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Moving Cargo In The Arctic


Warming temperatures in the Arctic mean transportation routes for cargo ships are slowly opening up. That is something shipping companies are watching very closely. But there are very few ports, roads or railway links in the polar region. NPR's Jackie Northam visited a town 250 miles above the Arctic Circle to meet a man trying to change that.

RUNE RAFAELSEN: There you see - this is a peninsula. It's called Terminus. It goes about - more than 10 kilometers.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Rune Rafaelsen looks out across a foggy harbor towards a strip of rocky land jutting out from the coast here in Kirkenes. He's the mayor of this town of 3,000 people in the far northeast corner of Norway close to the Russian border. Rafaelsen says Kirkenes is known for its views of the Northern Lights and for the Hurtigruten, a popular coastal steamer that meanders from here through Norway's fjords down to the southern town of Bergen.

RAFAELSEN: It's a very nice view, especially in the summer when you have the midnight sun is not going down in the horizon. You can see the sun all 24 hours.

NORTHAM: There is no sun on this bleak, frigid day. Most people looking out over this desolate harbor would only see gray Arctic waters and ice. But Mayor Rafaelsen sees opportunity.

RAFAELSEN: This peninsula has the possibility to be a huge Arctic hub.

NORTHAM: Rafaelsen wants to build a deep-water port. Warming temperatures mean more cargo ships will be plowing the Arctic sea route between Europe and Asia. Rafaelsen says they'll go right past Kirkenes. He also wants to build a rail line to neighboring Finland to move the cargo from the ships into Western Europe.

RAFAELSEN: And some of our plan is that they should go 10 trains from Kirkenes every day, and we should handle about 1 million containers.

NORTHAM: A rail line would need buy in from the Norwegian government, but Oslo has nixed the idea. A study found there simply wouldn't be enough cargo to warrant the cost. That's done little to dampen Rafaelsen's enthusiasm. Born and bred in Kirkenes, the balding, square-shouldered mayor is a diehard booster of his town. So he started looking elsewhere for investors.

RAFAELSEN: I have promoted it a lot in China, and the Chinese has been here to look at the possibility. They are interested to see if this is possible.

NORTHAM: Rafaelsen has visited China several times to meet with government officials and businessmen. His municipality signed a friendship agreement with the Chinese city of Harbin. This year, the annual winter festival was called Kirkenes, the world's northernmost Chinatown. The town was festooned with red lanterns and the Chinese ambassador paid a visit. But Rafaelsen says not everyone in town was happy with the festival's theme.

RAFAELSEN: People get angry. Now they think Kirkenes should not be Chinese at all. But it's engaged people. That's the best.

NORTHAM: Rafaelsen's hopes to create a logistical hub has backing from some businessmen in the area. But Thomas Nilsen, who covers Arctic issues for The Independent Barents Observer, an online newspaper, says he doesn't see Kirkenes as being the new Singapore.

THOMAS NILSEN: I mean, Norway is one of the biggest shipping nations in the world and not even our shipping companies are looking to Kirkenes to invest in the harbors.

NORTHAM: Marc Lanteigne, an associate professor of political science at Norway's University of Tromso, doesn't think Rafaelsen's plan is too far-fetched. He says China has identified the Arctic as an area of growing economic importance and wants to create a so-called Polar Silk Road by developing shipping lanes and investment opportunities across the Arctic.

MARC LANTEIGNE: China has really starting to open to the possibility of expanded shipping throughout the Arctic. And it really shows that China wants to be taken seriously as an Arctic player.

NORTHAM: China is already sailing ships through Arctic waters. Rafaelsen believes it's only a matter of time before it will want to be involved in a logistical hub. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kirkenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "BARKERSVILLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.