Why Republicans’ Russia-Envy in the Arctic is Misplaced

A flurry of headlines have recently declared that Russia is kicking its militarization efforts in the Arctic into high gear. Bombastically, UK tabloid The Daily Star screamed, “Russia moves to CONQUER the Arctic: Putin’s troops prep for VERY Cold War.” More somberly, Foreign Policy described, “Here’s what Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic looks like,”complete with a Cold War-esque map of Russia’s military bases symbolized by red planes and missiles all pointed directly at the United States.

The map comes from the office of Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who has spoken pointedly on the need for the U.S. to boost its Arctic abilities so that it can compete with Russia. Comparing the U.S.’ paltry two icebreakers to Russia’s 40 and counting, he admitted, “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers…Russia has superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.” Russia, it should be said, also has the Northern Sea Route connecting Europe and Asia, while the U.S. has the western end of the less geostrategic, harder to navigate Northwest Passage.

Sullivan is not the only Republican calling for greater investment in America’s Arctic capabilities. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California), chairman of the House Committee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, sent a letter to the White House urging the U.S. to build more icebreakers. In a line that echoed Trump’s choice of vocabulary, Hunter wrote, “Russia is launching its biggest icebreaker — The Arktika. It should be of tremendous concern that next to this vessel, there is no equivalent in the world.” He added that Russia already has 40 vessels, with more coming online in the future, while the U.S. only has two.

The sudden concern for Russia’s icebreaking capabilities seems odd considering that no country has ever come close to it since the Soviets launched the nuclear icebreaker, Lenin, in 1959.

The USSR launched Lenin, the world's first nuclear icebreaker, in 1957.

The USSR launched Lenin, the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, in 1957. Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica.

But the real question is, why does Russia have so many powerful icebreakers? Why is it building so much in the Arctic? Could they really be girding to attack the U.S., and if so, does American need to respond in kind?

The short answer is no.

Russia has always been more active in the Arctic than the U.S. for a combination of geographic, economic, and cultural reasons. The country has much more northern territory than the U.S., which is partly why the Arctic economy forms a much larger share of the country’s national economy.

Throughout Russia’s history, a culture of imperial expansion has also motivated its drive to the north. The Cossacks’ rapid drive across Russia, completed in 60 years, emerged in relation to an inability to push south across its steppe frontier into Central Asia due to tough opposition. Expansion was easier to the north and west across Siberia, where indigenous populations were sparser and resistance was weaker.

In the modern era, cities like Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Norilsk all testify to the Soviets’ enormous efforts to industrialize and urbanize the Russian Arctic. Even traditional practices became subsumed within the Soviet Arctic economy, with reindeer herding collectivized and industrialized, for instance.

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Yakutsk, Russia. Photo: Mia Bennett.

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Watermelons, likely imported from the Caucasus, for sale in Arkhangelsk in the Russian Arctic. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Russia constitutes about half of the entire Arctic region, while the U.S. controls significantly less than that. By some accounts, the Russian Arctic accounts for 20% of the country’s GDP, and it would be even more if Tsar Peter the Great hadn’t sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867. Alaska, on the other hand, counts for a paltry 0.003% of U.S. GDP according to a back of the envelope calculation I did. In relative terms, Alaska has the 45th smallest economy of all 50 states (although it has the highest per capita GDP).

Here’s a map that illustrates how much bigger Russia’s Arctic economy is than Alaska’s from the Steffanson Arctic Institute.

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As a primary example, Russia has advanced more in developing its Arctic oil and gas resources than any other country. In 2012, it opened the world’s first Arctic-class ice-resistant oil rig, Prirazlomnaya, in the Pechora Sea. Last month, the country opened three new Arctic pipelines, with President Vladimir Putin giving a speech by video link. The U.S., by contrast, has not opened an Arctic pipeline since the one and only Trans-Alaska Pipeline began operating in 1977.

Development is also proceeding apace at Russia’s Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project, which is receiving funding and cooperation from Chinese, Korean, and French partners. The LNG project sits in the middle of the Northern Sea Route, an Arctic thoroughfare used during Soviet times to supply the country’s numerous northern settlements. Today, the Kremlin hopes the Arctic shipping passage can be transformed into a global thoroughfare to connect Russia’s Arctic resources to markets in Europe and Asia.

Russia is also carrying out much of this Arctic economic activity at a loss. The hope is that drilling in the Arctic will one day be profitable – and indeed, if the Russian economy continues to rely on oil, it is crucial that new sources be found. The Arctic could hold a massive amount of mineral wealth for Russia, especially in the way of natural gas, which could boost the national economy.

Given all of this activity, logically, Russia needs infrastructure and personnel to support and secure that activity – not to prepare for war in the Arctic. The country simply has a far greater national stake in supporting northern economic activity than the U.S. federal government. So why exactly do we need a fleet of icebreakers that can compare with Russia’s?

Even if Alaska, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates has more oil than any other geological province in the Arctic, started churning out fossil fuels, it would likely have a minimal impact on the U.S. economy at large. Thus, since we simply don’t have as much coastline, as much economic activity, or even as many people in the Arctic as Russia, the U.S. probably doesn’t need to spend billions of dollars on icebreakers to pretend like we do.

The Russian media has been astutely covering the West’s obsession with the country’s Arctic development. In an interview with Russian internet portal and media outlet Rambler, Vladimir Batjuk, professor in the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics, explained, “In my opinion, the Americans [do] not quite clearly understand why this is necessary. They have a very limited sector around Alaska and it is difficult to squeeze out something serious from it. A fight against Russia for its own sake does not make much sense for them. The only thing that interests them is the internationalization of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.”

Constructing pricey icebreakers (Arktika is reckoned to cost $2 billion) is not the only investment Republicans are seeking in the Arctic. Senator Sullivan, along with the senior senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, is also seeking to open up part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. In January, the two senators introduced the Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act, Senate Bill 49, to permit oil and gas development in areas not classified as federal wilderness. The hope is that more drilling will revive the Alaskan economy, which is currently facing a $3 billion deficit.

Many Republicans and Alaskans believe that with President Trump in office, now is the time to act. Andy Mack, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said to the Los Angeles Times, “Politically, in Washington, D.C., we have all the right folks in place.”

But even with individuals like former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson in charge of the State Department, having big oil inside the bureaucracy is no guarantee of development. As Trump’s travel ban highlighted, the judicial system can prove to be a major obstacle to executive action – and there’s no doubt that a huge fight would go down in court should Congress open up ANWR to drilling. Thus, despite having the “right folks in place” right now, there could be years of delays before ANWR opens up – and who knows who will be in the Oval Office then, and what executive orders the president then might sign.

This is where Russia and the U.S. differ. If the Russian government seeks to open up its Arctic to drilling, the state-owned companies of Rosneft and Gazprom will go ahead and do so – costs be damned, courts be damned. This mentality of development of the Arctic at all costs has its roots in the Soviets’ push to remake the Russian North into their own image – one of concrete buildings, radar arrays, and thousands of workers extracting oil, gas, nickel, diamonds, and all sorts of other minerals out of the frozen ground.

So if Republicans have Russia-envy when it comes to the Arctic, they should think twice. Yes, the Russian Arctic is vibrant and economically dynamic in parts. In the city of Arkhangelsk, you can enjoy watermelons from Georgia and the finest Russian caviar. In other parts of the Russian Arctic, you can still lose yourself in the cold caresses of the White Sea or the soft underbelly of the mossy tundra.

But the Russian Arctic has also been indelibly scarred by development that was too rushed and haphazard in its unveiling. Norilsk, a nickel mining city in the Russian Arctic, has been ignominiously deemed one of the ten most polluted places on Earth. Suicide rates among Russian reindeer herders, stripped of the ability to continue their traditional practices as they once did, are extremely high. These scars on the landscapes and societies are remnants from the Soviet push to conquer the Arctic through industrial development.

One has to wonder what will be the consequences of the contemporary push to open up the Arctic to the global economy via the development of oil and gas, shipping routes, and tourism. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that after the current boom in Arctic development comes to a close, the idea of the Arctic as a “last frontier” may no longer make sense if the ice-bound landscape has melted away. Without ice, the Arctic would just be another mineral-rich area peripheral to the global economy.

This is partly the concern motivating the $500 billion geo-engineering project that could “re-freeze” the Arctic. In a new paper, scientists have proposed to “enhance Arctic sea ice production by using wind power during the Arctic winter to pump water to the surface, where it will freeze more rapidly.” The fact that surreal study has attracted a wealth of media coverage speaks to a fear that we are at risk of losing the Arctic altogether.

While the Arctic melts away, many are rejoicing in the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets. Surely, this is a cause for wonder, but it it also a cause for concern given the history of what humans have done when they encounter places at the edge of the known universe whether in the Arctic, at the bottom of the ocean, or in outer space. If we ever make it to these exoplanets, will the powers that be seek to remake these edges of the map in their own image? Or for once, will they leave the frontier alone?

Just the other week, another discovery that did not attract quite as much attention concerned the finding of “extraordinary” levels of pollutants at the bottom of the seven-mile deep Mariana Trench, one of the most remote places on Earth. This, however, shouldn’t be all too shocking. Trillions of microscopic bits of plastic have been found in Arctic icebergs. A Russian scientists studying beluga whales once told me that they had high levels of pollutants that could be traced to fertilizer used in India. Arctic indigenous peoples, due to their consumption of whales and other marine mammals, have some of the highest levels of PCP’s among humans.

Human presence is thus contaminating places people haven’t even inhabited. A part of me would not be surprised if a probe were to travel to one of these newfound exoplanets and find a trace of human life on its rocky surface. On the bright side, scientists think some exoplanets have polar ice caps. I suppose that these could serve as a sort of Arctic 2.0 if we need an Earth 2.0

A plastic bag on Enigma Seamount near the Mariana Trench.

A plastic ice bag found on Enigma Seamount near the Mariana Trench. Photo: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

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.

Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images

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.