10: The Arctic Corridor

Trade routes have always been important to people, and have been the reason that many famed explorers have set off on their adventures, such as Franklin trying to discover ways of getting through Canada’s northwest passage and Columbus accidentally crashing into America when looking for a route to the Far East. Finding short routes to move stuff about isn’t just a thing done in the days of yore. At this very moment there is a scramble to develop a new trade and transport route in the north, part of which may involve something called the Arctic Corridor. It’s exciting, it’s full of prospective riches, and it may cause ruin and destruction to people and the environment there. What is this Arctic corridor? Why, where, how? All this and more will be explored below.

File:Supposed Route of Franklin's expedition 1845-1848.svg
The route of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to discover a sea route through the Northwest Passage for traders to use. (Picture: Smurftrooper/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0)

What is it?

With the area covered by sea ice steadily becoming smaller in the oceans at the very north of the planet, the opportunities for movement by water in these places are growing. This has led to the desire to create new shipping routes between Asia and Europe that would cross over the very north of the planet, rather than boats having to travel through the Middle East or trailing around the Americas. A shipping route in the north would in fact be the shortest and most direct route between the ends of these two continents, getting goods from as far as China right into the heart of Europe. This holds the potential for A LOT of money. Less needs to be wasted on the extra mileage of transport on other routes, and things can be moved about a lot quicker. Obviously wherever this route ends in Europe means big business for the area. It will be a major port for world trading, politically powerful controlling the movement of goods, and provide lots of jobs and infrastructure for the area. All these nice incentives are what have led Finland and Norway to propose the ‘Arctic Corridor’.

The Arctic corridor would be a train line that would connect a big port in Kirkenes in Northern Norway where ships would drop off their goods, all the way to Helsinki in southern Finland. This would then connect by an underwater tunnel to Estonia where it would send the goods off into the heart of Europe.

Sounds beautifully simple and glorious! Well, as it turns out with most things that seem simple and glorious, it’s not. For one, there is no railway yet, and the railway plans that have been proposed so far involve massively trashing many parts of the environment. So is it a glorious economic revival of the north, evil corporations destroying Mother Nature, both, neither, other? Well, I can’t really answer all those, but let’s dig a little deeper into the details and science to see what we find.

One of the main proposed routes for the Arctic Corridor, from Kirkenes to Helsinki, and then off to the rest of Europe, with sea routes shown in the blue arrows. (Picture: Arctic Corridor)

What are the potential effects?

Building a railway to create the Arctic corridor would affect three main things- animals, people and indirectly perhaps the climate.

Northern Finland is home to many reindeer and reindeer herders. Unlike many other forms of animal agriculture, reindeer herding is a lot more free. Animals are able to wander between different patches of land and are generally not fenced in, though reindeer herders are part of collectives which each have large set areas that they keep the reindeer within, just to make sure they don’t go munching everyone else’s plants for lunch. Many of the proposed railway routes slice right through many of these collectives areas. Reindeer already have a tendency to spend less time in areas near roads and power lines, so you could imagine a railway could do the same. If they are unhappy to go near it, they might not cross it and so essentially have their grazing grounds halved in size. Only having access to half the amount of food is, understandably, not good.

On the other hand, some braver reindeer will cross the railway to get to the other side, but this then creates a very real risk of crashes, likely flattening the reindeer and causing danger and damage to anyone on the train. Sure, you could build fences along the railway line, but maintaining these is a cost to someone and herders having to manually move their reindeer past these with trucks is also an extra cost. That’s just the animals that have a strong cultural and economic connection to humans. What about the lynx and bears and wolves? As mentioned in an earlier plog about wildlife crossings, this is an example of habitat fragmentation, and the problems that go along with that are explored in that article.

Train and car collisions with reindeer are in some areas a big problem, with some reports saying hundreds are killed each year. (Picture: Heather Sunderland/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Then we have the people. All these effects on the reindeer will undoubtedly have an effect on the reindeer herders. This is both an economic activity, but for the indigenous Saami in the area it is an important expression of culture, and it’s an activity that is already struggling due to climate change and conflicts for land with forestry and mining companies. This railway could be the final straw which makes reindeer herding unsustainable for many.

Finally, the climate. Opening up this port would create a big opportunity for the north, as it could suddenly quite easily transport goods from areas that have previously been quite remote and out of the way. Two major resources in said area are metals and oil. There are worries that easier links in the north will encourage more mining and drilling for oil. More mining would mean more forests felled, land taken from reindeer and greater amounts of mining waste produced. More oil means, well, more oil. At a time when it is absolutely critical that we reduce the amount of fossil fuels we are burning if we want any kind of stable planet, creating conditions which would help the fossil fuel industry continue or even grow is a big problem. There is already a lot of criticism in Canada for this, as many ‘we must save nature’ things have been said, yet in the background oil pipelines are being built all over the place.

Mine ‘tailings’ or basically mining waste. This often isn’t harmful as such, but can sometimes contain highly toxic cyanide, and does have a big effect on the large areas of the landscape it is poured into which are used as ‘tailing storage facilities’. In Sweden mining waste makes upto 80% of the entire countries waste produced each year. Photo: Geological Survey of Sweden (SGU)

Yeah but what about all the jobs and money and stuff?

Is everything I’m saying fair, or is all this just worth it and I am a biased eco-warrior who is blind to the compromises that have to be made for economic growth and glory? Well, as a cherry on the cake, a report on the Arctic railway (attached below) concluded that the whole project wouldn’t even be financially viable. So it would damage nature and people’s livelihoods, potentially create conditions for more environmental damage, and wouldn’t even make money in the longer run. Sounds like a bad deal for everyone! This all means that the project has been put on hold, but it hasn’t actually been cancelled or forgotten.

Some alternative proposed routes for the northern section of the railway, which include ending in Russia

The Arctic Corridor in many ways has global implications for trade, climate, indigenous rights and even politics. Russia is right next door and some of the proposed routes go between Finland and Russia. What would this mean in terms of the power global superpowers have over the control of the movement of goods? I dunno, I’m not a politics/trade expert though I’m sure someone somewhere will have written a book or paper about it. Whatever it all means, it’s an important conversations and situation to be aware of for people both near and far from this potential new and controversial choo choo train, and is a good example how the decisions made in politics and industry can have many consequences for the natural world.

For more info:

A video of some of the local’s concerns about the railway https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-48722699/the-women-fighting-for-lapland

A report summary about the railway not being commercially viable, with links to the report itself: https://www.arctictoday.com/arctic-railway-not-commercially-viable-report-says/

The website of the Arctic Corridor folks, because it’s good to look at both sides: https://arcticcorridor.fi/

Music: kongano.com

Title picture: Markus Trienke/Wikimedia Commons

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