Blog: Mapping the Arctic’s future while erasing its past

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent in the Arctic in 2008. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press)
The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent in the Arctic in 2008. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press)
Yesterday, Nature Climate Change published a new paper on mapping the future of the Arctic Ocean.

The extent of open water in the world’s northernmost sea is expanding, and the study projects that ice will cover coastal regions for only half of the year by 2070. This could present a major challenge for indigenous peoples and Arctic species, for the ice edge is one of the most productive ecosystem areas in the Arctic. If it retreats further from shore, it will be that much harder to access for people and animals alike.

The press is picking up the publication, with Michelle Nijhuis of The New Yorker writing an article called “A New Map of the Arctic?” The article opens with a reference to the doomed expedition in 1848 of British Naval Captain John Franklin in the Northwest Passage. Like many mariners who came before him and who would come after, he was searching for a shortcut to the Far East. Franklin’s two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, became trapped in the ice and were eventually abandoned after two brutal winters, with all 130 crew members perishing (and some apparently cannibalizing each other along the way). Nijhuis notes that the HMS Erebus was not found until September 2014, while the HMS Terror is still missing. Erebus was located thanks to a monumental and costly effort on behalf of Parks Canada and the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfred Laurier, a project launched in part because finding the ships would theoretically bolster the Canadian state’s claims to sovereignty in the Northwest Passage.

The way Nijhuis’ paragraph is written, it sounds as if the discovery of the lost ship finally brought closure to the saga of the Franklin Expedition. What Nijhuis does not mention, however, is the role that Inuit knowledge played in piecing together the fate of the two ships. In 1853, a surveyor with the Hudson’s Bay Company encountered some Inuit at Pelly Bay who told him about dead men in the mouth of the Great Fish River near King William Island. These bodies would later be confirmed as belonging to crew members of the Franklin Expedition, 161 years before one of the ships would be discovered by state-sponsored science. Inuit knowledge proved crucial to beginning to unravel the mystery of the lost ships, but it is often overlooked in favor of headline-grabbing disinterments and excavations facilitated by the engines of Western scientists and states.

Projecting and building the future

Similarly, the studies about the Arctic that make headlines are the “big science” ones about the rapid melting of the Arctic Ocean, which promises new futures for shipping and commerce – not the ones about the slow erosion of historically-situated indigenous knowledge. With models and simulations, scientists try to predict the future of the Arctic. The abstract for the Nature Climate Change paper explains:

“Here we present maps of the open water season over the period 1920–2100 using daily output from a 30-member initial-condition ensemble of business-as-usual climate simulations that characterize the expansion of Arctic open water, determine when the open water season will move away from pre-industrial conditions (‘shift time) and identify when human forcing will take the Arctic sea-ice system outside its normal bounds (‘emergence time).”

The identification of “industrial” and “emergence” time is fascinating because it periodizes the Arctic based on open water conditions. The authors write that while the inner Arctic Ocean and southern portions of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago began shifting in 2000 and quickly “emerge” (ie become characterized by open water rather than ice), the Alaskan and Siberian shelves do not emerge until 2050.

But examined from a social-historical perspective, the Arctic began shifting long before open water began breaking against its shores. The Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution constituted interlocking forces that forever altered the Arctic. Franklin’s Erebus and Terror, for instance, were fitted with steam engines that once belonged to locomotives on the London & Croydon Railway in England – the country home to the coal-powered Industrial Revolution that would one day melt the Arctic ice cap. So rather than representing emergence, the replacement of ice with open water symbolizes the submergence of entire ways of life centered on the ice.

‘Infrastructure talks’

When businessmen consider the Arctic, the past is generally relegated to a dusty bin, or at best, a few token sentences at the beginning of a brochure. Instead, companies marshal scientific models about the Arctic in 2050 or 2070 in order to design bright, investor-friendly shipping futures. At the Arctic Circle conference last month in Reykjavik, the private Germany company Bremenports and the Icelandic engineering company Elfa announced a feasibility study to build an ice-free, deepwater port in northeast Iceland. As reported by Barents Observerthe Managing Director of Bremenports asserted, “Safe and sustainable shipping in the Arctic needs concrete projects, this is one of them.” The reason that Arctic shipping needs concrete projects is because the future will never be realized without hundreds of kilometers of pipelines being laid, millions of tons of seabed being dredged, and billions of tons of concrete being poured. In the Arctic, more so than even money, infrastructure talks.

The infrastructure being projected for the Arctic is often completely detached from past movements and circulations because it is inter-regional rather than intra-regional. The new ports and transportation routes being imagined will connect markets in Europe, Asia, and North America, not villages in Greenland and northern Canada. The desire to connect the world’s northern continents via the Arctic has historical precedent, as the voyages in search of the Northwest Passage beginning in the sixteenth century demonstrated.

Perhaps the difference is that as recently as 150 years ago, explorers were still heavily relying on indigenous knowledge to navigate their way through the ice. In an article in the Geographical Review, Rundstrom (1990) explains that Inuit maps frequently astonished Western explorers with their precision and accuracy; he mentions William E. Parry, a 19th-century explorer of the Northwest Passage, who professes that he would have “missed the small but crucial opening at Fury and Hecla Strait had it not been represented on the Inuit map he was using” (158). Now, the Arctic is changing so fast that corporations and states – the Arctic explorers of the 21st century – prefer to rely on projections about the future rather than knowledge about the past.

Representations of the Arctic’s future

Indigenous knowledge is highly adaptable, and it tends to have a pulse on changing environmental conditions even when they are rapidly occuring. Before the biologists arrive with their instruments and before the satellite data can be downloaded, indigenous peoples are sometimes the first to recognize that a whale population has moved elsewhere or that the ice is thinning. Yet the more unpredictable the Arctic ice regime comes, the less they’ll be able to predict how the next season’s hunting or ice edge will look. So instead, southern interests are first attempting to predict the future of the Arctic environment for them. Second, they are attempting to realize a new future built upon this highly altered seascape – an ocean altered not so much by the “human forcing” identified in the Nature Climate Change paper, but rather forcing driven specifically by capital-intensive southern industry.

Nijhuis’ article in The New Yorker closes with a quote from the lead author of the Nature Climate Change study, Katherine Barnhart, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Reflecting on the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean, the scientist says to Nijhuis, “The future is very close.” Agents of change in the Arctic leverage these predictions of an ice-free Arctic that is just around the corner in order to directly write over the past with smooth red shipping lanes that draw an unencumbered future for container ships and tankers. Such visualizations make it seem as if the ice presented the only obstacle to trans-Arctic shipping, even though there are still legions of permits and rights that need to be obtained, including from indigenous peoples in many parts of the Canadian Arctic if ports are ever to be built. The settlements, rights, and history of the Arctic’s residents, however, are all too often erased from depictions of the Arctic’s future.

While the future of Arctic shipping still mostly resides in the world of Powerpoint presentations, maps of inter-regional transportation futures are already replacing maps of intra-regional movement between Northern communities such as the one depicted in the Pan-Inuit Trails Atlas. Whether the present and future transportation networks can coexist in reality is up for debate. But since southern-drawn maps of the future rarely make room for these pre-existing indigenous networks in their envisioning of the Arctic, it is doubtful that they will plan infrastructure that will help guarantee their continuation into the future.


Rundstrom, R. A. (1990). A cultural interpretation of Inuit map accuracy. Geographical Review 80(2): 155-168.

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.



Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Ice, shipping and the Northwest Passage, Radio Canada International

Iceland:  Germany, Iceland cooperate on new transpolar port, Barents Observer

Russia:  Rosneft readies more Kara Sea mapping, Barents Observer

United States:  Mapping and distorting the Arctic, Blog by Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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