Five myths about the Arctic
Bathsheba Demuth is the author of âFloating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Straitâ. She teaches environmental history at Brown University, where she is a fellow of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.
The Arctic has a bit of fun: From climate change coverage to TV dramas like âThe Terrorâ and âFortitude,â the media have offered people around the world views of cold, snowy places. As an environmental historian working in the Far North, I speak to audiences across the country about the past and present of the Arctic. I have heard a few misconceptions emerge over and over.
Myth # 1: he’s cut off from the rest of the world
You may have listened to Discovery Channel shows like “Alaska: The Last Frontier” or “Alaskan Bush People”. Perhaps you have read Jack London. Adjectives like âuntouchedâ and âremoteâ are common descriptors in Arctic reporting. Across all genres, the Far North is often described as particularly isolated.
But trade and politics have long linked the Arctic to distant places. Over a millennium ago, the people of London traded in walrus ivory from Scandinavia and Greenland. The glass beads from Venice reached Alaska before Columbus’ ships reached the Bahamas. Whalers connected Europe to the Svalbard Archipelago in the 17th century, and 200 years later, people on America’s east coast lit their homes with oil from whales in the Bering Sea .
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Over the past century, geopolitics has transformed Arctic communities and ecosystems, with thousands of walruses killed so their skins could polish World War I ammunition at Alaskan airfields built at Fairbanks and Nome during World War II to send military aid to Siberian bases. The Arctic was the scene of the Cold War, with military instillations dotting the landscape from Greenland to North America and across the Soviet Arctic, leaving a legacy of toxic waste and, as the historian has documented Holly Guise, community disruptions that lasted into the 21st century.
Today, pollution – including plastics in the ocean and carbon in the atmosphere – is heading towards the Pole, as wildfires in the north send particles into the lungs of people by thousands of people. kilometers to the south.
Myth # 2 The Arctic is empty.
National Geographic describes its “Wild Arctic” show as documenting “the dark barren tundra and frozen forests of the taiga”. âFor most of its literary history, the Arctic has been empty space,â the Independent said in 2015. But frozen and empty are not the same thing. Confusing them, as geographer Jen Rose Smith notes, is a habit of “tempered normativity.”
In reality, life flourishes near the pole. The Bering Sea may be covered with ice in winter, but it is home to great commercial fishing, dozens of indigenous villages, tens of thousands of marine mammals and sea birds by the millions. What we call the tundra – a treeless area with low rainfall and permafrost – is home to hundreds of species of plants and lichens, which feed large herds of reindeer. From lemmings to moose, every corner of the boreal forest and tundra is home to something alive. This is a very clear fact for the indigenous cultures of the Far North – including the Sami in Norway, the Chukchi in Siberia, the Gwich’in in Alaska and the Inuit in Canada and Greenland – which have long made their home in the midst of this commotion.
Myth # 3 People first entered the Americas through the Arctic.
Chances are you learned in school that Homo sapiens drifted to the North American continent about 13,000 years ago, following the animals they hunted during this Ice Age, when glaciers held so much water that no sea separated Eurasia and the Alaska. Bering’s Land Bridge Theory, as it is called, lives on in a flippant commentary on an episode of “Radiolab” or in a New York Times book review.
But while Alaska and Eastern Siberia were connected during the last ice age, the land was not a viable passage for people until about 12,000 years ago. (Even after their retreat, the glaciers left the region primarily devoid of plant and animal life for centuries.) By this point, humans had left footprints in what is now New Mexico for more than 10 millennia, this which means they arrived when mile-thick ice covered much of the way south to Alaska. Some archaeologists postulate that people made voyages to the Pacific in sophisticated boats, rather than passively following caribou. Indigenous peoples’ own traditions, on the other hand, offer various accounts of their origins, many of which emphasize long-standing connections to their native lands and other species, not a land bridge: a story among the people. Gwich’in, for example, traces their beginnings to a time when people and caribou were one. Such stories help to pass traditions and knowledge of the deep past down through the generations among the people who have lived in the Americas from time immemorial.
Myth # 4: Climate change is a boon to the Arctic economy.
The effects of anthropogenic global warming on the Arctic are certainly not myths: the region is warming at rates two to three times that of lower latitudes, causing changes such as shrinking sea ice and waves. of heat, like that of 2020 which made parts of Siberia. hotter than 100 degrees. But some argue that the Arctic countries are the âwinnersâ of a warmer planet. Business intern noted that warming in Canada will make it easier to navigate and extract fossil fuels in the Arctic Ocean. The New York Times headlined a profile of the Siberian city of Pevek: “How Russia Benefits from Climate Change”.
Yet a warmer Arctic also comes with immediate costs. In Russia alone, more than 2 million people live in Arctic cities, where melting permafrost releases anthrax and makes homes, roads and 125,000 miles of pipelines unstable and dangerous. Forest fires cost Russia $ 100 million in 2019, when one million arctic hectares burned down. Across Siberia, 30 times as many, according to one estimate, were incinerated in 2021. Predictions that warming will move agricultural areas northward to Canada and Russia focus only on temperature, not the quality of the earth. soil, precipitation and other key factors. Then there is the global dimension: the World Bank predicts at least 200 million new climate refugees in the next 30 years. It is difficult to say that someone “wins” in this scenario.
Myth # 5: Warmer temperatures will doom all arctic wildlife.
In 2017, a National Geographic Video of a hungry polar bear has gone viral. The World Wide Fund for Nature has launched a fundraising campaign to âsave the polar bearâ. Climate change is certainly damaging arctic wildlife, especially cold-adapted species like bears and walruses, for which a warmer world is more difficult, if not impossible. And especially in the many indigenous communities of the circumpolar north, people depend on animals like walruses and reindeer for their livelihoods, making climate change a food justice issue.
But the focus on large, charismatic animals sidesteps the sheer weirdness of climate change. Drastic and unprecedented environmental changes could expand the habitats of some species while endangering many others. Beavers are moving north, but reindeer and caribou herds are in decline. The disappearance of glaciers may open up new streams for some species of salmon, even as queen and chum runs in the Yukon River are rapidly declining. If climate change condemns anything in the Arctic, that’s for sure what’s to come.
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