Profiles of Norwegian science: Writing the book on “Arcticness”

An Arctic landscape.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Norway’s high north or Arctic?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

We all have a concept of the Arctic. For those who have rarely or never been there, it might be seen as cold, remote, harsh, and bleak expanses of land and ice. For those from or living in the Arctic, it is about life, livelihood, and identity.

To explore and understand different perspectives, we created the book Arcticness. It has just been published by UCL Press in London, UK, and is a free PDF download. The volume includes two Norwegian contributions.

In a powerful preface, Ingrid A. Medby writes about growing up in Norway’s northern latitudes. She points to the importance of language: “Northern Norway is now frequently referred to as ‘the High North’ [‘nord­områdene’ in Norwegian, translating literally as ‘the northern areas’].”

Words matter. Medby describes her uncertainty when her word processor indicates that “Arcticness” itself is a spelling error. Yet she knows the word exists with deep meaning for her. To resolve this conundrum, she adds it to her computer’s dictionary, with the paradox of formally creating something that already exists as part of her.

Arcticness book cover.

Marius Warg Næss produces a full scientific chapter on reindeer herding. He deftly compares the north of Norway with mountainous Tibet, focusing on the privatization of pastures. He uses his data to explore the implications for Arcticness.

Næss writes “while anthropology has had a long tradition of documenting different ideas of what ‘is’ and how to ‘be,’ it has always been firmly rooted in the idea of a common humanity shared by all people in all cultures.” Drawing on insights gleaned from comparing his two research locations, he questions the relevance of Arcticness.

The contrasts between Næss and Medby personify the book, which aimed for diversity. Contributions include full-length academic chapters, shorter perspectives from Arctic peoples, two poems, and one illustrated chapter about the Canadian government forcing indigenous peoples into residential schools.

Many disciplines join forces. Geophysicists write with radar engineers about measuring Arctic ice. A chapter on energy justice sits alongside one on marine mammal law. Comparative analysis of “what might have been” for extractive industries balances that of “what does happen” within resource narratives.

A range of Arcticness thoughts emerges, matching the various views of what the Arctic actually is. Different definitions demarcate the region: North of the treeline, north of the Arctic Circle, and all countries with territory above the Arctic Circle. If we cannot agree on where the region is, how do we analyze it?

Arcticness embraces all these viewpoints, representing the frontiers of science by melding ideas, topics, and writing styles. This could be achieved for any location. Why does the Arctic capture and enrapture imagination?

Svalbard remains embedded in Norwegian identity as the mystical, magical archipelago at the top of the country and of the world. It is a place to aspire to travel to, representing climate change, isolation, 24 hours of sunlight and darkness, and polar bears.

The polar bear depicting the Arctic is rejected elsewhere. Many indigenous peoples are fed up with a bear on an ice floe or a whale tail personifying their land, their communities, and their cultures. Instead, change is about human beings.

As with privatization and residential schools—in fact, as with climate change and the creation of Arctic identities—so much change is foisted on Arctic peoples. Even Arcticness as a construction and discussion presumes that a common Arctic feeling exists or could exist from Vardø to Grise Fiord and from Murmansk to Fairbanks.

Perhaps too many people wish to make the Arctic meaningful for people outside. The region becomes treated as a playground. Some interests are just waiting for the Arctic to change sufficiently for them to move in and exploit it.

Others claim ownership of the Arctic for humanity, demanding that it be made “hands off.” If you live in the Arctic, how could it be hands off for you?

In the end, no matter what Arcticness is and is not, no matter what outsiders try to form and shape, one untransferable trait dominates: the Arctic as home.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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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.