No Man’s Land: The Arctic as Seen by a Laser Scanner

PHOTO by TNN expedition archive photo
Futurologist Liam Young and students of The New Normal programme took a trip to Murmansk region to speculate on the fate of Russia’s Far North against the backdrop of melting icecaps and the advance of global warming
VIDEO by Strelka Institute

A devastating manmade disaster has rendered the Arctic region uninhabitable. Murmansk Seaport continues to function on autopilot: cargo trains pass through the rail station, port cranes load and unload containers, and a robotic voice reports on the successful repair of malfunctioning systems. A sign hanging in one of the equipment rooms reads: “Do Not Turn On. Workers Inside.” But there is nobody here, inside or anywhere else. The synthesised voice fades into the air with nobody to hear it. The system patiently awaits instructions which will never arrive.

This is the future that Strelka students saw for the Russian Far North during their March 2017 trip to Murmansk region. They presented their vision in Black Arctic, a video they shot during the trip.

The Nomadic Studio

Liam Young is an urbanist and futurologist whose studies focus on global relationships and the advance of digital technologies. He searches for patterns and interconnections to achieve a better understanding of how large cities function and discover alternative outlooks for the urban future. The nomadic design research studio, The Unknown Fields Division, created in collaboration with architect Kate Davis, is one of Young’s projects. In this collaborative project, Young and Davis travel together to remote, exotic locations like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the Galapagos Islands, and Western Australian goldmines. Young argues that these territories are linked to our everyday lives as integral parts of global systems. After each expedition, the studio produces multimedia stories where documentary content intertwines with fiction. Young refers to these factual, data-based futurological predictions as speculations.

As a part of The New Normal programme at the Strelka Institute, Liam Young invited students to take a trip to the Kola Peninsula to study the Murmansk Seaport. The coast of the Barents Sea fit into the overall context of Young’s expeditions perfectly. On the one hand, the local snow-coated barrens are a no man’s land, interrupted by rare islands of human industrial activity. On the other, the Far North is a perfect showcase for various systemic interconnections, including those between climate conditions, industry, and human life in Arctic cities.

The Cities

Only a few dozen Russian cities are located beyond the Arctic Circle. Most of them are relatively young, founded only in the late 19th and 20th centuries. These cities were built on territories which were crucial for the development of Russian and Soviet industries: near mining sites, oil deposits, seaports, and military bases.

According to Sergey Medvedev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, the current situation in the majority of Russian arctic cities remains challenging: “these cities represent a social and infrastructural problem for Russia, and are heavily influenced by the state crisis and budget deficit.” Murmansk region could function to a normal degree in an open market environment, but its forced dependency on the administrative center hinders its potential development.

“If you’re looking for an explanation, take a look at Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan,” Medvedev suggests. “An entrepreneur wants to save his small business and develop it further in a small town near Murmansk. As a backdrop, we get the fishing industry, a rotting whale carcass, and a despicable small town government. The problems afflicting the Russian Far North are all highlighted here. And the potential for solving them is limited by the larger, structural problems of the entire country.”

The Climate

Sergey Medvedev says that the harsh climate alone cannot account for the poor, depressing situation the Russian Far North is currently in. At the same time, global climate change, as much as the local climate conditions, should be taken into account when studying life in the North. Although the consequences of human impact on the environment can be observed anywhere on Earth, in the extreme conditions of the Arctic Circle, they are more noticeable than anywhere else.

"The greenhouse effect destabilises the local climate, and this should be taken into consideration where city management is concerned,” points out Alexey Kokorin, the director of the Climate and Energy program at the WWF. Municipal services must be able to adapt to and be ready for rain storms and heavy snowfalls. Below- to above-0°C temperature swings mean that black ice is becoming more common. Power lines have to be well-maintained, as any excessive icing might cause them to touch each other, increasing the risk of short circuit incidents. Climate change also affects the health of the general population. “In Murmansk, especially cold frosts are rare, but the areas to the east of the city are susceptible to extreme lows, especially due to strong winds. 20 m/s winds in the Arctic bring severe cold stress, and staying outside in these conditions is very difficult,” says Kokorin. The available research indicates that current climate trends here will continue.

The Northern Sea Route

The melting of the icecaps is one the major results of global warming. Scientists fear that continuous melting will lead to the extinction of numerous species, water levels rising globally, and vast stretches of land permanently going underwater. At the same time, this could potentially free a major part of the Northern Sea Route from ice, and allow ships to travel unobstructed. Navigation through Russian Arctic waters has been on the increase during recent years, and cargo transportation here is expected to grow further in the following decades. These prospects, and their dependency on climate change, drew Liam Young’s attention.

VIDEO by Strelka Institute

The Northern Sea Route begins in the Kara Sea and ends near the Chukotka Peninsula, connecting the western ports of St. Petersburg and Murmansk with the Russian Far East. The Northern Sea Route (previously known as the Northeast Passage) was first traveled by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld’s expedition in 1878-1879. The route was properly explored during the Soviet era, with the most active years of its operation being in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today, following a few decades of steady decline, cargo transportation here is back to its 1980s numbers. New navigation options uncovered by retreating ice have been attracting international cargo fleets. Although currently only a few dozen foreign cargo ships use the route each year, global warming and the melting of the Arctic ice pack are expected to cause this number to grow.

Today, the majority of transportation through the Northern Sea Route is done by major Russian oil and heavy industry companies, such as Norilsk Nickel, Gazprom, and Rosneft. Modern technologies enable the construction of ships which are able to pass through ice without icebreaker support. Recently, there have been intriguing experiments in arctic navigation. In the 90s, Gazprom and Norilsk Nickel attempted to use submarines to transport cargo. In 1995, a Victor III class nuclear-powered submarine was used to carry several tons of potatoes from Murmansk to the Yamal Peninsula.

The Expedition

The majority of Liam Young’s research is united by a single idea: an attempt to look at the world around us through the eyes of a machine, a robot. During each expedition, Young collects video materials. Editing and special effects turn the footage into surreal videos taken straight from the future. This approach allows Young to find new meanings in the information he has gathered, and showcase the subtle interconnections unravelled during his travels.

VIDEO by Strelka Institute

During the trip to the north, Young prepared the students to use his methods to peek into the potential future of the Murmansk Commercial Seaport and tell its story in video format. The expedition members met with seaport workers, and discussed cargo transportation specifics, automatization processes, and HR policies at the port. They also gathered the factual data necessary for future-related reflections and fantasies, or speculations.

“The speculations are projected developments of existing problems,” says Ildar Yakubov, one of the participants of the trip. “For instance, the Kola Bay restricts the functionality of the seaport, making technological upgrades the main option for improving its efficiency. We saw that technological advancement was the main field for speculations. But to understand that, you would have to come here yourself and speak to the locals. Otherwise, you might speculate about expanding the seaport by 300 meters in every direction, which would be impossible.”

VIDEO by Strelka Institute

All the speculations are united by the suggestion that the very necessity of living beyond the Arctic Circle will become obsolete. The advance of automatization will make the human presence here unnecessary, and the general population will abandon the harsh North. “We imagined that people will move out of the northern cities, and that the Far North will become a home for multiple data centers. The only people here will be hermits and digital nomads squatting in these centers. They will live here and use them for communication, all while remaining untraceable.”

According to the creators of Black Arctic, Liam Young asked the students to select one of the aspects of living beyond the Arctic circle and push it to the limit in their speculations. That is why the answers the students provided in their projects are so maximalist.

“In our scenario, the Northern Sea Route continues operation, while oil extraction grows and develops in the Arctic,” comments Konstantin Mitrokhov. “But continuous automatization and optimization processes lead to a certain human-caused disaster in the region. None of the participating countries wants to take responsibility and deal with the consequences, and the region is virtually abandoned. Its territory is now effectively a new sovereign zone within existing borders, where oil is still being extracted, but no humans work or live. This is the Black Arctic.”

The Lidar

To capture certain scenes, Liam Young uses lidar, a laser scanner. Lidar is normally used to calculate distances towards objects, by measuring the time a signal sent towards them takes to return. Lidars are popular among scientists, engineers, and the military. The device can be tuned to measure cloud altitude and to discover naval mines. Lidars also have an application in driverless cars.

But Liam Young is mainly interested in the unique aesthetics that lidar-recorded footage has to offer. Objects captured with a laser scanner look like unusual, colour-inverted 3D models. By using lidar, Young attempts to imitate robotic vision and imagine the way that machines perceive the human world.

VIDEO by Strelka Institute

Lidar footage makes any video look unusual and futuristic, even without any additional visual effects applied. Young taught the students how to record with a lidar, and together they filmed Murmansk, the city seaport, and the local natural environment. The students used the footage they collected in their reports, including the Black Arctic video. The viewer observes the seaport through the eyes of an artificial intelligence awaiting instructions after a calamity.

Laser scanning technologies and the concept of robotic vision are at the core of Liam Young’s experimental cinema. Young’s Where the City Can’t See, filmed entirely with lidar, premiered in 2016. Another of his projects, In the Robot Skies, was the first film shot using only autonomous drones. In May 2017, it will be shown in Russia as a part of a documentary film festival.

Text: Kirill Golovkin

Translation: Philipp Kachalin