The Arctic Circle is the northernmost place on the Earth and a point of fascination for humans over the years. Due to its remote location and extreme climate, few humans reside within its borders even today and traveling it is a risky proposition, requiring training and advanced equipment. However, the discovery of swathes of natural resources in the Arctic Circle combined with the growing importance of the Northwest Passage have ignited a new rush to partake in the region’s riches.
The Arctic Circle stretches across the territory of seven nations: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the United States. In this article, you will learn about the Arctic Circle in the U.S. and Canada: its history, economy, significance, and more. While the North American portion of the Arctic Circle is sparsely inhabited compared to its Eurasian portion, it still forms an important part of the region’s history.
The Arctic Circle in Alaska
The Arctic Circle stretches across the northern third of Alaska, taking in the North Slope, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and a number of other important landmarks. It is home to Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), the largest city in the North American Arctic Circle, boasting a population of 4,000. It is also economically important to the U.S. due to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, which make up a significant portion of domestic oil output. While not located within the Arctic Circle itself, the city of Fairbanks acts as a service center for the region.
The Alaskan Arctic Circle has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for generations, such as the Iñupiat. The region’s extreme climate precludes the growth of vegetation, meaning that most indigenous peoples lived as nomads, subsisting off of hunting, fishing, whaling, and trapping. Due to the difficulty of traversing both the Arctic Ocean and the lands of the Alaskan interior, most indigenous peoples had little contact with the outside world prior to the age of colonization that began in the 1400’s and 1500’s.
Alaska was initially colonized by the Russian Empire as part of their eastward expansion, though Russians never settled in the region in large numbers due to its distance. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States in order to pay off war debts it accumulated in the Crimean War and the fear that they would be unable to defend it in a war with the British. At the time, the Alaska Purchase was largely ignored by the American public, though critics derided it as “Seward’s Folly,” referring to Secretary of State William Seward, who had been responsible for the purchase.
Alaska remained sparsely populated until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, which brought many miners to both Alaska and neighboring Yukon hoping to strike it rich. However, the actual Arctic region of the territory remained ignored due to its perceived uselessness and the difficulty of traveling there. Nonetheless, resource exploitation in other parts of the state laid the foundations for future settlement in the Arctic.
As early as the early 1800’s, it was suspected that Alaska’s North Slope held large quantities of oil. The Iñupiat had been using oil-saturated peat in the area as a fuel source for generations, referring to it as “pitch.” Thomas Simpson, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, noted oil seepages along the North Slope during an expedition in 1836. Interest in the North Slope intensified in the 1920’s, as the U.S. Navy’s transition from coal-fired to oil-dependent ships meant that the country needed new sources of petroleum.
A number of small-scale expeditions and surveys were carried out during the 1920’s in hopes of discovering oil in Prudhoe Bay. These expeditions failed to discover the seepages and the project remained dormant until World War II, when the U.S. military needed new sources of oil. A number of oil fields were found during this period, including the Alpine Oil Field, but they were deemed too costly to develop.
In 1957, the Richfield Oil Corporation succeeded in drilling an oil well near Kenai, in southern Alaska. The success of the oil field, later dubbed the Swanson River Oil Field, inspired a new flurry of development in the region. In 1968, an oil drilling crew succeeded in drilling two wells in Prudhoe Bay, confirming the presence of oil and natural gas. The Prudhoe Bay Oil Field was determined to be the largest in North America and the 18th largest in the world.
With oil discovered in the Alaskan Arctic Circle, attention turned to how to extract it. Sending oil tankers directly to Prudhoe Bay was not feasible due to both the bay’s remote location and large amounts of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean making ship transportation dangerous. Additionally, the sparse population of the North Slope meant there were no ports or facilities that could service these ships.
It was eventually determined that the best solution would be to construct a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the state’s southern coast, which would eventually be dubbed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Finished in 1977, the Pipeline connects the North Slope to the port at Valdez, allowing easy access for oil tankers.
The development of Prudhoe Bay spurred a new wave of development and settlement in the Alaskan Arctic Circle, with a swelling population of workers and new highways such as the Dalton Highway built to connect the region with the North American road network. To this day, Prudhoe Bay and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System form a crucial cornerstone of Alaska’s economy and culture. The latter has also become a major tourist site, drawing thousands of visitors every year.
The Alaskan Arctic Circle is also a hub of American military history. During World War II, military bases were constructed throughout the region to deal with the Japanese threat, and during the later Cold War, many listening posts were built in the area to monitor Soviet activity. With international interest in the Arctic intensifying, the U.S. has retained a military presence in the region.
The Arctic Circle in Canada
While less developed than the Alaskan portion of the Arctic Circle, the Canadian Arctic has retained a special cultural significance for Canadians due to the country’s history as an Arctic country. Canada holds the lion’s share of Arctic territory in North America, stretching over 1.3 million square miles across three territories: Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Canada’s portion of the Arctic Circle is usually referred to as Northern Canada.
Like Alaska, the Canadian Arctic has been inhabited by indigenous groups for millennia, such as the Inuit. While the Vikings conducted limited exploration and settlement of the area in the Middle Ages, large-scale European colonization did not begin until the 1500’s, when England and other countries sent explorers to the region to map the Northwest Passage. A fabled all-water connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, attempts to traverse the Arctic Ocean were unsuccessful due to large amounts of sea ice making travel dangerous.
In 1670, England granted the Hudson’s Bay Company a commercial monopoly on trade in the region, who subsequently reorganized the territory as Rupert’s Land. Rupert’s Land did not extend across the entire Canadian Arctic; while it consisted of much of modern-day Nunavut, it also incorporated large portions of the modern Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, as well as the entirety of the province of Manitoba and parts of the U.S. states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Settlement in the Arctic regions of Rupert’s Land was limited due to its remoteness and lack of resources, largely consisting of factories (trading posts) established along the ocean. Hudson’s Bay Company merchants traded with indigenous peoples to obtain furs and whaling materials and also mapped out the various islands in the region. In 1819, as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty, the U.S. and Britain fixed the border between the U.S. and Rupert’s Land at the 49th parallel, ceding land south of the border to the U.S.
The remainder of the Canadian Arctic was organized as the North-Western Territory and the British Arctic Territories. The North-Western Territory was named in relation to its location to Rupert’s Land and was formally unclaimed until 1859, when it was assigned to the Hudson’s Bay Company. It incorporated the modern-day territory of Yukon, much of the Northwest Territories, and portions of Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.
The British Arctic Territories consisted of the islands of modern-day Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and were under direct control of the English government, annexed following expeditions by Martin Frobisher in the 1500’s. Sparsely inhabited by even indigenous peoples, the British claimed them in order to assert control over the Northwest Passage.
In 1867, the Dominion of Canada was formed from the provinces of Canada (modern-day Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and in 1870, Canada acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from Britain following the Hudson’s Bay Company’s surrender of its charter over the regions. The two territories were subsequently merged to form the North-West Territories.
Over the next few decades, southern portions of the North-West Territories were ceded to other Canadian provinces or, in the case of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, used to create entirely new provinces. In 1880, Britain ceded the British Arctic Territories to Canada, who subsequently merged them into the North-West Territories.
Settlement in the Canadian Arctic remained limited until 1896, when the Klondike Gold Rush brought numerous Canadian and American miners to the region. In 1898, the Canadian government formed the territory of Yukon, centered on the gold rush settlement of Whitehorse, in order to provide more organized local government for the region.
Prospecting in the Northwest Territories led to the discovery of gold and diamonds in the vicinity of Great Slave Lake, prompting the foundation of the city of Yellowknife, which serves as the territorial capital to this day. In 1999, the Canadian government created the territory of Nunavut, consisting of the eastern half of the Northwest Territories, intending it to serve as a homeland for the Inuit people.
While settlement in Northern Canada remains relatively sparse, natural resources extraction continues to attract new migrants to the region. Yellowknife is a hub of diamond mining and has helped make Canada one of the largest exports of diamonds in the world. Whitehorse is a popular tourist destination for Arctic vacationers, while Nunavut is of interest for those who are curious about Inuit culture. However, changes brought by settlement and technology have created many problems for indigenous peoples in the region, poverty and alcoholism among them.
In recent years, Canada has also begun aggressively defending its control over the Northwest Passage, which has taken on new importance with climate change and the reduction of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. The region played host to many listening stations and naval bases during the Cold War, and the Canadian military has been constructing an Arctic port to take advantage of future trade in the area.
In contrast to other regions of the Arctic Circle, Alaska and Northern Canada have seen little settlement and development over the centuries. However, the discovery of natural resources in the region combined with interest in the Northwest Passage have reinvigorated both American and Canadian interest in the Arctic. It is likely that both countries will continue to develop their portions of the Arctic as technology improves and the natural riches of the region become easier to access.