Explosions in the Arctic: Mining gravel in Alaska

It’s the Fourth of July in the United States of America, which means fireworks and explosions galore. That means the time is ripe to discuss explosions in the Arctic, from dynamite detonations in Alaska to crater eruptions in Siberia. Today I’ll start, fittingly, in the American Arctic.

Dynamite explosions in Alaska

When people think of Arctic resources, they usually think of oil, gas, or minerals like gold and silver. But in general, those are more lucrative for export rather than for use by the Arctic’s four million residents. For people living in urban settings in the Arctic, gravel is a hugely valuable commodity. It’s used in almost every aspect of construction on permafrost, since a gravel pad needs to be laid down before a building can be put on top of the shifting terrain. Gravel is used for constructing roads, driveways, and runways, too. And the oil industry needs gravel in the Arctic in order to build artificial islands and drill pads.

Gravel, however, is scarce in much of the North American Arctic, and it’s availability can often be a deciding factor for many things. Trucking in gravel from the south is massively expensive, and when a town lacks any roads to the outside world, it’s all but impossible. Earlier this year, I heard a representative from Olgoonik Corporation, based in Wainwright, Alaska, state, “What’s the first stage to starting economic development in Wainwright or anywhere on the North Slope? It’s getting the gravel that you need. That creates the platform. How are you going to do that?”

Back in the 1950s, the Canadian government, when it was choosing a site for its administrative center in the Western Arctic, decided on Inuvik in part because of the ample availability of gravel along the shores of the Mackenzie River. When the Inuvialuit, the indigenous people residing around Inuvik and the Mackenzie Delta, were negotiating their land claims agreement with the Canadian government, they made sure to include access and rights to gravel. The Inuvialuit Settlement Region has a Granular Resources Management Plan, and “How do I access my personal gravel allotment?” is even a frequently asked question on the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s website. This likely stems from the fact that every Inuvialuit beneficiary is allowed “up to 32m³ of borrow material (i.e. sand and gravel).”

Across the border in Alaska, gravel is just as important and gets scarcer as you move west. When I traveled to Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), the northernmost community in the United States, last March for the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s (UIC) Indigenous Business Development Tour, I had the opportunity to witness a rare explosion of dynamite in a gravel pit. Like the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, UIC closely manages its gravel resources, which it does through a subsidiary, UIC Sand & Gravel, LLC. During the business tour, a UIC representative explained, “Nothing in Barrow happens without a gravel source – they are the backbone and the heart of the community for any future development. They are a critical component to our future success.”

After learning about the importance of gravel to Alaskan Arctic communities, we piled into a tour bus and went out to the mine site. Some of us stood out on the road for a good 15 minutes as the countdown proceeded. The temperature was in the negative 20s, and probably closer to -40 with the wind chill. People were pretty darn ready for the mine to blow. It felt like an eternity to us, but UIC had been waiting much, much longer – over a year, in fact, to obtain the permits. In the still air, someone cracked a joke about the Arctic lemmings that would be saying goodbye today. The clock approached 0, and then the mine blew.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an explosion on this scale before, even though we were a mile away. In a loud puff, the sooty mushroom cloud expanded and dissipated quickly over the cloudless tundra.




Crazily enough, UIC let us explore the gravel pit after employees checked for any unexploded ordinance. There were about 20 of us in safety vests clamoring up the rocks in a surreal black and white landscape.

There’s a Scottish photographer, Robert Ormerod. He’s interesting in finding out what happened to people who wanted to be astronauts when they were children. What did they end up doing when they grew up, he wonders?

As one of those people with space dreams as a kid, this was pretty much the closest I’ve ever come to walking on the moon.


The bits of rocks would be sorted, crushed, and turned into gravel for use in the town of Utqiaġvik. Next time you see a driveway in the North American Arctic, think of all the work that went into obtaining the fine little pebbles that, down south, seem pretty much expendable. As one UIC representative explained, “That’s 1.5 years of permitting that went up in a few seconds. We got the permit last Thursday and were blowing stuff up yesterday. It was a quick turnaround, and it’s exciting that we got to see it.” In a few days, the area would become “no blast” – I think because that’s when mating season starts for those pesky but adorable lemmings.


A collared lemming.


Check out that fine gravel blast.

Greenland pioneers Arctic tourism – and mining


The Russell Glacier outside Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Photo: Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The world’s largest island has risen to the lofty ranks of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 countries to visit in 2016. This past October, the travel guidebook publisher included Greenland on its top 10 list with traditional tourist magnet countries like the USA, Japan, and Australia, along with a couple of tropical archipelagos: Palau and Fiji.

Anders Stenbakken, CEO of Visit Greenland, a tourism company wholly owned by the Government of Greenland, expressed, “It is a great honor to be a part of the travel magazine and to be selected as one of the World’s Best Destinations 2016. The increased focus on Greenland as a unique travel destination is due to the fact that more and more travel agencies have included Greenland in their travel programs. New products are continuously developed and several air routes have opened, still with more to come. With a combination of improved marketing as well as higher accessibility of the country, Greenland is now a destination where travelers can make their dreams come true.”

I communicated over email with Kirstine Dinesen, marketing coordinator at AW Media, an online communication agency collaborating with Visit Greenland about the country’s inclusion in this list. She noted, “For many years Greenland has been neglected by world travelers as the country often is associated with nothing but ice and snow. But the Arctic country has much more to offer. The world just has to recognize this. Hopefully the inclusion of Greenland makes the world see the unique adventures the country holds.”


The author walking in central-western Greenland. Photo: Lincoln Pitcher.

Dinesen extolled Greenland’s impressive nature as one of the reasons for the country’s inclusion on Lonely Planet’s list. “Greenland holds a large variety of Arctic adventures,” she wrote. “Most tourism activities are active as the nature and the landscape are a huge part of the beautiful world of Greenland. More specifically, what sets Greenland out from other destinations is The Big Arctic Five including Dog Sledding, Whale Watching, Meeting Pioneers, Exploring Ice and Snow and the Northern Lights. These five Arctic attractions are considered as the core of the Greenland adventure.” Greenland’s reputation for having pristine and untainted landscapes, however, could one day be blighted in a way similar to how Canada, once a global environmental paragon, has fallen from grace with the growth of Alberta’s oil sands industry.


Mining – a new core of the Greenland adventure?

The potential rise of the mining industry in Greenland could jeopardize the “pioneer” communities and the dramatic and unindustrialized landscapes that form the “core of the Greenland adventure.” Greenland’s inclusion in Lonely Planet’s list comes at a time when the country is still known for its glaciers, whales, and dogsleds. But soon enough, it could also be known for mining and extraction, just like Western Australia or Minas Gerais, Brazil. 

In Greenland, extraction of metals and gemstones is not entirely new. Previous efforts to mine copper, graphite, and cryolite met with varying degrees of success and failure. No industrial mining has taken place in the country since the 1990s, when the Black Angel lead-zinc-silver mine closed. Symbolizing the heady times of the mid-2000s, when commodity prices were high and the global financial crisis hadn’t yet hit, a UK-based company considered re-opening Black Angel, which still has about 10-20 years of production left in the ground. The company, however, went under in 2013, and the minerals still sit waiting for the right investor at the right time.

Fast forward to 2015, and Greenland’s mining business looks like it may be gathering momentum again. This is in part due to the Greenlandic Parliament’s hotly contested overturn of a 25-year ban on uranium mining two years ago. Greenland’s two major political parties, Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), both support the development of the minign industry, but Siumut (which currently leads the majority coalition) opposes uranium mining while IA favors it. Many in Greenland believe that mining, if it were profitable and sustainable, could pave a path towards full sovereignty from Denmark by eliminating the need for the annual 3.5 billion DKK block grant from Copenhagen (~USD $500 million). However, with a 2014 report by the Universities of Greenland and Copenhagen stressing that mining will not be enough to fuel Greenland’s economy, the government has been trying to develop other sectors like tourism (and bottled water), too.

Signaling mining’s recent headway in Greenland, Canadian mining company True North Gems announced that it has received approval to begin extracting ore and waste rock at the Aappaluttoq Ruby and Pink Sapphire deposit in southwest Greenland. Their website states, “Pure and pristine, emerging from the frozen landscape of Greenland are stunning red gems. Produced in collaboration with the local community and with steadfast devotion to the environment, we pride ourselves on what will become the first Arctic ruby mine brought into commercialization.”

It’s almost the same type of language that one might expect to read in a Lonely Planet guide book to the world’s mines.

Also in southern Greenland, Australian-owned Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) is planing to start a mining license application process for its Kvanefjeld rare earths-uranium project in the first quarter of 2016. GME, as Jichang Lulu reports, has a non-binding agreement with a listed arm of China Nonferrous, a state-owned Chinese mining company. The Kvanefjeld project could thus possibly supply a new rare earth elements separation plant that another subsidiary of China Nonferrous will open next year in southern China.

Early next year, GME will release the outcomes of its feasibilitysStudy. The president of an environmental non-profit, Avataq, however, isn’t holding his breath. Mikkel Myrup remarked to the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation, “There are studies that show that the environment, animals, and people around an open-pit mine are affected. So it is no use to say that we need to wait for an Environmental Impact Assessment to have an opinion on this.”

If rare earth mining goes ahead, Greenland will join another select list of countries: those that produce these metals needed for automobiles, precision-guided missiles, smart phones, and wind turbines. The 2014 list of top producers includes, in order: China (by far the heavyweight producer), the U.S., India, Australia, Russia,Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

No northern limits

If rare earth mining in southern Greenland sounds extreme, consider the Citronen Zinc-Lead Project at the northernmost tip of Greenland. The owner, Ironbark Zinc Limited, describes the location as “on the doorstep of Europe and North America” without a hint of irony (though I suppose if they are referring to Svalbard and Ellesmere Island, they might be right). The site holds an estimated 13 billion pounds of zinc, or 2.4 trillion pennies. While zinc prices have been low in recent years, a decrease of global stockpiles means that investors believe the price may soon start to recover – possibly to the point where it makes economic sense to construct what would be not only the world’s northernmost mine, but also the world’s northernmost settlement. The feasibility study is an incredible read, for it is both amazing and scary that humans are already thinking about building common rooms that “will include a small kitchen area with coffee machines and dishwasher, a relaxing area with sofas and armchairs and an area for dining” at 83°N. IKEA should be issuing a special edition catalog of furnishings for Arctic mines any day now.


Try to imagine an open pit mine at the top of Greenland. Along with a “small kitchen area with coffee machines and dishwasher.”

Can mining and tourism coincide?

Visit Greenland doesn’t include mining in its list of activities, but it’s possible to imagine a future in which mining and tourism are combined and both spun as “pioneering activities.”

However, a disaster at the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine in 2013 exemplifies the risks associated with this. The mine, which is right outside Salt Lake City and just so happens to be the biggest pit in the world, used to have a visitor’s center, but it was closed as the ground beneath became increasingly unstable – and fortunately before a massive landslide occurred in 2013, costing Rio Tinto an estimated $1 billion to clean up. This disaster pales in comparison with the bursting of BHP Billiton’s two tailings dams in Minas Gerais, Brazil last month, killing at least 17 people and submerging entire towns in toxic mud.

Now, to see Utah’s Kennecott open pit mine, tourists can visit a nearby 9,000-foot mountaintop to gaze down on the deep scar in the earth – excitedly described as “so large that it’s visible to astronauts in the space shuttle – almost a mile deep and nearly three miles wide!”

Maybe one day, astronauts will look down and see a massive hole carved into the icy northern tip of Greenland, illuminated by the northern lights.


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.