Iceland conference draws on hopes, concerns for changing Arctic

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Reykjavik, Iceland, shown here in a 2013 file photo, plays host to the second Arctic Circle Assembly this month. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
Reykjavik, Iceland, shown here in a 2013 file photo, plays host to the second Arctic Circle Assembly this month. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
REYKJAVIK, Iceland — As winter closes its icy grip on the Arctic for another year, world leaders from around the globe are converging on this island nation in the North Atlantic to discuss what never was but might someday be in what appears to be a warming world.

The Arctic Circle Assembly here, co-founded by Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff, is drawing both those who hope to find new riches waiting beneath the Arctic’s melting ice and those who fear the changes the thaw — and the subsequent hunt for riches — might bring.

There is history. One-hundred-fifty years ago, the Europeans and the Americans showed up in the Arctic looking for wealth. They killed nearly all the region’s whales for oil, and then they left.

About 100 years later, they came back to the Alaska, Norwegian and Russian Arctic looking for the new oil — crude — and though they have yet to drain it all off and leave they are, as Alaskans well know, getting close in places.

Resource development

Not that this has been all bad. Alaskans have overall benefited from the oil boom, and the Norwegians have benefited greatly.

Resource riches — whale oil, crude oil, some minerals — are the double-edged sword of prosperity and change that cuts through all of the economies in one of the least inhabited regions of the globe.

Short on human capital — Murmansk, Russia, population 311,000, is the Arctic’s largest city — the region largely lacks a base upon which to build a knowledge-based economy.

There is no Arctic Apple or Microsoft or JP Morgan Chase bank. The Icelanders made a run at the global banking business in the 2000s, but that fell apart during the global monetary crisis.

They battle on now as a nation of fishermen, farmers and tour operators. A lot of people like to come see the Arctic. Not so many stay to try and build something, like the Icelanders have here on the edge of the Arctic. The drive in from the airport takes one past an aluminum smelting operation. There are a lot of greenhouses not far outside of the city powered by the same geothermal energy that heats houses and generates electricity to produce aluminum.

All across the region from here east to Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, then on around to Alaska, Canada and Greenland, it is like this. The largest Arctic city in North America is Barrow, population 4,429.

Changing climate

The Arctic isn’t exactly booming. At least not yet.

But the belief is that a warming globe could change this. The polar ice is melting. There has been less of it every year for almost a decade now.

As it melts, there are more opportunities for resource extraction and maybe, this time for once, something more.

The northern sea routes across the Arctic open opportunities for shorter shipping paths between the economic centers of Europe, Asia and North America. They smelt aluminum here, and there is potential for value-added mineral production elsewhere.

The North, some say, has never been so rich in economic opportunity.

The North, others counter, has never been so threatened by the spread of global industrialization.

Progress could destroy cultures that have functioned with little change for thousands of years. It could also provide the economic means to support some of those same cultures, some of which have watched many of their best and brightest young leave in search of opportunities elsewhere.

There is much to talk about.

The Russians are here, and the Norwegians, Alaskans and Canadians. But they are not alone. The Chinese are on hand, the Japanese, the Germans, the Britons, the French and more — 34 nations are represented in all.

On the grand scale of global development, there might not be all that much happening in the Arctic as of yet. But clearly there are plenty of people thinking about what could happen.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s Northwest Territories hosts mining conference, CBC News

Finland: Lapland to host Finland’s biggest mine, Yle News

Greenland:  Greenland’s political crisis concerns locals and foreign investors alike, Blog by Mia Bennett

Iceland: The Arctic Circle – Denizen of the North, make way for corporate development, Blog by Mia Bennett

Norway: Why Barents oil is becoming unprofitable, Barents Observer

Russia: Disappointing result in Rosneft’s first Norwegian well, Barents Observer

Sweden: Northland halts operations at mine in Arctic Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Is Alaska getting its fair share from mining?, Alaska Dispatch

 

 

 

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