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.

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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.

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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.

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A collared lemming.

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Check out that fine gravel blast.

One year ago: Canada Day in the Yukon

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The Maple Leaf blows proudly over Eagle Plains, Yukon: The only services for hundreds of miles around.

The air was thick with the sound of mosquitos buzzing at Engineer Creek, our chosen campsite for the night in the Yukon. It was Canada Day – July 1, 2016. We’d driven close to ten hours to this boggy place to lie our heads from Inuvik, the administrative center of Canada’s Western Arctic. It was here at our starting point, in the 1950s, that the Canadian government decided to plop down a town on the tundra in order to govern the north. The Dempster Highway, the only way out of Inuvik, would come in the decades to follow, linking Inuvik to Canada’s south. Ottawa pretty much dreamed up the town and the 737-kilometer long highway as ways to enhance sovereignty and access northern resources. In effect, Inuvik and the Dempster Highway are symbols of the Canadian state. So what better way to experience Canada Day than to drive along a highway that permanently etched the Canadian state into a territory long inhabited by the Gwich’in people, grizzly bears, wolverines, and moose?

The hours passed as the seven of us plus one fluffy dog increased our distance from Inuvik along the highway. The trees, stunted from growing in unstable, shifting permafrost, became stronger and sturdier as we made our way south. After what must have been about 4 or 5 hours, we stopped in Eagle Plains for a bite to eat and some gas. Everyone has to stop here, since it’s the only gas station around for hundreds of miles.

This being Canada Day, the restaurant’s television was airing a feature on what Canadians thought Canada represented. People of all ethnicities and nationalities, from a Yellowstone Aboriginal woman to a recent arrival to Toronto from Syria, cheerfully said things like “Tolerance!” and “Opportunity!” This segment was followed by a feature that found random Canadians on the street in New York City, not too far from Trump Tower, to ask them what they thought about Donald Trump, who had yet to be elected. Canadians were mostly perplexed and horrified, as they remain today. Canada’s identity, it can be said, in no small part comes from trying to distinguish itself from its southern, more orange neighbor – especially on Canada Day.

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The saloon at Eagle Plains.

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Placemats in the restaurant at Eagle Plains.

As we piled back into the aptly named Yukon SUV and drove south, the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky. The windshield grew thick with the carcasses of mosquitos. We were in the Yukon. “Larger than life” is the territory’s motto, but a woman I met once from Whitehorse couldn’t stand it. Why? Because it made the territory seem vacant and empty, even though First Nations people had lived there for tens of thousands of years. The Bluefish Caves, the oldest known archaeological site in North America, are in the Yukon. Earlier this year, scientists published a paper in the prestigious PLOS One journal estimating human occupation in the Bluefish Caves since 24,000 years ago.

In other words, the Dempster Highway, which opened in the 1970s, has existed for 0.002% of the time since humans are thought to have inhabited the Yukon. But yet, it’s become a symbol of the Canadian North – much more so than, say, the Bluefish Caves. The gravel road has left an indelible imprint on the environmental and cultural landscape of the north. As the Canadian state penetrated north thanks to the highway, so did Red Rose tea, all-dressed and ketchup-flavored potato chips, skidoos (a Canadian invention), and American RVs, which slogged all the way up to Inuvik. (Tim Horton’s has yet to open up a shop in Inuvik, much to the chagrin of many residents). The artificial settlement even attracted Queen Elizabeth II to visit in 1970 on the Centennial of the Northwest Territories. A hundred years prior, Hudson’s Bay Company had transferred the land to Canada. A country born of a company.

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Queen Elizabeth in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, 1970. Photo published in Up Here Magazine.

As an American, celebrating Canada Day in the Yukon felt both familiar and foreign. With my newfound Canadian friends, who were so welcoming and generous, we made s’mores by the side of the Ogilvie River. This seemed pretty much par for the course for summer in the USA, but then I noticed how the back of the graham cracker box had instructions for “biscuits-sandwich à la guimauve.” This is what Quebeckers call the gooey North American treat, as if eating a s’more wasn’t enough of a mouthful. As the night progressed, instead of fireworks lighting up the night, a rainbow unfurled across a soft blue sky around 1:30 am. It was never going to get dark, because we were way up north.

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A rainbow around 1:30 am in the early hours after Canada Day.

We spent the next few days hiking and looking for wildlife in the incredible Tombstone Territorial Park. Just as the Northwest Territories traces its origins to a company, the park paradoxically traces its origins to a highway. The Management Plan for the park from 2009 states,

“In 1974, the federal government identified a park reserve on the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development land maps. The reserve was designed to “protect” the view of Tombstone Mountain from the newly built Dempster Highway.”

Nature was initially preserved, in other words, for the pleasure of tourists and travelers driving by rather than for the benefit of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who traditionally resided in the area or for the flora and fauna that live there. The park’s location was picked from the top down by state officials looking at a map rather than wandering out in the land. There’s no doubting that the view was a stunner, especially with the sunrise and sunset being only about an hour apart. But there’s something empty feeling that it was chosen based on the automobile’s gaze.

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The view of the Tombstone Mountains from just off the highway.

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The view at night from Goldensides, a trailhead you can easily drive to from the highway.

Thinking back on Canada Day, the country has made huge strides since the 1970s, when the Dempster Highway was put in, when the park reserve was created, and when the Queen visited the Northwest Territories. Some things are still the same. The Dempster Highway is being extended to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean, and will open later this year if all goes according to plan. A few days ago, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cambridge visited Nunavut to commemorate Canada’s 150 Centenary, drinking tea with elders in Iqaluit.

But in a more progressive direction, Tombstone Territorial Park itself was created as part of the 2004 land claims settlement with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who co-manage the park with the Yukon Territorial Government. Further north, two Inuvialuit companies are building the Dempster Highway extension. And recognition of the value of traditional knowledge across Canada is gradually growing.

I came across a quote by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Percy Henry in an autobiography by Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. He stated of the Tombstone Range:

“You have everything you want there. There’s all kinds of berries, fish and little animals that live in that country. I was born and raised in that country.”

“That country” refers to Tombstone, not Canada. That country, the land, will always be there in some form or another. While Canada Day this year celebrates the country’s 150th anniversary, it’s worth asking what Canada will be like in another one and a half centuries. Will the Dempster Highway still exist, given the rapidity of climate change? Will graham cracker boxes in Canada still come with s’mores recipes in English and French, or will Quebec finally split off? Answers to these questions are yet unknown, but in any case, at her current rate, Queen Elizabeth II will likely still be the head of state.

Interpretive sign at Tombstone Territorial Park

Whose vast country?

In 2167, Canada will also probably still be viewing the U.S. with equal parts obsession, bemusement, and horror, assuming its unruly southern neighbor does not self-implode in the next three and a half years to 150 years. Driving back from Tombstone to Inuvik, we made the prerequisite stop at Eagle Plains. In the restaurant, CBC News played on the television. It felt like Groundhog Day in a way, as it was now July 4 rather than July 1. The same, but different. Independence Day rather than Canada Day. Just like the difference between Canadian and American Thanksgiving.

Not having slept the night before, I ingested with bleary eyes the statistics that flashed on the screen. Apparently, Americans eat 150 million hot dogs on the Fourth of July. That’s 150 million chien-chauds, hot-dogs, or steamés, if you’re French Canadian. 

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Stunted trees to the left and right of the Dempster Highway, a road built partly on permafrost.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative moves into the Arctic

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When China convened its Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last month, most of the attention focused on the initiative’s plans for transportation infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass and the Indian Ocean. Last week, however, China formally incorporated the Arctic into its plans for maritime cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, also sometimes called One Belt, One Road. The Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiativereleased on June 20 by China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the State Oceanic Administration, explains that a “blue economic passage” is “envisioned leading up to Europe via the Arctic Ocean.”

This “blue economic passage” would be along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, the Arctic shipping lane that hugs the country’s north coast. Over email, Dr. Marc Lanteigne, a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand and a China expert, explained, “This paper is the first official confirmation that the Arctic Ocean is among the ‘blue economic passages’ Beijing is seeking to develop.”

The other two routes included in the vision consist of the China-Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean Sea blue economic passage and the China-Oceania-South Pacific blue economic passage. (Maybe the latter explains Fiji’s somewhat perplexing attendance at the Belt and Road Forum and its unceremonious closure of its representative office in Taiwan last month.) The policy document largely focuses on China’s achievements and plans along the first route, where the government has assisted with the development of ports and industrial parks in places like Myanmar, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Greece. While fewer fine-scale geographic details are provided about the Arctic, the document notes:

Participating in Arctic affairs. China is willing to work with all parties in conducting scientific surveys of navigational routes, setting up land-based monitoring stations, carrying out research on climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic, as well as providing navigational forecasting services. China supports efforts by countries bordering the Arctic in improving marine transportation conditions, and encourages Chinese enterprises to take part in the commercial use of the Arctic route. China is willing to carry out surveys on potential resources in the Arctic region in collaboration with relevant countries, and to strengthen cooperation in clean energy with Arctic countries. Chinese enterprises are encouraged to join in sustainable exploration of Arctic resources in a responsible way. China will actively participate in the events organized by Arctic-related international organizations.

Interestingly, the document does not review China’s accomplishments to date in the Arctic or, more specifically, along the Northern Sea Route. Yet for years already, the Chinese government and affiliated companies and organizations have been eyeing its development. In 2013, Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO sent the first-ever multipurpose ship through the Northern Sea Route. Last year, five COSCO vessels sailed through the icy route, a company record. In 2015, Chinese banks lent $12 billion to the Yamal liquefied natural gas project, which lies in the middle of the Northern Sea Route. China’s Silk Road Fund, an investment vehicle created by the government to finance Belt and Road Initiative projects, has a 9.9% stake in the Yamal project as well. So why did it take so long for China to officially incorporate the Arctic into its Belt and Road Initiative?

Lanteigne noted that China was reluctant to do so for two reasons. First, unlike Japan or South Korea, China has not released an official Arctic policy and is still in the process of collecting data before doing so. Second, Lanteigne offered, “Once China began to deepen its Arctic diplomacy, along with references to the country as a ‘near-Arctic state’, there were concerns among other Arctic actors, especially the United States, that Beijing far northern interests were primarily motivated by regional resources and that China was seeking to challenge the political status quo in the region. Chinese policymakers have been seeking to dispel those concerns by placing greater emphasis on scientific diplomacy and advocating bilateral partnerships in the study of the affects of local climate change.” He drew attention to Beijing’s careful framing of its investments in the Arctic, from Norway to Russia to Greenland, as joint ventures. This practice fits in line with the Belt and Road Initiative’s larger narrative of, in the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, embodying “the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.”

In Russia, this discourse has won over officials at the highest level. Moscow supports China’s Belt and Road Initiative and generally condones the country’s involvement in the Arctic. At the Belt and Road Forum, President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov were two of the most prominent attendees. In a speech there, Putin expressed his support for China’s transcontinental infrastructure plans. He proclaimed, “By proposing China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, President Xi Jinping has demonstrated an example of a creative approach toward fostering integration in energy, infrastructure, transport, industry, and humanitarian collaboration.”

Russia is partly keen for Chinese investment in its infrastructure because capital from the West has dried up. Russian diplomat Gleb Ivashentsov, who has served as Russian ambassador to Myanmar and South Korea, stated in an interview, “If we talk about Moscow’s turn to the East, it is fully justified. The Asian region is the engine of economic development, whereas Europe is marking time. In Asia, we can take both technology and investment. From the West, we see only sanctions and nothing more.”

Yet some in Russia view China’s plans more suspiciously. Writing in The Maritime News of Russia, Anatoly Korovin, Captain-Coordinator of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s Maritime Rescue Center, warns that the Chinese government does not believe that Russia should exercise full control over shipping along the Northern Sea Route. Korovin argued, “The greatest threat to the security interests of the Russian Federation is an attempt by some countries (notably Denmark, the USA, Japan and China) to achieve recognition of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport routes with freedom of navigation.” At the same time, he suggested the possibility that China may be interested in creating a joint venture to manage the Northern Sea Route, which could bring with investment in maritime infrastructure. Such plans were not fleshed out by the policy document released last week, but this may be the direction Beijing seeks to advance in the coming years. 

In Beijing last month, Putin expressed in his speech, “Greater Eurasia is not an abstract geopolitical arrangement, but, without exaggeration, a truly civilization-wide project looking toward the future.” Putin’s distinction between an “abstract geopolitical arrangement” and a “civilizational-wide project” is interesting. The allure of his earlier pet project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is fading as Eurasian countries are increasingly drawn east rather than west. The EEU counts Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia as its members, while the Belt and Road Initiative reportedly involves some 64 countries besides China. And where the EEU could in fact be called an “abstract geopolitical arrangement,” the Belt and Road Initiative is a project that is being realized, albeit in fits and starts. Beijing’s efforts to build ports, railroads, highways, and corridors are stacking up incrementally in many directions, including now in the north. In many ways, the Russian government is pinning its hopes for national economic development on the Arctic. If Chinese capital can make these visions a reality by turning the frigid Northern Sea Route into a “blue economic corridor,” this may benefit both Moscow and Beijing – so long as they agree to disagree on the status of the shipping lane under international law.

With the formal inclusion of the Arctic into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, it’s clear that Beijing is becoming more comfortable with being forthcoming about its interests in Arctic shipping and resources rather than solely emphasizing science and climate change. Lanteigne believes, “It’s likely that future Chinese projects in the Arctic will be increasingly economic in nature, especially as more of the Arctic Ocean becomes accessible.” Moscow will be watching with a healthy dose of anticipation and suspicion.