Arctic Geopolitics

Russia continues hostility as climate change melts ice caps

The chilling climate of arctic geopolitics in a time of global warming

June 3rd 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Davide Monteleone

There are signs of climate change in nearly every aspect of our environment today, including the behaviour of the human civilisation.

Melting ice caps in the last 50 years have had a ripple effect on the world. A few decades ago, the media began highlighting concerns about shrinking polar bear habitats as a result of drastic climate change. Yet, in 2007, the hypothetical sea route known as the Northwest Passage was so devoid of ice that it was opened for shipping for the first time in recorded history, allowing a Norwegian cargo ship to successfully navigate the route in 2013 on a voyage from Vancouver to a port in Finland.

With foresight, the Russian government submitted a request to the United Nations in 2001 for permission to stake claim to a large swath of the Arctic. Even though the motion was rejected, Russia began moving submarines and aircraft through the region in a high profile manner. This activity sparked serious worries among other stakeholders in the Arctic, notably the Nordic countries, Denmark with its Greenland territory, and Canada.

Law and the Arctic Council

The Arctic is a rather difficult region to regulate, but is mostly covered by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the Arctic Council. Comprised of representatives from eight member states, the Arctic Council primarily addresses environmental concerns and the socioeconomic well-being of local communities in the region. It is made up of The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

In order to be compliant with the UNCLOS 1982, the territorial boundaries of Arctic Council nations must end 12 miles offshore, whilst their economic zones can extend up to 200 miles. The agreement also gives freedom of navigation through the region to all, an issue which is becoming increasingly relevant as melting ice actually opens up new trade routes for ships to sail through.

Photograph by the World Wild Fund

Commercial traffic through the Arctic has been growing significantly in the past decade, which creates the need for additional government presence in the region in order to provide security and safety. It is predicted to quadruple over the next twenty years as raw materials are shipped out in volume, construction materials are shipped in to support development, and melting ice leads to faster transit times.

The Arctic region is rich in natural resources, a trait that drives competition between nations in the same manner that has been seen throughout all of history. While Canada expects a growing output of minerals from its Arctic territories, much of the Arctic’s potential resources — including one third of the planet’s untapped oil and gas reserves — are not clearly owned by any member of the Arctic Council.

The council itself is intended to act as a barrier against any government establishing hegemony over the region, but increased Russian military presence, combined with Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia in past years, has made other Arctic nations cast a more serious eye on their northern coasts.

International relations

Whereas Iceland was seeking to establish better economic relations with Russia up until recently, it was discouraged by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This February, Russian bombers skirted along the Icelandic coast, further pushing Iceland into the grudging circle of Nordic nations against Russia.

Finland, a country whose older generation still recalls Russian and Soviet incursions during the first half of the 20th Century, is now questioning its security in the wake of recent events. This includes Russian military targeting Finnish research vessels in international waters, as well as repeated violations of Finnish airspace.

Likewise, Sweden is also growing wary of Russian activity, as seen by their efforts in pursuing a suspected Russian submarine that entered Swedish waters in the fall of 2014. Unlike other Nordic countries, neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, but both recognise a need for increased security cooperation with their neighbors.

Norway made a show of strength its own response to Russia. Conducting an exercise called Joint Viking in the far northern Finnmark province, the Norway fielded more than 5,000 troops for the operation, making it the largest Norwegian military exercise since the Cold War. As a result, Russian navy was placed on high alert in the Arctic region, especially in areas bordering Norway and Finland.

Photograph by Reuters

Ironically, Norway and Iceland had both been warming their relationships with Russia in recent years. For Norway, this involved dismissing the notion that Russia is a threat to global security as it had been in the past, as well as a decommissioned Norwegian submarine base being rented to the Russian government.

On the other hand, Iceland had recently signed several agreements for economic and social cooperation, including the establishment of a joint center for collaborative development of geothermal energy. Now, it may be rolling back its willingness to work with Russia as it resumes a role similar to that of the Cold War years — when Iceland was the centre point of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK) that was patrolled to prevent Russian incursion into the North Atlantic.

The physical changes occurring in the Arctic are heralding a parallel transformation of economic, political, and social relationships in the region. This grand shaft, deemed the “respatialisation” of the north, is making the Arctic region less of a periphery and instead more of a functional, critical part of geopolitics. Whilst governments, private industry, and local communities in the north may experience increased prosperity as a result of melting ice caps, they will also require environmental stewardship to mitigate the risk of accidents and damages.

Russian commercial harbors along the country’s 10,000 mile coastline are being modernised, but investment in Russian military is also growing. Meanwhile, Canadian air patrols in the north have increased, and American military presence in Alaska continues to be marked by advanced missile testing ranges and regular deployment of paratroopers in frigid Arctic training grounds.

A cold future?

Despite the economic promise of the Arctic, it truly appears to be a case of geopolitical tension for the time being. The state of affairs is not one where Arctic Council members are collaborating for positive developments in the Arctic, but rather one where Russia has indicated its intentions to seek singular benefit and compete sternly against other Arctic stakeholders.

The gravity of the situation was further sealed last month by the emergence of a new Nordic defence agreement which calls for increased security cooperation against Russia in the far north. As in many other regions, it is now becoming clear that the key threat to peaceful economic cooperation in the Arctic is a solid alliance against Russian aggression.

As the northern landscape continues to morph into something navigable and inhabitable, geopolitics may dive in the opposite direction and leave an increasing amount of anxiety and hostility amid the chilling Arctic waters.

Geothermal Energy

Harnessing Iceland’s volcanic potential

The science behind the European island’s geothermal resources

March 15th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Askja Energy

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano violently erupted in April of 2010, making international headlines as it grounded international flights on both sides of the Atlantic for several weeks to come.

The tephra produced by the eruption interfered with flight traffic into late spring, but soon settled as the summer tourist season approached. Volcanic activity is commonplace in Iceland, including frequent tectonic changes, occasional smaller eruptions, and a plethora of hot springs and geysers. The tephra produced by past eruptions is usually swept northward by winds, but 2010 proved to be an exception. In centuries past, other Icelandic eruptions have certainly had worldwide effects, particularly in the late 1700s when the atmospheric effects of the eruption of Laki resulted in what the famous Benjamin Franklin, in contemporary writings, described as “the year without a summer”.

Since the 2010 eruption, however, Iceland has seen consistent tourism and expansion of nonstop flights from both Europe and North America. While tourist campaigns particularly emphasize the alluring beauty of Iceland’s volcanoes, the tumultuous landscape offers its patrons much more than just a claim to fame.

The geothermal island

Iceland has been relying on geothermal energy to provide for its needs for decades, and today it is a rare case of a society that is more dependent on renewable resources than it is of traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal. While automobiles and airplanes see a continued demand for petroleum in Iceland, virtually all other sectors of industry and have seen a shift toward renewable energy. While a handful of power plants provide power to the national grid, many renewable energy sites, particularly geothermal ones, operate at the local scale and provide power for farms and households within a certain radius.

Iceland energy

Iceland is situated in a very unique location with regards to geothermal activity. It happens to be a volcanic hotspot which also sits atop the active tectonic rift of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The result of this is what we see today; a terrain where volcanic eruptions occur twice or more every decade and where minor volcanic activity is a daily occurrence.

Geothermal energy has proven to be an especially abundant resource as a result of these characteristics, giving Iceland a unique advantage compared to other regions of the world as far as renewable energy generation is concerned. Whilst many countries have a strong focus on solar, wind, and hydroelectric power generation, Iceland is currently able to provide for over 60% of its energy needs using geothermal energy.

Volcanic hotspots

Other parts of the world have a similar potential for geothermal development, including the Hawaiian Islands and the area surrounding Mount Fuji in Japan.

Yet, none have been able to harness the natural sources of heat and energy in the way that Iceland has. The European island nation currently has 6 geothermal power plants, and many smaller sites that help convert heat from the ground into usable electricity for the national grid. Of these plants, 5 are located on the Reykjanes Peninsula surrounding the capital city of Reyjavik, 2 of them at Svartsengi, and the other 3 near the towns of Reykjanes, Hellisheidi, and Nesjavellir. Most of Iceland’s population of over 300,000 resides in this area, with volcanic activity including some of Iceland’s most famous geysers in the Haukadalur Valley as well as the world renowned hot spring resort called the Blue Lagoon.

Diagram by Christopher Beddow

Iceland’s geothermal energy is tapped by drilling beneath the surface. Often, this does not have to be very deep, as ground temperature rises rapidly near areas with tectonic activity. Groundwater running through these hot earth zones turns to steam, which can sometimes be seen emanating from geysers and hot springs. Many of these geothermal reservoirs have no actual other way of flowing out into open air. Apart from drilling, another method is to provide water externally and let it be heated by geothermal sources in order to produce steam. In both cases, steam is used to power turbines, thus generating an output of energy.

A global outlook?

Geothermal power plants produce a byproduct called brine, a type of contaminated water which must be carefully cooled down and separated in order to prevent it from mixing with freshwater ecosystems. In many places around the world, brine is not handled with care and can present a serious threat to fish, plants, and other parts of the environment. Overall, geothermal plants have a very low rate of carbon emission, often near-zero, but responsible maintenance and handling of byproducts is an essential requirement for it to be considered a truly clean source of energy.

When it comes to percent of clean energy meeting society’s needs, Iceland is a world leader. While its circumstances certainly cannot be replicated at will in other countries, teams from Iceland have been actively working around the globe to help develop other geothermal energy projects insofar as geological conditions permit. There are active volcanic regions on every continent of the Earth, and although they have often been regarded as dangers in the past, many of them hold future potential as abundant energy reserves. North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have all began developing geothermal energy systems, and in some cases Icelandic participation has contributed to their success substantially.

Diagram by Icelandic National Energy Authority

Although geothermal energy can provide an essentially endless supply of power, there are also potential dangers associated with over-development. The geothermal process is in some ways similar to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – which involves drilling into the earth and injecting fluids into shale rock layers in order to fracture the earth and release natural gas deposits. While fracking releases natural gases such as methane and other hydrocarbons, geothermal drilling only releases water vapor. Yet, in both cases, water is injected directly into the rock with the specific intention of causing fractures, which can cause small earthquakes to occur. However, these are often at a magnitude of around 1, which is unlikely to pose any real threat to infrastructure.

21st century prospects

Future geothermal projects in Iceland include the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), which plans to test the practice of boring over 5 kilometers into the earth in order to extract heat from some of Iceland’s largest geothermal reservoirs.

This depth, double that of conventional plants, is ambitious, but perhaps also dangerous. A feasibility report by the IDDP acknowledged the possibility of damage to geological features and formations, to wetlands and sensitive areas, and to local flora and fauna. However, these risks were deemed to be easily mitigated by undertaking the drilling far from roads. This would ensure that any damage is neither noticeable nor of any real social importance. The opposition to this project appears to be relatively silent, there has been very little activism on the issue, which suggests that there are no major concerns about the long-term risk of geothermal drilling to local communities. If all of this is correct, then the IDDP may represent a revolutionary step forward in renewable energy, allowing for much larger-scale extraction of geothermal resources that may further reduce the need for fossil fuels in grid distributed energy.

Photograph by Christopher Beddow

Iceland, while not without its troubles, has recently become one of the world’s wealthiest, most stable, and most energy independent nations, despite being isolated and economically poor only a century ago. This very same isolation has contributed to the need for local energy development, in what is referred to as a spatially segregated system rather than one which is well-integrated with neighboring countries.

As an island, Iceland has found that it is burdened with a more crucial need for self-sufficiency, and geothermal power has played a large part in achieving this. As the European nation continues to improve its own energy ecosystem, it has the noble goal of lending both knowledge and helping hands to other nations in their own endeavor for energy independence.

Geothermal energy as a whole is one of the many beacons of hope in our world’s future, and with sufficient effort and funding it has the potential to make other regions of the world as commendable and remarkable as the beautiful, volcano-covered country of Iceland.