Coming out of the natural sciences closet: remembering the human component of the Arctic ecosystem

Text and pictures by Kyra St. Pierre, University of Alberta, Canada

Natural scientists are trained to see an ecosystem as the sum of its parts, a complicated fabric that only stays together if all the threads are intact. Coming from a very sparsely populated country, one critical thread that I often neglect (and I am certain that I am not alone among natural scientists) is the human component of the arctic ecosystem. Just as polar bears, muskoxen, and snowgeese call the Arctic home, so too do people in each of the 8 Arctic countries. Although I have always known this to be true, the two weeks of Arctic Frontiers put a spotlight on the people of the Arctic, the infrastructure and homes that they have built over centuries and will continue to develop, a reality that I am not soon to forget.

For me, one of the most powerful moments during the Arctic Frontiers Conference was when a young 17-year old high school student from Tromsø (picture below) addressed the assembled prime ministers, foreign ministers and business people from around the world (undoubtedly an anxiety-inducing audience for even the most experienced speakers!), eloquently demanding that they remember the people of the Arctic when waving their policy wands from the south. The “Arctic” capitals of Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Ottawa, Copenhagen, Washington, and Moscow (except for Reykjavik) are far removed from the realities of the North and yet decisions made in these relatively southern locales have profound consequences on the people of the Arctic. I was warmed by the frequent use of the term “arctic neighbourhood” when describing relationships between regions, a much cozier and grounded narrative to international relations than is typically portrayed in the media!


This theme continued throughout the conference and workshop, as we learned of the Arctic region’s role during international conflicts (spoiler: no serious conflict to date has been about the Arctic), the long history of the fishing industry in northern Norway, and the future of arctic governance in an increasingly globalized world.


Fishing nets in Svolvær


Stockfish drying in the elements

The lecture by Paul Wassman on board the MS Nordkapp about the ethnic mosaic of northern Norway was particularly eye-opening to me. Northern Norway is a relatively small area of the global Arctic and yet it alone is home to a surprising diversity of peoples (Norwegian, Sami, Kven) who have shaped the region into what it is today. If you consider that each Arctic country is home to its own unique mosaic of peoples, then the Arctic region as a whole isn’t just a fabric but an intricate tapestry, which will continue to evolve as it has for centuries.

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