Trashing Ultima Thule

We noted back in 2009 an historic event. An oil tanker made its way from South Korea to Rotterdam—by way of traveling across the Northeast Passage, that region from the Bering Straight to the northern tip of Norway. This is major. For hundreds of years, nations have been searching for a Northwest Passage across North America, and this stimulated the imagination of generations of Englishmen and others as few other enterprises have done. And for hundreds of years, Russia has had two obsessions—the role of the north in the Russian character, and, as a far more practical matter, access to a year round warm weather port. I can’t speak to the first, but the second appears on its way to becoming reality.

The north, that vague unknowable land, that vague concept, that place of mystery, silence, purity, solitude and the Northern Lights. Oh, and the dumping ground for the world’s nuclear waste, air pollutants and chemical contaminants. That magnet myth, for exploration, for voyages of discovery back in the days when nations believed in voyages of discovery as expressions of national pride. Whatever it is, it is going to be trashed in pretty short order. The place is dying a slow death. Well, being murdered is more like it. And the death doesn’t even look that slow any more. “Death” is a loaded term, of course, and the Arctic literally isn’t going to die, just yet, anyway. But there is so much going on up there, and so much of it is bad, or potentially bad, that it’s only a matter of time. The Gulf of Mexico isn’t dead either, but it’s well on its way. Same with the Arctic. Say good-bye to the Polar Bear.

The culprit is global warming, of course. To ask whether any polar scientists doubt the validity of global warming is to already know the answer. And with warming comes the melting of the ice. Not all at once, of course, but at an accelerating pace, and it may not even be a smooth curve any more. No, the ice is going, there’s no question about that. After the great crash of summer ice in 2007, there has been, as Alun Anderson in particular lays out in After the Ice, increased attention to —if not outright panic about—what’s happening to the summer ice. And just to confirm everyone’s worse fears, it’s bad. The melt this summer looks set to set a new record low for ice cover, according to NOAA. So much so, in fact, that we now have events like this, which will undoubtedly become some sort of annual ironman event.

Books under discussion

Alun Anderson, After the Ice: Life, Death and Politics in the New Arctic, Virgin Books, 2009
Peter Davidson, The Idea of North, Reaktion Books, 2005
Charles Emmerson, The Future History of the Arctic. Bodley Head, 2010
Joanna Kavenna, The Ice Museum: in search of the lost land of Thule. Penguin, 2006.
Sara Wheeler, Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic. Vintage, 2009
Jean-Christophe Valtat, Aurorarama, Melville House, 2010

So we now for example, face the prospect of Shell, the un-BP, undertaking an extremely high risk set of operations in the Arctic. Shell has received approval from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) to dig four exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea. It’s a conditional permit, which means—what, exactly? If they mess up, they won’t get to do more? Barely a week later, Shell admitted it had a substantial North Sea leak, and they weren’t sure how long it had been going for, but it’s the largest spill into the North Sea in ten years. Shell admitted that the spill was “significant.” It was, actually—they were finally able to turn it off after ten days, but still, 218 tons of the stuff leaked out, with another 660 tones still in the pipeline that the company has to figure out what to do with. Much if it has been dispersed at this point, but, you know, so what? We can’t wait to see what comes of the recent tie-up between Rosneft, Russia’s largest (and 75% state-owned) oil company, and Exxon, another un-BP. Both have sterling records in terms of spills, as you might expect.

Well, these things happen. And they’re going to happen a lot more frequently. As all the authors lay out, the Arctic region is under extraordinary stresses from a number of pressure points. Warming is producing changes in any number of areas, the most important of which is coastlines. These were always a bit changeable, but these changes had a regularity that no longer seems to occur. Now the changes are abrupt, and severe, and the humans and animals who rely on access to the sea, which, ironically, may often be farther away than it was before. Which is why Polar Bears and Inuit now have to travel greater distances to find food—and why the survival of both is now threatened. This summer, to pick just one example, we’re seeing record numbers of walruses on beaches—because they can’t find ice floes close enough to the shoreline for breeding. Then there are the changes in water temperature.

Then there’s the chemical contamination of the Arctic. This is one of the most alarming themes running through the Emmerson, Anderson and Wheeler books. Not just animals, either—the resident humans (whatever one chooses to call them, there are so many names) as well. PCBs and all sorts of other interesting chemicals have been accumulating in arctic animals for decades, so much so that the Inuit that eat them are now chemical basket cases.

But even as all these changes are occurring, the seas—and the land beneath them—are now more accessible than they have been for centuries. And the mineral rush is under way, big time. There’s all sorts of stuff there that people want. Oil? Estimates vary, but it’s there, and may account for about 13% of all global undiscovered oil. Natural gas? Maybe the largest reserves in the world, perhaps as much as 30% of all undiscovered reserves. Well, the gas may be less exportable than the oil, but that’s hardly a comfort. In fact, this is all best guesses, but the truth is it’s not clear how much there is, but it’s probably a lot. Minerals? Well, funny you should ask. The Russian Arctic alone contains some of the world’s most substantial deposits of diamonds, nickel, copper, gold and uranium. Oh, and for good measure, coal as well.

So amidst this fantastic mineral and resource rush—which just looks more likely all the time given the increasingly easy access countries and companies will actually have—all of this has become quite tied up in legal negotiations, of course. These are taking place under the auspices of the United Nations, which is the venue for claims and counter-claims to be filed, and guidelines to be established, under the Law of the Sea treaty, signed by most countries back in 1982. Too bad the United States has never signed it. But the other Arctic countries—Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway, and even Iceland—are all busy buttressing various territorial claims to the ocean floor through the LOTS, and they’re making headway. Yet another instance of American Exceptionalism coming back to haunt us. The last three presidential administrations all spent time trying to get Congress to approve the treaty, but each ran into Republican intransigence over perceived “loss of sovereignty.”

Meanwhile, those two large countries with really long Arctic shorelines—Russia and Canada—are aggressively laying out their plans for Arctic, well, not domination, because they know that won’t be possible. But the best deal that they can get, and those deals will obviously be significant, simply because of the size of the two countries in question. We already had the spectacle, referred to here by Emmerson, Wheeler and Anderson, of Russia planting its flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean directly below the North Pole back in 2007. Actually, this caused great alarm when it occurred, but in reality the North Pole is most likely going to end up in Denmark’s hands. It’s a complicated process, this business of establishing Arctic claims, and Emmerson, Wheeler and Anderson spend a fair amount of print laying it all out. It has to do with the sea shelf running out from the country’s shoreline. As expected, the claims are usually conflicting, and vigorous. In some cases, negotiations have been fruitful, as between Norway and Russia over several areas of disputed territory. In other cases, negotiations drag on.

But there’s clearly a lot of mixed feelings about the changes that are occurring. Greenland, for example, seems positively, well, if not giddy, then pretty excited. Oil drilling is already occurring there, and more is on the way. Environmentalists, of course, are suitably alarmed, for the usual good reasons, but Greenlanders in general appear to be looking forward to a variety of changes—warmth, for example. For one thing, it represents an opportunity for improving what is a pretty crappy standard of living. For another, it’s a possible step towards further independence from Denmark. Greenlanders, it has to be said, have a wide range of feeling about global warming, like much of the rest of the world. There’s no doubt about it there. Like everywhere else in the Arctic, the evidence over the past two decades has been overwhelming. Needless to say, it’s probably too late to save the Greenland ice sheets. What’s at issue is whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Greenland had warm periods before—Leif Ericsson originally colonized the place 1000 years ago, and colonists survived for several hundred years before the little ice age of the 1400s. But now, there’s a whole new world out there, but it’s complicated. As Sylvia Pfeifer and Christopher Thompson lay it out in The Financial Times,

About 750km north-west of Nuuk, out to sea, a Scottish company is drilling for oil. Greenland, the world’s largest island, with its tiny population of 56,000, is standing on the brink of an oil rush. The potential wealth that lies off its shores is turning the country – an empty wilderness three times the size of Texas – into a battleground. The global oil industry, striving to feed the world’s hunger for energy, is engaged in a struggle against environmental groups who believe that this delicate Arctic landscape should remain untouched.

A spill in such cold waters, they warn, would be calamitous, not least for fishing, currently Greenland’s main source of domestic income. But that fear must compete with the hope, shared by some of the biggest players in the energy industry, that the sea floor around Greenland holds one of the world’s largest remaining undiscovered oil finds.

In 2008, a study of the basins of the Arctic by the US Geological Survey estimated that three provinces off the coast of Greenland combined could yield up to 52 billion barrels of oil equivalent (which includes natural gas) – as much as has been drilled out of the North Sea in the past 40 years. This caught the attention of companies including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, and it is why Scotland’s Cairn Energy is now prospecting there.

This pretty much summarizes the issues facing all the northern populations, in Russia, Canada and Norway as well as Greenland. As in Greenland, these are populations that are under stress, facing transitions they seem little prepared for. No thanks to the various governments, of course, whose track records with regards to the indigenous populations in the North has been, well, horrific. Actually, the US comes out looking pretty good here, in contrast with Canada and Russia. Both Wheeler and Emmerson spend considerable time on the rather sorry history of the Russian and Canadian governments and their treatment of their northern populations. Canada has a lot to answer for, but nothing like Russia. The more one learns about the inflicted tragedies of Stalin, the more one despairs. But not just Stalin—the horrors of the Soviet government for much of its existence can hardly be better conveyed than in their treatment of their northern populations, and it makes grisly reading.

Emmerson in particular spends considerable time on the geopolitics of the region. It’s now at the center of any number of competitions—for navigation rights, for mineral rights, and for political control of a region that is changing daily. And Emmerson is good as well on the impacts on the peoples of the region. We don’t know what will happen to the northern people. Actually, we probably do, and that’s the depressing part. They’ve adapted to one of the most brutal environments imaginable, and while humans seem endlessly adaptable, there is something about adapting to, and even thriving in, the harsh but cruel beauty of the North that compels our admiration. Emmerson, Wheeler and Kavenna especially spend much time with the Inuit and other tribal northerners. And they capture elegantly what it is about living in this part of the world that the rest of us find so, if not appealing, at least magnetic in a certain way. Wheeler has chosen the title of her book well. But whether they will continue to be able to adapt to the changes in the physical world as well as to changes in the political world remains to be seen.

Wheeler’s chapters here are particularly good. She spends lots of time here, and it shows. Wheeler admits she came to the Arctic late—she’s mainly known for her journeys to Antarctia (which came out in book form as Terra Incognita about ten years ago), and admits an initial skepticism—how could the Arctic possibly be as interesting as the Antarctic? Well, thankfully, she was surprised. It’s a fine book, one that covers pretty much everything referred to here—history, politics, science, animals, people, herself. If you’re only going to read one of these books, it should probably be this one—the informational content per page is probably a bit higher, simply because of the amount of ground she covers.

She covers it literally, too. Like all these others, Wheeler is a traveller, and has been taken by the same thing that captures so many other imaginations. And she probably travels more than the others, which is a delight, and allows her to bring us an even weirder set of stories than most, simply because as all the authors recognize, this is one weird area, and it attracts one weird set of people. But as Wheeler and the others point out, it has also attracted more than its share of calamities. Holly Morris, in her New York Times review of Wheeler’s book, makes the point:

Since the 1960s, cultural disintegration has clobbered the native peoples of the Arctic. The invaders, the pollutants, the brutal relocation tactics and the resources sought may vary, but the effects on the Inuit don’t. “Every nation devastates native cultures, even if it doesn’t actually kill everyone off. Russians did it with bureaucracy, Americans with money, Canadians (in the end) with kindness. Swedes and Finns did it with chain saws that chopped down forests. And everyone did it with booze and syphilis.” Today’s inhabited Arctic is awash in the legacies “of miscarried cultural assimilation and racial marginalization.”

Why all the carnage in the past 50 years? The answer is mostly this: The region “produces about a tenth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its gas.” Usually with Russia or the United States at the helm, the industry “delivers some fresh ecological catastrophe to the tundra as every month passes.” Few of them make headlines. As everyone’s “nuclear rubbish dump,” and a favorite testing site for nuclear warheads, parts of the Arctic Ocean, and sites around it, are the most radioactive on earth. The Russian Sami’s reindeer meat? Glowing.

Water flow, weather and long-range transport patterns carry toxic substances and pesticides from lower latitudes upward, making the Arctic the world’s sink. Animal fat, a mainstay of the native diet, has become riddled with contaminants, to wildly detrimental health effect.

All the authors here discuss aspects of the call of the north and its role in driving polar exploration. Yes, there were always commercial considerations, and considerations of nationalism (Nansen and Amundsen in particular—Norway was a young country then). But Davidson’s focus is more philosophical—what is it, exactly, that powers all this. Consider the title—The Idea of North—not The Idea of the North. This is intentional, and speaks to Davison’s intent—to describe, through literature as much as anything else, where this fascination comes from. It’s a powerful cultural meme, or has been, anyway, dating back to the ancient Greeks, as Davidson discusses. He’s a good guide. He is particularly good on the idea of north as a purification, an idea that has always been with us, it seems, as far back as the Greeks and the Romans. Ultima Thule shows up on medieval maps. Davison does some travelling, nothing like the other authors, but he’s writing a different kind of book, a travelogue of the mind.

Davidson, in fact, starts out his book with a discussion of the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s project on the North, also called, as it turns out, The Idea of North. This initially debuted as a one-hour radio program on the CBC in Canada’s Centennial year in 1967. It was primarily devoted to Solitude, a topic to which Gould, who had retired from performing at the time, was consumed by. It’s a very northern concept, one has to admit. One does not go to the tropics for solitude, and we would be bemused by anyone who said that they were going to Antigua for the solitude. But anyone heading north would get an understanding nod. Gould was not physically well, but died, as much as anything else, of the complications of hypochondria. He may have preferred hypothermia.

Davidson, on the other hand, shows signs of life on every page. He’s a genial traveler of the mind, and we get a rich survey of not only the literatures of the North (he’s particularly good on The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic), but an astonishingly wide range of literature about the north, ranging from the Greeks and Romans to the romantic Poets to moderns works such as Nabokov’s land of Zembla in Pale Fire. And I particularly liked his discussion of Eric Ravilious, an artist barely known outside of Britain, but who deserves to be. Davidson makes you want to go there, something that all these books do, but is unencumbered by actually regaling you with the fact that what he’s doing is travelling, usually uncomfortably. Davidson instead takes us on a great armchair journey.

Kavenna’s book,The Ice Museum, is closest to Davidson’s—it’s also an exploration of the hold that the concept of the North has had, not always for the better. Like the other authors here, she has traveled extensively, and like the others, The Ice museum is organized as a travelogue, moving from country to country. Kavenna has a particular target in mind, though—Thule. Where was it, exactly? Did Pytheas, wjho claimed to have discovered it in the 6th century BC, really do that? Who lived there? How did people know about it? And why has Thule had such a powerful hold on the European imagination, including the Thule Society founded by Aryans for Aryans, which Hitler used as a model for the type of society he wanted to build. Kavenna (and Wheeler a bit) also take us into territory that we see from time to time, where the concerns about purity get a bit more expansive than they need to. This is a personal book, as are Wheeler’s and Anderson’s, who not only exult in their own personal discovery of the North, but their varying responses to it while they’re travelling around. And her account of the US airbase in Greenland, named, of course, Thule, is alone worth the price of the book (Wheeler does a good job on this too).

Anderson’s book will likely be the most depressing read for those who still hold out hopes for the longer term survival of Polar Bears and other large mammals in the Arctic. The drivers of change are just too ingrained at this point, and we are likely at past the point of no return for Polar Bear survival. But Anderson points out that this is a mixeed story–as there are costs to some, there are benefits to others. A number of marine mammal species, particularly the Killer Whale, keep moving more northwards every year. Anderson’s book is the strongest on the science of what’s going on up there. All of the authors, except for Davidson (who wasn’t writing that sort of book) devote varying degrees of attention to this, but Anderson devotes the most. And in that context, it’s the least encouraging for the future of the region.

Meanwhile, the world goes on, and so does Steampunk. And for those who want to displace all of the above, because it’s just too damn depressing, there’s always escape into fiction, and if you want Arctic, Aurorarama is the perfect ticket. Set in some stampunky parallel future somewhere in the Arctic, in the city of New Venice (with canals and all), and with the obligatory pneumatic tubes and dirigibles, and the required amount of political intrigue and social unrest, Aurorama is just the ticket for a snowy winter evening. Start with that mysterious black airship hovering over the city, add some political riots, a revolutionary movement under threat from the top-hatted secret police, a range of fascinating characters that one could believe could only be found in the Arctic, leagues away from anywhere else—you couldn’t ask for more. Valtat does a very credible job of moving the flow and tensions of Victorian society to the Arctic plains, where the action really does take place out in the middle of nowhere half the time. And the final conflict, one feels, isn’t quite final, so it looks as if we may have a series here. Plus, this has one of the best book covers I’ve seen in a long time, one of the best ever, in fact. Imagine, a book as good as its cover. Satisfactory, as Wolfe would say.

For those who want a regular hits of Polar news, there are two excellent sources. The first is the daily Arctic Update put out by the US Arctic Research Commission, which provides some of the best coverage of Arctic news and events out there—probably the best. And it’s free, at least until President Perry or President Bachmann shuts the place down. The Arctic Council, established by various Nordic governments but with Russia, Canada and the US along for the ride, provides a raft of useful information, although a newsletter would be nice.

4 replies »

  1. Well, wuf, after this three-beer read, I know a helluva lot more about the Arctic. For that, I’m grateful that you spent the necessary time reading the books and packaging astute analysis.

    I talk to my students often about what their world will be like in 2050 — when they’re my age. I’ll be long gone. But they’re going to have to deal with the consequences of this — and so much more.

    Now, if I could only get them to put down their cell phones long enough to listen to me …

    Thanks again, wuf. Damn good work. Makes me proud to be a Scrogue.