How the pristine ecology of the Arctic is under new pressures as the dash for resources intensifies
In 2007, a Russian bathyscaphe in the Arctic Ocean descended 4,250m underneath the North Pole and planted a Russian flag made of titanium on the seabed. Though officially described as a scientific mission, it was widely seen as the first salvo in the race to lay claim to the Arctic’s vast and as yet unexploited petroleum reserves.
At present, no single country holds sovereignty over the Arctic region. The five nations bordering the Arctic Ocean - Russia, Norway, Canada, USA (via Alaska) and Denmark (through Greenland) - are each limited to a 320km economic zone around their coastlines. However, the receding polar ice cap is now opening up shipping lanes and trade routes, raising the prospect of a dash for Arctic oil and gas, and increased colonisation of hitherto remote and ecologically pristine territories at the top of the world.
‘How does the region cope with such stress?’ asked Gisle Lokken of Norwegian architectural practice 70°N Arkitektur, and co-organiser of Landscapes in Change, a recent conference held in Tromsø, in the extreme north of Norway. Participants drawn from Arctic nations considered the potential impact of this stress in terms of a transversal debate embracing landscape, geopolitics, urbanism economics and architecture.
Already emblematic of the effects of climate change, Greenland is now also confronting an industrial revolution. Lokken described how a proposed aluminium smelter, in Maniitsoq on Greenland’s south-west coast, will bring in 3,000 workers, swamping a town of 2,800 people, and transforming a natural landscape into an industrial one.
Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics based at Royal Holloway, University of London, explored what he called ‘our fears and fantasies of empty spaces, the Arctic as both tempting yet unnerving’, and how promises of economic progress and renewal are intimately bound up with a rugged and usually masculine sense of national identity built around taming and exploiting wilderness areas.
From studies of indigenous Cree communities in northern Quebec, Alessandra Ponte from the University of Montreal discussed the problems of planning settlements that are situated in physically remote and climatically challenging locales. In particular, she looked at how ‘states within states’, such as Québec’s hydroelectric industry, are transforming previously unmapped territories into landscapes.
However, ‘trueness to ecology is a fiction to start with’, asserted Daniel Williams, an American specialist in forestry, environmental psychology and human geography. ‘We may like to define the natural world as a stable, self-regulating historic fidelity, but humans always interfere, creating constant dynamism and change,’ he said.
Berit Kristoffersen from Norway, who is involved with critiquing strategies for petroleum development in Arctic territories in the context of human and environmentalsecurity, spoke of a rising sense of ‘opportunistic adaptation’ as a consequence of climate change in the region.
Swedish environmental scientist Annika Nilsson described the shifts in the physical, social and political landscape of the Arctic over the last half century and the current imperative to acknowledge the complexity and interconnections across a range of disciplines, from geopolitics to architecture, as the region prepares to confront heightened industrial and human intervention.
Greenlander Sara Olsvig, an anthropologist and a member of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who specialises in human-rights issues, is at the sharp end of the debate about the region’s industrial development. Although in Greenlandic the word ‘development’ literally means ‘moving towards the end’, many local people are in favour of capitalising on Greenland’s mineral resources - the country has plentiful reserves of iron, uranium and increasingly sought-after rare earth metals.
‘We need to reconsider how we conceive our homeland,’ said Olsvig, showing excerpts from Melting Barricades, an art project staged in Copenhagen some years ago by Greenlandic artist Inuk Silis Høegh and Dane Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen, in which the Greenlandic ‘army’ ‘invaded’ Denmark, with dog sleds converted into military vehicles.
What emerged from the Tromsø debate was a sense of a remote and beautiful part of the world at a crucial tipping point. But its future is still just about in our hands. However, the US Navy is apparently engaged in serious strategic planning for a time in the not-so-distant future when (not if) the Arctic’s sea ice has melted completely.
Finally, on a more lyrical note, British writer, film-maker and researcher Roger Connagh perhaps best summed up this sense of the Arctic being on the cusp. ‘The Land That is Not is about to be penetrated,’ he remarked, in a short meditative film or ‘archimation’ to the surreal accompaniment of The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.