About the Author

Title Page

Introduction: The Bear on the Beach

One: Turn the World on Its Side



Two: In an Inuit Land

Three: Nomads of the Yamal



Four: Adrift on the Ice

Five: The View from Below

Six: The Lethal Mix



Seven: Who Owns the Arctic?

Eight: The Strange Case of Svalbard



Nine: Trouble at the Top

Ten: The Bottom of the Web

Eleven: Invaders from the South



Twelve: The Battle for Arctic Oil

Thirteen: How Far Can Oil Go?

Fourteen: Too Many Ships, Too Soon?



Fifteen: The Arctic’s Revenge

Sixteen: Black and White

Seventeen: The Future of the Arctic





About the Author

ALUN ANDERSON gained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh and later held posts at the University of Oxford and the University of Kyoto, Japan. For twelve years he was Editor, then Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director of New Scientist and was previously an editor at Nature and Science. He is currently a board member of, a member of the council of the Royal Institution and a contributor to magazines around the world.


Life, Death and Politics in the New Arctic






THE FIRST POLAR bear that I ever saw was walking steadily along a narrow strip of beach on the south coast of Devon Island. I’d arrived in Canada’s High Arctic only the day before, after flying due north for six hours from the August heat of Ottawa to the little gravel airstrip at Resolute, a place that was not even marked on my atlas back home in London. A chance invitation had brought me here: a journalist colleague of mine had been invited to join a small cruise ship to see the High North, but had to cancel at the last minute. I volunteered instead, knowing nothing of what lay before me.

At Resolute I had a quick course in how to climb into an inflatable Zodiac boat and then sped off across the bay, weaving among the ice floes, to a four-hundred-foot Russian ship that was about to leave for Ellesmere Island. Once beyond the bay, the ship ran into a huge field of ice. The captain called up the Canadian Coast Guard, and its bright red icebreaker, Des Groseilliers, came out to cut a path through the ice for us, and then said goodbye with a blast of its siren. We sailed on east into open blue water and sunshine with the eroded, ochre-red desert cliffs of Devon Island alongside us to the north. Only the occasional glimpse of the ice cap far inland told me that I was in the Arctic and not on a cruise up the Nile.

Jet lag kept me up far into the endless light of the Arctic night, and to cure it I went up on deck. That is where I saw my first bear, and I was thrilled to pieces. She was just a white dot to begin with, but as we drew closer I could see her well with the naked eye. For the next half hour, we cruised alongside her and I could follow the bear’s steady, swinging gait and watch her every move.

She wasn’t exactly how I had imagined a bear would be. Her hindquarters were higher and more massive and her neck was longer and more powerful. Most striking of all was her purposefulness. She was striding along the beach, her head stretched out in front of her, going somewhere that had nothing to do with any watching human. She never gave our ship a glance. Traveling with her, I passed into the bear’s world. There are so many wild creatures that just flee at the first sight of humans, so many that you can only hope to see if you hide and keep silent. This bear looked as though she owned the beach.

I didn’t know that this bear, which never even looked my way, was going to send my life in a new direction that would lead, after a few twists and turns, to this book. Perhaps that would never have happened if I hadn’t begun talking to another passenger who had come up on deck, a wildlife biologist from Canada. He’d begun looking intently at the bear through a powerful tripod-mounted telescope and invited me to take a really close-up look. “She won’t make it,” he said casually. Make what? “Make it through the year. I’ve seen her several times this season walking back and forth. She’s starving. She should be fat and plump now. Look at her underside and her hind legs; the fur is hanging loose. It’s too late for her unless some very good luck comes along.”

For a moment I felt angry: this was my very first bear. He explained that she was probably two years old and coming up to her first summer without her mother to protect her. She had not eaten enough in the spring and early summer when there had been plenty of young seals out on the ice. Perhaps she had not been quick enough to learn from her mother how to hunt. Perhaps she had been abandoned too early. Perhaps the ice had vanished too quickly. “She’s walking the beach with a purpose,” he said. “She’s stretching out her neck, sniffing the air hoping to catch the scent of carrion. If she’s lucky she’ll find a dead seal washed up, or even better a whale—there are beluga and narwhal around here. If she finds it first, that is. She’s young and if a bigger animal gets there before her, she’ll be driven away. If there were still ice around she might be able to swim out to it and catch a seal. But we haven’t seen ice since we left Resolute.”

The blue sea, the beach, and the bear started to look very different. “Why isn’t there ice here?” I asked. I was wondering if this was a part of the big Arctic melt. Like everyone else I’d heard stories that the Arctic ice was shrinking and seen pictures of a forlorn bear perched on a tiny ice floe in a bright blue sea. “It’s not as simple as that,” he replied. “This bay was full of ice last year and the year before. I’m not sure if the ice is really melting away because the world is growing warmer or this is just a bad year.” If I wanted to know more about ice, he said, I should go to the ship’s bridge. “They are the ones who worry about ice all voyage long. Ask them to show you some ice charts.”

So I did. On the bridge there was little time to watch polar bears. The crew and the ice pilot, a local brought on board to help navigate safely through the Arctic waters, were surrounded by radar screens and weather maps. Yes, they had plenty of charts of the ice cover in the region. Far out in the Canadian High Arctic, you are not really alone. Down south in Ottawa the Canadian Ice Service captures images of the Arctic from satellites and downloads maps of the ice onto the Web for everyone to see.

One chart showed the ice concentration, going from a reassuring watery blue for “ice free” through deep greens and on to a bright red for “90 percent to total” ice cover, and a dark gray for “fast ice,” that is, ice frozen up and locked to the shoreline.

Another color-coded chart showed ice age, from the mauves of fragile new ice, through the greens of first-year ice and browns of second-year ice, and on to threatening bright reds. This was the multiyear ice that had passed many times through the warmth of summer without melting away and had grown stronger, harder, and thicker. Only heavy icebreakers dare venture into the brown and red zones.

Large triangles dotted the more open waters of the ice charts: “icebergs,” explained the pilot. Nearer the Greenland coast, in “iceberg alley,” they were everywhere. But heavy sea ice had retreated far to the north, up Nares Strait. Here, off the coast of Devon Island where we were cruising along, the charts showed no color at all: ice free. There was just a patch of greens and browns at Resolute, back where we had called up the icebreaker to take us to open water.

One of the crew pulled out charts from earlier years. Two years before, in the same week, practically all the water between Baffin Island and Greenland had been filled by a huge tongue of first- and second-year ice; most of the ice-free waters off Devon Island where we were sailing now had been frozen right over. Was this the Arctic melt? Staring at the charts, the answer became less certain. They showed that the ice was not so much melting away as endlessly shifting—disappearing from one place and appearing in another, thickening in one bay in one year and then vanishing from it the next. I wanted to know a lot more.

The next year, in 2007, I went along to a conference on the Arctic in Washington, D.C., and there I met Douglas Bancroft, the head of the Canadian Ice Service that had provided those ice charts.1 Or to be more accurate, I became caught up in one of his stories. Bancroft, a tall man with a neat beard that recalls his years as a warship commander, was relating how a group of adventurers had set off for the North Pole from the northern tip of Canada just as the ice had broken away and gone off in the other direction. “They skied one way all day and drifted back the other all night,” he said. The explanation for their odd heroics: “Most of them were British.” As the only British person at the conference, all eyes fell on me.

Bancroft gave an enthusiastic talk explaining just how dynamic and changeable the Arctic ice was and how many unpredicted events had been taking place in the north, besides the surprise for that polar expedition. In August 2005, for example, the 3,000-year-old Ayles ice shelf had unexpectedly broken up. A gigantic area of ice nine miles long and three miles wide had broken free from the most northerly part of Ellesmere Island, and started drifting around the High Arctic.

Bancroft showed a movie created from a yearlong series of satellite images of the Arctic, the first I had ever seen. With time sped up and a view from outer space that enables you to look down on the whole Arctic from above the North Pole, the Arctic seems, he said, “almost like a dynamic, breathing, living organism, moving and shifting.” The ice shivered, shimmered, pulsated, and flowed throughout the Arctic. The ice charts I had seen on board the ship had come alive.

That movie was made early in 2007, before anyone knew that a great and cataclysmic change was just about to come to the Arctic, one that would remove any doubts that the ice was in danger. In the summer of that year, an enormous area of the sea ice suddenly melted away at a speed that no one had seen before or ever imagined could happen. Compared to the previous summer, an extra 625,000 square miles turned to water. That’s an area four times that of California. That giant crash grabbed my attention, too, and cemented my determination to understand the reasons why it had taken place and what it might mean for the Arctic and the world.

For decades before, the Arctic’s summer ice area had been slowly shrinking, oscillating around a gentle downward trend. That trend had been fast enough to make many people worried even before the great crash of 2007. If it were to continue, many scientists feared that the Arctic might be free of summer ice by the end of the twenty-first century. But other scientists thought that we might just be witnessing a cycle of natural variability, and that the downward trend would eventually reverse and the ice would grow again. The shock of that sudden collapse in the late summer of 2007 shook up all these ideas and forced scientists to think again. All of a sudden there were new predictions that the Arctic might be free of summer ice in a decade rather than a century.

A trip to Japan gave me an opportunity to talk to another Arctic researcher, Koji Shimada. I met him at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, down by the shore and tucked up against a Nissan car factory. His lab runs a famous oceanographic research vessel called the Mirai, but that day all the ships in harbor were slab-sided, gray, windowless monsters built to export Nissan’s cars. We sat around a table in his office and he explained his own views on the ice, occasionally punctuated with the expression, “Many people do not agree with me.” Shimada is well known for following his own views (“Imagination is the most important thing in science,” he told me), so I wasn’t surprised to hear that his childhood hero had been Naomi Uemura, the great Japanese explorer who walked alone to the North Pole.

Shimada had made a totally up-to-date, post-2007-crash version of the Arctic ice movie. He had used images from AMSR-E, a Japanese microwave sensor that can see the ice from space, even in the polar night. His film was much scarier. He projected it on the wall of his office and I sat there, feeling as though I were watching a true horror movie. As the days sped by in seconds, the whole of the Arctic’s ice turned into a living organism that, in a fit of madness, was tearing itself apart.

Vast areas of ice whirled around the pole and were flung out past Iceland and down into the Atlantic. A steady torrent roared down the Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Huge expanses of ice that had been locked hard to the Canadian islands were suddenly fractured and smashed to pieces, then sucked into an enormous whirlpool of moving ice hundreds of miles across. This was not a “big melt.” I was not watching ice gradually turn into water, but a frozen ocean rip itself to bits as a result of forces I did not understand. I asked Shimada to play the movie again, and again. “This is not variation like we have seen in the past,” Shimada said to me. “This is now catastrophe.”

As I watched that movie a set of questions began to form in my mind. Why is the ice so dynamic and so unlike the “frozen North” I had expected? What is going to happen next? Will the ice all disintegrate and the summer Arctic seas soon be just clear, blue water? Or can the ice recover? I wanted to know if the change was a direct result of global warming and, if so, whether efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions could still save the ice. After a year of reading, talking, and traveling, answers to these big questions have come to occupy the heart of this book, for I could find no other way to satisfy my curiosity and deal with the frustration (which I will explain in a moment) than to settle down and try to write it all out. The reason why the ice is vanishing—the science of Arctic change—was a great labor to understand, because the explanations kept changing as the Arctic sprang new surprises. The explanations that were in vogue when I first began asking questions had been absorbed into bigger answers a year later. Now their shape has become more stable (though nature might yet spring another enormous surprise). My efforts to tackle these big scientific questions, which determine so much else about the Arctic’s future, lie at the heart of this book. But they do not form its soul.

On my journeys around the Arctic I had seen ice and icebergs and many of the Arctic’s unique creatures—beluga, narwhal, and bowhead whales crossing the seas; ivory gulls sneaking around a bloodied polar bear to snatch a piece of freshly killed seal; curious walrus dragging themselves up on a beach to take a closer look at me; ringed seals following me with a wary gaze from the ice; and baby murre taking desperate leaps from their cliff ledge nests as they set out into the world, with their fathers calling them shrilly from the sea below. And I had seen a great many more bears, although I still wonder about the fate of my very first and whether she had the good fortune to survive that summer.

I traveled around Svalbard, Alaska, Norway, the Canadian islands, and both coasts of Greenland. My travels took me to Inuit communities in Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, and to stories of the troubled past and the rapid political changes that were arriving as indigenous peoples sought to run their own affairs and put a colonial past behind them. I heard stories from hunters of the first time they killed a polar bear, and listened to a child whose dream was, “to be ten so I can go out hunting on the ice with my Dad.”

All too often, the city folk down south forget that the Arctic is a peopled place, and are unaware of how its inhabitants live. That can lead to some serious misunderstandings, few echoes of which reach the south. Sitting by the harbor at Tasiilaq in eastern Greenland, I was treated to a long diatribe on how European animal rights campaigners and environmental groups had impoverished tiny Greenland villages whose names I had never even heard. (I guessed trouble was coming when the first question was, “Are you from Greenpeace?” to which I could honestly answer, “No.”) The campaign to ban the import of seal products, intended to stop the clubbing of baby seals off Newfoundland far away to the south, had made it impossible for Inuit to sell sealskin taken in their separate hunt of adult seals, even though the income was vital for them. This great injustice to the original people of the north and the perceived insult to their way of life from ignorant southerners were all new to me, but I did agree to go out hunting seal the next day.

The soul of this book lies with the people and creatures of the Arctic. They provide its beginning and its center and make the fate of the Arctic matter. But to talk about them, I had to look at many other things too. I needed to understand the new quarrels between nations over who owned the Arctic, where their borders should lie, and whether a boom in oil, gas, minerals, and shipping would transform the economy of the Arctic as the ice melted away. To do that I had to talk to politicians and icebreaker engineers and gain an acquaintance with oil prices, rig design, undersea pipeline-laying techniques, tanker specifications, and the horror of oil spills. All these topics have their place in this book, for I wanted to see the Arctic as a whole.

This was the cause of my frustration. No matter who I spoke to, the big picture was always lacking. I discovered that there are no experts on the Arctic and no grand sources for knowledge. There are specialists in scores of academic disciplines that each deal with a tiny part of the whole, from the behavior of whales to the patterns of ocean currents. There are politicians who worry about the borders of the Arctic, geologists who focus on gathering the evidence to define them, and whales and seals that swim right over them. Lawyers debate the 104 words of Article 234 (on ice-covered areas) of the Law of the Sea, while engineers simply see the ice as a set of complex mechanical forces that their rigs and icebreakers must withstand. Environmentalists are certain that drilling for oil in the Arctic should be banned at once while indigenous people want to see some of the world’s wealth come their way. For the big picture that I was after, embracing people and ice, animals and borders, oil and ships and more, there turned out to be nobody. I had to assemble what I wanted to know by talking to well over a hundred different experts, listening to almost three hundred lectures at conferences around the world, reading many scientific papers, and seeking out books that told me what explorers had seen long ago.

There is, I think, an important reason for this excess of disconnected information. Only quite recently have people begun to see the Arctic as a region in its own right. Over the centuries, it has been a last frontier for explorers racing to the North Pole or searching for a new trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It has been a source of quick wealth for adventurers taking its whale oils, walrus ivory, fox furs, and bear skins. It has been a Cold War border, rimmed by the defensive early warning radars of the United States and the Soviet Union, crisscrossed by the secret trails of submarines hiding under the ice, and with the ever present possibility that the air would fill with nuclear missiles in an all-out nuclear strike.

But most of the time, the Arctic has just been a long, narrow white space running across the top of maps of the world. A new view of the Arctic as a region of its own, long occupied by its own people and centered on the pole, has emerged only recently. That view owes much to Inuit political activity. Inuit came out of eastern Siberia and spread right across Alaska and Canada to Greenland, long before any such nations existed. When, in the late 1970s, Inuit set up their own Circumpolar Council to represent all their people around the Arctic, regardless of which nation they now found themselves in, they were the first to make us see the way the top of the world was interconnected.

The vanishing ice has cemented the circumpolar view. Change is coming to every part of the Arctic. As the ice retreats we can see just how close are the nations that ring the pole and how similar are the issues they and all the creatures of the Arctic face. Nothing has driven the circumpolar view forward more than the International Polar Year that lasted until the spring of 2009. Thousands of scientists—natural and social—tackled the myriad issues that are needed to form a big picture of the Arctic. My worry now is not that too little is known, but that so much is known which has not been synthesized.

The aim of this book is to provide a broad sketch of the whole, so that its different parts are recognizable and in the right places, and none are lost in an excess of detail. I think that I might be the first to attempt this overambitious goal, but I think it is important to try. The Arctic is changing so fast that no one—not the scientists that study it, the politicians who want to control it, the oilmen who want to exploit it, or the indigenous people who call it home—can keep up. The only people who appear to have gone before me, with an even bigger mission, are the brave authors of a couple of travel guides to the entire Arctic. I hope that they did not find it a foolhardy endeavor.

By writing about the Arctic as a region, though, I don’t want to reinforce the notion of its being a separate, distant, remote place. Nothing could be further from reality; the Arctic is ever more entangled with the south and ever more at the mercy of decisions made elsewhere, often without the slightest consideration for the top of the world.

One day in Greenland I was out on a long trip in a little boat amid cold ice floes. We stopped for lunch on a tiny islet, where I began to run around quickly in circles to restore my circulation. After coming across a ruined grave with a human skull and bones clearly visible inside it—who knows who died there—I decided my exertions might be disrespectful. I sat down quietly to eat. Raw narwhal was served in the chilly wind. My gracious Inuit host fished around in his many layers of clothing and pulled out a small bottle, saying, “I don’t know if you like this but I find it really goes well with narwhal.” It was a bottle of soy sauce. Two thoughts flashed through my mind. One was how connected the whole world has become, now that soy sauce is served on a lonely Arctic islet that is home only to an unnamed grave. The other was that while eating raw whale might seem exotic, the moment you add soy sauce, you realize it is just the same old sashimi that you can eat in any Japanese restaurant.

This book does not seek to make the Arctic exotic, although I found much there that was strange. The world does not need a new form of “orientalism” centered on the north. Its focus instead is mostly on the Arctic seas, rarely traveling far into the surrounding lands, in part because of the central importance of sea and ice to the northern people, ecosystems, and economy. I only stray a little when describing the lives and future of the reindeer people of Russia. Elsewhere in the Arctic, the sea provides sustenance for those who live there, but in Russia the reindeer takes the place of the whale.

In part I have focused on the seas to keep this book to a reasonable length. Had I more space and time I would have written more of the peculiar beauty of the Arctic lands,2 especially those polar deserts where amid arid, red-brown soil and limitless horizons, tussocks of pale yellow Arctic poppy grow, their cup-shaped flowers seeking the low sun’s endless circling, possessed with a fragility that seems so out of place in the harsh North. It is with sadness that I pass them by, for, with the coming warming of the Arctic, these rare deserts, lying close to the shore-bound ice of the most northerly Arctic islands, are under the greatest threat.3 They will disappear soon, before the children of today become adults, and I have been privileged to see them.

One other issue remains, that of “The Arctic’s Revenge.” Did we really think that we could make so many changes to the far-off Arctic and strip it of its ice, without the Arctic biting back? If we ever did, we were foolish.

Chapter One




FORGET THE FAMILIAR view of the world with the great land masses of Asia, America, Europe, and Africa dominating the map. Instead, take hold of a globe and look straight down on it from above the North Pole. The Arctic is now laid out before you. The recognizable shapes of the great continents have mostly vanished. Your eyes are filled by a single ocean, rimmed by land. A long, smooth shoreline lies to one side and a cluster of irregular islands to the other. Only the vast ice-capped expanse of Greenland, the biggest island in the world, is immediately recognizable.

Looking down on this sea you will find much that is unfamiliar. Few of us can quickly locate the Kara or the Laptev, two of the Arctic’s great seas, or the Yamal, the huge peninsula pointing out toward the North Pole where traditional reindeer herders and the Russian gas industry share the same land. The Yenisey and the Lena are two of the world’s greatest rivers, each carrying more freshwater to the sea than the Mississippi or the Nile, yet they flow almost ignored into the Arctic.

The ocean at the Arctic’s heart is unusual. At 5.4 million square miles, it is the smallest of the world’s oceans (the Atlantic is five times its size) but 50 percent larger than the United States. Surprisingly, its closest relative is the Mediterranean, for like that much smaller sea it is hemmed in by land; not so long ago in geological time it was a lake. Now, the Bering Strait provides the Arctic Ocean with a shallow link to the Pacific, just fifty-two miles wide, while the deep Fram Strait and the Barents Sea connect it to the Atlantic. The only other route into or out of the Arctic Ocean is through the maze of narrow channels that pass among Canada’s northern islands and continue to Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait.

If we could take away all the ice so that we could see right to the bottom of the Arctic seas, we would find more surprises. The shallow shelves that extend under the seas, especially from the Russian side of the Arctic, cover a little over half the ocean, more than any other in the world. Beyond the shelves, in the deeper central seas, are undersea mountain ranges, basins, and ancient plateaus, crammed together in a small space and of such baffling complexity that geologists simply don’t know precisely how or when the Arctic was made. We can be sure of a few things, though. In an earlier, much warmer era, the continents of North America and Eurasia were closer together. As they gradually moved apart, the basin on the European side of the Arctic widened, leaving a split on the seafloor where molten magma welled up from deep within the earth. This flowing rock created a chain of undersea mountains, the Gakkel Ridge, which now crosses the seas on the European side of the Arctic, dividing them into the Nansen and Amundsen basins. The Gakkel Ridge has a special importance. As this split in the earth began to grow some 50 million years ago, a sliver of the Eurasian continent broke away and was left behind to form another much larger and higher chain of underwater mountains, the Lomonosov Ridge, which passes very close to the North Pole. The ridge now connects to Russia at one end and to Ellesmere Island (belonging to Canada) and Greenland (belonging to Denmark) at the other. This ancient slow-motion accident is now of great political significance. Under international treaties, whoever can provide the geological evidence that the ridge is a “natural prolongation” of their land can claim seabed rights to the ridge and a large chunk of the Arctic on either side of it too. Russians, Canadians, and Danes have all been out there busily surveying the sea bottom to gather that evidence. The Russians have even planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole, although it is more a symbol than a threat.

The polar view of the globe quickly reveals another surprise: the truly enormous stretch of Russia’s northern coast. Its Arctic lands run for over 4,000 miles—almost twice the distance between New York and San Francisco—and span eleven time zones. That distance would be larger still if Russia had not made the mistake of selling Alaska to the United States of America for two cents an acre in 1867. The true scale of Russia, the largest country in the world and not far off double the size of the United States, is hard to take in. I had my moment of realization when I visited the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. A Soviet-era map of the world was on the wall, behind a symbol of Soviet power, a model of a nuclear submarine armed with rows of ballistic missiles. The map was centered so that the Soviet Union ran across the top of the world. Europe, Asia, and Africa hung down from the enormous bulk of the empire, and the Americas were relegated to a margin.

Russians live in a country that has borders with Europe at one end of their map and with Mongolia, China, Japan, and America at the other. Travel to the Inuit community living on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and you can see Russia’s Great Diomede Island just two and a half miles away. Russians still dream of an undersea rail tunnel linking the two continents.

Russia’s vast span is important: the more you talk to Russians, the more you will realize it has shaped Russian views of the Arctic in a way that few westerners grasp. Long before the Soviet Union was created, Russian rulers were obsessed with their northern lands, partly because it was the only way they could gain access to the sea. Three hundred years ago, Peter the Great fought endless wars to get a foothold on the Baltic and Black seas to the south, but he had to build his great navy at the Arctic port of Archangel. With the Arctic so critical to the tsar, a series of “Great Northern Expeditions” were launched to map the coast and interior of Siberia. One of them, led by the Danish sea captain Vitus Bering, crossed the strait that now bears his name and reached Alaska in 1741. That’s why in 1784 Russia could claim Alaska as its own, while the just-born United States had a territory that was yet to pass the Mississippi River.

The Russians moved to exploit their northern lands in a way that no other nation has attempted. Using gulag prison labor and internal exile, first under the tsars and then renewed under Stalin, towns were built across Siberia and up into the Arctic in search of minerals, timber, and other resources. Hundreds and thousands of gulag prisoners built Norilsk, the second-largest city in the Arctic after Murmansk, to exploit the region’s rich nickel deposits. Further north still, the island of Novaya Zemlya also relied on prison labor. Here, more than 2,000 nuclear tests were carried out, including the detonation of a fifty-eight-megaton bomb, the largest man-made explosion in the history of the world.

No such fervor to colonize the north, regardless of expense, ever gripped the North American side of the Arctic. The first Arctic oil boom sent workers to the north slope of Alaska on a temporary basis, as though they were visiting an alien planet, rather than to settle. Even in Canada, with its 36,000 islands that give it the longest Arctic coastline of any nation, the population cling as close to the southern border as they can without calling themselves Americans. This difference has shaped the Arctic’s past and will shape its future.

Look at the names on the western side of our Arctic map: Ittoqqortoormiit, Ilulissat, Iqaluit, and Kugluktuk. These Inuit names have replaced the old colonial names of Scoresby Sound, Jakobshaven, Frobisher Bay, and Coppermine. Unlike Arctic Russia, where indigenous peoples are now a small minority in their own lands, swamped by settlers from the south, a huge swath of the Arctic in Canada and in Greenland has populations that are more than 85 percent Inuit. Gradually they are taking back power, beginning with their place names, over half the Arctic. I suspect that if their strength continues to grow, the future they demand for their Arctic may surprise their southern neighbors.

Another odd feature stands out when you look at this pole-centered globe, and it turns out to be very important. All the rivers from the surrounding lands flow northward and into the Arctic Ocean. With a conventional map, which has the Arctic at its very top, you can’t help thinking that the rivers flow down to the south. But they don’t. All flow north, some from far-off Kazakhstan. You have to travel a long way south of the Arctic Circle to find the first rivers that flow in the other direction. This was a great annoyance to Stalin, who wanted his engineers to turn the Siberian rivers around so that they would water the arid south. In that he failed.

The Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Kotuy, Indigirka, and Kolyma rivers of Russia, along with the Mackenzie of Canada, give 10 percent of the world’s entire freshwater runoff to the Arctic Ocean, although it contains just 1 percent of the world’s seawater. The effect is dramatic. Freshwater spreads out in a shallow layer on the wide shelves fringing the land, where it freezes more easily than the salty water beneath. How this freshwater mixes with the salt and how it spreads farther into the Arctic turns out to have a big influence on the cap of Arctic sea ice. And how this huge pool of freshwater eventually drains into the Atlantic may have a profound effect on the world’s ocean circulation.

The rivers are critical for transport up into the Arctic, often providing the only route in for barges bearing heavy mining equipment. Once frozen, they provide some of the region’s best roads: the “ice roads” used by fearless truckers. I looked for other roads on the Arctic map, but I couldn’t find any. It turns out that there aren’t any. Outside of Alaska’s infamous Dalton Highway—the road that leads up to the northern oil fields from Fairbanks—Canada’s Dempster Highway and some roads in western Russia and Scandinavia where the climate is much milder, there are very few roads in the Arctic that lead anywhere other than around settlements. This does not necessarily blunt the desire to own an automobile. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, has more automobiles per head than anywhere outside the United States, even though it is only possible to drive around town, a favorite pastime of its residents.

Travel in the Arctic is by plane, and most routes head north-south, except for Greenland, whose only air links lead back to its colonial roots in Denmark and Iceland. Our polar map of the Arctic is thus profoundly misleading in one sense: it is a map you can’t really travel around; you can only easily slide off its edges. In 1921, the great Danish-Greenlandic ethnographer Knud Rasmussen traveled over two thousand miles by dogsled along with two Inuit friends, Miteq and Arnalrulunnguaq, from the east around the edge of the Arctic and on to Siberia. He wanted to visit all the Inuit of the world and show that they were one circumpolar people. The journey took sixteen months. Ninety years later, sled is still the only way to complete this journey.

Pipelines are not on this map either, not because they don’t exist, but because mapmakers don’t seem to have caught up with them. I had to ferret around more than a few energy companies before I could see a complete picture (and would have to pay a small fortune to reproduce them), but they are symbolic of much of the Arctic’s relation to the rest of the world. Pipelines run down from Alaska and out of Arctic Russia. Others may soon come down the Mackenzie Valley of Canada and from deep within Russia’s Barents Sea. While the people of the Arctic may be cut off from one another, the rich resources of oil and gas among which they live drain away to the populated south through thousands of miles of pipe.

The map is, of course, no substitute for the real Arctic, which is a place of profound and diverse beauty. Along the shores of Devon Island in Canada’s High North, great red-brown sandstone bluffs descend to the ice-filled sea. Here the Arctic is a desert. Over in Greenland, there are steep mountains and fjords and fast-flowing streams and the vast undulating plains of its great ice cap. Out on the ocean, in summer, there are just the shifting hues of the pale blue-gray sea, the passing ice floes, and a silence broken only by the breath of a passing whale, blown away by the wind while you are still wondering where it came from. All around the Arctic there is an endless rim of tundra, low-lying, covered in moss and lichen and alive with innumerable unnamed ponds and lakes and billions of hungry mosquitoes.1 Even here, the magic is profound, such that when you return to the city, full of people, you feel a peculiar sadness.




Chapter Two



I ARRIVED AT Grise Fiord on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the second week of August, which for me is high summer. Even so, the locals were surprised to see our ship. “Usually the ice doesn’t go until the middle or end of August,” they told us when we came ashore. “We’ve never seen a ship come in this early, ever.”

I knew that Grise Fiord was the most northerly community in the whole of Canada, home to just 160 people. But landing that first time, I understood nothing of Inuit life, nothing of Grise Fiord’s dark history.1 I didn’t yet grasp its importance in the struggle for the rights of the Inuit people, nor of the High North’s connection to an Inuit leader, John Amagoalik,2 whose work to bring self-government to the Inuit had helped create the vast new territory of Nunavut.

The houses of Grise Fiord run along the shoreline, trapped between a gravel beach, where wave-sculpted pieces of ice wash up in the surf, and the steep mountains behind. In August, veins of white snow fill the shadowed gullies in the mountainside, above a steep scree of loose rock that the winter freeze has broken from the slopes.

Approaching by sea, the eye first picks out the dull blue of a pair of giant fuel storage tanks. The wooden houses, painted white, pale blue, and shades of brown, sit on stilts to avoid contact with the frozen ground and blend into the colors of the vast landscape so well that they emerge only as the ship draws nearer.

On shore, among the houses, there is the familiar homely confusion that you’ll find in any self-reliant farming community down south, where no bit of machinery, piece of old timber, box, rope, or string is thrown away because someday it might come in handy. Instead of tractors there are snowmobiles and bits of snowmobile as well as innumerable sleds that can be towed behind them, some carrying a little wooden house designed to provide shelter out on the ice.

But that is as far as the similarities to southern communities go. This is a community of hunters, not farmers. Out along the beach and sitting among the houses are the fruits of the hunt: dead animals and bits of animals left out in what is, after all, a giant freezer. The head of a walrus sits on its fat, wrinkled neck. Its dark, liquid eyes are almost closed and stare straight up at the sky. The two pure white giant tusks, fringed with delicate hairs that would have helped sense clams on the sea bottom, are now material for local carvers. The skull of a polar bear with its massive incisors lies nearby. From below someone’s porch a couple of horned, furry musk ox heads look out at you with still-open eyes. Further along the beach there is the head of a narwhal, sitting in a pool of its congealed blood with its single, spiral lance pointing ten feet up into the sky. I had always wanted to see a narwhal, the inspiration for the mythical unicorn, but had never really expected my first encounter to be like this. Alongside are piles of seals, some still fresh and looking as if they might just be resting on the beach. Others have been cut up. Their gray and white dappled skins are stretched out on rectangular wooden frames and left propped up to dry on the beach while their flesh lies in bloody piles nearby.

A little later, I traveled back to Resolute, Canada’s second most northerly settlement, arriving soon after a beluga whale hunt had ended. The whales, favorites of aquaria down south, were hauled up on the beach. Their white outer skin had been peeled off, leaving a red-raw body. That top layer of skin and meat is a prized delicacy. Only the white head and the beluga’s famous smile was left intact. Just a couple of days earlier, I had seen hundreds of the same whales in the shallow waters of an inlet on Baffin Island. I had been sitting in a tiny boat in the shallows, watching their white shapes streak around and under my boat as they rubbed themselves along the gravel bottom to renew their pure white skin. That day was pure magic.

To meet them again, dead on the beach, was a shock, but there is more than one view of wild animals, as I gradually learned. A year or so later I was in Alaska and talking to some hunters about the tourists who come to Alaska to watch whales. “You know,” one of them said, “we really don’t much like people coming here to stare at our food.”

Even Inuit who no longer actively hunt still crave these “country foods” and have a special attachment to them. George Edwardson, president of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a huge stretch of the most northern part of Alaska that includes the famous whaling community of Barrow as well as many big oil developments, explained it to me this way: “The ocean is what feeds us. There is fat in the animals that live in the ocean that gives them the ability to live in the cold. We have learned as a people to borrow that fat from the animals of the sea, and that has given us the power to live in this environment.”3

Country foods and all the tools of the hunting life are obvious signs of the link between the Inuit and the land and connect back to a time, only one or two generations ago, when success at the hunt was essential to survival. So too was sharing. A successful hunter would expect to distribute the spoils of the hunt among relatives and the wider community. Sharing remains an important part of Inuit culture, I learned as I talked to hunters. The Arctic Council’s Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic says the same.4 In Alaska, “most products of hunting, fishing, and gathering do not enter the market economy,” it notes. “Rather, subsistence products are directly consumed by the harvesting household, given away or exchanged. Money buys snow machines, gas, and ammunition.” In places where many people have jobs and few now hunt, the selling of country foods in markets, rather than their exchange through networks of friends and relations, can still be controversial. In Iqaluit, the Canadian north’s largest town, there was a long debate over whether markets that sold country foods should be encouraged. The worry was that the fruit of the hunt would become “just meat” and lose its cultural value of cementing relationships among people.

On that first visit to Grise Fiord I also began to learn that this small place and its neighbor at Resolute share a darker story, one that is critical to understanding the past and the future of the Inuit. In these communities, the long relationship between the white men who ruled Canada and the Inuit hunters of the Arctic entered its final phase before a transformation in which Inuit began to take control over their own affairs. In the history of these northern settlements are some of the worst examples of colonial paternalism as well as some of the proudest testaments to Inuit qanuqtuurniq (resourcefulness) and piliriqatigiinniq (capacity to work together for a common cause). The story of Inuit survival at Grise Fiord and Resolute is now taught in northern schools to foster these and other critical values of Inuit culture.

Grise Fiord is not an old community, as I naively assumed when I landed there, but was created in 1953 as a result of a government plan to relocate Inuit into the very northernmost part of the Canadian Arctic. Some thirty-five Inuit families were told to move 1,400 miles north by ship from their settlement at Inukjuak (formerly Port Harrison) in northern Quebec, along with sixteen people who were picked up on route from Baffin Island, to two new settlements, one at Resolute on Cornwallis Island, and one farther north, at Craig Harbour on Ellesmere Island. The Craig Harbour settlement was later moved a little west to Grise Fiord.

Government records show that the move was motivated by the need to bolster Canada’s claim to the High Arctic. No Canadians lived here. In the 1950s, with the Cold War in progress and U.S. early warning stations being built throughout the Arctic, the Canadian government was growing anxious about demonstrating its sovereignty. Moving Inuit up to the High North would be a cheap way to show the flag, as they would be able to live off the land and require fewer of the facilities that would have had to be provided if white people were sent.

This is not what the Inuit families were told. The government explanation was: “This is a purely voluntary migration. . . . Under this scheme Eskimos are moved from poor hunting areas to regions where game supplies and other necessities of Arctic life are more readily available.” Forty years later this “purely voluntary migration” was found by a Royal Commission to have been “one of the worst human rights violations in the history of Canada.” No one consulted Inuit about what was best for them. Their fear of white people kept them obedient to the orders of government officials.

John Amagoalik was just five years old when his family was moved up to Resolute. A year or so after I visited the High North, I tracked him down at the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in Iqaluit where he now works as Director of Land and Resources. He kindly gave me some time to chat on the phone about the past and future of Nunavut. Amagoalik is popularly known as the “father of Nunavut” for the twenty-five years he spent negotiating the territory’s creation. “I didn’t ask for the title,” he says, “but it makes me proud.”

He remembers vividly the relocation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers coming to his camp to persuade his parents that they must move to a place where the hunting would be better, the long journey north by ship up the coast of Baffin Island and the terrible news that their extended families were to be split between two locations.

“They described this new place in very glowing terms, but it turned out to be just the opposite of what we were told,” recalls Amagoalik, “and they agreed to two conditions that we insisted on, the first was that we would be allowed to return home if we didn’t like this new place, and secondly we would all stay together as one group. Those two promises were broken even before the year was over. When we were told our families were to be separated the women were upset and crying. I remember that the dogs started howling; that always happened when there was sadness in the family, because they were very close to us.”

When they arrived at their new homes, the landscape was totally unfamiliar. Game was scarce. They had the wrong clothing, the wrong hunting equipment, and many of the promised government supplies had not arrived. They had to live in tents and hunt at a desperate speed to get in stocks for the approaching winter, when temperatures would fall to -50°C. The winter was a time of unremitting horror, when shortage of food forced them to hunt out on the ice in the twenty-four-hour darkness that in this extreme northern latitude lasts from October to March.

Among the people who went to Craig Harbour from Inukjuak was a man called Paddy Aqiatusuk who was both an expert hunter and an exceptionally skillful carver.

After a year passed, Aqiatusuk (also known by his Inuit name of Akeeaktashuk) died. Forced to hunt with his nine-year-old daughter out on the ice in the winter dark, he is said to have gradually lost the will to live. Eventually he died in a slip from an ice floe. Nothing could illustrate the powerlessness of Inuit more strongly. Aqiatusuk died at a time when his carvings, sold through intermediaries, were being exhibited in Europe and America as the works of a master. One of his works was used to illustrate a Canadian 3-cent stamp the very year that he died. Abandoned and deceived in the High Arctic, struggling to feed his family, he knew little of the value being placed on his work by “Eskimo primitive art” collectors, nor would he ever have imagined that he had achieved such celebrity that Time magazine would carry an announcement of his death, describing the “fluent, uncluttered simplicity” of his work just under an announcement of the young actress Audrey Hepburn’s wedding.5 Museums throughout the world hold his carvings now.