Alaska News

The Supreme Court is now weighing

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-01-09 11:58

The Supreme Court is now weighing whether to allow a voter referendum that would repeal Anchorage’s controversial labor law. Attorneys on both sides of the issue made their cases before the justices yesterday.

 

About two dozen people sat in the audience while attorneys for the Municipality of Anchorage and Labor supporters argued before five Supreme Court Justices.
Attorney Michael Gatti argued for the city that the referendum should not go ahead. He said the labor law is inherently administrative in character not legislative, something the municipality has argued from the beginning, and therefore should not go before voters.

“We believe that this is not a matter that is subject to direct democracy an not subject to the referenda.”

The referendum allows voters to decide whether the labor ordinance, also known as AO-37, should be reversed. The Assembly passed the law last March despite protests. The ordinance takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights. It would affect more than 2-thousand city employees. Attorney Susan Orlansky who represented labor supporters argued the referendum should proceed.

“What’s really going on here is that this ordinance in it’s entirely makes new law that fundamentally shifts the balance of power between labor and management in Anchorage. And that’s what we’re asking the public to vote on.”

The overarching question, Orlansky says, is: does Anchorage want management to have more power and labor less? Andy Holleman who is President of the Anchorage Education Association and one of the people who brought the case to court says its a simple decision that voters are equipped to make.

“What we’re doing is reversing the Assembly’s action on a given night. This puts it back like it was and the city can come forward again with different aspects that they think matter. And hopefully they can do it in the right way with real input from everybody in advance this time.”

Anchorage Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler disagrees and says if the Supreme Court allows the Referendum to go ahead and it passes it could undermine the power of the city’s legislative body and spur more litigation and referenda around labor issues.

“You know we already have a lot of give an take in our labor negotiations. We have arbitrations over what the contracts mean. We have grievances over what the contracts mean. We have nine different unions to deal with. We have budgetary issues every year. So yeah, I was always worried that this would open a flood gate.”

A flood gate that would be hard to close, he says. The Deputy Clerk for the Municipality requested the judges have a decision by late february so that she would have time to prepare ballots for elections slated for April.

Categories: Alaska News

Mat Su Fish Commission, Mayor Don’t See Eye To Eye

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:26

 

The Mat- Su Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has been working to bring back the area’s diminished salmon runs. According to Commission member Howard Delo, seven of the state Board of Fish’s ten stocks of concern are Mat Su salmon stocks. Diminishing salmon returns, especially of Chinook and coho salmon, are hurting the Borough’s once lucrative sport fishing economy. At Tuesday night’s joint Mat Su Assembly and Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, Delo outlined the Commission’s priorities for spending the legislative funding available to the Borough for fishery research.

 ” I would say the most important fish economically to the Borough are silvers, cohos. And, quite frankly, with that drop in angler days, people are not coming to the Borough to fish, like they used to five years ago.”

 Delo said genetic testing has indicated that 8 to 13 percent of the commercial sockeye catch in Cook Inlet in 2011 are Northern District-bound fish. He says the Commission wants the state Board of Fisheries to authorize changes to the Northern District Salmon Management Plan so it focuses less on commercial interests in order to provide more fish for sports fishers upstream. He also said that with 1100 active commercial fishing permits compared with 400 thousand sports and dipnet fishers in Cook Inlet, it’s not right that the fisheries are managed primarily for commercial interests.

“The drift fleet is the big commercial group that intercepts Northern bound fish. “

Larry Engle, interim chair of the Commission, told the Assembly that funding for continued genetic research is essential for next year’s budget request.

Engle wants a genetic identification program for coho salmon since there is so little information on cohos in the Northern District.

The fish- centered dialogue continued, covering hatcheries, habitat, — even problems with Northern Pike.. but took a sharp turn when Assemblyman Jim Sykes brought up a letter signed by Engle, that the Commission had sent directly to Governor Sean Parnell.

 Engle’s mid-December letter, addressed concerns the Commission has with a HB 77/ SB26 and the bill’s restrictions on applications for instream flow reservations for salmon creeks. The letter praises the efforts of private citizen’s groups in work to reclaim Borough salmon habitat. Engle’s letter says “eliminating the ability of private partners to participate in fisheries stewardship will not benefit our fisheries” and asks the governor to withdraw the bill.

 But a week later, Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss fired off his own letter to the governor, on Borough letterhead, applauding the goals of the governor’s bill and explaining that the Borough Assembly had twice voted not to weigh in on the pending legislation. The mayor’s letter made former Mat Su Assemblyman Warren Kehoe angry

“And mister mayor, not only have you come down squarely on the wrong side of the issue, but you are once again making unauthorized policy Borough policy statements. “

 Assemblyman Sykes than moved to direct the Borough manager to write another letter in support of the Commission’s view, to avoid perception of a conflict within the Borough.

 But that motion was flattened by a later move to postpone any more action on the issue until Assembly members can learn more about the governor’s legislation. Sykes said afterward he only wants the legislature to know that the Assembly supports the position of the Commission

 ”All I was asking here is to support what the work of the Wildlife Commission was. They operate on facts.”

 Mayor DeVilbiss, for his part, says he thinks that the Borough Assembly is only aware of one point of view on the proposed legislation.

“It was not an issue that the Assembly hadn’t already addressed. So to send a contrary signal required some backup information, and that’s all it was. It’s obviously not the end of the issue, because we are going to sit down and get educated on it, with DNR.”

 

A workshop has been scheduled so that the Borough Assembly can meet with the Department of Natural Resources to learn more about the governor’s bill.  

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Army Cuts Will Be Small For Alaska Military

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:15

Alaska will lose about 400 soldiers from U.S. Army Alaska operations and the announcement is being portrayed as good news from military officials in the state.

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JBER Spokesman John Pennell says Anchorage operations will lose 780 positions but Fort Wainwright will gain 367 for a net loss of around 375 soldiers by the end of 2015.

Pennell says the positions will largely come from cutting smaller units within the 2nd engineer brigade.

“Others will move to different headquarters within U.S. Army Alaska. For instance, the 6th Engineer Battalion, they’re an airborne qualified Engineer Battalion,” Pennell said. “They will move to the 425th airborne brigade combat team and become an engineer battalion within that brigade.”

The cuts were not a surprise; they are part of the 80,000 soldier draw down called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011. But Pennell says if you consider losses in other parts of the nation, Kentucky’s Fort Knox will lose 3800 to 4000 soldiers, an entire brigade combat team, the small cut to Alaska’s military positions is good news. Pennell says the Army values Alaska’s strategic position.

“Not only for the Arctic but also for the entire Pacific theater,” Pennell said. “And so, our two brigade combat teams, one here in Anchorage, the airborne team and one in Fairbanks, the Stryker Brigade team, they are valuable assets in a very strategically valuable location.”

Pennell also stressed that the smaller loss here is a reflection of the strong community support that Alaskans have always shown for the military.

He says mostly positions will not be re-filled as soldiers rotate out or retire. He says there will be some that will have their tours shortened but that will be on a case by case basis.

Categories: Alaska News

Marijuana Initiative Sponsors Submit Petition To Division Of Elections

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:14

Sponsors of an initiative to legalize marijuana in Alaska turned in their petition Wednesday to the Lieutenant Governor’s office.

(Marie Richie/Flickr)

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Initiative sponsor Tim Hinterberger says over 45,000 Alaskans signed the petition. And he is confident it has the statewide support it needs.

“The success of the signature drive was based on Alaskan voters’ desire to end marijuana prohibition and we expect that momentum to carry through to Election Day in August,” he said.

Hinterberger says the initiative lays out a regulation plan similar to that of alcohol.

“The initiative will replace the failed policy of prohibition in Alaska with a system of regulated production, sales and it will provide for taxation of sales in a regulated environment of sales that will require consumers to present ID and show proof of age,” he said.

The initiative would require buyers to be at least 21 years old.

If the Division of Elections certifies the petition, the initiative will appear on the primary election ballot in August.

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Categories: Alaska News

Researchers Say Ocean Acidification Could Make Fish Anxious, Impact Fisheries

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:13

Scientists have been saying for years that more carbon dioxide in the oceans is hurting sea life.

But a new study says the impact goes beyond the physical. It says ocean acidification is changing behavior in fish.

That could be a problem throughout the ecosystem – including for fisheries in Alaska.

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Researchers know that ocean acidification can be harmful. The change is caused by an increase in carbon dioxide in ocean water. More CO2 means a more acidic habitat. It can wear away crab shells and fish scales, and it makes it harder for them to grow back.

But what about how acidification is making those species feel?

Martín Tresguerres is a marine biologist based out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. In a recent study, his team set out to look at what goes on in the brains of juvenile rockfish when they live in acidified waters. He says rockfish have predictable behaviors, so it’s easier to see changes happening in what they do.

“The normal fish, they’re used to moving between the shaded and light parts of the kelp forest,” he says. “For example — looking for food, or interacting with other fish.”

They wanted to see whether acidification would make the fish behave differently. To find out, they looked at certain neurons in the fishes’ brains. Those neurons are known to change what they do when fish has a high blood acid level. In a previous study on Australian clownfish, the change affected sense of smell.

Tresguerres says this study was looking at the same neurological process. For their experiment, they took a rockfish that lived in acidified waters and put it in a tank with two different-colored walls: one light, and one dark.

He says the acidified fish wanted to stay by the dark wall — and so did a fish that had been dosed with an anxiety-inducing drug.

“Ocean acidification affects their neurons in a way that maybe they feel more threatened and they prefer to stay more sheltered,” he says.

It might not sound too significant. But it points to something bigger — acidification was making the fish do the opposite of what they’d normally do.

“Depending on the species, if they normally go offshore at a certain period of time, or they might go to a certain area to spawn and reproduce, it might affect the way they interact with other fish,” he says. “So the potential implications are pretty big.”

Tresguerres’ co-author on the study is Trevor Hamilton, a neuroscientist based out of MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. He says the changes they saw would be really long-term in the wild — they looked at the kind of acidification that takes place over a hundred years.

But he says any species of fish in acidified waters is vulnerable to these same effects. Eventually, it could shake up the entire ecosystem.

“What could end up happening is the fish will spend less time leaving their safe environments,” he says. “There is potential for them to get caught by less nets, essentially, and get eaten by less predators. So it could have an effect all the way up the food chain as well as for general fishing for humans.”

And that’s a problem in the Bering Sea. Here, and in other places with colder waters, more carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the ocean, faster. That means these long-term changes might happen sooner.

“So in Alaska, you may see this effect happening a bit sooner, and it may be more pronounced,” he says. “And that would actually be a really, really interesting question to study — lower the water temperature and see what the effect would be.”

That’s part of their next phase of research. Hamilton and Tresguerres hope to do more field work after this. And they want to look at how fish might adapt to the effects of acidification — because that could mean behavioral changes, too. They call it a domino effect.

Hamilton says while this isn’t something that’ll wipe out any species overnight, it’s important for fishermen and regulators to be aware of.

“If this mechanism does actually occur in the future, we will see fish that are more likely to stay closer to their home environment, and explore different situations a lot less,” he says. “We don’t know if it will happen, but it’s something we should definitely be concerned about.”

Hamilton says they picked rockfish for their first study in part because the species is harvested commercially. He says if ocean acidification continues at its current rate, fishermen may see fish acting differently than they’re used to — and they may see fewer fish where they usually expect to find them.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Artists To Learn About Fish Skins

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:11

There aren’t a lot of luxury items that come out of southwest Alaska. But there is group of artists working with a product that Alaskans know quite well, if they’ve ever put away fish. Local artists have a chance to learn to work with fish skin and bring it to new audiences and customers.

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Fish skin has a long history in Alaska, but you probably haven’t seen it in garment or gallery form for a while. Fish skin disappeared with the introduction of other types of fabrics like cotton and Gore-Tex. But you should keep an eye out:

“Fish skin is really hot right now as a medium, mainly in Iceland, it’s become a type of fashion. People are creating garments and spiky three inch heels, and handbags, as well home decor like wallpaper.”

That’s Trina Landlord, the executive director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, a nonprofit that works to build markets for Alaska Native arts. She points to renewed interest in the material in Alaska. It makes sense. Fish skins are abundant and they’re often just thrown away. It makes for a strong and workable material with beautiful scales and the durability of leather. More and more artists have been taking up the medium, and locally, artists have requested training opportunities.

The group is putting on a week-long workshop in Bethel in February. It will be taught by Marlene Nielson, who is Yupik from the Iliamna area, and Joel Isaak who is an Athabascan artist. Alaska’s a natural place for fish skin innovation, and Landlord says people are beginning to notice.

“People are starting to revive that material. They’re dying it, they’re creating halter dresses and corsets. We’re taking that sort of international flare and honing it and bringing it home to Alaska,” said Landlord.

The class will help artists to learn both to work with the material, and to make a business of it.

“To help artists and to really build skills to market themselves, also develop biz skill and build on the foundation of their culture in able to be able to promote themselves as entrepreneurs in their art form,” said Landlord.

The group is looking for artists who are enthusiastic about opportunity and willing to share that knowledge with others. Partners include the Alaska State Council On Arts, the Cultural Center, and UAF. The application for the course is available  online.

Categories: Alaska News

Holly Brooks Hopes To Ski Past Her (Younger) Competitors

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:11

Anchorage resident and U.S. Ski Team Member Holly Brooks is in the middle of her World Cup Season. And she just made her second Olympic team.  Four years ago, Brooks had just started pursuing her long-shot Olympic dream. Now as she prepares for Sochi, she’s in a very different position, with several years of international experience behind her.

Holly Brooks

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On a frigid day at Hatcher Pass, north of Anchorage, Alaska, cross-country skier Holly Brooks glides up to a start line.

This race is just a practice with her Alaska Pacific University teammates. It’s a chance for Brooks to test her skills before heading to Europe for the busy World Cup season, and then to Sochi in February for the Winter Olympics. Brooks is now a seasoned member of the U.S. Ski Team, but a little more than four years ago, she was on the sidelines.

On July 4, 2009, that all changed.

Brooks was competing in Mount Marathon, the Super Bowl of Alaskan sports. It’s a rugged mountain running race, straight up and back down a nausea-inducing incline.

“It was actually this really awkward and odd epiphany,” Brooks says. “I was leading, and I suffered [an] extreme case of dehydration, and I passed out right in front of the emergency room, which is conveniently along the course of Mount Marathon.”

She was just a few tantalizing blocks from the finish line.

“And just how close I came to winning, it’s like it flipped this switch in my mind and my body. And I was laying in the emergency room, and I said to myself — I didn’t tell anyone — ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ ”

It was an improbable goal. At the time, Brooks was 27, at least a decade older than most cross-country skiers who set their sights on the Olympics. Brooks had done well in two popular recreational races, but had zero international experience. The Winter Games in Vancouver were just seven months away.

“You know, there were a lot of people that told me, ‘Oh, with your background, you can never do this,’ ” Brooks says. “Or, ‘You’re too old; the U.S. Ski Team will never nominate you.’ You know, ‘You’re past your prime.’ ”

But Brooks believed she had a shot, and so did many of the athletes she coached, like Don Haering, whom she coached when he skied in high school and college. He says that when the team was training, Coach Brooks was always right there with them.

“I knew Holly was fast,” Haering says. “It’s not like she would stand there on the side of the trail and tell you where to go; she would go ski with you the whole time, and if you did a hard interval set, she might do the whole thing with you. And then you go home and rest, and meanwhile, Holly has another session to do, and I would assume she would do the same thing with them, too.”

Brooks pursued her dream with “reckless abandon,” as she puts it, and it paid off. In 2010, she eked her way onto the Olympic squad; four years later, she has a shot at a relay medal in Sochi. Looking back, Brooks says she can’t exactly recommend her unusual path to other skiers. But she says her background gives her something many of her younger competitors lack: perspective.

“You know, I am the oldest one on the team,” Brooks says. “I know that I don’t have 10 more years in my career, so there’s a certain amount of — I hesitate to call it urgency, but I’m really excited for what’s to come.”

Back at Hatcher Pass, Brooks is rounding the last corner of the racecourse, eyeing the finish line. This race may be just for practice, but Brooks doesn’t hold anything back. She wins by 3 seconds and finishes exhausted — but with a huge smile on her face.

Categories: Alaska News

Pacific High: A (New) Century Of Education In Downtown Sitka

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:10

“The greatest iteration yet,” is how Pacific High co-principal Phil Burdick describes the remodeled school, which has been an educational center for over a century. Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka.

Sitka’s Pacific High School students returned from winter break yesterday, to find one last holiday gift: a new school. For the past two years, Pacific High has been housed in the Southeast Alaska Career Center, while the Lincoln Street building was remodeled from the ground up. KCAW’s Emily Forman visited the all-new Pacific High the day before students arrived and learned how this state-of-the-art facility has been over a century in the making.

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It’s the first week of the New Year. Resolutions are fresh, and we’re still optimistic that they’ll stick. It’s a time focused on new beginnings, and Sitka’s Pacific High School is honoring that sentiment in a big way – with a brand new building.

KCAW: So here I am this is the new building.
Burdick: Looks great doesn’t it? It’s hard to see on the radio but…
KCAW: Describe it
Burdick: Looking from office you get this great rotunda. Which has this light from the sky coming down in this scoop. So, we have this great space where everyone can meet and gather. That’s my favorite spot.

If it sounds quiet for 11:30am on a Monday, that’s because the students are still on break. When I ask Phil Burdick co-principal of Pacific High about how the renovation came to fruition, he starts from the beginning. The very beginning. All the way back to the late 1800s.

Education was segregated for a long time in Sitka and this place where we sit now was a part of that history. This site has gone through many many incarnations.

Tracking the history is a little murky, but the point is that for well over 100 years the Lincoln Street site has been dedicated to education. And today’s version is worlds away from the original: a one room, segregated, Native training school. Burdick is confident that the current iteration is the best.

KCAW: So are there way in which the curriculum will be able to be expanded because of this space?
Burdick: Yeah, if you look around every classroom has door to the outside, which ties into our model that learning happens out in the community. It doesn’t have to happen in the school. So, everyone has an opportunity to get out, everyone has an opportunity to get messy, everyone has an opportunity to find a quiet space, everyone has an opportunity to learn in the way that suits them best.

This building is all about options. For instance, Burdick loves the “flex” room – a room flanked on either side by large glass door that lead to two additional classrooms. The doors slide open – transforming what was three separate rooms into a large open space.

My name is Mandy Summer and I teach English and health.

Summer says the space is a huge luxury. It’s roomy compared to the career center where teachers had to share classrooms. Once Summer started listing the new perks, it was hard to stop.

Summer: It’s nice to have sinks in our rooms. The little things that you don’t realize. And it’s just new, I have only worked here with the ceiling dripping on me, and moldy tiles above my head. That’s the only Pacific High I’ve ever known. So, this is really nice.

Hillary Seeland teaches English, History and Government and really appreciates her large windows overlooking crescent harbor.

Seeland: And the windows are really lovely, I love all the light in here. I love the color pallet in here. I love the storage.
KCAW: Look at your view.
Seeland: I know right!
KCAW: How many teachers have this kind of view?
Seeland: No one.

Rest assured that the Pacific High crew is feeling pretty grateful, and optimistic about 2014.

Burdick: There’s a lot of history on this site and we’re just the latest and hopefully greatest iteration of what has gone on here.

Categories: Alaska News

Bernice Joseph Dies At Age 49

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 18:09

Alaska Native leader Bernice Joseph of Fairbanks died of cancer yesterday at age 49. Joseph was a professor and administrator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but she maintained strong ties with rural Alaska.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 8, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 17:58

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Army Cuts Will Be Small For Alaska Military

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Alaska will lose about 400 soldiers from U.S. Army Alaska operations and the announcement is being portrayed as good news from military officials in the state.

Marijuana Initiative Sponsors Submit Petition To Division Of Elections

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Sponsors of an initiative to legalize marijuana in Alaska turned in their petition Wednesday to the Lieutenant Governor’s office.

Researchers Say Ocean Acidification Could Make Fish Anxious, Impact Fisheries

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

Scientists have been saying for years that more carbon dioxide in the oceans is hurting sea life.

But a new study says the impact goes beyond the physical.   It says ocean acidification is changing behavior in fish.

That could be a problem throughout the ecosystem – including for fisheries in Alaska.

Mat-Su Mayor, Fish & Wildlife Commission Divided Over Legislation

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

What should have been a routine meeting of the Matanuska – Susitna Borough Assembly and the Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission took a political turn on Tuesday evening.  It seems the Borough mayor and the Commission members have a distinct difference of opinion when it comes to divisive state legislation.

Bethel Artists To Learn About Fish Skins

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

There aren’t a lot of luxury items that come out of southwest Alaska. But there is group of artists working with a product that Alaskans know quite well, if they’ve ever put away fish. Local artists have a chance to learn to work with fish skin and bring it to new audiences and customers.

Holly Brooks Hopes To Ski Past Her (Younger) Competitors

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Anchorage resident and U.S. Ski Team Member Holly Brooks is in the middle of her World Cup Season. And she just made her second Olympic team.  Four years ago, Brooks had just started pursuing her long-shot Olympic dream. Now as she prepares for Sochi, she’s in a very different position, with several years of international experience behind her.

Pacific High: A (New) Century Of Education In Downtown Sitka

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

Sitka’s Pacific High School students returned from winter break yesterday, to find one last holiday gift: a new school. For the past two years, Pacific High has been housed in the Southeast Alaska Career Center, while the Lincoln Street building was remodeled from the ground up. KCAW’s Emily Forman visited the all-new Pacific High the day before students arrived and learned how this state-of-the-art facility has been over a century in the making.

Bernice Joseph Dies At Age 49

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska Native leader Bernice Joseph of Fairbanks died of cancer yesterday at age 49. Joseph was a professor and administrator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but she maintained strong ties with rural Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

BLOG: Canada, Russia And The North Pole

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 13:01

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird walks past a map of the Arctic at a news conference on Canada’s Arctic claim in Ottawa, on Dec 9 2013. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press.

“We do not give up the North Pole. Canada’s claims to the North Pole are no more than ambition.”

So declared Russian polar explorer and scientist Artur Chilingarov on December 11, whom President Vladimir Putin named a “Hero of Russia” after he famously planted his country’s flag on the seabed underneath the North Pole in 2007.

Chilingarov was reacting to Canada’s announcement earlier this month of its partial submission of claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) and intention to eventually expand its claims to include the North Pole. John Baird, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced to reporters, “We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada’s claim to the North Pole…What we want to do is claim the biggest geographic area possible for Canada.”

For years now, Russian scientists and officials have been trying to do the same thing. In 2007, before descending in the submersible to the Arctic sea floor, Chilingarov remarked, “The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf.” Thus it appears somewhere between his statements in 2007 and 2013, the North Pole became a part of Russia, since he is now saying that the country won’t “give [it] up.” Whether or not there is a scientific basis for the North Pole to form part of the Russian continental shelf, it has long been a part of the imagined territory of Russia, and indeed the USSR, which claimed the area extending from Russia’s northern coast all the way up to the North Pole [1].

What’s at stake?

So why are Canada and Russia seeking to claim the North Pole?

As Michael Byers, political science professor of the University of British Columbia, succinctly put it to The Guardian, “It’s not about economic stakes, it’s about domestic politics.” Phil Steinberg, geography professor and director of the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, made a similar statement, expressing, “It’s more a symbol of national pride.”

Some op-eds state that Canada is claiming the North Pole out of an interest in oil. As the title of Richard Janda’s piece in The Globe and Mail states, “Our North Pole claim is all about oil, not saving the environment.” He goes on to express, “If our claims to the North Pole were accompanied by a solemn pledge to leave it untouched, the land grab might seem more benign. But we did not spend $200-million on mapping the seabed in order to protect it for future generations. That money was venture capital.”

But that $200 million was not really spent to secure future oil and gas resources. First of all, as The Verge’s Katie Drummond notes, it will take the UNCLCS decades to get to Canada’s claims, since it reviews an average of four a year and has a backlog of 40 claims. By the time the commission takes a look at Canada’s claims, and by the time Canada gets around to arbitrating the limits of the continental shelf with fellow claimants Russia and Denmark, the Arctic could very well be a drastically different place. By mid-century, for instance, the Arctic Ocean is anticipated to be completely ice-free during the summer, with trans-Arctic shipping routes crossing over the North Pole. (Note: the continental shelf claims do not affect jurisdiction over the waters above, which will remain open to international shipping.) Not only that: by mid-century, it’s possible that the global energy mix in 2050 could be substantially different, too, although oil and gas will likely still be in high demand. The World Energy Council predicts in a report published this year that in 2050, fossil fuels will constitute between 59% and 77% of the world energy mix, depending on whether governments focus on affordability or sustainability in energy usage. In either case, whether the technology and price per barrel will make drilling in the remote and inaccessible Central Arctic Ocean economically feasible is still far from certain.

Additionally, the Arctic Ocean isn’t getting any smaller, so drilling in and around the North Pole would still be taking places hundreds of miles away from the nearest facilities on land. Furthermore, as the USGS has found, most of the offshore oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean likely lies within a couple hundred miles from shore, thereby falling within the extended economic shelves – and not in the middle of the Central Arctic Ocean (though other resources, such as minerals like scandium, could well be there). The area that Canada intends to claim also has a low probability of having oil, as the USGS map below shows.

With Stephen Harper and Vladimir Putin more likely making moves in the Arctic with a view to the next election rather than the price of oil in 2050, the consideration that North Pole claims are primarily for national pride and international one-upmanship must be assessed.

“Geo-body”

Professor of Southeast Asian history Thongchai Winichakul coined the neologism “geo-body” in his book Siam Mapped to describe the “effect of modern geographical discourse whose prime technology is a map” (1994, p. 17). Governments use cartographic technologies in “thinking, imagining, and projecting the desired realm” (Winichakul, 1994, p. 130). Nowhere is this clearer than in the allegation by the Globe and Mail that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “ordered government bureaucrats back to the drawing board” after learning that the proposed claim to the continental shelf did not include the North Pole. If this is true, then Harper is basically demanding that the science be made to fit the desired boundaries of the nation. To paraphrase French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, the map has come to precede the geographic territory. It is fitting, too, that Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Chair of the Arctic Council during Canada’s 2013-2015 chairmanship, stood aside Baird as he announced the country’s claims. Aglukkaq is of Inuit descent, and the Canadian government effectively once used the Inuit as “human flagpoles” in the Arctic [2]. Neither Aglukkaq nor the Inuit play such objectified roles anymore. Yet at the same time, indigenous presence and usage of the Canadian Arctic remain central to the country’s claims.

Just as Canada – the “True North Strong and Free” – perceives the North Pole to be rightfully Canadian, Russia views the North Pole as part of its own legitimate territory. The recent journey of the Olympic torch to the North Pole on board the Russian icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy clearly inscribed the top of the world into the Russian geo-body, particularly since the rest of the relay is taking place within Russia’s national boundaries. The North Pole (and equally outer space) were therefore not so much international stops along the relay as domestic stops. Denmark has a dog in the fight for the North Pole, too, but since the country would be claiming the Lomonosov Ridge through Greenland, which is becoming more independent every year, and since Denmark is already so small, the Danish territorial imperative to ensuring that the North Pole ends up with a red and white crossed flag on top is actually weaker.

Military in the North

The day after Canada made public its claims to its continental shelf in the Arctic, Putin announced in televised remarks at a meeting of the Defense Ministry Board, “I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic.” He also discussed the government’s plans to rebuild runways on the Novosibirsk Archipelago (New Siberian Islands), abutting the Northern Sea Route between the Laptev and East Siberian Seas. Putin argued that these islands “have key meaning for the control of the situation in the entire Arctic region.” These plans were initially released in September 2013, and the meeting, too, had been scheduled long before John Baird’s announcement. Yet the gathering of the Defense Ministry Board provided an opportune moment for Putin, who has even more of a penchant for showboating in the Arctic than Stephen Harper, to respond publicly to Canada’s statements about the North Pole. He would not miss a chance to let anyone forget that Russia is continuing to beef up its presence up north – even as the countries work together in the Arctic Council.

Putin is correct in saying that the New Siberian Islands are important. They, along with other bottlenecks in the Arctic such as the Bering Strait and the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-UK) Gap, are in fact more strategic for controlling the region than the remote North Pole in the middle of the ocean. We should therefore pay attention to state actions in and around these bottlenecks rather than to political posturing for more arbitrary points on the map.

Still, Russia and Canada will continue to wage a war of words over the North Pole, which holds an immense amount of symbolism for the never-ending project of constructing the national geo-body in both countries. The pursuit of the North Pole is therefore not about oil or minerals. It’s about territory and identity.

Sources:

  • [1] Blinnikov, M. (2011). A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors. New York: The Guilford Press. p. 11.
  • [2] Tester, F. and Kulchyski, P. (1994). Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic, 1939-1963. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 114.
Categories: Alaska News

Danish Shipper Plans More Arctic Trips

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-08 12:45

The company that made the first commercial transit of the Northwest Passage plans to increase its shipments through the legendary waterway next year, suggesting such traffic is coming sooner than anyone anticipated.

Since 1903, Coast Guard records show only four tankers have made full transits of the Northwest Passage, including one each in 2011 and 2012. No cargo ship has made the voyage and the Nordic Orion is the only bulk carrier to have done so. Photo by The Canadian Press.

“We hope and expect to do it,” said Christian Bonfils of Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish shipper which owns the Nordic Orion.

The vessel made history last September when it hauled 15,000 tonnes of coal to Finland from Vancouver through waters that were once impenetrable ice. It took four days less than it would have taken to traverse the Panama Canal, and its greater depths allowed the Orion to carry about 25 per cent more coal.

Sailing through the passage saved the company about $200,000 and resulted in a nicely profitable voyage.

“We had a very smooth voyage and not any major delays,” said Bonfils. “We’re very pleased about it.”

Ramping up shipments

The company is talking with the Canadian government about ramping up those shipments, Bonfils said. The number of planned transits is under discussion.

“It’s a bit too early to say,” said Bonfils from Copenhagen, Denmark. “The window for doing this changes every year. We need to slowly explore what is actually possible to do here.”

A federal spokesman confirmed the company has broached its plans for multiple transits with the government.

“Nordic Bulk Carriers representatives have met with Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada representatives to discuss anticipated transits in 2014 through the Northwest Passage,” said Kevin Hill of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for the Coast Guard.

Those discussions have included possible icebreaker assistance, Hill said.

Travel through the Northwest Passage

That means an era that many experts relegated to the future is already here, said Rob Huebert, an Arctic policy expert at the University of Calgary.

“The game is afoot,” he said.

Huebert suggested that previous surveys reporting almost no interest in the Northwest Passage were simply the result of shippers playing their cards close to their vests.

“When you look at the number of ice-strengthened vessels that came out of the woodwork for (Russia’s) Northern Sea Route, it’s obvious that some companies have been quickly building up capacity. It’s obvious now the companies aren’t being forthright in terms of what their capabilities are.”

In Russia, 421 vessels applied for permission to use that country’s northern passage last season.

Now that Nordic Bulk Carriers has shown it’s possible — and is acting on that information with more crossings — other shippers are likely to follow suit, said John Higginbotham, a professor at Carleton University and former assistant deputy minister of transport.

“I expect more companies to take advantage of it,” he said. “I think there’s some Canadian companies that got scooped. I believe they only woke up to this development.”

Higginbotham said the ice in the Passage varies in extent from year to year. But the old, tough, multi-year ice that once blocked the route is largely gone.

“It is thinner and more rotten and (has) less volume than ever before,” he said.

However, one commercial transit does not a Suez Canal make. That waterway gets 18,000 ships a year.

Route lacks facilities, nautical charts

Since 1903, Coast Guard records show only four tankers have made full transits of the Northwest Passage, including one each in 2011 and 2012. No cargo ship has made the voyage and the Nordic Orion is the only bulk carrier to have done so.

The Northwest Passage lacks adequate nautical charts, ports, search and rescue stations and icebreakers available to commercial ships. Unlike in Russia, the federal government has not made upgrading those facilities a priority.

But Bonfils said his company is convinced there’s money to be made in sending goods through a waterway that once bedevilled generations of mariners.

“It’s a good addition to what we do because we have the ships already,” he said.

“We don’t expect a boom in ice-class bulk carriers being built because all of a sudden you can sail the Northwest Passage. This is more of an addition (instead of) a stand-alone business.”

Expect more shippers to reach the same conclusion, Higginbotham said.

“Where there’s cargo to make money, ships will go.”

-By Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

This content is made available to Alaska Public Media through a partnership with Eye on the Arctic.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Sen Tan To Retire

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:53

Judge Sen Tan has announced that he will be stepping down from the bench.

In a brief letter sent yesterday, the Anchorage Superior Court judge informed Gov. Sean Parnell that his retirement would be effective on July 1. Tan did not give a specific reason for leaving his post or supply information on his future plans.

Tan has served as a superior court judge since 1997. Larry Cohn, who directs the Alaska Judicial Council, says Tan earned high marks through his career.

<<18s “Judge Tan has consistently received very high ratings from those who are most familiar with his professional work as a judge, including attorneys, and law enforcement officers, and court employees, and jurors,” says Cohn.

While Tan was respected in the legal world, a conservative advocacy group campaigned for his removal in 2012. Alaska Family Action urged voters to oppose Tan’s retention because of a ruling concerning abortion that he made in the late 1990s. Tan ultimately secured 55 percent of the vote.

Cohn doesn’t think that Tan’s retention should have been politicized.

“To those critics who are dissatisfied with the content of decisions he’s made, we strive to have impartial and fair judges and independent judges who follow the law. And the law is not necessarily popular.”

The Alaska Judicial Council will be taking applications for the judgeship through February 7. The group plans to provide its recommendations to the governor in June.

Categories: Alaska News

Polar Star Called Off After Ice-Bound Ships Get Free

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:42

The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star is standing down from a rescue mission in Antarctica on Tuesday after the vessels it was going to assist broke free on their own.

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The Polar Star had been called in to clear a path for two ice-bound vessels: a Russian research ship and a Chinese icebreaker. The Polar Star departed Australia for Antarctica on Saturday and would have arrived on scene Jan. 12.

Allyson Conroy, the Coast Guard’s chief warrant officer for the Pacific Area, says the stranded ships got favorable winds Tuesday and were able to break out of the ice on their own. She says the ships are now in open water.

That means the Polar Star’s services are no longer needed.

Conroy says the icebreaker will now continue on to its primary mission in Antarctica — to resupply the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station. It’s the first time the cutter has returned to Antarctica since 2006.

The Polar Star is the Coast Guard’s only active heavy-duty icebreaker. It recently had a major overhaul, and it made a stop in Unalaska last June before undergoing ice trials in the Arctic. It’s homeported in Seattle.

Categories: Alaska News

Small Plane Makes Emergency Landing On Anchorage Road

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:35

Crews load the Cessna 172 Cutlass onto a tow truck. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

A small plane had to make an emergency landing on Tuesday afternoon on a street in East Anchorage.

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Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Anchorage Police Department Lieutenant Mark Thelen says the pilot of the Cessna 172 Cutlass experienced engine trouble shortly after taking off from Merrill Field.

“They basically flew right up Boniface here in case they lost power completely; they didn’t wanna have to go over houses and whatnot, so in case they had to come down on a road,” he said. “They got down to this point here and they just couldn’t keep it in the air any longer and set it down on the roadway.”

APD says neither the pilot or the two passengers were injured, and the plane did not hit any vehicles as it landed.

The NTSB is investigating the incident.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Calls For End To Crude Export Ban

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:33

Sen. Lisa Murkowski today called for lifting the decades-old ban on crude exports.

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Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage: Senator Lisa Murkowski

In a speech to the Brookings Institution, she said the oil boom in North Dakota and elsewhere in the Lower 48 calls for a wholesale review of the energy export rules.

“The regulatory edifice that governs the export of American made energy is antiquated and at times … absurd,” she said.

She says if the country doesn’t act, the light oil flowing from North Dakota will create a glut on the market, while most of the nation’s refineries are set up to handle heavier crude from the Gulf of Mexico.

She’s not proposing comprehensive energy export legislation. She says the executive branch has the authority to change the rules, but she says she can introduce smaller targeted bills if needed.

Categories: Alaska News

New Rules Adopted For Abortion Payment Conditions

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:32

State regulations take effect next month that further define what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion for purposes of receiving Medicaid funding.

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Notice was sent to the state health department Tuesday. The new rules, blasted by critics as unconstitutional, take effect Feb. 2.

The new certificate to request Medicaid funds features two boxes.

The provider would have to certify the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or the abortion was performed to save the woman’s life. Or, the provider would have to indicate an abortion was medically necessary to avoid a threat of serious risk to the woman’s physical health from continuation of her pregnancy.

Categories: Alaska News

Susitna-Watana Dam Timeline Pushed Back

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:31

Due to hefty cuts in Governor Parnell’s proposed capital budget, the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project is having its timeline pushed back by four months.

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Categories: Alaska News

Buccaneer Seeks New Revenues In New Year

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:30

Just weeks after top executives for Buccaneer Alaska were fired, the company is making moves to shore up its financial situation.

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Categories: Alaska News

Technology Gives Exhibit Statewide Presence

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-07 18:29

This week, you can travel to the Anchorage museum without going further than the local public library.

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Categories: Alaska News

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