The Energy Enigma: Norwegian Natural Resources in the Age of Climate Change

Norway is known for its pristine fjords, beautiful landscapes, abundance of fish, Viking past, Winter Olympic athletes and energy production.  More specifically for its production of oil from offshore resources which it has been harvesting for decades.  The oil rig is at least as common as the fjord in Norwegian landscape, even if it is not as photogenic.


For years, Norway has been boosting its economy, paying for a complex infrastructure and covering a generous social benefits program with the money it receives from its off-shore oil production.  Unlike many other countries suffering from “Dutch Disease” (a term named after the Dutch-based Shell Corporation to describe the boom and bust cycles of energy production that drives rapid inflation in the productive years, and economic collapse and debt when oil prices or production falls); the Norwegians have carefully invested this oil revenue in their people, their infrastructure such as roads, bridges and ferries, and in a massive rainy day fund to ride out the inevitable ups and downs of the energy market.  To the extent that one might use the word “sustainable” to describe fossil fuel production, Norway is one of the most sustainable producers in the world, and this has become a cornerstone of their economy.


They have worked hard to reinvest in technology to make their production as efficient as possible, and often less visible through undersea platforms.  This rig will soon become a thing of the past, out of sight and out of mind.

Unfortunately there is one problem with this model, it relies on fossil fuel use which is one of the principal contributors to global warming, glacier melting, the loss of sea ice  and sea level rise.  Unlike some other oil and gas producers, Norway does not deny this, and as an Arctic country covered in coastline and glaciers, they are more than a little concerned about the problem.  Hence the paradox they face with power production.  After decades of off-shore oil production, they are economically addicted to the very thing that will wipe out their quality of life and their national identity.   To combat such a threat, they have started to wean themselves off fossil fuel use entirely.  They now rely almost exclusively on wind and hydro-electric power to meet their domestic needs.


Windmills are popping up everywhere across the landscape, especially in the northern half of the country.  The Sami (Norway’s indigenous people) used to make their living by managing reindeer herds, now their number one employment opportunity and source of income is wind power.  Hydro-electric dams allow the Norwegians to store energy in the form of gravity (water behind the dams turbines) so they can manage the problem of wind energy and peak demand times (often when the wind isn’t blowing).

They have also become creative in the production of fossil fuels.  High above the Arctic circle outside the northernmost town in the world (Hammerfest) lies the island of Melkoa.  In 2007, this island became the site of a liquid natural gas (LNG) facility for the export of natural gas produced in the Barents Sea to the north.


The natural gas is produced by underwater platforms 143km away under the Barents Sea in one of the most pristine marine environments left on the planet, then piped to this facility.  There it is cooled to -163C where it becomes liquid so that it can be transported to a European market.


It takes a tremendous amount of energy to cool and maintain natural gas into liquid form.  The good news is the energy comes from the gas itself, the bad news is that in the production much of the gas is burned releasing carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas and contributor to a changing climate).  This excess CO2 is captured, returned via the pipeline back to the Barents Sea, then sequestered in the seabed so they can claim that no CO2 emissions are released in the production process.  But here is the rub, once the LNG is transported by tanker vessel and consumed, it is burned and releases the carbon into the atmosphere at that point.  These tankers have also become a far too common site in the fjords and coastlines of Norway.


The Norwegians proudly claim that their energy system is almost entirely carbon neutral because of the use of wind and hydro power to meet their domestic consumption, but they are still exporting large amounts of fossil fuels (both LNG and oil) that will be consumed elsewhere releasing the dangerous gases at that point.  Thus the energy enigma or power paradox; to really address climate change as they want to, they will need to stop relying on the production and export of fossil fuels, but in so doing, they will collapse their economy.  Norway is one of the most sustainable and energy efficient places I have ever been to, but the moral cost of such efficiency is to turn a blind eye to how others use the products you sell and the consequences of them.  This dilemma for Norway is a microcosm of the problem modern civilization is having in the 21st century with fossil fuel consumption and climate change.  We know what needs to be done, but it is difficult to swallow the costs in the short-term for something we know we need to be doing in the long-term. In this energy enigma the Norwegians are not hypocritical as much as genuinely human in the modern age.  Perhaps they will find a way forward for the rest of us.  One can always hope.


Kirkenes, Norway…Memory and Identity in the borderlands at the top of the world


Our next stop on the sojourn was Kirkenes, Norway.  This is about as far north as you can get and still be in Europe.  It is far north of the Arctic Circle and and further east than Istanbul, Turkey.  In short it is a long way from almost anywhere, and further than any of us had ever been from home.  A sign at the top of the hill gives a bit of perspective to several places we have recently been, or will soon be.


We just flew from the bottom of Norway in Oslo, to the top in Kirkenes (Technically, the Svalbard Islands are quite a bit further north and still a part of Norway, but few people live there year round, and fewer go there, especially in late October!).  Less than a week earlier we were 4140 km (2572 miles) to the south in Rome, and in less than a week from our visit to Kirkenes we will arrive in Bergen having sailed on an eco-ferry 2265 km (1407 miles) south and west along the entire coast of Norway.  Kirkenes is our jumping off point for the journey which will stop at 34 small towns, cities and villages along the way.  What a way to see such an amazing landscape.  I will be posting pictures from the voyage in a gallery soon.

Kirkenes has a long history, as do most of the small towns and villages along the coast of Norway, but one episode during WWII and shortly afterwards illustrates well the challenges of identity within a borderland.  While Kirkenes has officially been a part of the Kingdom of Norway for a long time, it is so far from the centers of political and economic power in Oslo and Bergen, that the ties binding it to a Norwegian identity are often strained.  Currently, Kirkenes is thousands of kilometers from Oslo and Bergen, but only 7 km from Russia and 30 km from Finland.  Mileposts from Russia and Norway in the middle of town display the same location in two national systems.


For much of its existence, Norwegians were a minority in the Kirkenes region, outnumbered by people of Finnish and/or Sami (indigenous) descent.  In the late 19th century, Norway instituted its version of the Homestead Act to encourage the settlement of Norwegians into the area by land giveaways so they would improve their national claim on the landscape.  Finns, Russians and Sami need not apply.  Soon the land and the economy was firmly in the hands of ethnic Norwegians and their claim on this border region secure until 1940 when the Germans took over. Norway was occupied by the Nazis during WWII.  It was a source for valuable war material, and the fjords allowed endless hiding places for submarine warfare against allied fleets in the North Atlantic.  The area near Kirkenes was rich in mining operations particularly nickel (for which the closest city, Nikel, Russia was named) which was needed for the production of stainless steel which was useful for producing armaments and other tools to conduct war.  The Germans used Kirkenes as a shipping port and airport to transport the nickel and other metals for the war effort.  As a result, Russia used Kirkenes (particularly the harbor and airstrip) as a favorite target.  It was one of the most heavily bombed sites in the war sustaining at least 320 bombing attacks in 3 years.  By the time the Soviet army “liberated” Kirkenes from Nazi occupation, only 13 houses were left standing.  We stayed in one of them (built in 1918) and our host shared a picture of Kirkenes just 7 months after the Soviets “saved” it on October 25th, 1944.  The cost of “victory” was born by the landscape and its people.


In gratitude to the common soldier of the Red Army that “liberated” the town by bombing it to rubble (with friends like this, who needs enemies), the Norwegians erected a monument to commemorate the effort.


The inscription in Russian and Norwegian marks the day 74 years ago this month, but when we visited, there were fresh wreaths of flowers piled at the base.  The memory of the relationship is still fresh and important to the locals on both sides of this border, even if the symbol of communism seems a bit out of place.


What is particularly interesting about this statue is the politics surrounding its artwork, and its placement in the town.  The soldier is depicted with his right foot on what appears to be a stone.  Originally when the monument was made in 1948, the stone was actually a german eagle being crushed under the foot of the Soviet soldier, but by 1950 when the Iron Curtain had descended over Eastern Europe and Norway became a member of NATO, Kirkenes had become the front lines in the Cold War.  It was thought that the soldier’s foot on the German symbol would be too provocative to their new NATO ally.  The people of Kirkenes refused to take away the statue which paid tribute to the Soviet sacrifice on their behalf, so the eagle was ground away into a stone and the statue remained.  A tribute to the communist soldiers in a western country.  Such is the ambiguity of borderlands as landscapes.

The additional irony of this monument is its placement in town.  It sits on top of a small hill which actually is a bunker built to seek shelter from the bombing by the Soviets when they were trying to “liberate” the town.  You can still see the entrance to the shelter and the ventilation shaft in the shadow of a monument to the soldiers who dropped the bombs on the town!


As I stood on the hill, I could imagine the terror the locals would feel as they ran to the shelter and then listened to the bombs explode outside.  They would have considered themselves “lucky” to have survived the raid even as they knew that every bomb exploding was destroying the town they lived in.  All their possessions stripped away until the bombs stopped falling in 1944 as they celebrated their “rescue” by their neighbors’ bombs.

IMG_2977Within six years of that peace, the enemy is friend and the friend is enemy.  Such is the ambiguity of life in a borderland landscape.  The identity is fixed by the land and the sea, the nationality an open question.  Alas, we had a ferry to catch and a journey to continue, so bags packed, we wandered down the lane…


A boyfriend for Verity?

We have been traveling north! With the sun rising in the background at The Oslo Airport in Norway we found this whimsical fellow just about to throw a paper airplane. I thought he was a perfect match for the serious Verity statue we encountered off the coast of Devon (see my photo essay on her in the “thoughts and reflections ” section if you missed the reference). He adds a bit of capricious mirth to the solemn business of truth and justice. He reminded me not to take myself too seriously and enjoy moments like this sunrise. Hope you do the same, wherever you are.

When in Rome….Visit the Pope

There are a lot of reasons for a tourist or pilgrim to travel to Rome.  It is named “the Eternal City” because it has been around so long.  The archaeological sites indicate at least 3000 years of continuous existence in the hills along the banks of the Tiber River.  2000 years ago, Rome was hitting its stride having conquered much of the known world, at least most of it within walking distance.  Riches poured in, monuments were built and palaces, roads, aqueducts, baths and the Pantheon.  Several hundred years later it became the seat of the Roman Catholic faith which is professed by over 1 billion people on the planet.  It is a “must see” when in Italy, and so we arrived.  We only scheduled two nights in the city, because we are not big fans of cities regardless of their history.  There is a hustle and bustle, the noise and the crowds, and Rome is more “city-like” than most in this regard.  People are in a hurry, the pollution has everyone on edge and we long for the countryside the moment we arrive.  Nevertheless, while we were there, we had to make the most of it.  Of course, we saw the Colosseum;


other signs of the Roman Empire such as the palaces above Circus Maximus where they held chariot races;


more modern monuments to celebrate the unification of Italy in 1870 under Garibaldi, which also happens to be the site of Mussolini’s famous speeches during the fascist period leading up to WWII;


and castles along the Tiber that served dozens of different purposes over the years such as the Castle de San Angelo;


but mostly we came to see the churches, in particular St Peter’s Basilica which is the anchor of the independent nation-state of Vatican City, or the Holy See as it is also known.


Words utterly fail to describe the beauty and majesty one encounters inside this largest Basilica in the world.


It is enormous, gilded with gold everywhere you look, and utterly defiant as a subject of photography.  Where do you point your camera to capture this space?  Of course, you can focus on the famous works of art inside such as the Pieta by Michelangelo,


or any number of other statues inside, there are literally hundreds of them from every era of the 2000 year history of the church.  This is what centralization in a religious context gets you.  Moving beyond the statues, every chapel of the church (and there are dozens of them), are adorned with frescoes in their domes depicting any number of scenes from the Bible or theological speculation about the end times and the time beyond.  Here is just one example to illustrate the point.


It is so far up to the ceiling that I have to zoom in the camera to begin to pick up details!  This is not a common problem in buildings usually, but this is the Vatican.  It is the final resting place of countless popes and saints beginning with the first pope, St. Peter and including the latest pope to die, John Paul II (now a saint himself).  The statue of St. Peter near the main altar has been a site of pilgrimage for so long that they have literally rubbed his toes off with all the touching by hundreds of years of pilgrims passing by wishing to gain his blessing by a touch.  You might recall an earlier blog post in which I was rubbing the toe of David Hume in Edinburgh, such practice pales in comparison to this.  Peter is now generally roped off to avoid being completely “rubbed out.”


My favorite statue is in the background in this last picture, it is St. Helen and reminds me of my mother who was named after her.

The Vatican has been a site of pilgrimage for well over a thousand years, one of the four great pilgrimage sites of Medieval Europe.  It is a particularly significant site of pilgrimage for myself as I have been a practicing Roman Catholic all of my life.  It is part of my very identity, and this is ground zero for the faith.  I came to Rome specifically to come to the Vatican and to share it with Paula and Erin who have the same Catholic identity without the connection to place (having never been here in person).  We made it here at night.


It was all lit up and a magical place getting ready for Sunday Mass with Pope Francis the next day.  But this was a special mass, for at this mass, the church (under the leadership of the pope) would canonize seven new saints.  For my non-catholic readers who may be unfamiliar with the canonization, it is a formal process by which the Catholic church recognizes members of the faith who have died by officially declaring them to be in heaven as a saint.  This is done because before they died, they led such exemplary lives of faith that they are held up as examples to the living.  When Catholics pray to saints, they are not praying to other gods, they are calling upon the saints to help them by remembering the example of the saint so that it might shed light on their current concerns and lives.  There is much deeper theology than this, but it would be hard to work out in a blog post (a bit like the trivializing process of proposing marriage through a text or tweet).  Suffice as to say, it is a BIG BIG deal to canonize someone (my friend likened it to the Super Bowl of religious celebrations), and we walked into Rome on the eve of such an occasion.  I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of being in Rome for this event that all I could do was sit and reflect on how lucky we were to be a part of it.


We certainly weren’t alone, people came from all over the world to be a part of the celebration the next day.  They lined up to get a chance to get into the square (the mass was moved outside into St. Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica because it holds so many more people) and until we passed through the gates, I didn’t know if we would even be able to get in.


When the sun rose we were thousands deep in line waiting for a chance to get in.  There was a real sense of solidarity and it strikes you how global the church really is (The name catholic means universal).


Nuns and priests and faithful as far as the eye could see.  There was an exceptionally large group of people from El Salvador (mostly wearing blue hats or waving the blue and white Salvadoran flag in this photo).  They came to witness the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a fellow Salvadoran who was murdered as he said mass by a right-wing death squad in March , 1980.  A week later 42 more Salvadorans were shot by snipers as they gathered for his funeral.  This sparked a 12 year civil war, the legacy of that violence El Salvador is still struggling with decades later.  Romero was shot because he spoke out against violence and the death squads and stood on the side of the poor in El Salvador.  He has always been a personal hero of mine, so the chance to honor his memory in this way, in solidarity with Salvadorans and other poor across Latin America could not be missed.  His story, and their faith and sacrifice to spend what little they had to be here on this day will forever inspire me in my own efforts in service for social justice. He is the first Salvadoran to be declared a saint, and he will quickly become an example to a continent of faithful to work on behalf of justice and peace.


His banner hung, along with the other six to be canonized, as a backdrop over the altar.


Another one of the newly canonized was the pope when I was growing up in Catholic grade school, Paul VI.  This probably wasn’t the reason he was canonized, however, it added to the personal significance of the moment for me.


We spent the mass in the shadow of one of the massive fountains in the square.  As I looked up I realized it had actually been dedicated to Paul VI.  The sound of the water acted as a tether for me to natural places in the midst of this paved and built environment; and a reminder that no matter how much we as humans create institutions and buildings and monuments, it is always founded on the base elements of earth and water, air and fire.


The reason that the canonization took place on this particular Sunday was because all the bishops of the Catholic Church from all over the world had been gathering in Rome for a Synod (special meeting) to address the crisis in the Church caused as a result of years of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up of these crimes by those in power.  They had other items on the agenda as well, but none more significant for the credibility of the Church in the modern age, perhaps.  The Church, like every other human institution is made up of deeply flawed individuals and exemplary ones.    The presence of all the bishops (and their reason for being “in-town”) at this celebration of these great lives was a perfect blend of these two great forces that push and pull at all of us.


In that moment I was reminded that we are all flawed in our own ways, and capable of greatness as well.  This, and the solidarity with the humanity that gathered from all over the globe, are perhaps the greatest “takeaways” I had from this once in a lifetime event we were so very fortunate to bear witness to and participate in.


I am not always the biggest fan of selfies, but in this moment I eagerly agreed to mark our presence in this time and in this place and at this gathering with my two fellow travelers who have now had to endure my highs and lows without rest for the last 6 weeks.  I am honored to travel by their side across all these landscapes.


Later in the day, we returned to the Basilica when we could go inside, but it also gave us a chance to look out on the square as the massive cleanup was underway for such an event.  An odd time perhaps, but all I could hear in my head was Jackson Browne’s tribute to the road crew and the crowd that makes these events possible, “Load Out/Stay”.  For many of my readers, I hope the song starts to creep into your minds as well as you view this last image; for the rest, there is always YouTube to access odd 1970s cultural references for which I have become famous in my lectures.






Stromboli:A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Nature Reserve


It was a beautiful afternoon along the southern coast of Italy as we climbed on board a boat to visit an active volcano.  Maybe not the brightest thing we could have done, but you gotta live dangerously every once in a while to remember that you’re still living.  We had the opportunity to take an hour long boat ride from Tropea to a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea just north of Sicily that some scholars have suggested was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mordor destination, Mt. Doom.  How does one pass up such a chance encounter with literature.  It is also the site Jules Verne chose to end his novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.  It really hadn’t had a major eruption since 2009, so why not roll the dice if it meant getting a chance to see a minor eruption or two.  It did not disappoint.


Stromboli is part of a chain of active volcanic islands that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an Italian Nature Reserve.

IMG_2682This World Heritage designation means that the Italians will preserve this landscape and the surrounding islands as a legacy to all humanity.  It means that it is significant enough to be of interest to people beyond the Italian population, people from anywhere in the world.  Actually, this designation generally means an increase in tourist dollars which is why countries often nominate their “special” landscapes and locations to become World Heritage sites.  They have to abide by some restrictions set through UNESCO (a branch of the UN) in order to have the designation (this is probably why you don’t see more World Heritage sites in the US), but in exchange they become a “spot on the map.”  That spot acts as a magnet for tourists, and usually an uptick in the local economy and job market as they service those tourists.


Certainly the beautiful black sand beaches (crushed lava) and classic fishing village “feel” to the port should be attraction enough; but tourism is about PR, and nothing says come check out our cool stuff like an international designation.  For the “eco-tourist” the World Heritage designation is the gold standard.  On this journey through Europe we are scholars, pilgrims and yes, eco-tourists as well.

I wish to be clear, I don’t think the designation is meaningless, just a PR scam, or without merit.  In fact, quite the contrary!  I think it is well worth supporting, not the only because it points out some amazing places on the planet, and provides them a level of protection; but also because it is a participation in the international management of landscapes that should matter to all of us regardless of nationality.  We do, at the end of the day, share the same planet, and it is the only one currently inhabitable by human beings.  The entire planet is our home and the concept of having a “world heritage” suggests that we are a global community with a shared identity and a shared heritage.  This should not replace the local celebration of our differences, but it can act as a bridge to help us understand we have common values and identity as well.  Both our local identities and our common world identity are tied to and shaped by the landscape, and the World Heritage designation of UNESCO reminds us of that.  If it can also boost a local economy through increased tourism, so much the better, as long as the landscape itself is not “loved to death.”  I’m not sure if we have crossed that threshold with Stromboli yet or not, but as we left at night, I was glad it made it on the list.  The eruption, much like the geysers of Yellowstone, came in a predictable way so we could all get that “picture/experience of a lifetime”.


As the volcano blew, but not too much, I was grateful for the times we can count on nature to dazzle in a “manageable” way.  When I watch the many signs of nature not staying so “contained” in an era of climate change (hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc.), I will take this one chance to say “wow”, and thanks….


Tropea, Italy: Resting and reflecting on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea

People are always telling me that a sabbatical is a great opportunity to get a break from your day to day teaching routine to have some time to reflect on what you have been learning.  Surely, I am learning a great deal while traveling across the landscapes of Europe, but with such a busy travel schedule there is less time to reflect than I might have imagined.  Once I was done with the Landscape and Education Conference in Tropea, we moved up the hill out of town a bit for a week to slow down the pace of travel; to rest and reflect on what we experienced so far as we reach the halfway mark of the journey.  The pictures below will give you a sense of this lovely spot to slowdown for a bit and regroup.  Three months on the road can be a challenge if you don’t find such places to hold up and recharge from time to time.

While at the conference we stayed in the old part of Tropea in  a rooftop apartment overlooking the city.  The building itself was built in 1751 and we had the most commanding view in the entire city if we climbed up two sets of spiral staircases to get to the rooftop terrace for breakfast.


A short walk put us on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea at the harbor where an active fleet of small fishing boats and tourist craft came and went each day bringing back fish and patrons to eat them in the many fine restaurants around the town.


The water was amazingly clear and warm enough to swim, you could see so far down into the water and the color was unreal.


Of course we had to go swimming in the sea in the second week of October, so a few days on the beach were salve for the souls of these tired travelers.


The beaches of Tropea, with their clear waters and white sands are consistently ranked among the best in all of Europe and it is easy to see why.  I especially liked the view of the beach under the cliffs that the old city was built upon.


The city itself, clinging to the cliffs for so many years in the shadow of volcanoes only 40 km away, is an engineering wonder.  There is hardly a flat spot anywhere, and every nook and cranny has been filled over the years with more buildings trying to maximize the beautiful sea-front view.


One of the most iconic locations in Tropea is the Church of Santa Maria dell Isola which is perched on top of a rock outcrop that used to be attached to the town by a giant bridge.  The bridge has since collapsed and a series of steep stairs up and down are the only way to get there, but the church itself has stood sentinel for over 400 years guarding Tropea for the sea and storm.


After the conference we retreated up the hill to more “modern” accommodations for a week of catching up on sleep, schoolwork, grading (for Paula) and blogging.  The view from the balcony offers you an idea of how ideal a location it was for such activities.


Of course I worked hard from my office on the road, but I found it a better place for reflection than for detail.


We passed through this doorway everyday on the way to breakfast.


And we even had the chance to commune with the local wildlife who were found in abundance all about the property.


In short, the pace slowed down finally, at least for me, although I remain behind on blogging, I am rich on reflection.  Life, after all, is about balance.  I will leave you, dear readers, with one last picture to remind you to take a moment to appreciate the beauty around you and stop long enough to be grateful for all the many blessings we have no matter how chaotic and busy our lives can become.  It is a calming sunset picture with the presence of an active smoldering volcano (Stromboli)  to remind us that while this was a time to relax and reflect, it is now time to move on.  Back to the road and more adventure. Chao.