Executive Summary for February 12th

Every week, we review and analyze the latest news and most important developments in the Arctic, including funding for icebreakers and coastal resilience in the U.S. budget and China’s investments in the Arctic.

Published on Feb. 12, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

U.S. Budget Aims to Build Resilience in Alaska

The $4.1 trillion U.S. federal budget for the 2017 fiscal year proposed by President Barack Obama on Tuesday contained spending for Alaska and Arctic interests, reported the Alaska Dispatch News.

The proposed budget, which includes $150 million to complete the planning and design of a new polar icebreaker, follows on the heels of Obama’s visit to Alaska last summer, where he said he would speed up the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker. The price tag for those comes in around $1 billion a piece.

Obama’s budget pitches a $2 billion Coastal Climate Resilience program that contains $400 million for Alaska, where coastal villages are being affected by rising sea levels, coastal erosion and wave surges, reported the Associated Press. The plan includes money to help vulnerable communities relocate, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

In an interview with the Arctic Sounder about Arctic priorities, Alaska Governor Bill Walker underscored the health and safety issues faced by coastal villages, energy security and the need to upgrade the state’s infrastructure.

But Obama’s plan relies on an oil tax to help pay for it. U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told the Associated Press that the could not support the $10 tax that would be applied to each barrel of crude oil. According to a story in Nature, that could amount to $70 billion annually at current consumption rates. The Arctic Journal estimates the tax would raise $319 billion over 10 years.

Congress must approve the budget before it can go into effect on October 1.

China and Russia, Partners on Ice

China has set its sights on planning a joint-Arctic expedition with Russia, reported the Independent Barents Observer.

According to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, the State Oceanic Administration will carry out its seventh Arctic research expedition this summer, which it aims to undertake in collaboration with Russia.

China, who received observer status at the Arctic Council in 2013, has been eager to show its interest in the Arctic, according to the Independent Barents Observer. It established its first Arctic research base on Svalbard in 2004, sailed the icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) along the Northern Sea Route in 2012, and established the China-Nordic Research Center in Shanghai in 2014, according to the article.

Russia has said that it will further expand the capacity of Northern Sea Route, which connects the Pacific Ocean with the Kara Sea, and has invited China to help develop the region’s infrastructure, RT reported.

China is broadening its business development into other Arctic states. The Independent Barents Observer also reported that the Chinese company Kaidi would build a biofuel refinery in northern Finland. According to the article, the plant, which would use wood as the main feedstock, would be the world’s first second-generation biomass plant. Commercial production would start by 2019.

Environmental Changes Underway

The spectacular iridescent clouds that have been spotted across northern latitudes this winter are formed when nitric acid condenses in cold temperatures. Though striking, the clouds are destructive. They catalyze the reactions that transform chlorine into chemicals which can destroy ozone in the presence of sunlight. The combination could lead to a record-setting ozone hole in the Arctic this spring, reported Science.

As much as 25 percent of the Arctic’s ozone could be destroyed by next week, according to the article. The ozone-poor atmosphere would allow for higher levels of ultraviolet radiation in the Arctic and could have adverse effects on people – and even the phytoplankton that blooms in the Arctic Ocean each spring.

Scientists studying the phenomenon wonder whether Arctic ozone holes will become more common or serious with climate change, the article reports.

Meanwhile, scientists studying the warming permafrost in Alaska have found that changes in soil moisture and vegetation patterns may have altered the way methane is produced and emitted from the Arctic’s thawing soils, reported Eos.

Vast amounts of carbon are locked up in the frozen land found at high latitudes, such as Arctic permafrost. But rising temperatures have been thawing the frozen ground, slowly releasing carbon into the atmosphere in the form of methane and carbon dioxide, which speed up the rate of global warming and climate change.

In the new study, scientists studying the processes of greenhouse gas production in an Alaskan watershed, were surprised to find that only three percent of the methane produced had been converted to carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas.

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Top image: Polar stratospheric cloud over Asker, Norway. These nacreous clouds contribute to the formation of ozone holes in the Arctic and Antarctic. (Wikimedia Commons/Mathiasm)