-free bakery, spice shop, and a store selling the latest in hip denim. South of this drag, the bottom end of Commercial Street retains more of a taste of classic Portland: shops selling freshly caught seafood and lobster and Becky’s, a white clapboard diner dishing out lobster rolls, corned beef hash, and blueberry pancakes.

After ten minutes of walking backwards in time along the waterfront, I arrived at the International Marine Terminal, the hub of Maine’s transport connection to the Arctic. An employee buzzed me inside the terminal’s small building within the Port of Portland, which moves the largest amount of tonnage in all of New England.

Here, Eimskip has a small office with four employees; three additional people work in their warehouse. The timing for my tour of the facilities was fortuitous: just a couple of hours earlier, one of Eimskip’s ships, Bruarfoss, had just sailed in from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three of Eimskip’s vessels visit Maine every five weeks, and it takes five to six days to make the journey from Iceland.

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A U.S. customs agent checked the boat and the Icelandic crew. The chef was the first to disembark; I learned that he sometimes cooks meals by request for Eimskip’s Portland-based employees during their overnight stay – dishes like lamb meatballs, for instance. Once the ship got the all-clear, containers started to be unloaded.

While I’m not sure of the specific contents of these containers, in general to New England, Eimskip imports bottled water (Iceland produces a whole lot of this, as I’ve written before), fish, chocolate, lamb meat, salt, ferrosilicon, and chitin (a biological product found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans that has medical and industrial purposes). In exchange, Maine exports out a whole laundry list of items: lobster, scallops, fruit concentrates, blueberries, French fries, other produce and food products, automobiles, motorcycles, cardboard, steel, paper, and scrap metal. A lot of this cargo is called “reefer cargo,” or refrigerated cargo. It’s moved in white containers with an engine in them to keep things cool.

Long story short: Maine trades lobsters and motorcycles for Iceland’s snow groomers and lamb.

I watched a transport vehicle move and stack the containers around the port. Entering and exiting the gateway, trucks carried containers emblazoned with Eimskip’s bold blue logo. One Icelander I spoke to said, “When you see containers on the rail or on the road, you feel pride.” It’s a little bit of the Arctic stretching down as far as New York or New Jersey – the farthest distance Eimskip containers will go on the back of trucks leaving Portland.

A longer history of Norse sailings in the North Atlantic

Bruarfoss’s voyage from Iceland to Nova Scotia to Maine carries on the long history of trans-Atlantic sailings. Over a thousand years ago, Norse-Icelandic merchant Bjarni Hejolfson set off from Norway to visit his parents in Iceland. Upon arriving, he found out that they had gone to Greenland, so he and his crew changed direction for the world’s largest island. In a twist of fortune, his ship was blown off course as far as present-day Canada. In 986, he thus became the first known European to spot the Americas – supposedly Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island.

Bjarni didn’t get off the ship, as he was in a rush to get back on track in time to visit his parents in Greenland. Ever the family man, he left the Americas to be discovered by other Norsemen who would follow in his tracks like Leif Erikson and now, the Icelandic crew manning Bruarfoss. 

A greater North Atlantic future

While Alaska reels from the economic downturn associated with the collapse in oil prices, Maine’s transport-oriented northern economy looks bright. Eimskip has two open positions to accommodate growth and plans to move its headquarters to Portland from Virginia next year. The shipping line is also working with Americold, one of the world’s largest cold storage companies, to build cold and dry storage facilities in its terminal. Eimskip’s new 10,000 square-foot headquarters will also reside in the new building once complete.

And although I was lucky to be in Maine on one of the three arrival dates that occur every five weeks, in the future, the arrival of Icelandic ships in Portland will likely be a more regular occurrence. 

Isfeld remarked, “I would say that Eimskip’s plans for the future are weekly vessel calls by the year 2020. Right now it’s 31 vessels a year.” Eimskip will also begin direct port-to-rail operations at some point in the future using the new infrastructure built by the Maine Department of Transportation, demonstrating the mutual support between state and foreign business in Maine. Portland’s story also draws similarities not only with past Viking voyages, but also with the strategies of emerging Arctic players like Singapore today. As the commercial Arctic becomes a more open-water, transit-oriented space, connections to the region more so than territorial presence will matter more and more.