Monday, 28 November 2016

Whiskey War (and also Schnapps!)

International law states that National Territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles (about 22 km.) from the coast of each country. In the case of narrow straits, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, cosidering both countries are so close to eachother, the limit of territorial waters is set at the midpoint between the two coasts. But that would happen with an island right in the middle point?

In Nares Strait, north of Greenland, the line between territorial waters of Canada and Denmark (for the moment, Greenland is still part of the Danish territory) is set about 10 miles from both sides. And right at that midpoint lies Hans Island, a piece of rock just a little bigger than 1 Km. from end to end. As you can see in the picture, following this blog's tradition, Hans Island is a very busy place. The nearest towns are Canadian Forces Base "Alert"  (the most northerly inhabited place on the planet) and the villages of Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk in Greenland, all both located more than 200 km far.

During the 30's, the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN) established that Hans Island belonged to the Danes. But Canadians alleged that, with the disappearance of this institution, the decision is invalidated and, for the moment, United Nations doesn't want to get their feet wet.

For more than 70 years, the two governments agreed a list of 127 geographic points that delimited the maritime boundary between both countries in the Nares Strait. But between points 122 and 123, they decided not to draw any lines there and, therefore, not define the border: it was Hans Island.

But don't think that this remains quiet. Tension between the two countries is very strong and we could even talk of one of the hottest geopolitical spots of the world: a sample of uncontrolled violence, is repeated every year of confrontation between Canadian Armed Forces and Danish "Forsvaret" (Army).

Every August, Canadian Army carries out some military exercises in the area of ​​Ellesmere Island. When Canadians pass near the Hans Island, they land there a few soldiers and remove the Danish flag, hoist the Canadian one, and next to the mast they leave a bottle of Canadian whiskey with a message: "Welcome to Canada". The Danish army remains not far behind the aggresive Canadians in the disproportionate use of force. And so, every spring, they send a detachment to Hans Island which is responsible of picking up the flag of Canada, place the Danish one and, after drinking the Canadian whiskey, they let a bottle of Schnapps with a letter that says: "you are in the territory of Denmark."

The maximum tension, however, occurs when vessels of Danish and Canadian Armies found eachother in the viccinity of Hans Island: in order to frighten the enemy, each boat .... hoists a flag of their own country!

No doubt that, the so called "Whiskey War" is limited to a merely exchange of liquor bottles because the object disputed, Hans Island, is only rock; bare, icy and inhospitable. Despite this, during the 80's, Canadian Company Dome Petroleum did some research on the island. There were, however, neither oil nor gaz. It is clear, therefore, that tiny Hans Island does not have any value at all; Well, yes, a bottle of whiskey and schnapps per year.

But disputes over Hans Island are not limited to Canada and Denmark. Some years ago, a  mysterious internet-based "Hans Island Liberation Front" appeared. The independence movement is led, with an iron fist, by two mysterious men ... Hans and Hans.

The last act of protest by Hans Island Liberation Front has been to propose that, seeing the strong expansionism of Russia in the Arctic, Santa Claus should move to live to Hans Island. "We try to avoid" said one of the two Hans (it's unclear if it was Hans or... Hans), "that poor Santa Claus gets forced by the Russians to present, as Christmas gifts, only vodka, LADA cars spare parts and back issues of Pravda newspaper!"

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Kids from Nowhere

The Bering Sea could seem, for us Westerners, the end of the world. Take a look at this map:

The standard world maps are focused on Europe and, therefore, the Bering Sea, which separates the far western Alaska, and the easternmost part of Russia, is shown divided in two, giving the false impression of being two "cul-de-sac" instead of one single sea. On its banks, the population is very sparse, both in American and Asian sides. And, in addition, maritime traffic is reduced because, further north the Bering sea, the ice doesn't allow to navigate during many months per year. In summary, it can't be considered the center of the world, indeed.

But if we change the point of view, you can realize that the reality is quite different. Here is a map of the Earth but centered at the North Pole:

The whole Arctic, from Scandinavia, Greenland and the Arctic shores of Russia, Alaska and Canada are part of the same great culture. Ethnic groups like Yupik, Aleut or the Inyupiats have inhabited the shores of the Bering Sea historically unaware if they were living in America or in Asia. Even in the most tense moments of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, these ethnic groups kept contact and exchange between both sides of the border. The Arctic is therefore the center of his world.

Within the limits of the Bering Sea, there are a group of islands, some of which are American and some other Russian. As I said before, they are populated mainly by people of the same ethnic group or ethnic groups: they are all Inuit (despectively called Eskimos), and speak as mother tongue one of the several Eskimo-Aleut family languages spread in the region, and as a second language either English or Russian, depending on which side of the border the island is located.

Some names will fool you; although Karagin and Komandorskiye are logically russian, and St. Lawrence, St. Matthew and Nunivak are American as all the Aleutian islands, the Pribilof group, however, although the name sounds like a brand of vodka, are American. In the red circle on the map there are two small islands: the Diomede. The Big Diomede is Russian and Little Diomede is American and sooner or later will have their own post on this blog.

But today I wanted to tell you about St. Lawrence Island and, especially, about its exceptional school.

The discovery of St. Lawrence Island was during St. Lawrence day of 1728. A few days earlier, during St. Matthew day, it was discovered the neighboring island of.... Saint Matthew (of course!). The discoverers were two ships from a Russian expedition that had also discovered the Bering Sea and were commanded by a
Russian-Danish captain called Vitus Bering. Despite having a great talent as a navigator, Captain Bering couldn't be honored for having a great creativity when naming his discoveries!

The island, however, was already inhabited; as I said at the beginning, Yupik, Inyupiats, Aleuts, all kind of Inuits lived in the Chukchi and Bering Seas area since long time ago. In fact, it seems that all Native Americans have some ancestor who has been in Saint Lawrence: It is considered that this island is the last vestige of the land that connected Asia and America during ancient times when sea level was lower. This piece of land was used for the first time about 15,000 years ago, when Siberian tribes crossed the Bering Strait to colonize America. Until then, there was no human presence in all America.

In the nineteenth century, Saint Lawrence passed from Russian to American hands in  one of the worst deals ever seen (all Alaska was sold in exchange of some tons of furs and a small amount of money). But, as Russians did, the Americans continued also to ignore Saint Lawrence. The entire population of the island, mainly composed of ethnic Yupiks and Siberian Yupiks was concentrated in two settlements: Savoonga and Sivuqaq. The 4,000 inhabitants lived on fishing and hunting whales and walruses.In 1887, the Reformed Episcopal Church of America decided to Christianize the "poor savages" and decided to build a wooden church in Sivuqaq. A boat landed tools, wood and a carpenter and with the aid of the Sivuqaq people, the building was constructed. Once work finished, the carpenter embarked again and departed; and the church door keys were left in the hands of the Yupik chief. As the poor Carpenter did not speak Yupik, he wasn't able to explain the use of that wooden building, the first the inhabitants of Saint Lawrence had ever seen. So nobody at Sivuqaq knew what was the purpose of that strange building, and it was left empty. Over the next three years, Episcopalians were looking for missionaries to occupy that vacancy, but found no candidates.  
Nobody wanted to go to the remote and icy St. Lawrence Island.

At the end, the church was sold to the competitors, the Presbyterians. These, rather than just a reverend, they looked for someone who also could become a teacher. And finally, they found him: in 1894 a couple of Iowa reached Sivuqaq; the Gambells were to become the teachers of the old church, now reconverted into a school. Four years later, Gambells had to come back to the mainland, accompanied by his daughter, who was already born in Saint Lawrence, in order to treat a mother's illness. Unfortunately, during the trip back to Saint Lawrence, the boat sank and the Gambell family died. Since that day, Sivuqaq village changed its name to Gambell, in honor of the first teachers of the school.

Currently, schools in Saint Lawrence are what in the United States are called K-12 schools, ie for children and boys up to 17-18 years. There is one in Gambell and another one in Savoonga and are part of the Bering Strait School District. I imagine this must be, probably, one of the world's largest school districts: 200.000km2 for only 1,500 students!

But until the 80s, I don't think what Gambell had could be called "a school". The few students who were there, considered the school as a waste of time when, at home, were constantly required to assist in everyday tasks, all of them crucial in an environment as tough as the Arctic. In addition, the school was mostly in English, and for those children, English was not his native language. In Saint Lawrence Island, considering that almost all of the population was ethnic Yupik, they only spoke Yupik! So many of the teachers who had been destined to the island simply described her students as "un-educables."

In 1982, a new teacher landed in Gambell: George Guthridge. The scene he found was devastating. The school did not have a single computer and had virtually no books. Absenteeism was very high and the level of the students was very low; some of the 12 year old students had a reading level of a 6 year old child or were not able to write a complete sentence.

Guthridge applied a pedagogy system created by himself and, in addition, began to seek resources and materials for his school. He adapted
reading and writing classes and methods to a non-English speaking idiomatic and cultural environment. Team working, brainstorming and class participation became the new main method at the classroom. And in 1984 he launched the most incredible challenge to his students, and so, registered them at "Future Problem Solving" (FPSP) competition.

This school competition is considered one of the most prestigious and tough events for children under 18 years worldwide. At that time it was only an American competition and only the country's best schools were represented. Even, in some cases, some of the contestants were schools for gifted children (high IQ).

Prof. Guthridge achived to motivate his pupils so much that, in his own words: "boys were studying while carrying water, while removing fish scales, while hunting whales ...". They were able to overcome all kind of obstacles, including the boycott from two school district administrators, who tried to close the school for uneconomic; students did everything to be present at competition.

Most of the Gambell school students that were going to attend FPSP competition, had never traveled further than Nome, a small town with 3,700 inhabitants in mainland Alaska, and therefore had never seen a train or used automatic escalators, or been in a hotel. Some of them even felt scared when using an elevator!

And what was the result? Those 11 boys and girls between 12 and 17 years were able to win both competitions they were registered at; one for kids from 12 to 14 years old and another for 15 to 17 years old, so they were United States winners! During the competition, they worked on subjects as genetic engineering or nuclear waste. Some months ago, they even didn't know this subjects existed! They were able to beat the rest of schools, all coming from USA's continental States, becoming the first school of mostly Native Americans attending the competition ... and won twice!

Winner Team. Guthridge is on the right wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

From that experience, a book was published, written by Guthridge himself, called "The Kids from Nowhere" that tells the conversion from kids evicted from the school system to bright students, all done without losing their Yupik culture.

And apart from this academic success, how's life in Gambell and Saint Lawrence? Well, frankly, it's still hard, but maybe a little less than before. The population of the island has stabilized at about 1,200 inhabitants, half of whom live in Gambell and the other half in Savoonga. The island has no trees, only green fields of arctic willow, a shrub that grows no more than 30cm and has adapted to the long winters of the Bering Sea. Nevertheless, life can be found everywhere in the Island: walruses, birds and whales are present in large quantities in St. Lawrence.

The island's economy is still very focused on hunting whales and walruses, although the sale of ivory carvings (taken from the tusks of walruses) is an important source of income. Recently, interest in nature started to bring tourists to St. Lawrence, and even a hotel with eight rooms was opened in Gambell. Oh, and for those who think that Gambell and St. Lawrence Island are insignificant in this huge world, let me tell you that Gambell is considered the world main city in one subject: it is the world capital ... of quads! Yes, those four wheeled motorbikes my wife always calls by mistake... "quackers!" No doubt they are the ideal way of transportation for the summer gravel roads and winter snow.

Logistics is always complex in a place as remote as St. Lawrence but this can have a curious effect. Gambell or Savoonga have virtually no shops; Then, how does Santa Claus brings gifts for the children of St. Lawrence? Here comes, then, "Operation Santa". Every Christmas, US National Guard organizes this operation, which requires moving Santa's Christmas gifts to Alaskan remote villages. Santa Claus and all his presents fly from village to village in a National Guard cargo plane so he can give his present to everybody:

And what happened to Professor George Guthridge?

After the experience in Gambell, where he stayed for a few more years, he decided to standardize his teaching method, and began to implement it in other remote schools of Alaska. The success has been overwhelming and, with pride, he explains that in recent years, universities like MIT, Stanford or Yale have received many Alaskan students educated with his method; among them there are lots of Yupik, Inyupiats, Aleut, Atabascans, etc ...

He has also become a successful novelist, publishing several sci-fi and fantasy literature books. A few years ago, he was named one of the 100 best teachers in the United States. During 90's he submitted back again to Future Problem Solving competition several students from another school in the Bering Sea, Elim school and..... won again, also establishing a new high score!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Great North (1): the moving City

A few years ago, the company where I was working suffered the ravages of the economic crisis. Three years of suffering and sleepless nights until, at the end, the company had to close. During that period there were bad days and worse days. And in these disastrous days, I tried to relax thinking about running away from the problems and  sheltering in the solitude of arctic forests of northern Sweden. When I was driving, I had the desire to drive further north, not stopping until arriving to a city, remote, icy and with an evocative name.

Those hard days, when my wife saw me crestfallen, she always asked me, "Did you have a Kiruna day?".

Forests and snow. Snow and forests. And from time to time, some lake. In fact, if there weren't lakes to avoid, the E45 road that leads to Kiruna could be completely straight for tens of kilometers. The entire route is quite flat; only some small ripples break, punctually, the monotony of the road. Although we are more than 100km north of the Arctic Circle, we are in Sweden and, therefore, the road is in perfect condition. I don't want to deceive you, traveling by car to Kiruna has nothing adventurous, even in winter.

But it should be quite different when the city was founded. Since ancient times, Sami people (also nicknamed Lapps) already knew of the existence of iron deposits in the area. But the inaccessibility of the place meant that mining did not begin until the second half of the nineteenth century. At the time, there were only hundreds of kilometers of forest without any roads or similar.
Despite this remote location by the XIXth Century standards, as I said, the mining activity had already begun. The quantities of iron extracted were so huge that soon, the traditional system to transport the iron to civilization got obsolete. Until then, mining was done in summer and, during winter iron was loaded on reindeer-pulled sleighs, and transported to the south. Between 1899 and 1902 works of the railway line linking, Luleå (Gulf of Bothnia), Kiruna and Narvik (in the Atlantic Ocean, and on Norwegian territory) were finished. With the arrival of the train,
miners' shacks at the Kiirunavaara mine were cleant up, and it was decided to found a town. As town name they chose to shorten the Finnish name of the mountain where the mine was, Kiirunavaara, to simply "Kiruna". Swedes were able to pronounce it, while Samis and Finns (with languages sligthly kinship) could have a feeling of familiarity as, in Sami, "Giron" (or "Kiron") means "ptarmigan".

Those early years of the twentieth century, the population grew rapidly and mining production soared. In 1907, the city had already three tram lines (most northerly tram lines worldwide), but the living conditions were still very hard for the residents of Kiruna. Until 1926, the city was isolated by land. Yes, there was the train. But train could only reach Luleå and from there you had to take a boat to the south. So, during winter, as the Baltic Sea was frozen, it became an impossible route. The remaining option was the train to Narvik in Norway, but then an awesome trip surrounding Scandinavia was needed. Thus, in 1926, works for the road that connected Kiruna to the rest of Sweden were ended.

Malmbanan, the Iron railway

Worst times for the city, however, arrived during World War II. Sweden was a neutral country, but Nazi Germany depended on the iron from the mines in Kiruna. The Swedish government tried to avoid provoking either Nazis or allies in order to remain outside the conflict. However, the Swedish Army placed explosives and a detachment in each of the bridges that connected with Nazi-occupied Norway. If the Nazis had tried to invade Sweden, in order to secure iron supplies, all bridges should be blown. Would it had been useful? I sincerely doubt it but it it's better than doing nothing.

The stories of the places related to mining are usually always written in past; abandoned mines and ghost towns remind, in most cases, that mining past times were better. But Kiruna is an exception; and what an exception!

A beautiful "day" in Kiruna at 14:00h

A pleasant winter morning in Kiruna

The mine exploitation is in full blast. The deposits are of an exceptional profitability and each time a mine is exhausted, another is found nearby. In fact, production is assured for many years and, if wanted, the annual output could be increased much more. Nevertheless, the company, long ago, decided to move forward gradually.

The city is a real economic power. Norrbotten region is the second richest in Sweden, just behind Stockholm and everything is due, in large part, to the iron mines. In Kiruna there are only 18,000 inhabitants, spread over a large area. And despite its small population, the city has many good services. It is therefore an ideal place to disappear but in a controlled way: "I live in a remote place but if I run out of Nyponsoppa, the roseship delicious juice, I just have to go downstairs and buy it at the supermarket!". There is only one problem (if there weren't problems, there wouldn't be post!); here you have it:

Yes; the same mine that gave life to the city of Kiruna, now threatens to destroy it. The growth of the underground mine is reaching beneath the city and, of course, the buildings are at risk of sinking through the cracks and movements generated by iron galleries.

All historical center ("historical" for only 100 years, but historical, after all), the Town Hall, the famous wooden church of Kiruna, and lots of buildings will be devoured by the mine. But, you know, Swedish people are farsighted (sometimes even too, as you will see in the Visingsö post) and as the profitability of the mine really worths it, they decided to move the city ...!

Church of Kiruna

The Town Hall with its famous clock tower

Everything has been planned and, by 2040, all affected parts of the city (over 50%) should be moved to the new place, 3 km. far from nowadays location. The new Kiruna has been designed by two architecture firms that won the contest summoned by the city council: swedes White Arkitekter AB and norwegians Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter. The projects match perfectly the Nordic urban planning and design concept: a dense city center, with preponderance of pedestrian-only streets, public transportation and everything sustainability focused. Only singular buildings of the city, including of course the wooden church, will be dismantled and moved piece by piece to its new location.

The rest, however, will be all new. And this was the most controversial point at the beginning of the process: Imagine that you are the proud owner of a house with garden in Kiruna and suddenly, in 2004, you are told that in a few years it will be demolished. Prices of housing, that due to the strong economy and the Kiruna mine, were always going up, remain stagnant at once. The mining company took the compromise to buy houses to be demolished at the market price of the evicting moment .... but knowing that a property is affected, then its value sinks! So, LKAB, the mining company, decided to increase the purchase price by 25% to allow people not to lose (too much) and keeping their capacity to buy a new house in the new Kiruna.

Future Kiruna
To finish things off, the transfer managers got the "IKEA virus", aka, "Build it yourself". Thus, the design of the new city, includes a building, the "Kiruna Portal" that will become a kind of communal shop where people will find materials from demolished houses to be re-used in the construction of new homes!

Kiruna Portal

The whole operation will cost about 3.740M SEK, some 400M, all undertaken by the company LKAB. Imagine then the huge business this iron mine is. But don't be surprised; Kiirunavaara mine and its attached mine, Luossavaara, produce 90% of iron in Europe. With the product obtained by LKAB in Kiruna, 6 Eiffel towers could be built ... every day!