The Arctic Circle is one of the most remote and mysterious places on the planet. Defined by its extreme climate and distance from major population centers, it has historically been only sparsely inhabited. However, with advancing technology, resource extraction, and climate change, it is rapidly becoming a major flashpoint in international politics, with many nations seeking to exploit its vast riches and control newly-opened shipping lanes across the Arctic Ocean.
The history of the Arctic Circle is the history of Earth itself, as well as the history of the humans who lived in and explored its vast territories. Here is a brief guide to the Arctic’s known history.
The History of the Arctic Circle
While the Arctic and Antarctic Circles have existed for as long as the Earth itself has, their composition has changed over the millennia. During the era of Pangaea, when all of the continents of Earth were joined in one super-continent, it is believed that what is now North Africa was located in the Arctic Circle, which has been borne out by archaeological and fossil evidence. Following the breakup of Pangaea, land retreated from the Arctic, leading to its current composition of sea ice.
Human habitation in the Arctic is believed to stretch back to 30,000 years ago, but definitive evidence of human habitation dates from 10,000 years ago, when hunters tracking woolly mammoths and other wildlife crossed the Bering Strait, connecting Alaska and Siberia. Over the next thousands of years, small tribes began to permanently settle in the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. While ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse, these peoples shared much in common, such as nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles, a necessity in the Arctic’s frigid wastes.
The Greeks were responsible for giving the Arctic its name, derived from “arktos,” the Greek word for “bear” and derived from the Great Bear constellation. The first documented explorations of the Arctic were by the Vikings in the 800’s, when Erik the Red colonized southern Greenland and the Vikings later made landfall in the Newfoundland region of eastern Canada. In the 1100’s, Russians began exploring and colonizing Siberia and the Eurasian Arctic, their empire eventually spanning across all of North Asia by the 1700’s.
The Arctic remained a point of fascination for European governments during the Middle Ages and Age of Exploration due to its wealth of bears and other wildlife, who could be killed for their fur and meat. Many European rulers, most notably Henry III of England, kept polar bears as pets. Arctic exploration kicked off in earnest in the late 1500’s, as European rulers sought the discovery of the famed Northwest Passage, an all-sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and allowing direct trade with Asia instead of having to sail around South America or Africa.
All of the Northwest Passage expeditions to North America failed due to poor maritime technology of the time; ship captains lacked the means to penetrate the icebergs and other sea ice blocking the Arctic Ocean from wide-scale travel. Many expeditions resulted in ships sinking due to icebergs or crews succumbing to cold, scurvy, starvation, or other problems.
However, despite failing to find the Northwest Passage, these expeditions resulted in large portions of the Arctic being mapped and opened to colonization. Countless riches, from walruses to whales to polar bears, were found in the newly discovered territories. Corporations such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Royal Greenland Trading Company opened trading posts to exploit these animals, resulting in considerable depletion of wildlife populations by the 1900’s.
Large-scale interest in the Arctic culminated in a new wave of settlement and exploration in the 1800’s. A failed series of British expeditions in the early part of the century failed to find the Northwest Passage once again, but the discovery of whales and other resources in Alaska and the far north spurred a new wave of development. In 1867, Alaska was sold to the United States by Russia, while over the course of the 1870’s, Canada claimed sovereignty over its share of the Arctic from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the U.K.
Improvements in maritime technology would finally allow the Northwest Passage to be safely traversed between 1903 and 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In 1909, American explorers Robert Peary and Frederick Cook both claimed to have reached the North Pole; however, the first confirmed successful expedition to the North Pole was not completed until 1968, by American snowmobiler Ralph Plaisted.
As whaling and other traditional occupations in the Arctic waned in profitability and relevance, attention turned to mineral resources in the region. The Klondike gold rush in the late 1890’s brought thousands of settlers to Yukon and Alaska looking to strike it rich, spurring development in the region. Similarly, Russia discovered around the same time that its share of the Arctic held considerable coal, diamond, and other resources, which inspired a mass Arctic development campaign by the Soviet Union during the 20th century.
Most notably, portions of the Arctic were found to be rich in oil and gas, the hottest commodity in the rapidly industrializing economies of the West. Small-scale oil field development was initiated in Alaska in the 1950’s, but the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in 1968 brought a new wave of migrants in the region. The largest oil field in the United States, the settlement of Prudhoe Bay resulted in the creation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, contributing greatly to Alaska’s economic development.
During World War II and the later Cold War, the Arctic also assumed great military importance due to its location and resources. Alaska became a major hub of U.S. military activity, hosting many air bases and radar stations, while the Russian Arctic port city of Murmansk served as a major flashpoint during World War II, as it was where the Americans and British delivered supplies to the Soviets. Following Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the Soviet Union in 1941, Murmansk was besieged by German and Finnish forces hoping to cut off the Soviets’ supply lines; the city was heavily damaged by the fighting but managed to fend off enemy forces throughout the war.
Today, climate change has given the Arctic Circle renewed importance in global politics, as melting sea ice allows much of the Arctic Circle to be traversed by ships. Canada and Russia have begun developing sea shipping lanes using the Arctic, and conflicts over Arctic territory have strained relations among the countries who control lands bordering it.
Continued Arctic development has had a major impact on indigenous peoples in the region, many of whom have been forced to give up their traditional ways of life. Alcoholism and poverty are common among many indigenous peoples, and they have also been subject to forced cultural assimilation in many regions; for example, Arctic peoples in the Soviet Union were forcibly “Russified,” made to give up their language and culture.
In recent years, indigenous peoples in these countries have been flexing their political muscles, defending their cultures and ways of life in the face of colonization. For example, in 1999, Canada was forced to create the territory of Nunavut, a homeland for the Inuit people in the far north. Indigenous peoples in the U.S., Russia, and Greenland have also obtained important concessions from their governments.
The Arctic remains one of the most important and contested regions of the globe. Containing a vast wealth of natural resources and splendid beauty, climate change has accelerated interest in the region from world governments. As technology improves and new resources keep being discovered, it is likely that the Arctic will continue to dominate the lives of many around the globe.