A railway to Arctic riches: economic boom, environmental threat?

December 08, 2015



A handful of people shuffle into the community hall in Kimmirut, Nunavut, a tiny outpost on the southern coast of Baffin Island. It’s early December, and the small group shakes off the cold winter air and settles into folding chairs to hear a presentation about something completely foreign to Baffin Island – a railway.

“I have never seen a railway before,” a woman named Joannie tells the gathering, according to minutes of the meeting. “Could you give a better idea of what the train will look like?”

Nobody else has seen a railway on Baffin Island either. No one has built one this far north, anywhere. But now – thanks to an insatiable global demand for minerals, and climate change that has opened up northern shipping routes – a rail line across part of Baffin Island is about to become a reality.

It’s also a sign of things to come. Places like Baffin Island have always held a treasure trove of minerals, but low commodity prices, coupled with the high cost of operating in the Arctic, left many deposits undeveloped. With prices for nearly every mineral now soaring, however, mining’s last frontier has become financially viable. And with temperatures climbing because of global warming, mining in the Arctic has become logistically possible as well, because sea lanes stay open longer due to thinner ice and railways can operate year round.

In the past year, two iron ore mines in Norway’s far north have been re-opened after being abandoned for 14 years and there are plans to open an iron ore mine in northern Sweden. Greenland has been overrun with dozens of mining companies eager to dig into rich deposits of uranium, zinc and rare earth minerals that have been uncovered by melting ice caps. Russian cargo ships have started plying the icy Arctic waters carrying tonnes of minerals from mines in Siberia to Rotterdam.

The people in Kimmirut and several other communities across Nunavut are already getting an idea of what’s about to happen in Canada. For months, they’ve been poring over plans for a giant iron ore mine at Mary River, on the northern reaches of Baffin Island and roughly 1,000 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit. It is easily among the most ambitious mining ventures ever undertaken in the Arctic, and an illustration of the lengths to which companies are going to find the resources to build the world’s emerging economies.

The mine itself will be an open-pit operation spanning more than two kilometres across the top of a small mountain. There will also be a townsite with an airstrip capable of handling commercial jets, and a deepwater sea port fit for 10 ice-breaking cargo ships roughly 15 times larger than any vessel currently sailing the eastern Arctic.

Linking everything together will be a 149-kilometre railway that is designed to carry trains stretching more than one kilometre in length from the mine site to the port. The mine, the trains and the ships are intended to operate every day for 21 years and move 18 million tonnes of iron ore annually to ships that will take the metal to blast furnaces in steel mills across Europe.

The impact on Nunavut will be profound. The mine is expected to triple the territory’s annual gross domestic product growth rate and provide nearly $5-billion in tax revenue and royalties to the territory over the life of the project. It will create more than 5,000 direct jobs, many more indirect positions and offer training opportunities in an area of the country where four out of every six people live in social housing and life expectancy is 10 years lower than the rest of Canada.

But there will also be consequences. The mine will leave untold scars on the natural landscape and cut into the fragile permafrost. It will affect caribou migration, disturb walrus populations and have an impact on seals, polar bears, beluga whales, foxes, ermines, lemmings, hares and narwhals. It is an age-old tension – jobs and economic development versus the environmental costs – but one that is about to be felt in new ways in northern communities around the world, and particularly in Canada.

Mining in the north isn’t new; there are other projects in Nunavut. But it has never been attempted on this scale before. Iron ore is all about volume, and by that measure, no other mining project in Canada’s North comes close to Mary River. The nearest comparison is the Raglan nickel mine in Northern Quebec, a key holding of Anglo-Swiss giant Xstrata PLC. Raglan produces about 1.3 million tonnes of nickel annually, making it a large-scale nickel operation. But that’s still less than 10 per cent of the product that will hauled out of Mary River every year.

Residents in places like Pond Inlet, 170 km from the proposed mine, are wrestling with the project. “This project is large, very large,” said Colin Saunders, the town’s economic development officer. “The amount of jobs and opportunities that will be available to the High Arctic residents are going to be significant, very significant.

“But there’s a trade-off and you have to balance the jobs and the contracts with the environmental impacts.”

The evolution of a mine

Just about everyone in the mining world has known about the iron ore at Mary River for decades. Mining it has been a dream ever since Murray Watts, a legendary Canadian prospector, climbed into a beat-up Cessna in July, 1962, to scout around the northern part of Baffin Island.

No one took the trip seriously at the time; mining industry players figured that finding anything in the barren setting was hopeless. But Mr. Watts had long believed in the riches of the north and he had been exploring the northeastern Arctic for 30 years. After a few more trips that summer, Mr. Watts found four iron ore deposits south of Pond Inlet. The site was named Mary River by Europeans, but it had been a meeting place for Inuit hunters for centuries.

The richness of the deposit astounded even Mr. Watts. The iron content ranged from 65 to 70 per cent. That’s so pure that the ore can be picked up, dusted off and tossed into a blast furnace. And yet, despite the attractiveness of the find, no company had the financial wherewithal to mine it.

Mr. Watts died in a car crash in 1982, and four years later, the site ended up in the hands of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., a small Toronto-based company. But development costs were just too high and the project was shelved. Interest was reignited in 2004, when Baffinland went public and raised enough money to cover some testing and surveying at the site. The results confirmed the remarkable quality of the find and that it was the one of the largest undeveloped iron ore deposits in the world. By 2007, the company had calculated that a mine would cost more than $4-billion, far beyond the ability of a small player like Baffinland to raise, especially with a global credit crunch starting to unfold.

By the middle of last year, financial markets had recovered and the price of iron ore was climbing to record levels. Suddenly Mary River was in hot demand and Baffinland was the target of a global bidding war that pitted a U.S. private equity fund against Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steel maker. After battling for months, and jacking their bids from 80 cents a share to $1.50, the two sides called a truce and made a joint offer last January worth more than $500-million. The takeover closed in March.

Now, with ArcelorMittal’s backing, Baffinland was finally ready to forge ahead with its dream mine at Mary River, at a price tag of $4.1-billion.

There was never any doubt the project would be expensive and gigantic. But material filed at the Nunavut Impact Review Board – 10 volumes of documents spanning more than 5,000 pages – offer a unique perspective on just how complex it is.

The rail line is the trickiest part. It will cost nearly $2-billion, or up to $13-million per kilometre, and take four years to build. Construction will require more than 1,000 workers, divided into four teams camped out along the route. The track will run from the mine site to a new port at Steensby Inlet, along the western side of central Baffin Island. Mapping the route took years because of the difficult terrain; the rail line will require 31 bridges and two tunnels, including one measuring 1.3 kilometres.

Building all that would be hard enough anywhere, but the constant cold in the Arctic means many sections of the line, including the bridges, will have to be pre-assembled and then shipped in. But even with global warming, regular transport ships still have to travel mainly in summer, making logistics a potential nightmare. “You only get one chance a year to get material up there,” said Ron Hampton, the project director. “It forces you to be very efficient at your planning.”

Permafrost poses another challenge. Baffin Island is covered with continuous permafrost about 400 metres deep. But the surface layer, about three metres thick, is subject to seasonal freezing and thawing. The train track will be set on an embankment measuring up to four metres in height and made from crushed rock to provide stability over the fragile ground. Supports for bridges will be driven into the bedrock to ensure they keep stable if climate change alters the surface.

Once the track is built, the railway will be in constant use. Along with hauling iron ore, the line will provide a passenger service for employees and transport supplies to the mine site. Each train will be at least 110 cars long and rumble down the track at up to 75 kilometres per hour. The total rail fleet will include 367 rail cars and 11 locomotives, especially made to withstand the cold.

The port at Steensby Inlet will handle year-round voyages back and forth to Europe, with one ship moving through the icy waters every 32 hours. The company’s shipping fleet will include 10 ice-breaking cargo vessels, some measuring 329 metres in length and having five times the carrying capacity as ships used at the Raglan mine. Most are expected to head to Rotterdam, a round-trip voyage that will take up to 45 days in winter.

A cultural divide

Baffinland officials have taken the proposal to communities across the region for months, with several more meetings slated in coming weeks. It hasn’t been easy. Barely 5,400 people live within 400 kilometres of the mine, and their lifestyle is different even from other parts of Nunavut. Roughly 41 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 and 40 per cent of families earn less than $10,000 annually. Many people live off the land, hunting herds of caribou that roam directly across the route of the railway.

Some meetings attracted just five people, many of whom spoke only Inuktitut. But passions ran high and opinions were sharply divided about the project. The regulatory filing includes nearly 700 pages of comments from residents and minutes from several community meetings.

“Our ancestors brought us here through their survival on country food, with no white man,” one man said. “I might behave like a white man, but it is my father’s words I use when I go hunting. I don’t know computers and can’t speak English, but I am passionate about our knowledge.”

“Thank you for trying to help us get more jobs, but the Inuit and white are different,” another man said. “They should be treated equally. When white man is trying to be on top, they don’t like Inuit. Don’t come here then, if you don’t like Inuit.”

Officials at Baffinland insist the project will respect the local culture and protect wildlife. They point to other northern mining projects that have not disrupted caribou and provided badly needed opportunity. The Mary River project “has the potential to provide significant benefits to the north and we’re just working through a process now that we need to get through and reach a point where we can develop it,” said Greg Missal, Baffinland’s vice-president of corporate affairs. If all goes well, he added, construction could start in early 2013.

But convincing people like George Qallaut, who lives in Igloolik which is across from the Steensby Inlet, won’t be easy. During one public meeting, Mr. Qallaut stood up and spoke about the 4,000-year history of the area, and about the dramatic changes in landscape the project will cause.

“The people of Igloolik and Pond Inlet have for centuries met at Mary River during the summer hunting caribou,” he told the group.

“An elder present at this meeting got his first caribou at Mary River. Two mountains will be gone in 25 years. Part of their identity will disappear. How can you compensate for this?”

The Globe and Mail

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Why Climate Scientists Are So Intrigued By the Brutal Sea Voyages of the 19th Century

December 07, 2015


Life aboard a ship in the 18th or 19th century—especially in the far north or south—was treacherous. Now, the records of these brutal voyages are playing a surprising role in scientists’ efforts to understand the future of the planet.

If you’ve ever read In the Kingdom of Ice, which chronicles the race to the North Pole, or Endurance, a record of Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage, you’ve heard about what life in these unexplored regions was like: Without the communications technology or technical gear of today, ships depended on only what they had. And, the logbooks, where captains and clerks kept track of information like weather and location, were absolutely critical.

There are hundreds of thousands of these logbooks, written by hand, and they contain billions of data points about climate from an era before conventional records were kept. They’re a goldmine for scientists trying to understand our changing planet, but there’s just one problem with using them: The handwritten script and the aging of the paper make it tough for computer vision algorithms to understand—so they have to be transcribed by hand.

That’s the goal behind Old Weather, a project that brings together scientists and archivists from Oxford, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the UK’s National Meteorological Services, and a handful of maritime museums where these records are kept. The idea is to put these logbooks online and ask people to help transcribe them through the internet, filling in some of the vast gaps in our understanding of the weather and climate. According to the NOAA, 21,000 people have helped transcribe more than seven million data points so far.

For example, you can annotate the logbooks from the USS Bear, a whaling ship from Scotland that actually helped in Arctic rescue missions:


After all, our record of the climate doesn’t actually go back very far. In the US, the Smithsonian started keeping track of the weather in the 1850s. And we have some records from other countries around the same time. But there are no comprehensive records of global weather data, until the modern day…Except for the billions of records kept by ships that were criss-crossing the globe, regularly recording extraordinarily thorough data about the weather conditions for centuries. Old Weather wants to get those observations out of these crumbling books and into our climate models.

The project relaunched its website yesterday, with new logbooks and better tools for transcribing them online. It’s much easier to help them out now, and they hope that the redesign will attract more participants to the growing community. (“We have split them into shorter deployments of a year or two; so completing a voyage will be less of a commitment, and you’ll have a chance for a bit of shore leave now and again,” they write.)

“It isn’t about proving or disproving global warming,” the project’s coordinators explain. “We need to collect as much historical data as we can… To understand what the weather will do in the future, we need to understand what it did in the past.”

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Temujin Doran – North

September 11, 2012

“We often believe that our own time is at last modern and we are the last men who can act with the authority and weight of the generations that came before us. The wisdom of all human history, gathered together to inform our decisions, yet after a century of knowledge we have arrived here and now, once again cursed by resource and conflict, and unable to change.

In another century, whatever happens to the world we know, those who look back will marvel at us for better or worse. Our actions and decisions will be studied for years, as they attempt to understand us better – those modern men from the past, with a vague intellect and a comfortable heart…, yet the finer they were, the frailer, and the cleverer, the more wrong headed.” – Temujin Doran

North from Studiocanoe on Vimeo.

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June 18, 2012

.. an obscure & pervasive consumption that despite its seriality or multiplicity is felt as deeply personal…western cultures optical unconscious

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Movement in Many Parts

June 12, 2012

Movement in Many Parts

Kearny Street Workshop/ Asian Resource Center Gallery

July 13 – September 28, 2012

Opening reception:  Friday, July 13, 5-9pm

Curated by Lucy Kalyani Lin and Weston Teruya

Kim Anno
Susan Chen
Mik Gaspy
Amy M. Ho
Noritaka Minami
Christine Nguyen
Genevieve Quick
Sanjit Sethi
Meeson Pae Yang

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Monster Drawing Rally 2012 – Southern Exposure

June 09, 2012

These found homes, yay :)!

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Staking Claim to the North Pole – Interactive natural resources map

April 16, 2012


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Continental Drift

April 10, 2012

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New Work

March 30, 2012

New works in Recycled DesiresGeo Shipspacebear_webMid Night DayMid Day Night


John Martin vs B.P. John Martin v. B.P

New Video: 4 x 5 Degrees 4x5still_blackrectangles_ship_dissolve4x5still_ship24x5still_squall4x5still_dissolveblackparticles4x5still_paperweightsea4x5still_shipstars

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Shell Arctic Spill Response Plan Gets Approval

March 28, 2012

Arctic drilling: Beaufort Sea oil spill response plan approved

Shell Alaska's earlier drilling program in the Chukchi Sea. (Royal Dutch Shell / March 28, 2012)

Shell Alaska's earlier drilling program in the Chukchi Sea. (Royal Dutch Shell / March 28, 2012)

By Kim Murphy continue…

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A Dangerous Gamble in the Arctic

March 21, 2012

A Dangerous Gamble in the Arctic

by Bill Meadows

The Arctic recently sent a strong warning that hubris has no place in one of the world’s most challenging, high-stakes environments. Shell Oil, which is ready to take a dangerous drilling gamble in the Arctic’s icy waters, should take note.

In mid-February, the Spanish company Repsol suffered a blowout at its onshore Qugruk 2 well on Alaska’s North Slope. Drillers hit a pocket of gas more than 2,500 feet beneath the surface. Natural gas and an estimated 42,000 gallons of drilling mud spewed from the well, and workers evacuated the rig to avoid the risk of an explosion or fire. After nearly a month of trying to bring the well under control — made more difficult with temperatures so cold it was impossible to operate outdoor equipment — Repsol decided to plug and abandon the well. Drilling mud cleanup will begin now that the well has been plugged.

After the blowout, the well’s hydraulic lines and other components quickly froze in the frigid Arctic air. Despite losing its well, Repsol was lucky; no workers were injured or killed, and no oil was spilled. Things could have been much worse. continue…

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Naica Crystal Cave

November 16, 2011

Discovered in 2000, the interior of this cave is 122 degrees Fahrenheit and close to 100% humidity. The gypsum (selenite) crystals are over 500,000 years old and the largest 36ft long!

Read more here

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We Have “Learned Nothing” from BP Disaster: Obama Opens More of Arctic to Offshore Drilling

November 09, 2011

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Obama Administration’s highly anticipated plan for proposed offshore oil and gas leases from 2012-2017.  It focuses on exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and giving oil companies the chance to bid on drilling rights in Arctic waters, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet.

Because the plan targets areas with known potential for oil and gas development where exploration is currently active, the administration is ruling out drilling along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts — including an area near Virginia that had been slated for exploration prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. continue…

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Still doubtful that the Arctic ice is melting? Shipping companies are banking on it

October 04, 2011

If you do not like science, there are now more and more commercial verification of climate change

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Proof: Southern Exposure’s Juried Exhibition

Reception on Friday, September 16, 2011, from 6 – 9 pm.

I’m excited to be one of the 45 artists chosen out of 535 entries!

Proof: Southern Exposure’s Entry-Fee Free Juried Exhibition of work by Northern California Artists

Juror: Denise Markonish, Curator at Mass MoCa

Exhibition Dates: September 16 – October 8, 2011
Opening Reception: Friday, September 16, 6:00pm – 9:00pm
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm continue…

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Damaged By 1928 Flood, Pompeii Painting by John Martin restored

September 04, 2011

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August 31, 2011

Shadowshop: Local Art for Mass Distribution

December 2 – April 28, SFMOMA

Shadowshop is a temporary, alternative store and distribution point, organized by artist Stephanie Syjuco, and embedded in the museum’s fifth floor galleries.

contributiing :Islands mini CD, by Chin Xaou Ti Won with bonus painting on paper

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Review In Monterey County Weekly of New Enterprise Phase 3

July 31, 2011

Review In Monterey County Weekly of New Enterprise Phase 3
by Mica Quintana

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Attack of the Jellyfish: Sea Creatures Shut Down ANOTHER Power Station Amid Claims Surge is Due to Climate Change

July 06, 2011

By Joe Romm on Jul 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Another power station was shut down by jellyfish today amid claims that climate change is causing a population surge among the species.

Swarm: Hundreds of jellyfish blocked the water-supply grills at the Hadera plant

Swarm: Hundreds of jellyfish blocked the water-supply grills at the Hadera plant continue…

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Butterflies come out earlier than ever

June 07, 2011

Britain’s butterflies were on the wing earlier than ever before this spring following a warm April, a wildlife charity has said. continue…

Comments (0) | More: butterflies, climate change