The Shadow of Historic Polar Exploration on Contemporary Arctic Affairs

by Alison Weisburger As December 14th marked the hundredth anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s achievement as the first man to reach the South Pole, there have been many articles in various popular news sources  for example in The New York Times and in The Independent, about this accomplishment in the context of the “heroic age” of polar exploration. This period, ranging from around the middle of the 19th century until the early 1920s, encompasses not only the first successful expeditions to both the South and North Poles, but also a litany of famous explorers alongside Amundsen whose stories have lived on in the public imagination: Robert Falcon Scott, Robert E. Peary, Frederick A. Cook, Ernest Shackleton, Knud Rasmussen, Adolphus Greely, and many more too numerous to name. 

The extent of the South Pole centenary recognition in the press, and similar coverage during the centenary of Peary’s claimed successful North Pole expedition two years ago, seems to present evidence of the public’s continuing fascination with exciting tales from the age of heroic polar exploration. In turn, this has prompted me to consider the connections between historic polar exploration and contemporary polar politics. As the governance system of Antarctica was largely resolved in the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, I am going to focus my attention on how the legacy of the age of heroic polar exploration has greatly influenced the current perceptions, and therefore to some extent the current state of political affairs, in the Arctic.

While Kathrin Keil has already pointed out in a previous article for The Arctic Institute that the Arctic and Antarctic regions are quite distinct when it comes to “political, economic, military, institutional, social and cultural characteristics”, it is safe to say that an area in which they do share many similarities is in their stories of heroic age polar exploration that have emerged and flourished in collective memory. 

I would suggest that these historic expeditions are not only important as the concrete predecessors to further activities in the Polar Regions, but are also significant because they propagate a certain narrative about the Polar Regions that has actual implications for how the regions are understood and consequently utilized and governed today. In other words, when decision-makers, scholars, and the general public are unavoidably exposed to the pervasive history of heroic age of exploration, this influences the way that they construe contemporary politics in the Arctic.

Perhaps the most obvious specter of the heroic age of polar exploration on current perceptions of the Arctic is seen in the often repeated, although not necessarily substantiated, warning of a contemporary “race” for Arctic resources. It was during the heroic age of exploration that this notion of a race in the Polar Regions germinated: Would it be Scott or Amundsen to the South Pole first? Who really made it to the North Pole first – Peary, Cook, or neither man? 

Competition is so deeply ingrained in the Western history of the Polar Regions, that it is difficult for most people to comprehend activities in the Arctic without envisioning some sort of antagonism between the actors. Moreover, competition seems to be what makes stories about the Polar Regions appealing to the public – you rarely read a story about Amundsen without hearing about Scott, or Peary without Cook. The consequence of this, however, is that we will continue to see the now common characterizations of the contemporary situation in the Arctic as a “race” rather than as the generally cooperative, stable region that it has thus far proven to be.

Another depiction of the Polar Regions that has seemed to carry over from the heroic age of exploration is that of the Arctic and Antarctic as somehow beyond the limits and limitations of civilization. This notion is upheld by both historic and contemporary assertions that the Arctic landscape is blank, empty, null, and devoid. Paradoxically, this characterization has led to divergent movements in contemporary Arctic affairs. On the one hand, staunch environmentalists make the case that the “pristine” Arctic landscape should remain protected from the infringement of “civilization” (i.e. resource development, shipping, and the associated infrastructure). In contrast, proponents of development argue that the Arctic is the last great empty frontier for expansion and growth of “civilization”.

Building upon this characterization of the Arctic and Antarctic as uniquely undefined regions distinct from the rest of the globe, during the heroic age of Polar exploration explorers treated the Polar Regions as blank white stages on which they could prove something – be it their nation’s strength, their masculinity, or their personal pride. Today, it seems that the Arctic still plays this role of a stage on which nations try to prove themselves. Just as historic expeditions to the Polar Regions are interpreted as illustrations of the true character of various explorers, the contemporary activities of actors in the Arctic are likewise rendered as performances that reveal some underlying strength or weakness. Thus, each Arctic nation must validate its presence in the region through public displays or verbal testaments of their power.

In conclusion, I am not trying to argue that the legacy of the heroic age of polar exploration dominates everyone’s perceptions of the Arctic or the direction of Arctic politics. Still, I am convinced that it is critical to recognize the ways in which history casts its shadow on the present. While I did not have the space in this article to thoroughly elaborate on all of the connections between historic exploration and the contemporary Arctic, I hope I have made it clear that there are indeed linkages between the two that deserve further attention.

It is fantastic that the thrilling stories of Amundsen and other Polar explorers remain entertaining and popular even one hundred years later. However, the danger to contemporary Arctic affairs is that we like the narratives from the heroic age of polar exploration so well that we just keep telling ourselves the same old stories without looking more closely at the contemporary reality.