The Arctic This Week Take Five: Week of February 21, 2022

Russia’s Northern Fleet involved in Ukraine Invasion

As reported by the Barents Observe on February 24, three warships from the Northern Fleet, the Arctic division of Russia’s navy, are being used in Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Sailing around the Norwegian coast, the ships arrived in the Black Sea in early February from the Kola Peninsula. The three assault landing ships carried soldiers and amphibious vehicles that are now being used to attack Ukraine from the shore. (The Barents Observer)

Take 1: Russia holds the current chairmanship of The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum whose mission is to “promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among Arctic State, Arctic Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants.” This is an institution which prides itself on safeguarding peace and security in the Arctic, as well as the well-being and health of both inhabitants and the environment. As chair of this council, Russia’s current actions can be seen as a violation of this essential mandate they have chosen to observe- even if conflict has not yet ‘spilled over in the Arctic,’ as the Barents Observe commented. However, that might only be a matter of time. In any case, Russia might be jeopardizing future Arctic cooperation; undermining the decades of work by all circumpolar actors who work tirelessly to empower the Arctic and its communities. The words of Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on February 24 at the Kirkenes Conference meant to promote relations in the Arctic now appear hollow. A “multilateral Barents cooperation” and “green shift” are not compatible with the overt aggression and violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter by Russia, which forbids the use of force against the sovereignty of member states. Using Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify these actions as self-defense can be an insult for all those who did, and do have, legitimate claims to self-defense. Claims of “denazifying” a country whose President is Jewish, and protecting the “freedom” of Ukrainian Russian speakers while governing an authoritarian regime, are statements which leave a bitter taste for many. The Arctic Council’s chairmanship ought to represent and signify more than this. (MFA Russia, MFA RussiaUN Charter Article 2(4), The Ottawa Declaration)

Shipping Through the Snow: Icebreakers from China to Russia

As reported by High North News on February 18, Novatek‘s Arctic LNG 2 facility in Murmansk, Russia, has received a 12,000-ton module delivered from Tianjin, China. The delivery took slightly under two months, and is the first time such a large cargo vessel has made the journey across the Northern Sea Route this late in the winter. Due to its size, the cargo ship carrying the module required two nuclear icebreakers to escort it. To further facilitate these types of voyages, Russia has begun construction of a new icebreaker capable of escorting such large vessels. (High North News)

Take 2: The Arctic is warming four times as fast as other regions in the world: this journey is a sign of the changing Arctic environment, and how this changing environment is in turn increasing shipping activity. The Arctic Council’s Working Group on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment‘s (PAME) first Arctic Shipping Status Report showed over 1725 ships entered the Arctic in 2019, representing an increase of 25 percent since 2013. While melting ice is opening the zone to commercial shipping for longer periods of time, it also means an increase of shipping-induced pollution in the area. In contrast to the 25 percent increase in the number of ships the past decade, fuel consumption has increased by 82 percent in the span of three years alone. Of this consumption, over 10 percent of ships in Arctic waters burn Heavy Fuel Oils (HFO), one of the world’s dirtiest fuels. Therefore, although LNG projects bring jobs and economic activity to the region, the environmental impacts of this rise in shipping intensity must also be considered in the conversation on regional development. While the UN adopted a ban on HFO use by ships in the Arctic in 2020, the loopholes in regulations allow for ships to continue their consumption of HFO. Economic development cannot come at such a high environmental cost. Rethinking the shipping industry through the lens of sustainable development requires the development of effective and binding legal and technological measures, but this is something the UN has yet to achieve for the Arctic. (Arctic Council, Arctic Council, PAME, Reuters)

Uranium in the Arctic: Nunavut Tries Again

As reported by Nunatsiaq News on February 18, Forum Energy Metals Corp.. is returning to Nunavut for uranium exploitation. A small exploration company, Forum previously explored the area between 2006 to 2012, but let its claims expire due to the falling price of uranium at the time. Now back in the Arctic Canadian territory, the company aims to establish a base camp by 2023 to start exploration and drilling. Forum has said it is likely that the camp will create local jobs, but no precise number or estimate has been given yet. (Nunatsiaq News)

Take 3: After saying no in 2015 to a project at the nearby Kiggavik uranium deposit over concerns for local wildlife, Nunavut is now about to welcome a new exploration and drilling camp- just a year after Greenland banned uranium mining on its territory in 2021. China, and other global economic powers, are heavily interested in investing in the Arctic, and have considered Greenland a ‘hotspot’ for this aim. However, Greenland has not only banned uranium exploration but also oil exploration, a move which follows a 2016 Canadian moratorium on Arctic gas and oil drilling. In contrast, both Norway and Russia continue to invest in oil and gas in the Arctic. Canada and Greenland seem to be the exceptions rather than the norm. Yet, mining remains for both an essential economic sector; the stakes are especially high for Greenland in its aim for independence from Denmark. The decision by Nunavut is understandable from an economic point of view, although critically around the viability of uranium drilling remains and puts a question mark on the true added value of such a project for the region. If the project further harms local wildlife, this might have enormous consequences for communities’ food security and hunters’ abilities to continue their activities. The Nunavut uranium project shows the complexity of finding a balance between economic viability, economic diversity, and sustainable development. (Canada Energy Regulator, CBC, CBC, iPolitics, Reuters, The Barents Observer)

Interpersonal Violence and Mental Health in the Circumpolar Arctic

As reported by Anchorage Daily News on February 19, a 32-year-old Alaskan resident was apprehended for assaulting a passerby in Anchorage. In December, the man had randomly attacked two women, but he was released from custody on January 6th after being deemed mentally unfit to face trial. He has now been charged with felony assault in relation to the new attack. (Anchorage Daily News)

Take 4: Alcohol dependence and associated mental illnesses have increased by 147 percent between 2002 and 2012 among the Indigenous population of North Siberia. In Canada, the Suicide rate among Inuit is nine times higher than for non-Indigenous people. Half of all Sami women who responded to the Norwegian survey Samor 2 have reported facing some kind of emotional, physical, or sexual violence- often interpersonal. Of course, suffering from a mental illness does not automatically lead to violence. Yet the situation described by Anchorage Daily News shows a legal and administrative loophole where the treatment of people suffering from mental illness is not adequately addressed by all parties involved, both judicial and medical. The lack of facilities and the large taboo around mental illness and interpersonal violence create a deadly cocktail where both victims are left with few options, and where receiving care is a luxury. For Indigenous communities, poor mental health and interpersonal violence are linked to historical and systemic oppression, where the consequences of colonial practices have deeply impacted family dynamics and continue to do so. When they declared suicide a public health emergency in 2017, the Government of Nunavut’s suicide-prevention plan centered on an Inuit way of life and rekindling with family as central to improving overall community health. Undoing the harm of colonialism was- and still is -imperative in addressing the mental health crisis experienced by Indigenous communities in the circumpolar Arctic. (Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, CTV News, Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, The New Humanitarian)

Thawing Glaciers in Russian Arctic: Sea-Level Rise and No Sign of Action

As reported by Arctic Today on February 22, Russian Arctic glaciers are melting at a faster rate than before. Published in January by the journal Cryosphere, the German and Russian scientists used synthetic aperture radar technology to update previous estimates of glacier melt. According to the study from 2010 to 2017, glaciers in Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, and Franz Josef Land have lost twice as much mass than during the previous decade. (Arctic Today)

Take 5: The loss of glaciers accounted for 21 percent of all sea-level rise from 2000 to 2019. Added to this loss, thawing permafrost-which accounts for 24 percent of the North’s land mass – further releases carbon dioxide and methane, erodes shorelines, and destabilizes the ground. The rising sea-levels in combination with these weakened shorelines are a recipe for disaster, and effects are already witnessed by coastal communities across the circumpolar Arctic. From food (in)security, to access to health care and education, job security, and forced relocations, the socio-economic impacts of climate change echo beyond the Arctic to other regions impacted by rising sea levels and soil deterioration. In the Arctic, these forced relocations and loss of land are also a reminder of the consequences of disastrous colonial practices for Indigenous communities and identities. Climate change is a double burden, where its victims bear the brunt of the crisis, while also being expected to adapt. In the context of this accelerated glacier loss, Russia’s announcement in 2020 of a $300 billion investment in Arctic oil explorations and drillings appears almost ironic. To quote acclaimed Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.” (CBC, The Arctic Institute, The Barents Observer)

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