By Erica Dingman
The fourth annual Arctic Circle Assembly, held from Oct. 7 to 9 in Reykjavik, Iceland, was a striking display of Arctic networks. The comingling of social networks representing a wide range of interests—from the commercial sector, academia, NGOs, and indigenous peoples to federal and subnational governments—later prompted discussion of commercial networks. From the outset, it was apparent that the Arctic is increasingly seen as rising star on the international stage. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Arctic Circle Chairman and former president of Iceland, warmly welcomed the more than 2,000 participants from 45 nations, an appreciable increase from the attendance of 1,200 at the first Assembly in 2013. Collectively, the rapid growth of the Assembly and speakers who followed Grímsson during the opening plenary session instilled a sense of Arcticness—a metaphorical mapping that tightly envisions the Arctic as an integral aspect of a global future.
Take, for example, expressions of self-identified Arcticness by some non-Arctic nations. China’s Gao Feng from the foreign ministry was first to announce his nation’s status as a “near Arctic state.” This statement was to be expected. China claimed this status during the application stage for Observer status at the Arctic Council. Laurent Mayet, France’s Deputy Ambassador to the Polar Regions, then rose to the podium and claimed that “France, like China, is a near Arctic state.” France gained Observer status at the Arctic Council in 2000, China in 2013. Swiss Secretary of State Yves Rossier declared that Switzerland is a “vertical Arctic country.” But keynote speaker Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, took the top prize when she assured the now-amused audience that Scotland is the “closest Arctic neighbor.” These demonstrations of Arcticness, in many respects, represent the future of an Arctic superimposed with metaphorical highways and byways crisscrossing the region from north to south and east to west.
Where the public imagination is yet to fully grasp the impacts of Arctic warming in day-to-day life, a broad range of actors have a firm idea as to what this new reality will likely mean for our increasingly networked world. If plans come to fruition, communication networks, renewable energy networks, and the movement of goods and people throughout the Northern Hemisphere will reshape our current image of the Arctic. Granted, it would be next to impossible to know how many of these proposed networks and associations will develop beyond the planning stage, but as evidenced by the many discussions of networks at the Assembly, a fundamental reshaping of the Arctic relative to global processes is well underway.
Beyond metaphorical routes, many Arctic networks, both current and future, can be richly depicted through mapping. The clarity provided by maps communicates information that the written word does not. A rotational shift of a map, however, shapes how information is received.
First, consider the IcelandAir route map depicting the flight path of aircraft flying over the Arctic, carrying passengers between North America and Europe. In contrast to the typical map, this one prominently situates Iceland in the Arctic. Through this depiction, travelers are able to effectively locate themselves in the Arctic, as opposed to a traditional map that emphasizes the east-west perspective, effectively diminishing the significance of the far north. This illustration of flight paths now reads as a network of transits where the Arctic is the central point of reference.
Image courtesy of IcelandAir
From an economic perspective, IcelandAir understood the significance of Iceland’s strategic position as an Arctic gateway, enticing travelers to “explore Iceland on an IcelandAir stopover” with a free multi-day stopover option. Guided excursions to Iceland’s “Arctic North” offer the potential sighting of the northern lights. IcelandAir’s revenues have increased 70 percent between 2009 and 2014, and the route network increased by 81 percent from 21 routes to 38 over the same period. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, foreign visitors to Iceland grew from 489,000 in 2010 to approximately 1 million in 2014. In stark contrast, as of January 2016 the population of Iceland is 332,500.
Now imagine the potential for shipping networks involving the United States, not from Alaska, as one would expect, but rather the state of Maine. Strategically located on the northeast corner of the continental U.S , the Port of Portland serves as a gateway to trans-Atlantic northern shipping routes from the U.S. to Iceland, Greenland, and other Nordic countries. Some have even suggested that Maine is the next near Arctic state. In 2013, Iceland-based shipping firm Eimskip relocated its U.S. headquarters to Portland, Maine. Eimskip’s presence in Portland is seen as having a “a transformative effect on Maine’s economy,” a point made clear at the 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly by John Henshaw, CEO of Maine Port Authority. Container shipments have increased dramatically since 2011, up by more than 1,300 percent, largely attributed to Eimskip’s relocation to Portland. Investment of $30 million into container yard rehabilitation helped Portland win the business of Eimskip. Eimskip ports-of-call are extensive, including Greenland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, and northern Norway, among others.
Image courtesy of Eimskip
Maine’s relevance to the Arctic is further established by U.S. Senator Angus King’s position as a founding co-chair of the Senate Arctic Caucus. As host to this October’s Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials meeting, Maine was one of two exceptions to such formal gatherings during the U.S. Chairmanship, which have otherwise taken place in Alaska. “Maine will now play a central role in the important Arctic Council conversations about how a changing environment in the High North can foster cooperation, increase commerce, and help cultivate greater economic opportunity,” said King.
Now imagine a slice of map that depicts submarine cable networks linking renewable energy sources to centers of demand throughout the North Atlantic. As Nicola Sturgeon emphasized during her keynote address, meeting COP21 emission reduction goals is both a moral imperative and a business opportunity. “Paris marks a milestone” she noted, not a conclusion. To limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less, fossil fuels will need to remain in the ground and be replaced with renewable energy sources such as sun, wind, and tidal power to fuel global existence and economic growth.
Yet shifting to renewable energy raises numerous challenges, not the least of which is reimagining energy delivery from the source to the consumer. This was the subject of the North Atlantic Energy Network panel, with discussion on issues of technical and economic feasibility as well as political will and NIMBY (not in my backyard).
The idea of linking Iceland’s electricity grid with Scotland was first proposed over 60 years ago. In 2009, Iceland’s national power company Landsvirkjun reintroduced the idea as the IceLink Connector. In 2012, Iceland and the U.K. signed a memorandum of understanding solidifying intent to connect the U.K. with cost-effective hydro and geothermal energy resources in Iceland. If implemented fully, surplus renewable energy resources would be connected to various markets throughout Europe, with the option of additional interconnectors to Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
Image courtesy of Landsvirkjun / Askja Energy Partners
The possibilities are tremendous, yet concerns remain. Meinhard Eliasen, energy adviser to the Faroese Energy Authority, said that while the idea of replacing the islands’ energy source, now supplied by oil fulfilling 90 percent of need, the proposed idea of replacing oil with renewable energy supplied by a single cable is concerning. What if the cable fails? The Faroe Islands are left in the dark. In Greenland, is it feasible to link the country’s hydro and solar energy potential with markets to the west in Canada or to European markets via Iceland? Linking isolated renewable energy sources in the Arctic to markets in Canada, the U.K., and the rest of Europe is the subject of an extensive investigative report published by the North Atlantic Energy Network in 2016. Despite numerous challenges, however, the future of renewable energy would appear to be embedded in North Atlantic networks.
Networks abounded at the Arctic Circle Assembly 2016. Embodied in both the verbal and visual discourse, the future Arctic unfolds as an integral part of global flows.
Erica Dingman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and director of Arctic in Context.
[Photo courtesy of adriankirby]
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.