Transportation, not tourism, in Arctic Iceland

As shipping patterns change, one town plans to join the emerging supply chain.

A fish processing plant in Þórshöfn, Iceland.

While hundreds of thousands of tourists drive the ring road around Iceland, few will leave the beaten track to discover Þórshöfn in the northeast corner.

This town of 400 is dominated by the Ísfélag fish-processing plant, whose low, windowless buildings perch at the water’s edge where the day’s fresh catch can be piped under the wharf and into the factory. Almost everyone relies on the plant or its fishing fleet, which brings home 15,000–20,000 tonnes (16,500–22,000 tons) of capelin, cod, pollock, mackerel, herring and lumpfish each year. I came to meet a man who’s ready to diversify.

Siggeir Stefánsson met me in his office. His dark plaid shirt, mussed gray hair and beard gave him a college professor look, even though he’s the production manager of the fish-processing plant. His gentle face looked tired, and I soon learned that he had a lot on his mind. First of all, the plant runs 24 hours a day at this time of year, so his desk phone, cellphone and desktop computer were constantly buzzing, pinging or lighting up with messages. Siggeir is also the head of the surrounding municipality of Langanesbyggð, home to 530 people, and he’s concerned for the future. “If you live in Reykjavik, you can choose from 100 kinds of work. Here you cannot choose from so many. Our young people are not coming back.” Rather than focus on the tourist economy, Siggeir’s municipality is opening the door to more industry.

“As you see,” said Siggeir, “there is nothing here. It’s beautiful, but there is no special landscape you can’t see somewhere else.”

Bremenports, a German engineering company that builds harbors, as well as EFLA, a group of consulting engineers in Reykjavik, have their eye on Siggeir’s backyard. According to them, a bay just over the hill from Þórshöfn, called Finnafjörður, is unique in the North Atlantic for a combination of factors including depth, sea state and strategic location. In 2004, they earmarked 167 hectares (412 acres) of land to support a deep-sea port and transshipment hub. It could become part of a new Arctic economy that’s emerging as sea ice disappears, but it requires thinking way ahead. “We cannot say now the exact structure of this idea,” said Siggeir, “but if this transporting over the North Pole is going to be, we will need more harbors and they have to be somewhere.”

Siggeir Stefánsson shows us some maps for the Finnafjörður Harbor Project. (Eric Guth)

After work, we jumped into Siggeir’s SUV and visited the site.

Storm clouds gave Finnafjörður a dark hue, and rays of sunlight touched the tundra that stretched from the road to the sea. We could see the hills of the wild Langanes peninsula in the background, and there were a few houses and farms along the quiet road. The sea itself was calm that day, though the fjord opens onto the North Atlantic.

Lindbland Expeditions, National Geographic

“As you see,” said Siggeir, “there is nothing here. It’s beautiful, but there is no special landscape you can’t see somewhere else.”

In 10 or 20 years’ time, this fjord could be lined with a wharf more than 6km (3.6 miles) long. If transport with specialized cargo ships through the central Arctic Ocean (a route that splits the difference between the Northwest and Northeast passages) becomes a reality, Iceland could become a hub for shipments from Asia headed to North America and Europe. The initial reports for the Finnafjörður Harbor Project emphasize distances. The current route from eastern China south and east to Rotterdam is 11,000km (6,850 miles), whereas a route over the pole to Finnafjörður is a mere 5,800 km (3,600 miles). The arithmetic is enticing, but standing beside the one gravel road that connects Þórshöfn to the rest of the world, it was hard to imagine that town as a substitute for Rotterdam.

The harbor project hinges on global projections that loom large for such a tiny town, but the municipality has officially incorporated the idea into its 20-year master plan. For now, that’s enough for the engineers to move forward with what EFLA calls “a private development with the support of local authorities.”

At this stage, Siggeir could not tell me much about the number of jobs, the economic benefits or even how the port would impact his municipality, but I was most interested in his perspective as a local leader.

It all comes back to the future. As Siggeir said, “When this idea was starting, are you able to say then, ‘No, I do not want it.’ And say, also, ‘I do not want more different work here for our kids.’ Are you able to take that decision, in the beginning? Are you against any change, whatever it is?”

We spent a long time that evening driving around the fjord to view it from different angles. The light was beginning to fade as we got out of the car for a last look, and I tried to imagine a transoceanic container ship pulling up to the wharf.

“Would you miss this place as it is now?” I asked.

“Of course,” Siggeir said.

This article was first published at Arctic Deeply, on August 18, 2016.