What Is the Arctic?

Fifteen years ago I spent some time in Antarctica. Its geographical unity and unownedness attracted the younger me, as did the lack of an indigenous human presence, and the inability to sustain terrestrial life. It was a metaphor for a terra incognita, an image of an alternate and better world. I was prejudiced against the complicated, life-infested North. Time passed, and in 2002 I traveled briefly with the Sámi, as Lapps are more properly known, and their reindeer. I started thinking about the collar of lands around the Arctic Ocean. Fragmentation, disputed ownership, indigenous populations immobilized on the threshold of change—those very things Antarctica lacked appealed to the older me. Especially fragmentation. When I thought about the Arctic, in my mind’s eye I glimpsed an elegy for the uncertainties and doubts that are the chaperones of age. Was the Arctic a counterweight to the Antarctic? Or was it just a frozen mirror image, and I who had changed?

The Arctic is our neighbor, part of us. What could be less romantic? And the world seems a wearier place than it did a decade and a half ago. It is the Arctic that captures the spirit of the times. The Arctic is the lead player in the drama of climate change, and polar bears are its poster boys. So I went. On a speck of land in the northern reaches of the Arctic Ocean, the encircling water chaotic with floes, I heard a snow bunting sing. Not a single songbird breeds on the Antarctic continent. The sweet trill of the small black-and-white bird brought the Arctic to life.

Where is the Arctic? An ocean surrounded by continents, and an indistinct geographical zone. The top part—the High Arctic—is a dazzling hinterland where myth and history fuse, a white Mars. The Haughton Crater on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic hosts camps of Martian aficionados testing potential housing in preparation for man’s arrival on the red planet (“This is as close to Mars as we can get,” one of them told me). The southern limits of the Arctic are movable feasts. Some people—such as the farmers in northern Sweden and Finland who wish to claim EU Arctic farming subsidies—consider that the Arctic Circle at 66°33’ constitutes the frontier. In Canada the definition fails, as swaths of typical Arctic territory (permafrost, permanent ice cover, absence of topsoil and significant vegetation, polar bears, all of these) lie well south of the Arctic Circle. Sixty-six degrees simply marks the point at which the sun fails to set at the summer solstice (June 21) or to rise at the winter solstice (December 21); climatological and other factors produce divergent conditions at different points on the Circle. The Gulf Stream warms the oceans and the surrounding air to create clement conditions for the subsidy-claiming Scandinavian farmers, and in Finland the viviparous lizard thrives north of the Arctic Circle, whereas parts of the sub-Arctic are colder than any other inhabited place on earth. * The residents of Oymyakon in the Sakha Republic three degrees outside the Arctic Circle once recorded a temperature of − 97.8°F, a level at which trees explode with a sound like gunfire and exhaled breath falls to the ground in a tinkle of crystals. In addition, some cartographers and politicians use the isothermal line to define the Arctic, thus including all the places where the long-term mean temperature of the warmest month is below 14°F.

I think the southern boundary of the Arctic is most appropriately defined by a combination of the tree line and the southern limit of continuous permafrost on land, and by the average extent of winter pack ice at sea.

Since 1900 the mean global temperature has risen by 1.08°F. In the Arctic, the figure is 3.6–5.4°. But there is still a lot of ice. In July 2008 I took a Russian icebreaker across the Arctic Ocean and stood day after day on the bridge with the captain and we watched the cutaway prow smashing through thousands of tons of it. The extent of the ice is not the only critical issue. Unlike the Southern Ocean, which swirls around the Antarctic, the Arctic Ocean is more or less enclosed—what marine geographers call a mediterranean sea. Most of the water that leaves flows through a deep channel southwest of the Faroe Islands (it carves through a row of transatlantic sills). In this gap, cold, salty water from the Arctic moves south beneath warm, fresher water traveling north from the tropics. Various “pump” sites in the Greenland Sea shift these warm and cold currents around the planet. As glaciers melt and water flowing from the Arctic becomes less salty, the pumps could lose power, and a growing body of data indicates that they will turn off altogether. Or will the Siberian permafrost break down first and release tides of carbon dioxide and methane as well as baby mammoths still sporting their ginger hair? Either way, the survival of civilization as we know it hangs on what happens in the Arctic. Anxiety, panic, concern, and skepticism have inflamed the public imagination. As we powered through the ice, I asked the captain what he thought about the Big Melt. He looked out over the splitting white, took a deep drag on his Troika cigarette, and yelled over the racket of six engines, “I not know.”

Scientists, for the most part, don’t know either. I spent many weeks hunched over holes in the Greenland ice sheet or hauling samples from the slimy bottom of an Alaskan lake. As far as possible, I tried to enter the minds of individual researchers to see what made them creative. My own mind was open. History reveals many periods of cooling and warming, and I learned that the science is more dramatic than media headlines indicate, as well as a million times more complicated, nuanced, and uncertain. In many respects, we do not know how ecosystems will respond to climate change. The Arctic has been the locus for Armageddon two generations in a row now. It was the front line of the Cold War, with both sides pouring money into long-range nuclear bomber installations and lone figures crouching on floes straining to hear enemy subs (or was that a ringed seal scratching its back?). Nuclear holocaust, then apocalyptic climate change: something about the region attracts millennial anxiety. What does the Arctic tell us about our past? What does it reveal of the future?

Besides climate panic, the emergence of the Arctic as an energy frontier has similarly shunted the region into public consciousness. The Arctic already produces about a tenth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its gas. As you read this, geologists and paleontologists from many nations are chipping indicator fossils from bedrock to locate more. Hydrocarbon extraction is set to remain an economic driver across the polar regions, and issues around the exploitation of natural resources came up again and again during my travels: hard-rock mining as well as oil and gas (a hard-rock mine excavates ores from which metals are extracted). Everybody wants what the Arctic has, and as a result, shortly after I started working on The Magnetic North, a simmering international row about ownership boiled over onto the front pages. All five polar nations—Denmark, Norway, Russia, Canada, and the United States—set about proving that their continental shelves extend far to the north under the waters of the Arctic Ocean. This, they hope, will secure navigation rights over mineral reserves beneath the seabed.

In July 2007 a Russian nuclear submarine sent a diver to drill a titanium flag into the bedrock under the North Pole itself, a gesture that made the Pole as Russian as gold teeth. The Canadian prime minister rushed up to his bit of the Arctic to express comparable views. In Chukotka, the back end of Siberia and a region the size of Turkey that Russia had forgotten, President Medvedev stepped out of his helicopter onto the tundra in 2008 to pat a reindeer and listen to some pleasant Chukchi folk songs in a local school. (I was there!) He was the first Russian head of state to bother; no czar had ever come within a thousand miles of Chukotka. Five days previously, in a speech on Arctic policy to the Security Council in Moscow, Medvedev had flagged the reason for his visit. “This region,” he said, “accounts for around 20 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product and 22 percent of our national exports. … Experts estimate that the Arctic continental shelf could contain around a quarter of the world’s hydrocarbon resources.” The main issue, Medvedev insisted, “is that of reliably protecting our national interests in the region.”

The Arctic Science Division of the University of Alaska Fairbanks invited me to its research facility at 68°N and even offered a seat in a truck on a delivery run from Fairbanks. Soon enough, I found myself riding the Haul Road, the only route through Arctic Alaska. I was in the passenger seat, and next to me behind the wheel sat Jeannie, an Idaho-born outdoorswoman, once an oil worker on the rigs, now an employee of the university maintenance crew. The metropolis of Wiseman (population twenty-one) loomed out of the tundra. A layer of porridge ice rustled on a river abutted by vegetable gardens and cabins sprouting solar panels. But the mountainous silhouette in the background brought back the words of Bob Marshall. One of the few frontiersmen who left a record, Marshall settled in Wiseman and wrote about the Arctic Divide in prose that will last until the glaciers return to the North Slope.

Born in 1901 in New York City, Marshall spent childhood summers roaming the Adirondacks before going on to train as a plant physiologist and forester, rising to the position of chief of recreation and lands in the U.S. Forest Service. He made four trips to Arctic Alaska in the thirties, studying tree growth at the northern timberline. Deeply engaged with the conflict between wilderness subjugation and wilderness preservation, Marshall wrote of “the emotional values of the frontier” and urged conservation, not development. Some places should remain unknown: as Will Ladislaw had declared in Middlemarch, they must be “preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.” The 1930s is more foreign than the Arctic now, but Marshall’s plea to conserve polar wilderness resonates as clearly as it did when he was crawling over spring ice to wrap a tape measure around a spruce trunk.

Marshall’s bestselling Arctic Village told of fifteen months based in a cabin in Wiseman. At that time it took two weeks to get from New York to Fairbanks, and from there Marshall flew the last leg. When he returned to Wiseman for a second visit, the hundred residents—a mix of whites, Inupiat, and Athabascans—held a dance at the roadhouse in his honor. In Wiseman, Marshall found beauty, tolerance, and freedom that compensated for the many things lacking at the roadhouse store. He was attracted, he said, by “the glamorous mystery of unknown worlds.” Marshall writes of hooking grayling twenty inches long, of siwashing (bivouacking without a tent), of dining on grizzly steaks and moose tongue, of knocking off first ascents, unpacking his dendrograph after wading through nine feet of the previous winter’s snow in August, naming mountains and gulches and marveling at his luck in finding paradise. He describes diving headfirst into his sleeping bag to change a film in the dark, cooking biscuits in the midnight twilight, hauling his raft across Squaw Rapids, then hiking back to Wiseman to read about the Depression in a four-month-old copy of Time. When it rained, he lay in his tent reading Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, enough to send a normal man into a coma on Fifth Avenue, let alone at the headwaters of the Koyukuk. In the winter he went mushing, starting out from Wiseman in the starlight, cooking cornmeal for the dogs, trampling soft snow down with snowshoes to make camp, cutting spruce boughs on which to set his stove. The maps he made, some published by the USGS, are works of art. There weren’t any roads to draw, but a delicate network of streams and rivers that resemble, on the page, the microscopic vessels in a pair of lungs in an anatomy book. When Marshall first arrived, Wiseman was dominated by gold diggers from 1898 who had stayed on. Some were snipers, men who reworked old mining ground. It was always the failures who stayed.

A modest man immeasurably moved by what he called “the humility of grandeur,” Marshall died of a heart attack on a train from Washington to New York when he was thirty-nine. “Exploration,” he had written, “is perhaps the greatest aesthetic experience a human being can know.” The Arctic had attracted so much shoe-eating that one could lose sight of the spiritual exhilaration of exploration, and I was happy, in Alaska, to be reminded of it by Bob Marshall.

Shortly after Wiseman the valleys deepened and the forest capitulated to semi-iced North Slope tundra. Northern harriers and rough-legged hawks circled above a flock of wild Dall sheep on the steepest hillside. Jeannie gunned the truck into the foothills of the Brooks Range, the seven-hundred-mile limestone uplift that arcs across Alaska, the end of a spine that starts with the Andes and surges north as the Mexican cordilleras and the Rockies. Here its mountains mark the border between the Arctic North Slope and the Yukon River drainage—what some call the Arctic Divide. It was Marshall’s country, the land he had skewered so lyrically in words. And I saw what he had seen. Behind the first row of low hills, blunt eight-thousand-footers rose in waves, deeply incised by broad, U-shaped glacial valleys. White birch skirted the lower slopes, while patches of snow remained in sheltered spots just above. As we crested the first pass, a Japanese cyclist whizzed by, head down and upturned eyes murderous with misery. You have to admire a man who has pedaled through the Brooks Range. But I wished he had looked as if he were enjoying himself.

The Brooks’s limestone needles shot into cirrus cloud, proportion subordinated to the height imperative, as in an El Greco painting. Jeannie had become more voluble as we approached journey’s end. She had started to shout out the name on each sign. The road builders were keen on signage, and the forks of the rivers were capable of infinite subdivision, facilitating a maximum number of marker posts. “The West Fork of the North Fork of the Chandalar River!” Jeannie yelled. As an act of preparation for the descent waiting on the other side of the highest pass, she got out to lock our hubs—putting the vehicle into two-wheel drive, effectively—thereby gaining traction. For the first time, full slopes of ice foreshadowed the big freeze. The highway dropped away steeply on either side. Jeannie climbed back into the cab. The sun was setting, the sky painted rosy pink. When the valley was in shadow, level sunbeams continued to pour onto the white higher slopes in an effect of ravishing beauty, and the ice reflected and refracted purple light like cut crystal. Then all except the tips became dead white, and we experienced the transfiguration of alpenglow. When the shadows crept higher and submerged both slopes and ridges, alpenglow still lingered on the highest peaks, until eventually these too were quenched, glowing points going out like stars. We had crossed the Arctic Divide.

Half an hour later we trundled into polar flatlands. Jeannie bantered about road conditions over the radio with a passing trucker. She suggested that wheel chains would be required in a few days. “Yep,” agreed her interlocutor. “Reckon it’s the last time we’ll go barefoot this year.” Then we passed no one for fifty miles, and we both fell silent, woozy with the heady emptiness of the road and the fug of the cab.

We spent the night in a Deadhorse blockhouse. Disintegrating volumes of soft porn stood in chronological order on a shelf in my room, a bathetic end to the greatest road trip on earth. In the morning I took a walk before breakfast. Deadhorse was a ratty ex–mining settlement of the central-casting variety, just fifteen miles from the holy springs of Prudhoe Bay, Pump Station Number 1, and the high-security “Pad” housing fourteen hundred BP workers. You could faintly see industrial smoke trails in the sky over the horizon, emanating, according to Jeannie, from stacks burning off not oil, but gas. For three decades people had been talking about plans for an ambitious but as yet nonexistent gas pipeline all the way down to Chicago. As for Deadhorse, it was a dead loss. “Best thing about it,” Jeannie had told me in advance, “is the cat at the general store.” At the store, where the cat was not in evidence, we drank weak coffee to fortify us. An odor of frankfurters leaked from behind the clapboard partition separating the public part of the store from its private recesses. The natural light beyond the windowpanes was bright, but the gloomy room required the illumination of a weak and shadeless overhead bulb that dangled at eye level, threatening to clout the careless customer.

“What keeps you here?” I asked Jeannie as we drained our coffee and prepared to leave. “It’s not what’s here,” she said. “It’s what’s not here.”

Click here to read a slide show  on arctic life.

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Correction, Feb. 25, 2011: This article originally stated that parts of the sub-Arctic are colder than anywhere on earth. In fact, they are colder than any other inhabited place. (Return to the corrected)