Until the end of the 1990s, the remote Norwegian coastal town of Hammerfest, which lies 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, was in a state of true decline (Map 5). Almost entirely dependent on reindeer farming and the fishing industry, it had been relatively prosperous in the 1960s, when fish stocks in the Barents Sea were particularly plentiful, but had then gradually started to suffer hard times. Its small population, of around just 9,000 inhabitants, began to dwindle as an increasing number of young people made their way southwards to find opportunities that simply did not exist at home. Visitors remarked on ubiquitous signs of decay and neglect, as schools and hospitals slowly crumbled, water pipes burst and levels of mortality outstripped the birth rate. Regularly rain-soaked, blessed with only a few limited hours of daylight for at least half of the year, and with winter temperatures regularly dipping well below freezing, Hammerfest was a distinctively unenviable place to be.
Just a decade on, the same town is bustling, thriving, and in some ways quite unrecognizable. Far from being a decrepit backwater, its central streets are peppered with new retail shops that stock all the latest and most expensive Western brands. Housing has been in such short supply that property prices have rocketed and the local construction industry has boomed. So many jobs have been created that there is a serious local shortage of labour, both skilled and unskilled. And although very few outsiders were once seen here, today it is a relatively cosmopolitan place where people from many parts of the world come to live and work. The background noise is often incessant, particularly from the passenger jets that regularly ferry visitors in and out.
What lies behind this transformation is a discovery of natural resources on an epic scale. The size and significance of this discovery was captured perfectly on the night of 21 August 2008, when locals watched with amazement and a certain degree of trepidation as a giant jet of orange flame roared into the sky from a nearby offshore island. For the first time, gas was being flared off from Melkoeya, heralding the opening of a huge, underwater complex, known as Snoehvit or 'Snow White', where huge quantities of natural gas have been discovered and are now being exploited. This particular field has already proved highly productive and yet, by the standards of a reservoir's lifespan, it is only in its relative infancy. Nine underwater wells in three fields have become operational since it was first opened, and this is expected to eventually increase to 20 wells over the next few years.
Everything about this site pays testimony not just to the scale of new Arctic opportunities but also to the phenomenal technical sophistication with which this potential is being exploited. To begin with, the natural gas comes shooting out of the depths of the ocean floor at a very high temperature of about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and at an intense pressure, before being moved for more than 60 miles through a series of underwater pipelines that run along the ocean floor and terminate on Melkoeya.
Until about 2005, this was a largely barren island with almost nothing except rocks and shrubs, but when natural gas was discovered nearby, construction work began on a massive scale and within months almost the entire island had been virtually rebuilt. Two thousand labourers worked round the clock under vast floodlights, digging tunnels leading to the mainland, dynamiting and then clearing 6 million cubic feet of rock, pouring more than 30,000 lorry loads of concrete onto the site and laying down several million feet of cable.
On its arrival at Melkoeya, the natural gas has already been cooled considerably by its passage through freezing waters. But at this point it is chilled even more by what is, in effect, a giant, 150-feet-high refrigerator - known to workers on the island as the 'cold box' -that now forms an unmistakable part of the skyline. Once inside, the natural gas is then subjected to a formidably complex scientific process. Carefully filtered, it is cooled right down to a temperature of -259 degrees Fahrenheit, when it turns into a liquid that is barely a fraction of its gaseous volume. So if 600 cubic feet of natural gas is piped to the island, this can be liquefied and then condensed into just 1 cubic foot before being shipped as LNG (liquefied natural gas) in specially constructed tankers to markets the world over.
Nearly all experts feel sure that, like Snow White, the wider Arctic region is also full of promise as a source of natural gas, and perhaps has much more gas to boast of than oil. Could this mean that the presence of natural gas reserves, or any other highly valued resource such as minerals or fishing stocks, could be the trigger for a regional war? Although the issues that surround oil and gas are different, the essential conclusion is the same, and it is most unlikely to be the cause of any future confrontation. Once again, a much more complicated picture will emerge.
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