Blog: Arctic Circle – A tale of two Arctics

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski addresses Arctic Circle 2014 in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a map behind her of two polar opposite cities in the Arctic. (Mia Bennett)
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski addresses Arctic Circle 2014 in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a map behind her of two polar opposite cities in the Arctic. (Mia Bennett)
Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson opened this year’s Arctic Circle conference today by declaring, “If the Global Arctic was not known to people before, they need only look around the magnificent Harpa hall now.”

Over 1,400 delegates from 34 countries listened to his remarks. Announcing the dates for the next three Arctic Circle meetings, he expressed, “Arctic Circle will transform Reykjavik into a dynamic Arctic village every October for years to come.”

Reykjavik epitomizes the “magnificent” and cosmopolitan Arctic, but that only represents one part of the North. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), able to attend in person this year thanks to the lack of a government shutdown, painted a different picture of the Arctic. The region is not, in fact, a tiny village, but rather a place where “there are two different Arctics with two different sets of needs.”


The Nordic countries – Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland – have lots of infrastructure, from ports to local and regional bus networks to high-speed internet. In contrast, Murkowski described how Alaska, Greenland, and Russia lack infrastructure. Later, in a separate session, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell remarked that his state could easily soak up $150 million in infrastructure investment alone for pipelines and shipping facilities.

Building things like ports, roads, pipelines, and fiber optic cables requires significant investment and time commitments often longer than political terms. Yet once this infrastructure is in place, certain economies of scale result. Well-placed infrastructural investments can, for instance, help lower the cost of trade. The presentation by Patrick Arnold, Director of Operations and Business Development for the Maine Port Authority, illustrated this nicely. He used the term cost-based geography to describe how “you are as close or far from somewhere as it costs to be.” That means that Portland, Maine, which has been Icelandic shipping line Eimskip’s North American port of call since last year, is the same distance away in monetary terms from Reykjavik and London as it is from Delaware and Washington, D.C. In other words, Portland could ship a lobster plucked out of the waters off Maine to the nation’s capital for the same price as it could to the capital of Iceland. This opens up new opportunities for a state that once saw itself as isolated and “something of a dead end in the region.”

A cost geography map of the North Atlantic for the Maine Port Authority behind Patrick Arnold, Director of Operations and Business Development for the Maine Port Authority. (Mia Bennett)
A cost geography map of the North Atlantic for the Maine Port Authority behind Patrick Arnold, Director of Operations and Business Development for the Maine Port Authority. (Mia Bennett)

Maine is fortunate enough to sit at the western end of the North Atlantic, the Arctic sub-region that is growing fastest thanks in part to early infrastructure investments. At the eastern end of this area, in northern Norway, Jan-Gunnar Winther, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, explained that the economy is growing faster than the area of Norway south of the Arctic Circle. Eimskip’s shipping route network shows the extent of interlinkages in the North Atlantic maritime space, where a rising tide of infrastructural investment is helping to lift many boats. In geo-economic terms, Greenland hasn’t yet fully capitalized on its position within the North Atlantic, but Arnold expressed how his state, at the very least, is hoping to build upon its new direct shipping line to Iceland by expanding to Greenland (and also Norway).

In his speech, Charles Hendry, a Conservative Member of Parliament serving in the UK House of Commons, talked up the potential of an interconnector between Iceland and the United Kingdom that would deliver electricity generated by the Arctic nation’s hydropower to his country. (No surprise there, as he is a paid adviser of the Atlantic Supragrid Corporation, which is looking to bring Icelandic energy to the UK, as The Guardian uncovered.) Though an interconnector is still arguably a fanciful idea, it is another example of even more infrastructure that could be built in the North Atlantic.

The picture in the Pacific Arctic is not as rosy. There, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is struggling to have enough oil to flow through it to keep it operating smoothly. Murkowski lamented the fact that Alaska pays the highest cost in the union for energy despite its wealth of natural resources (a problem, however, that is due not just to the lack of infrastructure, but also to the lack of competition, as the Alaska Dispatch News reported in 2012). The dichotomy between the Arctic-haves and the Arctic have-nots is illustrated by  this image of the Arctic at night that I posted just the other week, included below again as a reminder of how different the levels of development are between the Nordic/North Atlantic Arctic and the rest of the Arctic.


A tale of another two Arctics

UCLA Professor Laurence Smith (full disclosure: he is also my advisor) touched upon another two Arctics: the marine and the terrestrial. Whereas all the media focus is on the maritime domain, there’s less discussion of the terrestrial Arctic, and, as he noted, “The Arctic has a lot of land.” With permafrost melting, “the landscape will be debilitated by climate change.” Director of the British Antarctic Survey Jane Francis explained one change occurring on land: the “shrubification” of many areas of tundra, where new vegetation is replacing melting ice.* As another member of the British delegation noted, Russia has 12,000 kilometers of ice and snow roads. Climate change is rendering many of these land-based transportation routes vulnerable, and without infrastructural investments, this terrestrial part of the have-not Arctic will fall behind the maritime Nordic Arctic even more.

The image of trucks falling into collapsed ice roads in places like Russia’s Sakha Republic therefore represents a very different future for the Arctic than the one Polarisk CEO Mika Mered painted. In his presentation about the Arctic in 2035, one slide featured a photograph of snow falling on a smooth, well-maintained road with the caption, “Arctic roads [take] you to world-class data centers.” That could be the case in Finland, Sweden, or Iceland one day – but not in Chukotka. Two roads are diverging in the Arctic, and one is less traveled: the terrestrial, Pacific Arctic road.

*NB: Did the shrub jokes made in Monty Python cross into anyone else’s mind when Francis discussed shrubification? Is it just me, or do British people have a strange predilection for all things shrub?

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Melting Arctic ice called ‘economic time bomb,’ CBC News

Greenland:  Greenland’s northeastern ice sheet starting to melt, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland:  Acid Arctic Ocean and Russell Brand?, by Deutsche Welle’s Iceblogger

Norway: Emissions speeding up Arctic Ocean acidification, Alaska Dispatch

Russia: Melting permafrost eroding Siberian coasts, Deutsche Welle Ice-Blog

United States: Southwest, southeast Alaska face highest risks from ocean acidification, Alaska Dispatch


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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