Empires on Ice:  Science, Nature, and the Making of the Modern Arctic

This dissertation traces the development of scientific knowledge about the north slope of Alaska, Yukon Territory, and Northwest Territories to reveal a colonial history in a region that was neither conquered nor settled by outsiders. Drawing from scientists’ journals, letters, and publications—as well as oral histories with Inuit residents—I argue that U.S. and Canadian scientists helped convert territories acquired from Russia and England in the 1860s into administrative hubs for governments and multi-national corporations by 1959. By that year, U.S. and Canadian scientists had scoured the corner of the continent for new lands and resources, proclaimed themselves arbiters of Arctic life through theories of nature and Inuit culture, and facilitated experiments in ecological science and resource development. Ultimately, this project asserts that modern notions of a “New North”—as a pristine wilderness only now experiencing the effects of the industrialized world—prevent us from reckoning with empire’s northern history and responding attentively to Arctic climate change.

My work positions the history of science as a window on the nature of power and the power of nature. My interpretation of science as empire integrates and enriches narratives which explain the frontier as either a product of resource extraction and exhaustion (environmental history) or state intervention and local resistance (history of colonial science). Knowledge about nature underpinned both private and public interests, even as scientists negotiated shifts in professional standards, geopolitics, and the tundra. Scholars illuminate the entanglements of power and nature, then, when we evaluate science as a mediator of relationships with the environment.

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