The Arctic’s Past

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

Words John McCannon
Illustration by Anna Dunn

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”


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