Empires on Ice: Science, Nature, and the Making of the Modern Arctic
Historians have understood Alaska and the Canadian northwest as frontiers that emerged after the West, but have yet to fully explore the Arctic portions of these territories or science’s distinct role in northern history. Unable to farm or settle the tundra, and finding no gold, timber, or coal in the far north, late 19th century bureaucrats and businessmen in North America turned to burgeoning scientific communities for help in bringing distant lands into the orbit of national politics and economies. In turn, scientists generated ideas about Arctic people and landscapes—and plans for their development—according the evolving demands of administration, economic expansion, and scientific professionalization over the 20th century. This framework links seemingly disparate episodes in a history of northern empire: the discovery of the planet’s last “uncontaminated” cultures in the early 1900s; the attempt to convert “primitive” Inuit and “barren” lands through scientifically-managed reindeer husbandry economies in the interwar period; and the extraction of “strategic” but “fragile” oil reserves by multi-national companies and laboratory researchers after World War II. I argue that scientific practice in the Arctic has long underpinned corporate and federal power there, even as scientific understanding, global geopolitics, and northern environments have shifted over time. Such an interpretation integrates and enriches nationalist frontier narratives, which have explained northern history as either a response to unbridled resource extraction (Alaska/West) or unrestrained state intervention (Canadian North). It also suggests that popular conceptions of the Arctic–as a pristine wilderness only now experiencing the effects of the industrialized world–conceal complex histories in the region and may limit our ability to respond attentively to the complexity of global environmental and social issues.