Is this the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant?

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Sam & Lee’s, a Chinese restaurant in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

The town of Utqiaġvik, Alaska – formerly known as Barrow – sits at 71 degrees north. Located 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the settlement of six or seven thousand residents (though only 4,373 according to Google) is a vibrant and diverse place despite being frozen solid in winter. So frozen, in fact, that you can walk straight from town right out onto the Arctic Ocean. At this time of year, you could try walking all the way to Russia – or Greenland, Norway, or anywhere else with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean – across the ice if you were so inclined. It might come with some risk, however, given that Arctic sea ice this year is “incredibly thin” and covering a smaller extent than usual. If you lucked out with the sea ice and made it to Russia, you could probably continue walking to China for a hot bowl of noodles or a plate of dumplings.

Or you could just stay in Utqiaġvik and visit what might just be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. With whites, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans, and Samoans, among many other ethnicities, living among the native Inupiat population, there are also several restaurants serving up everything from Mexican to Chinese cuisine. Utqiaġvik is not the northernmost settlement in the world: Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, owns that title. But Longyearbyen does not have a Chinese restaurant. It happens to have a Thai restaurant, which is unsurprising given its sizeable population of Thai ex-pats, along with several Norwegian eateries. But from a glance at TripAdvisor’s list of Longyearbyen’s restaurants, I don’t think you could order a bowl of egg drop soup in a pinch.

Several towns in Russia also lie north of Utqiaġvik, but it’s unclear whether they have Chinese restaurants. TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews are not exactly a dime a dozen for settlements like Tiksi and Khatanga. Qaanaaq, in Greenland, lies at 77 degrees north, but only has one restaurant, located in the town’s sole hotel.

That leaves Sam and Lee’s Restaurant in Utqiaġvik, Alaska as the best contender for the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. The restaurant, which serves Chinese and American cuisine, has become something of a local institution. Mr. and Mrs. Kim, a Korean couple, opened the restaurant some 34 years ago. Sam and Lee’s is one of 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the U.S. – a total that surpasses the nation’s number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFCs, and Wendy’s combined, according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Case in point, Utqiaġvik has a Chinese restaurant but none of those four fast food chains.

I’d heard a lot about Sam and Lee’s during my first couple of days in Barrow, so as someone who seeks out Asian food whenever possible, whether it’s a steaming bowl of spicy Uzbek noodles (lagman) in northeast Siberia, muskox Thai curry in Greenland, or North Korean food in Vladivostok, I had to make it to what just might be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant.

I was in Utqiaġvik for an Arctic business development tour that had us on a tight schedule from 8am-9pm every day. The only time I could really miss any event was at breakfast – and fortunately, Sam and Lee’s opens at 6am every day. (They also don’t shut their doors until 2am). So last Thursday, as fierce winds blasted down the city streets off the surface of the frozen Arctic Ocean, I trudged over to the restaurant around 6:45 am. The sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours, but the yellow sodium lamps lining the town’s streets guided the way.

After about fifteen minutes, I arrived at the little red restaurant. Sam and Lee’s sits on the ground floor of a small red house at 1052 Kogiak Street. A welcoming Chinese gate frames the entrance. In a very un-Chinese fashion, the walkway leads through two sets of doors, which are typical of all Arctic abodes in order to keep out the cold.

I entered into the warm and toasty restaurant and took a seat at one of the comfy red booths. Dining here was more like eating in someone’s living room than being in a sit-down restaurant. The walls were decorated with photos of children, presumably the Kims’, doing things like wearing traditional Korean dress and performing at a musical recital. Every table had a bottle of soy sauce on it, along with two jars of white powder – one marked “S” for sugar and the other with “C” for creamer. Palettes of soda cans sat stacked at the back of the restaurant, ready to be popped open to satiate the town’s healthy appetite for Coke, Sprite, root beer, and the like. When dining out in Utqiaġvik, soda appears to fill the gap of alcohol. Utqiaġvik is a “damp” town, meaning you can consume alcohol there, but you can’t purchase it. It’s incredible to think that every single menu item has been brought in by plane or barge since no roads lead to Utqiaġvik. The limited and expensive transportation explains why everything seemed to be in bulk at Sam and Lee’s, from the endless array of take-out boxes to the soy sauce packets and soda cans.

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Decorations on the wall at Sam & Lee’s.

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Soy sauce, creamer, sugar, salt, pepper, and jam.

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Dining at Sam & Lee’s.

As I read through the vast menu, a big television hanging at the front of the restaurant played the morning news from Anchorage. The news anchors were talking about International Women’s Day and the ongoing Iditarod. It all seemed so very far away from Utqiaġvik. A waiter dressed in a black hat and camo came up to take my order.

While I was waiting for my short stack of pancakes ($7) and a cup of coffee, a fellow diner came in from the cold and ordered a Denver omelet directly from the chef, at the window where the food comes out from the kitchen. He sat down at the booth in front of me and said hi.

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Some people ordered at the window here.

Ten minutes later, out came my “short stack” of two pancakes. Each was larger than a dinner plate, and an enormous square of margarine was melting lazily on top. As I dug into my breakfast of carbs, sugar, and fat, an Alaska Native couple, the woman dressed in a floral parka (a common traditional design), grabbed a booth and ordered more omelets – served with generous helpings of hash browns and toast.

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A short stack of pancakes with the Anchorage morning news on in the background. Still more than enough food for one.

My pancakes were the doughy, stick-to-the-ribs-type, making them perfect for a cold Alaskan morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to try the Chinese food at the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant since the cook, I learned, doesn’t arrive until after 10 am. Locals told me their Chinese food is the best in the state. And it’s not only Chinese food that the serve. Alongside Egg Foo Young and Egg Drop Soup, you can order a “Happy Meal” (shrimp, scallops, and meat sauteed with fresh vegetables), “Steak and King Crab,” “KungPao Chicken Pizza” (every restaurant in Utqiaġvik, I learned, serves pizza), “Jalapeno Poppers,” “Fish &Chips (served with French Fries – DOES NOT include potato, vegetables, and garlic bread)” and a “Reindeer Sausage and Cheese Omelet,” just to name a few of the finest examples of fusion cuisine in the Last Frontier.

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Half (!) of the menu.

Though I didn’t get to try the Chinese food, I did enjoy the rare opportunity of eating pancakes cooked by a chef who said he had worked at the IHOP in West Hollywood for twenty years before coming up to Utqiaġvik. I asked him why he moved all the way to this little corner of the world. “Everyone has a purpose,” he said to me. “I wanted to breathe fresh air – and the planet’s air, it starts at the North Pole and comes down from there. The air here is the freshest in the world.”

After I paid my bill and walked back out into the cold, the air did feel pretty fresh. At 15 degrees above zero, it felt downright balmy compared to the previous day’s temperatures, which had sunk to 20 degrees below zero. Walking across Kogiak Street, I looked back on the bright red restaurant. The sky had brightened significantly since I’d arrived an hour before.

One day, I’ll have to go back to try the Korean-Chinese-Alaskan food served up by Sam and Lee’s. It might also be a good idea for Mr. and Mrs. Kim to consider opening a Korean restaurant. One woman from Utqiaġvik told me, “My friends and I love eating muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber) with rice and kimchi.” She laughed, “All us young people, we like fusion, you know, like Asian-Eskimo fusion.” Her husband himself was starting to cook Cajun whale steak, inspired by his mixed African-American and Inupiaq heritage. With Nordic cuisine starting to gain more global recognition, it may be only a matter of time before other Arctic cuisines begin making their way onto southern palettes. Rather than a Chinese restaurant opening in the Arctic, perhaps an Arctic restaurant will open in China some day soon.

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Walking back through the streets of Utqiagvik after breakfast.

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 Siberia, 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 east 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 Alexander II 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.

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

Arctic piano concert, Greenpeace

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who knows where 2017 will lead in the Arctic?