One Last Dispatch From a Changing Arctic - Pacific Standard

One Last Dispatch From a Changing Arctic

The North is a dynamic, fast-changing region, one that lives up to its stereotypes one day and then utterly confounds them the next.
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Looking north on the Yukon River. (Photo: Keith Williams/Flickr)

Looking north on the Yukon River. (Photo: Keith Williams/Flickr)

When I try to picture the "changing Arctic," I see a lot of different things: high-tech greenhouses engineered for growing fresh vegetables above the tree line; food trucks featuring the cuisines of the world, hawking their wares during the brief and glorious Northern summer; those stark photographs from a couple years back of another freakishly snowless Iditarod; my own small city, Whitehorse, issuing grizzly bear alerts to its citizens via Twitter; a prefab mosque being trucked and barged north for thousands of miles; data tables showing rising temperatures and shrinking sea ice.

In other words, as I've said countless times since beginning this project: It's complicated.

In launching this column 12 months ago, I set out "to report on environmental issues in Alaska and northern Canada with an emphasis on local views and local expertise, local conflicts and local activism." I think I've managed that. I've recommended top northern Twitter users and great northern literature, delved into a major Yukon land management court case, and explored why, in Inuktitut, "the closest thing" to a swear word is "Greenpeace." I've also talked to scientists and experts about new Arctic hybrid species, thawing permafrost, microbes that can clean up contaminated mine sites, waste management in a fly-in city, the poop problem on Denali, and more.

Can the Arctic really be both a "pristine wilderness" and a place where humans have lived, traveled, and left their mark for generations upon generations?

There's a lot more of this type of work to be done. Interest in the Arctic is intensifying around the world, but that doesn't mean the voices of its residents are being heard: More often than not, in fact, they're ignored entirely, or drowned out by the growing chatter from down south. (I enjoyed the spectacle of the Seattle "kayaktivists" blockading Shell's Alaska-bound drill rig as much as anyone else, but I did wonder how many of them had thought to ask the Inupiat—whose home waters the kayakers were claiming to protect—for their views on the whole thing.)

In the past few weeks, northerners have seen a classic brewery close its doors in Alaska, and a new one open up in the Northwest Territories. They've seen a beautiful photograph and an accidentally hilarious public health campaign travel through the Internet and around the world. Syrian refugees have arrived, and a city council in Alaska confronted the possibility of transporting commercial marijuana by dog sled. (Really!)

The North is a dynamic, fast-changing region, one that lives up to its stereotypes one day and then utterly confounds them the next—and it's more than just igloos and dog-sleds.

If you're fascinated by the Arctic (and the adjoining sub-Arctic, which is more frequently what we're actually talking about when we refer broadly to the frozen north) I would encourage you to seek out southern media outlets that source work from northern writers, reporters, and photographers, or that send southern-based journalists north on assignment to do real on-the-ground reporting, or, at the very least, who pick up the phone and call Alaska, or Nunavut, or Greenland. (You'd be amazed, once you start looking for it, at how many stories about the region fail to quote even a single person from the region.) Better yet, follow local media: Read the Alaska Dispatch News, the Yukon News, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Nunatsiaq News, and Up Here magazine. Tune into CBC North and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Examine your assumptions. Can the Arctic really be both a "pristine wilderness" and a place where humans have lived, traveled, and left their mark for generations upon generations? Can the Arctic belong to—and have its future shaped by—both the world as a whole and the people who actually live there?

While you're at it, check out the dog-sledding scene too; it's pretty fun.

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