The Arctic story is tragedy—and triumph

Profiles of Norwegian science

Norwegian Arctic story

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Magerøya, as far north as Norway’s mainland reaches.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Norway as an Arctic state has seen its share of northern tragedy. The polar hero Roald Amundsen disappeared over the Barents Sea in 1928 while searching for the stranded Umberto Nobile and his team. In 2012, a Royal Norwegian Air Force airplane crashed into Sweden’s highest mountain while on a training exercise, killing the five Norwegian military officers on board.

The Arctic witnesses Norway caught up in the region’s geopolitical games. Strategies frequently focus on assumptions of a brutally competitive race for resources alongside the threat of violent conflict. Many would attest to fossil fuel exploration and extraction as an Arctic tragedy, while others seek it for staving off the tragedies of unemployment and rural decay.

While tragedy is often legitimately highlighted in the northern lands, the Arctic story for Norway is not just trials and tribulations embracing death and doom. There is much to celebrate, promoting triumphs of what the Arctic brings to the country and the world.

The indigenous Sámi offer so much through their knowledge of the land, the waters, and the weather. Reindeer husbandry is prominent, but the Sámi are diverse, including coastal Sámi who are more attuned to fish than ruminants.

Amundsen preceded his fatal tragedy with a triple triumph. His best-known accomplishment is being first to reach the South Pole in 1911. He is also the first person recorded to navigate the Northwest Passage, completed in 1906, and seems likely to have had the first verifiable arrival at the North Pole when he and others flew over it in 1926.

To better identify and interpret the relevance of “Arctic Triumph,” we have just published a book by that name. Led by Finland-based Arctic researcher Nikolas Sellheim, I joined Russian Yulia V. Zaika to edit science and stories of a positive Arctic—an Arctic contributing more to humanity than cold, danger, fossil fuels, tourism, climate change signals, and shipping routes. In doing so, Norway reveals many Arctic triumphs.

Identity and culture feature prominently. Norway’s Arcticness is born not simply from its territory in the north, but also from the peoples who search for and enjoy the Arctic as home. Much of Norway is imbued with Arctic identity, drawing strength from it.

These triumphs of the present lead to triumphs of the past. As more is uncovered about Norway’s history of cultural identity and heritage in the northern latitudes, more is understood about the indigenous and non-indigenous legacies of the landscapes. We gain knowledge of humanity and ourselves, essential for addressing the major social and environmental changes experienced in Norway’s high latitudes.

Natural heritage emerges too. Balanced with a drive to exploit Arctic resources and increasing tourism, Norway has protected some natural heritage in conjunction with some Sámi rights to the land. The situations are complex and rife with conflict, yet the positive examples demonstrate that triumph is not merely a distant dream.

The presence of these discussions is part of the triumph. Southern interests do not run rampant across the Arctic, flattening other perspectives to serve those outside the region. Scientists no longer have free reign to create fetishes of indigenous knowledge or to label the Sámi as quaintly “resilient” because they thrive in the Arctic.

Yet the aim of highlighting these triumphs through science is not to seduce the world regarding a benign and cuddly Arctic. After all, many still perish in its rough waters or from avalanches or cold. We have good reasons why Arctic search-and-rescue and emergency responses occur so frequently and are so dangerous! Meanwhile, rights of indigenous Arctic peoples are still being horrendously violated. The science of Arctic Triumph merely balances real catastrophe with opportunity and inspiration.

So the Arctic contributes to Norway and Norway contributes to the Arctic—and both proffer plenty to the rest of the globe. Especially in terms of learning how to investigate and find your own triumphs.

The book Arctic Triumph is at

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.