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What We’ll Be Watching in the Arctic in 2017

Predicting the future in the fast-changing Arctic is impossible, but here are some of the big issues we’ll be keeping an eye on, from dwindling summer sea ice to Donald Trump’s impact on circumpolar affairs.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Arctic sea ice as seen from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in 2011.Photo Courtesy NASA

The past year offered some big surprises in the Arctic, whether it was the winter’s freakishly warm weather in the polar region or the recent decision by Canada and the United States to ban offshore drilling in most of their Arctic waters. While we don’t have a crystal ball, here are some issues we’ll be looking at in the coming year.

Collapse of Sea Ice Continues

Sea ice experts expressed their alarm at the Arctic’s bizarre warmth over the past two months, and this is expected to have consequences for 2017.

As the New York Times recently reported, experts including Jeremy Mathis, who directs the Arctic research program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worry about the domino effect of the recent warm weather. A later-than-usual freeze-up in the Arctic Ocean may lead to record lows of ice cover in the spring and summer; that, in turn, may spur even more warming, as open ocean absorbs more sunlight than reflective sea ice.

It is not at all certain whether the winter in a year’s time will also prove relatively balmy in the Arctic, but another researcher told the Times that such events, once viewed as extremely unlikely, are now more like the toss of a coin.

Trump Remains a Wild Card

The presidency of Donald Trump is bound to have repercussions in the Arctic, but the incoming U.S. president’s mercurial temperament and vague commitments leave much in question. Suffice to say the next administration will be much more interested than the outgoing one in exploiting oil reserves, and much less interested in efforts to curb climate change.

Mia Bennett, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in the Department of Geography at UCLA (and one of Arctic Deeply’s emerging leaders) expects to see the U.S. less engaged in the Arctic Council in the years to come, as the country retreats to the position that has usually characterized its approach to the region in the past.

Experts say it won’t be easy for Trump to undo his predecessor’s move to ban offshore oil drilling in much of the American Arctic. And it is important to remember that the oil industry pulled out of the region before the ban had even been announced last month, thanks to dropping oil prices and climbing environmental and technical concerns. But Bennett wonders whether 2017 may see some American companies getting involved in efforts to pump oil from offshore Russia, “where Russian companies are already active and where infrastructure is already in place.” Such cooperation would presumably be welcomed by Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil whom Trump has picked to be Secretary of State. Tillerson previously led the oil company in a foray into Russia before U.S. sanctions led to a pullout.

Oh, Canada

Canada’s recently elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has created high – some might even say unrealistic – expectations about what his government could accomplish during his first term in power, and his Arctic policies are probably no exception. Over the coming year we’ll be watching to see whether his pronouncements are followed up with commitments of cash.

First, some good news: plans to build some badly needed marine infrastructure in the eastern Arctic seem likely to proceed. Especially important are plans inching ahead to build a deep-water port and a small-craft harbor for Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, but this work is not expected to be completed until 2020.

Ottawa has already pledged to spend $76.7 million over two years to help address Nunavut’s social housing shortage. But resolving this problem, which underpins many of the territory’s complicated health and social problems, is expected to cost more than $1 billion. Similarly, the federal government has touted plans to help wean remote northern communities off diesel fuel by helping to build renewable- energy projects, and a new report by WWF-Canada concludes that communities could eventually save millions with such plans. But the amount committed to date – less than $11 million over two years – won’t build much. We’ll be watching the next federal budget to see if Ottawa plans to put its money where its mouth is.

It will also be interesting to see what a new regulatory ruling will mean for the intolerably slow internet speeds in Canadian Arctic communities. The ruling sets speed targets that are 10 times as fast as those available in Nunavut, which is constrained to receiving internet via satellite. The ruling will see the country’s telecom providers pay into a pot of money intended to subsidize companies operating in remote northern areas. It remains to be seen whether this fund spurs more competition in the country’s North, or merely props up the incumbents.

Elsewhere in the Arctic…

The Russian Arctic has seen a flurry of military activity over the past year, with the completion of a series of military bases on remote northern islands. With all this now in place, we’ll be watching to see what Russia does with it. We don’t expect a looming military conflict; Russia seems more interested in flexing its muscles in the Arctic to help boost its claim to the region, as well as prepare for the response to a possible shipping accident.

Norway’s approval of plans to dump mining waste in a sensitive northern fjord has provoked the anger of the Saami people, who fear the environmental impact. We’ll see in 2017 what form their protests will take.

Finland is set to take the helm of the Arctic Council this May, and getting Arctic nations to pull together over the next two years will not be an easy job. Iceland may face growing domestic discontent as tourism makes the country increasingly unaffordable for its residents.

And Greenland’s new coalition government is bullish on resource extraction and on calls for greater independence from Denmark. We expect more skirmishes on these fronts in 2017.

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