Thawing Frozen Infrastructure: The cultural, environmental and commercial challenges of climate change and arctic infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route

Tracie Curry (MLA I)

Project Overview

While many people in minimally affected regions still doubt the existence of climate change, its reality is nowhere more pronounced than in the arctic where warming temperatures are creating perceivable changes in the landscape and having a drastic effect on traditional ways of life.  This is especially true in coastal communities, which are facing the challenges of sea level rise, increased exposure to waves and storm related stressors, thawing permafrost and rapidly declining sea ice.  The majority of the arctic coastline, stretching 200,000km in length, is uninhabited.  However, coastal development plays a critical role in local economies and the social wellbeing of nearly all arctic residents, which are extremely varied in cultural heritage and lifestyle.  To gain a ground-level understanding of both the challenges and opportunities facing local populations, this research aims to visually document features of arctic life that will be impacted by projected climatic and economic changes, from vegetation and wildlife, to mineral resources and infrastructure.  The project site is the Barents Sea Region bordering northern Norway and Russia.  Rich in natural resources and functioning as the western gateway to the Northern Sea Route, the Barents Region is one of the most rapidly developing and highly contested areas in the arctic.

Project Information

Travel Notes

I began my field research in mid-July, 2012 traveling eastward from northern Norway with the goal of reaching Arkhangelsk, Russia in early August.  While I had drafted a detailed travel itinerary, per the requirements of the Penny White Fund, it became clear early on that it would be of no use.  The locals I interacted with had far better recommendations for places I should go and people I should visit, which would be of much greater benefit to the project.  Therefore, I  instead chose to follow the guidance of my Norwegian mentors who advised me to book only one-way flights, at most a day or two in advance.  According to them, the difference in price would be insignificant and I would be grateful for the added flexibility that this strategy afforded.  For the most part, this proved to be true.  Ultimately, I spent about two weeks in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway, and one week between Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in northwestern Russia.  What follows is a summary of the trip and the insights I gained through observation and conversation, as well as some necessary background details of the cultural and environmental dynamics at play within each region.

Norway and the Tradition of Reindeer Husbandry:

In Norway I was introduced to the practice of reindeer husbandry, which is a livelihood that has been practiced by indigenous peoples in the far north for over one thousand years.  The term husbandry refers to the possession, maintenance and management of a herd which is the harvestable resource of its owners (Tyler, Turi and al 2007).  In Norway, approximately 240,000 semi-domestic reindeer are herded over an area of 146,000 square kilometers, which is about 40 percent of the country’s mainland area.  Approximately 2,900 Sámi indigenous people inhabit this region.  Sámi herding areas have seen more extensive development and government intervention than most other parts of the Barents Region (the eleven northern most regions bordering the Barents sea, from Norland in Norway to Yamal in Russia). There are a number of documented cases of degraded pastureland directly resulting from gas and petroleum development.  With a Norwegian research group traveling in Finnmark, I was able to meet and participate in discussions with two reindeer herding family units, “Siidas”, including Fiettar in Kvalsund and Fálá in Hammerfest.

Finnmark Mineral and Hydrocarbon Extraction Activity:

The oil and gas resources in Finnmark are found only offshore, but activities related to their exploration, extraction and processing generate infrastructure and other development projects onshore in reindeer grazing areas.  A combination of offshore oil and gas production, mining, hydro electric dams, power lines, wind power and residential development stand in direct competition with traditional reindeer herding land use, particularly in the summer pastures and calving grounds (Vistnes 2009).

We first visited with Fiettar in Kvalsund.  The Siida’s summer pasture and calving grounds are located in this area and are presently threatened by a proposed copper mine that, if opened,  is likely to obstruct migratory routes and pasture availability during a critical time in the season (Nellman and Ims Vistnes 2011).  Additionally, with mine operators proposing to dispose of toxic tailings in the nearby fjord, their activities will greatly affect subsistence activities like fishing, which remain key components of Sámi life.

We next met with Fálá, one of the Siidas that is most significantly affected by growing development activities in the region.  Fálá’s summer pastures are on Kvaløya Island, where production facilities linked to offshore natural gas (existing) and oil fields (proposed) are based in the city of Hammerfest.  In addition to the industrial facilities themselves, economic growth driven by these activities has also resulted in increased pressure for housing and commercial development throughout the island.  Additional projects affecting herding include the proposed construction of a windmill farm with a total of 102 windmills and a 420 Kv powerline.  All the aforementioned activities interfere with grazing and obstruct access to sites of cultural importance which are rarely considered in proposed development plans.  Furthermore, conflicts in the form of highway accidents and reindeer intrusions onto private property are becoming more frequent as urban and faunal territories increasingly overlap (Magga and Mathiesen 2011).

The Norwegian Coastline and International Maritime Activities:

After spending about a week in the Kvalsund-Hammerfest area, I parted ways with the research group and headed on my own toward the Norwegian-Russian border in Kirkenes via the Hurtigruten Ferry, which carries passengers the length of the Norwegian coastline.  The ferry stops in all the major ports and, consequently, is an excellent way to experience a large number of coastal communities in a short amount of time.  Aside from it being a large tourist attraction, the northern portion of the Ferry itinerary also overlaps a major commercial corridor known as the Northern Sea Route (“NSR”).  The NSR is a shipping route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the entire length of the northern coast of Eurasia.  It is of great importance to Russia and has been used in various commercial, military and strategic capacities since the 1920s.  The route is currently open to international transit but is rarely used in this capacity due to extreme weather and ice conditions.  The future economic viability of the NSR as an international shipping route is linked to advances in ship design and the warming arctic climate.  As sea ice recedes, shipping conditions are becoming increasingly favorable.  In 2012, 46 vessels traversed the NSR during the shipping season as compared to only 4 vessels in 2010 (Pettersen 2012).

Kirkenes is a small port town with a population of approximately 3,500.  Major industries here include iron mining, ship repair and fishing.  Due to its proximity to Russia, only a narrow lake crossing away, Kirkenes is a major waypoint for travelers and also a home base for regional organizations and research centers like the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and the Barents Institute, which respectively promote Norwegian-Russian relations and build cross-border competence and expertise.  Bilingual street signs hint at the town’s dual character, with many residents speaking both Norwegian and Russian.  I took a tour of the Border with a guide from the Barents Institute to learn about the people living in the area.  Residents are very much outdoors people, enjoying hunting and hiking in the summer and winter sports during colder months.  In general, there is a great deal of optimism regarding the future.  The town is preparing for growth with a recently finished school and new housing units under construction.  The town center is currently small, able to be walked in its entirety in an afternoon, with local amenities limited to an indoor mall, several restaurants and recreation centers.  However, I would expect to find a much more developed and transformed place come ten years time.

To Russia:

For the equivalent of sixty U.S. dollars one can purchase a bus ticket from Kirkenes to Murmansk, the closest major Russian city and the western-most Russian port of the NSR.  Leaving Norway, a dense coniferous forest thinned dramatically as we neared the town of Nikel (about 50km from Kirkenes) and the Norilsk Nickel Plant where many residents are employed.  Nikel stands in stark contrast to the surrounding areas, with barren hillsides and an ever-present miasma of chemical soot.  The nickel plant causes significant environmental and health concerns for residents, particularly in the summer when winds blow northward toward the town, making breathing difficult.  It is even known to burn holes in umbrellas.  Because of the pollution, the plant has been a point of Norwegian-Russian contention for decades and serves as an example of the inconsistent level of environmental regulation between the two countries.  Many are concerned that, without proper guidelines, increased extraction activity resulting from improved accessibility in the region is likely to further compound already significant instances of environmental degradation.

Murmansk and Arkhangelsk (respective populations 300k and 350k) are two of the largest cities in the Russian North.  They each have a very rich port history rooted in trade and national defense.  It was very helpful to make contact with organizations like the Norwegian Barents Secretariat in Russia prior to visiting each of these cities to arrange tours and interviews.  Though they are accustomed to port and business traffic, foreign visitors (particularly from the U.S.) are rare and, as a result, I was frequently regarded by locals with both curiosity and suspicion.  In Murmansk I was struck by the scenery of brightly colored buildings and the presence of trees and shrubs maintained along city streets at such an extreme northern latitude (68°N).  A woman explained to me that the City is white with snow and without sun for so many days of the year that the people need a little color to lift their spirits.  This made an impression on me as it shows that public spaces and the natural environment are especially important in places where life is forced indoors for many months of the year.  Timber, fishing and minerals are major industries in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions.  Commodities are transported to port via an extensive rail system, which also supports commuter traffic.  The train ride from Murmansk to Arkhangelsk is 31 hours.  The cabins are quite comfortable and, if you can stay awake, you will have a front row seat to landscape, industry, old soviet towns and spectacular sunsets in the North Russian countryside.

Contact Information:

Tracie Curry
[email protected]


Magga, Ole henrik, and Svein D. Mathiesen. “Reindeer Herders’ Vulnerability Network Study: Reindeer Pastoralism in a Changing Climate.” IPY EALAT Research – Final Report to Research Council of Norway Project Number 176078, 2011.

Nellman, Christian, and Ingunn Ims Vistnes. Proposed development of mines – consequences for reindeer herding in Fiettar and Fala. Impact Assessment, Alta: Northern Research Institute, 2011.

Pettersen, Trude. “46 Vessels Through Northern Sea Route.” Barents Observer, November 23, 2012.

Tyler, N.J.C, J.M Turi, and et al. Saami reindeer pastoralism under climate change: Applying a generalized framework for vulnerability studies to a sub-arctic social-econogical system. ScienceDirect, Global Environmental Change, 2007.

Vistnes. Reindeer Husbandry and Barents 2030. International Polar Year, Alta: International Center for Reindeer Husbandry, 2009.