The Arctic Circle, the northernmost region of the Earth, has remained a point of fascination for people around the world. Famed for natural sights such as the Northern Lights, Arctic settlement and development has ramped up considerably in the past century, as corporations and governments seek to harness the natural resources there. The advent of climate change has also increased the strategic importance of the Arctic, as melting sea ice has made the Northwest Passage navigable for ships.

The Arctic stretches across the continents of North America, Europe, and Asia, and the Eurasian portion of it is controlled by Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Here is a brief history of European and Asian settlement in the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Circle in Russia

The vast bulk of the Arctic Circle’s population is located in Russia: indeed, the two largest cities in the Arctic Circle, Murmansk and Norilsk, are in Russia, and have a population of 299,000 and 170,000, respectively. Much Russian development in the region is a product of Soviet-era initiatives designed to take advantage of the Arctic’s natural resources. The Russian share of the Arctic is typically referred to as the Russian Far North.

Russian exploration of the Arctic dates back to the Middle Ages, when Russian merchants ventured east to trade with native peoples in Siberia. Many indigenous peoples continue to call these regions home and were annexed by Russia as part of the country’s eastward expansion starting in the 1500’s. While Russian colonists eventually reached as far as Alaska, settlement in the northernmost regions of the Arctic was relatively limited due to the region’s extreme climate and the difficulty of traveling there.

Large-scale migration to the Russian Far North began in 1915, when the Russian Empire founded the port city of Murmansk. Located in a temperate region of the country’s northwestern coast, Murmansk was developed as an ice-free port that would allow the country to receive supplies from the Allied Powers during World War I, as the country’s other ports were blockaded by the Central Powers. Following the Russian Revolutions and subsequent Civil War, Murmansk was occupied by the Allied Powers as a staging base to assist the anti-Bolshevik White Army.

Murmansk would later serve as an important port for the Soviet Union during World War II, where the Soviets received material aid via the Lend-Lease Act. Following Nazi Germany’s declaration of war in 1941, German and Finnish forces besieged the city; while Murmansk was heavily damaged by fighting, it resisted invasion throughout the war, and would later be named a Hero City for its fierce resistance during the conflict.

Throughout the Cold War and into the modern era, Murmansk has remained an important hub of Soviet (and later, Russian) naval activity. It is home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, Atomflot. It is also an important fishing hub and is home to the Azimut Hotel Murmansk, the tallest building in the Arctic Circle at 16 stories. Murmansk is also the planned terminus of the Arctic Sea Bridge, a sea route connecting Russia and Canada via the Arctic Ocean.

Over the course of the 20th century, the Soviet Union constructed many cities in the Arctic Circle to exploit the various mineral deposits in the area. The largest is Norilsk, the largest northernmost city in the world with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Founded in 1935, Norilsk was built as a mining camp to take advantage of the nickel deposits in the area, estimated to be the largest in the world.

Norilsk was largely constructed using forced labor from the Soviet gulags, and according to Soviet records, nearly 17,000 prisoners died between 1935 and 1956, when the city was being built. Poor working conditions led to the Norilsk gulag uprising in 1953, part of a series of gulag riots that occurred across the Soviet Union at the time. A number of other large Russian Arctic cities, such as Apatity, were also founded around this time and built using gulag labor.

Norilsk, Apatity, and other Russian Far North cities remain important hubs of resource extraction, and are often noted for extreme pollution. Norilsk was once named one of the most polluted cities in the world, and accidents and fatalities in coal and metal mines are common. To incentivize workers to move to the region, the Russian government offers a “Northern Bonus,” which includes higher pay, extra vacation days, a lower retirement age, and housing assistance.

The Arctic Circle in Scandinavia

The Scandinavian portion of the Arctic Circle is perhaps the best-known due to its relative accessibility compared to the rest of the world. The Arctic Circle cuts across Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and also incorporates much of Greenland, which is controlled by Denmark. Grímsey Island, a small island off the northern coast of Iceland, is also bisected by the Arctic Circle.

Contact with the Scandinavian Arctic Circle stretches back to antiquity, with Greek attempts to explore and map the region. It would not be until the Viking Age that the region became better known, as Germanic peoples from the Scandinavian Peninsula extensively explored the North Atlantic. Viking captains such as Erik the Red are credited with establishing settlements in Iceland and Greenland, and by the 1000’s, Viking influence reached as far as Newfoundland in North America.

The Swedish and Finnish portions of the Arctic Circle are small and sparsely inhabited, but the Arctic coast of Norway is heavily populated and economically significant, featuring cities such as Tromsø, with a population of 75,000. Tromsø served as a launching point for Arctic expeditions during the 1800’s and is home to one of Norway’s largest universities, and it also serves as a hub of Sámi culture, the Sámi being one of the indigenous groups of northern Scandinavia. Nearby Bodø served as a hub of NATO operations during the Cold War and is still the home of a major Norwegian military base.

Economic activity in the Scandinavian Arctic is primarily driven by tourism and fishing. Tromsø is a popular destination for cruise liners and tourists hoping to see the Northern Lights, and the region’s mountains, fjords, and rivers are a favorite of hikers, skiers, and other outdoorsmen. Due to the moderating effects of the Gulf Stream, Tromsø and the surrounding coastline have a far milder climate than other portions of the Arctic.

Greenland’s economy is similarly driven by tourism. While Viking settlements in the region died out in the 1300’s and 1400’s due to the Little Ice Age, recolonization by Norway and Denmark have helped create a new culture in the region. While Iceland and Greenland were originally a part of Norway, following Norway’s union with Denmark in the 1500’s and the subsequent transfer of Norway to Sweden following the Napoleonic Wars, both islands remained with Denmark. Following World War II, Iceland became an independent republic while Greenland became a self-governing territory within Denmark.

Popular activities in Greenland include fishing, whaling, trapping, and manufacturing, and the island also draws countless nature tourists. Greenland is also home to a large Inuit population who have sought self-governance and protection of their culture in the wake of European colonization. Recently, Greenland has drawn international attention for potential natural resources deposits as well as its proximity to the Northwest Passage.

Conclusion

As the most accessible portion of the Arctic Circle, the Russian and Scandinavian shares of the Arctic carry the largest populations in the region. Historically a point of curiosity for explorers and governments, the Arctic Circle has assumed new importance due to technological improvements, natural resources, and the opening of the Northwest Passage. It is clear that settlement in the area will continue to increase as the years go on.