Arctic Institute’s Arctic Infrastructure Series: Conclusion
The fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) surfaces through the Arctic ice at the North Pole. Photo: US Navy
At the beginning of this series, “Infrastructure in the Arctic”,1) I questioned the usefulness of looking at the infrastructure, asking myself: what can we learn from the hard games? Over the past six months, twelve contributors have explored this question.
They examine how icebreakers support logistics systems that are crucial for economic development2) and how megaprojects, such as the northern latitudinal passage,3) especially with its construction of railways, “to support the flow of goods and other channels of connectivity” in the region. Undersea cables and the networks they enable are considered essential to the development of the Arctic4) and that requires5) their protection through the strengthening of international and national laws and policies. Satellite communications6) support various types of systems that “facilitate the management and surveillance of vast maritime spaces”, among other operations. Existing infrastructure structures can be transferred from one use to another in order to react to current events and needs, such as the relocation of a naval baseseven) in Norway between military and commercial use. Reinventing the economy of Svalbard8) from being based on coal mining to focusing on scientific research, education and tourism, provides a model for other Arctic cities that wish to transition to more sustainable economies. The interconnected structures – steamships, railways, roads, bridges and cabins – that made Norway accessible to tourists in the 19th century9) contributed to the sustainable development of modern and national identities. Perceptions of nature and the “use of natural resources” have lasting impacts on the ways of life in the region and on the interaction with the natural and built environment. Finally, the precariousness of infrastructure systems is highlighted by the contamination of Iqaluit’s water supply.ten) In all of these articles, connectivity and the structures that facilitate it are seen as paramount to the sustainable development and habitation of the Arctic region.
Infrastructure makes a landscape productive, protected and livable. This is a critical analytical point for examining human impacts and needs in the Arctic, as it acts as a mediator, or interface, between politics, government, people and the natural environment. The contributors to this series have shown that by centering the structures we can understand how the actors perceive their relationship to the environment and its inhabitants. Thus, “Infrastructure is a means of exploring the dynamics of foreign policy, political intentions, strategic investments, economic and financial innovations, the ability to mobilize and distribute resources, narratives about the Arctic space , interactions with the environment and technological developments”. .11) I hope this series has suggested that “the built, and often unbuilt, environment provides a valuable lens through which to analyze complex interrelationships.” By centering structures, we can not only tell complicated stories about the region, but also provide valuable evidence to make more informed policy decisions.
Olivia Wynne Houck was a Visiting Scholar at the Arctic Institute in 2021. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Fulbright-National Science Foundation Research Fellow, based in Reykjavik.