Next month, Arctic Science Summit will take place in Tromsø in northern Norway. Research funders, researchers and other stakeholders from all over the Nordic region come together to discuss future research on developments in the Arctic. NordForsk's Arctic research projects are also participating, including the Nordic center Resource Extraction and Sustainable Arctic Communities (Rexsac).
When we talk about the Arctic, we usually talk about the climate. The ice is melting and sea levels are rising. However, climate change is only one of a number of factors affecting living conditions in the Arctic. And this has been the focus of the Nordic Centre of Excellence’s project Resource Extraction and Sustainable Arctic Communities (Rexsac). Fifteen universities and research institutions in the Nordic Region and Canada have collaborated on the project.
Professor Dag Avango from Luleå University in Sweden says:
“Our focus from the outset has been mining activities, but we wanted to look at it within a broader context. Climate change in the Arctic is often cited in existing research and public debate, but in our project we’d like to look at several other change processes, not just the climate, that also greatly affect the Arctic region," he says and continues:
"The already insatiable demand for raw materials and minerals has increased further, and this just within a few decades. Together, this has helped put the Arctic region on the world map. Many new mines have been planned and are awaiting permissions, some have been established while old ones have been expanded. All of this has had consequences for nature and for the people who live in the Arctic, both challenges and opportunities.”
Abandoned mines leave behind toxic waste
Mining in the Arctic isn’t a new phenomenon – it’s been going on for more than 400 years, and a lot of research has already been conducted. But in Rexsac, the focus has been different from most of the research conducted so far:
“In Rexsac, we’ve studied the entire process of mining – from establishment to operation and decommissioning. The focus of much of the previous research on mining has been on the start-up and operation phases of new extractive industries, while there is much less research on the decommissioning of mines, even though it’s an important field," he says and continues:
"The Greenland Institute of National Resources is part of the Rexsac group. In Greenland, REXSAC has investigated what’s happened in the areas of Greenland where mines have been closed. There it’s left ghost towns because entire workforces and livelihoods disappeared along with the mine. In other places in the Arctic, old mines have been turned into tourist attractions. However, in many old Arctic mining areas, toxic waste remains even several years after the closures."
Small role of the state in Canada’s Arctic
Rexsac has researchers from all over the Nordic Region, but they’ve also collaborated with Canada:
“We sought contact with each other because Canadian researchers are also studying mining activities, with a focus on northern Canada. They were looking at the same issues as us and we’ve benefited greatly from working with them. For example, we’ve gained a better understanding of what the general issues are in relation to mining, and what’s specific to the Nordic countries.”
There’s a big difference between the Nordic Arctic and the North American Arctic in relation to the state’s role in catering for different interests, Avango explains. In the North American Arctic, a mining industry has emerged in which companies play a different societal role than in our part of the Arctic.
“In the Canadian Arctic mining companies have often established themselves in rural areas, where the state played a much smaller role, including services, compared to the Fennoscandinavian north. Therefore companies have played an even more dominant role in mining settlements there. In the Nordic countries, the state has had a presence for a much longer time, hundreds of years, and have turned the Arctic into a part of the modern welfare state to a larger extent," he says and adds:
"There are also differences in the way extracted industries are governed in Canada compared to the Nordic countries, and in the way indigenous peoples use land. This creates significant differences in the relation between extractive industries and local communities. By collaborating with Canada, we’ve learned a lot about the different roles of society and extractive industries.”
Politicians must take a long-term and holistic approach
The role of the state and decision-makers is one of the things that Rexsac is concerned with:
“Generally speaking, when mining companies apply to establish extraction sites in the Arctic, they’re often assessed on a project-by-project basis. Other land users however, such as reindeer herding Sami communities, will often experience impacts from not only one but several new activities on lands they use, such as wind farms, skiing- and snowmobile tourism and forestry. And all of this takes place in a region where rapid climate change is already impacting the environment and peoples everyday life. Together, all these activities, together with climate change, are putting pressure on reindeer husbandry. The permission giving processes must be designed in a way that requires assessment of such multiple pressures” says Avango.
He emphasises the importance of policy-makers drawing up joint guidelines, taking all considerations into account. In this way, we can better predict how different companies will affect this area.
“A long-term perspective is crucial when securing a sustainable future for the Arctic. Climate change is also part of the story. It changes and affects the conditions for winter snow and the permafrost, and it has an impact on water levels and reindeer behaviour. When we talk about sustainability in the Arctic, we must talk about both climate change and all the other aspects that we’ve investigated in the project.”