The Disappearing Arctic?

Here’s a snippet from an essay I am working on for an edited volume on critical Arctic studies:

The Arctic, we are told, is rapidly disappearing.

In the summer of 2007, the extent of sea ice in the circumpolar basin plummeted to an all-time low (Revkin 2007). The popular press pounced on the shrinking ice, transforming it into the poster child of global climate change (Christensen, Nilsson, and Wormbs 2013, 3-9). Over the next five years, as the annual measurement of the sea ice minimum in the Arctic became a regular media event, the news only got worse. The 2008 number fell below 2007’s, and new, lower records were set every year until 2012 (National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2012). Subsequently, the view of the north from a satellite—enhanced with bold colors illuminating the gap between shoreline and icepack—has become an icon of a “disappearing” Arctic (Goldenberg 2013; Francis and Hunter 2006, 509-510).

The remote sensing data can hardly be denied, not to mention the observations of these conditions from people living along the northern rim. Yet, there is something lurking in the words supporting these powerful images. Ice is melting. But what does it mean to say it is disappearing?

While such descriptions raise awareness of Arctic issues for outsiders, they unleash a curious social power within the region. As scholars have shown, the issue of sea-ice reveals how science and narrative work together in framing environmental crises in the Arctic—and the most appropriate responses to them (Christensen 2013; Wormbs 2013; Huntington 2013; Ryall, Schimanski and Waerp 2010, x-xxi). As the Arctic thaw has revealed previously inaccessible natural resources and transportation routes, reports about a warming north have helped turn the region into a hive of economic prospecting and governmental capacity building (Avango, Nilsson, and Roberts 2013, 431-446; Euractiv 2014). Should that seem a heretical claim, or one insensitive to the complexities of communicating science, consider the view of some Arctic residents. According to Inuit leaders Duane Smith and Mary Simon, the reaction to sea-ice retreat by developers and federal governments has marginalized Inuit participation in circumpolar governance, even within the intergovernmental forums long dedicated to the advancement of indigenous interests – like the Arctic Council and the Kelowna Accord (Simon 2007; Rynor 2011; Exner-Pirot 2012; Hossain 2013). Importantly, scientific narratives about vanishing ice in the Arctic effect this marginalization because they conjure ghosts from the region’s colonial past.

Scientists in the early twentieth century deployed similar language to describe the first great environmental crisis in the far north. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, populations of caribou and Inuit along the northwestern coast of North America dropped sharply. The culprit? A global whaling industry. In search of baleen, a precious commodity used in the fashion industry, whalers emptied the Beaufort Sea of bowheads. Outposts and trading villages cropped up on the northernmost shores of the continent, setting the stage for the first sustained contact between visitors, the diseases they brought with them, and Inuit (Bockstoce 1986). The results were shocking. At the mouth of the Mackenzie River, Inuit communities that might have hosted more than 2,500 individuals in the 1860s dwindled to 259 people by 1905 (Arnold, Stephenson, et al 2011, 81). And caribou in the area, the primary source of sustenance for locals and the thousands of whalers joining them, died off just as quickly (Beregud 1974).

Scientists in the early 1900s agreed these events constituted the end of the Arctic itself. Of his own work recording Inuit relationships with the northern environment in the 1910s, anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote, “Were we the harbingers of a brighter dawn, or only messengers of ill-omen, portending disaster?” (Jenness 1928, 247.) The answer to that question came just years later. Jenness and other anthropologists converted their narratives into governmental interventions, building colonialist natural resource management programs atop the fear and scientific authority of their “disappearing” Arctic rhetoric.

My goal with this paper is not to suggest a direct analog to today, whereby the past and present ought to be held up for direct comparison. Rather, the point is to shed light on the historical force of our language, especially that deployed in scientific media to refer to Arctic nature. As a history of science clearly shows, these words contain much more historical baggage than is suggested by their proliferation across the headlines.


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