The Arctic is having a bit of a moment: From climate change coverage to television dramas like “The Terror” and “Fortitude,” the media has brought vistas of cold, snowy places to people around the world. As an environmental historian who works in the far north, I talk to audiences across the country about the Arctic’s past and present. I’ve heard a few misconceptions emerge over and over.
It’s cut off from the rest of the world
Maybe you’ve tuned in to Discovery Channel shows like “Alaska: The Last Frontier” or “Alaskan Bush People” Perhaps you’ve read Jack London. Adjectives like “untouched” and “remote” are regular descriptors in reporting on the Arctic. Across genres, the far north is often portrayed as uniquely isolated.
But trade and politics have long connected the Arctic to distant places. More than a millennium ago, people in London traded walrus ivory from Scandinavia and Greenland. Glass beads from Venice reached Alaska decades before Columbus’s ships reached the Bahamas. Whalers linked Europe to the Svalbard archipelago in the 17th century, and 200 years later, people on America’s East Coast lighted their homes with oil from Bering Sea whales. Today, pipelines crisscross Arctic land, bringing petroleum to southern markets.
Over the past century, geopolitics transformed Arctic communities and ecosystems, from the thousands of walruses killed so their hides could polish World War I munitions to the Alaskan airfields built in Fairbanks and Nome during World War II to fly military aid to Siberian bases. The Arctic was a theater of the Cold War, with military instillations dotting the landscape from Greenland to North America and across the Soviet Arctic, leaving legacies of toxic waste and, as the historian Holly Guise has documented, community disruption that has lasted into the 21st century. Today, pollution — including plastics in the ocean and carbon in the atmosphere — billows toward the pole, while northern wildfires send particulates into the lungs of people thousands of miles south.
The Arctic is empty
National Geographic describes its show “Wild Arctic” as documenting “the bleak, barren tundra and frozen forests of the taiga.” “For most of its literary history, the Arctic has been empty space,” the Independent said in 2015. But frozen and empty are not the same thing. Conflating them, as geographer Jen Rose Smith notes, is a habit of “temperate-normativity.”
In reality, life flourishes near the pole. The Bering Sea might be lidded by ice in winter, but it supports a large commercial fishery, dozens of Indigenous villages, tens of thousands of marine mammals and seabirds by the millions. What we call tundra — a treeless zone of low rainfall and permafrost — supports hundreds of plants and lichen species, which feed vast reindeer herds. From lemmings to moose, any corner of boreal forest and tundra is home to something alive. It’s a fact very clear to the Indigenous cultures of the far north — among them the Sami in Norway, Chukchi in Siberia, Gwich’in in Alaska and Inuit in Canada and Greenland — who have long made their homes amid this bustle.
People first walked into the Americas through the Arctic
There’s a good chance you learned in school that Homo sapiens drifted onto the North American continent about 13,000 years ago, following the animals they hunted across land during that ice age, when glaciers held so much water that no sea separated Eurasia and Alaska. The Bering Land Bridge theory, as it’s known, lives on in an offhand comment on a “Radiolab” episode or in a book review in the New York Times.
But while Alaska and eastern Siberia were connected during the last ice age, the land wasn’t a viable crossing for people until about 12,000 years ago. (Even after their retreat, glaciers left the region mostly bare of plant and animal life for centuries.) By that point, humans had been leaving footprints in what is now New Mexico for more than 10 millennia — meaning they arrived when mile-thick ice covered much of the path south from Alaska. Some archaeologists posit that people took Pacific voyages in sophisticated boats, rather than passively following caribou. Indigenous people’s own traditions, meanwhile, offer diverse accounts of their origins, many of which emphasize long-standing relationships with their homelands and other species, not a land bridge: A story among the Gwich’in, for example, traces their beginnings to a time when people and caribou were one. Such accounts help impart traditions and knowledge of the deep past across generations among peoples who have lived in the Americas since time immemorial.
Warmer temperatures will doom all Arctic wildlife
In 2017, a National Geographic video of a starving polar bear went viral. The World Wildlife Fund has a “save the polar bear” fundraising campaign. Climate change is certainly detrimental to Arctic wildlife, especially cold-adapted species like bears and walruses, for which a warmer world is a harder, even an impossible, one. And particularly in the many Indigenous communities across the circumpolar north, people depend on animals like walruses and reindeer for sustenance, making climate change a food justice issue.
But the focus on large, charismatic animals elides the sheer weirdness of climate change. Drastic, unprecedented environmental shifts could expand habitats for some species even while endangering many others. Beavers are moving north, but reindeer and caribou herds are in decline. The loss of glaciers may open new streams to some species of salmon, even as king and chum runs in the Yukon River rapidly drop off. If climate change dooms anything in the Arctic, it’s certainty about what’s to come.