The Arctic’s Past

Beautiful, barren desolation. Ceaseless cycles of migration and seasonal change. Primordial, frigid emptiness.

Words John McCannon
Illustration by Anna Dunn

These are the images the Arctic most commonly calls to mind. A wild expanse covering more than seven million square miles of glaciers, tundra and ocean, the polar realm is perceived by many as existing somehow outside the stream of time. It appears a land without history; vast, mysterious and impervious to change.

Nothing could be further from the truth. No place on earth has remained completely free of humankind’s influence and the Arctic has a past more eventful and complex than is commonly understood. To remain ignorant of this history is to deprive oneself of any clear understanding of the Arctic as it is today and the alterations that are likely to be forced upon it in the foreseeable future.

Envisioned so frequently as timeless, the Arctic ecosystem is in fact one of the world’s youngest. In the prehistoric era, a much warmer Arctic was blanketed with ferns and redwoods and inhabited by reptilian creatures. During the Pleistocene ice ages, the environment came to resemble that of current times, yet significant differences prevailed. The extent of glaciation was greater, and gargantuan mammals — such as the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros — predominated. Only during the general global warming of approximately 12,000 years ago did the Arctic became recognisably like it is today. The continent-smothering ice sheets of the previous age receded, the oceans and shores took on the contours they have now and the extinction of the large animals that roamed the region radically altered the composition and distribution of plant and animal species in the circumpolar north.

“At various times throughout the year, the Arctic seems full of life: the upstream run of salmon, flocks of migrating birds, the sudden carpeting of wasteland with blooms of colour and the riotous cavort of ringed seals as they mate and breed.”

A surprisingly rich assortment of ecosystems can now be found within the Arctic’s boundaries. Most familiar are the polar deserts, the glaciers and the tundra that sprawl over hundreds of thousands of square miles. There are also mountains, bogs, fertile river valleys and deep boreal forests. River deltas and stretches of the ocean warmed by currents like the Gulf Stream support astounding quantities of marine life. At various times throughout the year, the Arctic seems full of life: the upstream run of salmon, flocks of migrating birds, the sudden carpeting of wasteland with blooms of colour and the riotous cavort of ringed seals as they mate and breed.

These short-lived explosions, however, counterbalance long, austere months of cold and aridity. They can create misleadingly optimistic impressions about the Arctic ecosystem’s vitality and resilience. The continuation of life in the north rests on a delicate balance, even under ideal circumstances. The slightest fluctuation or abnormality can have catastrophic effects on terrain and wildlife alike. The arrival of humans has added an important — and increasingly disruptive — complication to the mix.

Inhabitants and Explorers

Tracing the origins of the Arctic’s present-day inhabitants has never been easy. Written records do not exist, archaeological evidence remains open to interpretation and it is not always straightforward to prove whether a given culture is ethnically or linguistically ancestral to one that succeeds or displaces it. The safest generalisation one can make is that no later than the period between 3000BC to 1000AD, most of the major groups now residing in the Arctic — or their immediate forebears — had arrived in the high north or were migrating in that direction.

Although the details of their customs and cosmologies vary, the majority of indigenous northerners pursued some form of hunting and gathering. Whichever way they chose to support themselves, they adapted to some of the world’s most unforgiving environments. The tools they devised — the kayak, the dogsled, fur clothing as warm as it is waterproof — stand as masterpieces of craftsmanship and ingenuity. It cannot be said that they lived in complete harmony with nature. Still, their impact on the ecosphere remained within acceptable limits. It was the arrival of outsiders from the south, beginning in the Middle Ages and accelerating after about 1500AD, that destabilised the fragile equilibrium which had prevailed between humanity and the Arctic environment.

Taming the Arctic

European interest in the Arctic increased dramatically during the 1500s and 1600s thanks in part to trade and the exploitation of resources. The French, Dutch and English attempted to open up the northeast and northwest passages as alternatives to the sea routes to Asia that Spain and Portugal had discovered. This search consumed the energies — and sometimes lives — of mariners, but it also helped alert Europeans to the riches contained in the Arctic’s waters and forests. From Novaya Zemlya (an Arctic archipelago off northeastern Europe) and Spitsbergen (the only permanently populated island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago) in the east, to the shores of Canada in the west, whalers, sealers and walrus-hunters devastated the sea-mammal populations of the North Atlantic. They slaughtered thousands of beasts to obtain goods such as whale oil, ivory and pelts.

From the mid-1600s through the end of the 1700s, European encroachments on the Arctic became more frequent and more intrusive. Fish were taken out of the waters by the tonne, with cod in particular playing a vital part in the economic growth of early modern Europe. In North America and Eurasia, the hunger for furs spurred massive campaigns of colonisation. Growing numbers of northern natives fell under the hegemony of distant governments. They lost their land, endured socio-cultural and linguistic assimilation, had the Christian cross forced upon them and watched as the beasts that they had herded or hunted were confiscated or over-hunted by outsiders. Both in the Old World and the New, diseases borne from the south — smallpox, measles, typhus, and more — mercilessly scythed through indigenous communities.

The freedom of natives to move across national boundaries was also curtailed, despite the meaninglessness to them of lines on maps drawn by others, while their labour was coerced with regularity. In Canada and Greenland, Inuit exchanged fish, meat and furs with French, English and Danish traders on unequal terms. Saami were forced to provision — or actively toil in — the iron mines that were starting to operate in Scandinavia’s northern provinces. Russia’s system of yasak, or tribute (a tax), obligated native Siberians to surrender a yearly quota of furs to the state or risk imprisonment. All this while, the European plundering of the Arctic landscape did not slacken. Whales, walruses, sable, sea otters, fur seals and other creatures were sought and slain with a rapacity that grew fiercer with every passing year.

The eighteenth century witnessed a burgeoning of scientific knowledge regarding the Arctic. During this era, the probing of the region’s geophysical, meteorological and navigational mysteries was dominated by Denmark’s Vitus Bering. In the pay of the Russian Empire, Bering oversaw a mammoth scientific undertaking: the First Kamchatka and Great Northern Expeditions, which, between the late 1720s and early 1740s, established definitively that Siberia and Alaska were separate landmasses. Bering’s expeditions also unified the efforts of dozens of mapmakers and naturalists to explore, chart and catalogue the resources of eastern Siberia and the North Pacific.

The 1800s proved to be the golden age of polar exploration — although how ‘golden’ these years actually were for the Arctic remains a matter for argument. Throughout the Western world, the drama of polar discovery firmly fixed the far north in the public consciousness. Whetting appetites further was a growing awareness of the mineral wealth locked away in the Arctic wilderness. Coal deposits on islands such as Spitsbergen and Greenland roused the greatest interest. Iron emerged as an economic mainstay in the Scandinavian north, while hints of other useful metals, such as zinc, nickel and molybdenum — all of which would be aggressively mined in the 1900s — were uncovered. Most fabulous of all was gold, whose allure drew thousands of settlers and speculators to places as diverse as Siberia’s Lena River and the Canadian Klondike during the turn of the century.

Long after the dizzying gold rush had passed, the demographic and environmental impact lingered. The hunger for northern metals increased the population of outsiders in the Arctic, impinging further on native lifestyles and the circumpolar ecosystem. Higher volumes of shipping traffic, the blazing of new roads and river routes, the founding of new ports and the construction of the Arctic’s first railways all created opportunities for those seeking their fortunes, whilst placing a heavier burden on the landscape.

It was inevitable that economic pursuits in the Arctic would pollute the region. By the late nineteenth century, however, Europeans and Americans were leaving their marks on the northern ecosphere without even leaving their homelands. On a journey to Greenland in the 1880s, the Swedish-Finnish geologist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld — a talented explorer who repeatedly visited the polar realm and led the first successful voyage through the Northeast Passage (Northern Sea Route) — noticed how large patches of a dark, powdery substance he called cryoconite were accumulating on the surface of the island’s great ice cap. The product of industrialisation far to the south, this black dust absorbed the sun’s rays, which would normally have been reflected by the glacier’s high albedo, causing significant meltage. A sobering moment in hindsight, Nordenskiöld’s finding was one of the earliest indications of how profoundly the modern Arctic was coming to be shaped by distant developments and influences.

Nordenskiöld was merely one of the dozens of explorers and scientists who streamed into the Arctic during the 1800s and 1900s. Whatever form they took, these endeavours tended to fall into one of two categories. They were either part of the so-called ‘races’– quests to reach the North Pole itself, the holy grail of Arctic exploration. Or they belonged to the cadre of scholars and researchers — far less famous, but by no means less important than their flamboyant counterparts — who sought to expand scientific horizons in disciplines ranging from linguistics and ethnography to oceanography, geophysics, and meteorology. Science also served the interests of imperial expansion, with military and naval officers helping to lay bare the Arctic’s remaining geographical and meteorological secrets. The onslaught of explorers, scholars and government operatives who descended on the region, especially after the first world war, gradually tamed the Arctic at sea, overland and in the air.

Postwar & Protection

The second world war brought unprecedented violence to the region. The North Pacific and North Atlantic both witnessed air and sea operations on a major scale, and combat raged through the higher latitudes of Scandinavia and northwest Russia. Militarisation, however, did not cease in 1945. Cold War animosity transformed the circumpolar north into an armed camp. The United States carried out atomic-weapons tests in the Aleutian Islands in the north pacific. The USSR did the same in its own Arctic territories, setting off the largest nuclear detonation in history — the so-called ‘tsar bomb’ of 1961 — over the island of Novaya Zemlya. While numerous relics of this superpower struggle now rust and decay where they stand, many of these ‘assets’ remain active today.

In the domestic sphere, two divergent trends played themselves out in the postwar Arctic. On the positive side, great strides were made toward the advancement of native rights and environmental consciousness. This led to noteworthy victories for land claims, hunting and fishing rights and apologies or redress for past mistreatment. By the same token, advocacy by organisations such as Greenpeace and the general rise of eco-awareness in the 1970s helped bring forth greater protections for Arctic wildlife and northern landscapes as a whole.

Unfortunately, countervailing all this has been a persistent willingness to treat the Arctic as a treasure trove, regardless of consequence. The extraction of timber, fish, minerals and other resources continues. Most dramatic has been the increased exploitation of the Arctic’s reserves of oil and natural gas. Discovered early in the 1900s but not profitable until after the second world war, these fossil fuel deposits have motivated higher levels of Arctic development. There is no denying the wealth that the drilling of oil and gas has brought to the Arctic, or the leverage it has given native groups — at least in North America — in winning political and economic concessions. Unfortunately, it has also polluted the Arctic in innumerable ways, from the installations themselves and the waste generated by work crews, to the small but harmful pipeline and well leaks that occur on an everyday basis. Headline-grabbing disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound have briefly brought to light the risks of extraction, but ‘normal’ damage caused by the fossil-fuel industry passes without notice.

In retrospect, it is clear how the polar regions have long served as a harbinger of alarming meteorological developments. As carbon emissions rose steadily throughout the industrial era, the greenhouse effect was measurable as early as the first decades of the twentieth century. The problem has become more acute, with satellite imagery, ice-core samples and and other scientific tools all pointing to one inescapable conclusion: climate change has, for many years, been causing the Arctic waters to warm, the Arctic pack ice to shrink, the Arctic permafrost to melt and the Arctic ecosystem as a whole to mutate in countless ways. The rate of change is now accelerating at a frightful — and perhaps irreversible — pace.

The Global Climate

The irony is that the ongoing disintegration of the Arctic has stimulated a new eagerness to ransack the Arctic further, and thereby hasten climate change all the more. Revelations during the early 2000s about the untapped oil and natural gas reserves under the Arctic seabed have sharpened national and corporate appetites for drilling. The prospect of being able to send commercial freight, fishing boats and naval fleets into increasingly ice-free Arctic waters has triggered a spate of chest-thumping competitiveness over northern sovereignty. Some experts fear a destabilising ‘Scramble for the Arctic’ that could rival the nineteenth-century ‘scramble for Africa’ that preceded the First World War.

“The irony is that the ongoing disintegration of the Arctic has stimulated a new eagerness to ransack the Arctic further, and thereby hasten climate change all the more.”

Even more than this potential geopolitical conflict, what truly threatens the region is a deadly climatological feedback loop, which further exploitation of the Arctic is likely to activate. Warming temperatures allow further extraction of Arctic oil and gas, the burning of which warms — and harms — the region even more. The likely consequences are many. They include the probable extinction of ice-dependent species like the polar bear and walrus, as well as the diversion or destruction of migration routes used by whales and caribou. Equally dire will be the acidification of the Arctic Ocean and its invasion by species from warmer seas — not to mention the infection of Arctic wildlife and native northerners by new pathogens, borne by insects and parasites previously unable to survive in the once-colder Arctic. Also probable is the permanent disruption of the hunting and fishing lifestyles traditionally practiced by circumpolar peoples.

The ramifications rebound southward as well. The less ice there is in the Arctic to reflect solar heat, the warmer the Earth will become. The rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap and other northern glaciers threatens to raise ocean levels worldwide. All-important, life-giving ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream may well be catastrophically diverted if melting in the Arctic alters the temperature and salinity of waters to the south. Many geophysicists speculate that the unpredictable weather extremes of the past decade have been due in large part to the collapse of the Arctic fence: the airflow system that in normal circumstances keeps the worst of the high north’s icy winds and temperatures from escaping southward. Finally, the steady melting of permafrost, especially in Siberia, will most certainly release mind-boggling quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, frozen beneath the surface for centuries, into the atmosphere.

The lesson should be self-evident. Humanity can try to ignore the harm it has done — and is doing — to the Arctic. The Arctic, however, is capable of inflicting its own retaliatory damage, which we will not be able to ignore for much longer. If anyone needs a convincing reason to ponder the region’s past, present, and future in its totality, this is surely it.

John McCannon’s book: A History of the Arctic: Nature, Exploration and Exploitation is available through Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press, 2012

This article is taken from Weapons of Reason’s first issue: The Arctic. Read the next article: Breaking the Ice.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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