Holy Grail or Next Cold War? Metaphors for Describing the Arctic

by Kathrin Keil Anyone following Arctic affairs will quickly notice the tremendous repertoire of metaphors and poetic language evoked by the North's extreme climate and landscape. And not surprisingly, authors of newspaper and academic journal articles alike have made great use of metaphorical tools to describe the state of the changing Arctic. In the following I have grouped some ‘Arctic Metaphors’ to compile existing witty Arctic headlines. 

There are two overarching metaphorical descriptions of the Arctic, one referring to the Arctic in terms of ‘resources, opportunity and development’ and the other in terms of ‘conflict, competition and threats’. These two groups fit well with the narrative of heroic exploration and adventure that often informs contemporary politics in the Arctic, as Alison Weisburger described so well in a recent article for the Arctic Institute.

To start with the first group of metaphors concerning resources, opportunity and development, Klaus Dodds offers a poetic description of the Arctic as an “underground treasure trove”, while Scott Borgerson describes the 19th century Arctic seaway with the help of a historical metaphor as “the Holy Grail of Victorian exploration.”

A popular contemporary metaphor for the resource-rich Arctic and its development opportunities is describing it as a ‘cake’ or a 'pie', which is to be distributed among competing actors. A Wall Street Journal article from August 2011 quoted a member of Greenpeace on Arctic resources and their distribution: "In my experience, it's difficult to make countries give the pieces back, once the cake has been sliced up and distributed."

Finally, a climatic metaphor completes the picture; my favorite ‘ice metaphor’ is Oran Young’s 1985 call for more US engagement in Arctic affairs: “It is time for U.S. policy to come out of the deep freeze."

The second group of Arctic metaphors offers an even wider variety of images, describing the state of Arctic conflict, competition, and threats. Literature on the Arctic often contains poetic language that plays with climate or temperature images, such as “Cold Calling - Competition heats up for Arctic Resources”, and a longer quote by then NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: “The Alliance’s agenda recently appears to have been dominated by events in Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Horn of Africa - areas that can rightly be described as “hot”. So it is very welcome to shift our attention to a colder region. Having said this, the very reason we are focusing on the High North is because it may not remain so cold in the future.”

Possibly the largest group of Arctic metaphors comprises those describing the state of ‘war’ in and about the region. The most popular one is surely the one evoking the ‘new’ or ‘next Cold War’, the ‘new great game’, the ‘coldest war’, the ‘white gold rush’, the ‘great Arctic gold rush’, ‘Arctic meltdown’, an ‘armed mad dash’, a ‘scramble for the Arctic’, and one of my favorites: ‘ice wars’.

Competition metaphors often also refer to the image of a ‘race’ and of ‘carving up’, often combined with the cake/pie image. Scott Borgerson combined all these images in his 2008 piece: “Arctic powers are racing to carve up the region” or “carv[ing] up the region's vast resource pie”.

Metaphors of threat often resort to language describing the fragility of ice, like Rob Huebert describing how “Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty is on Thinning Ice.”

Most Arctic metaphors are found in the realm of competition, threat and war, given the obvious and catchy images these topics provide. However, there are also other Arctic metaphors out there, which describe less aggressive issues. One I frequently stumble across is the issue of ‘health’.

Scott Borgerson's 2008 ‘Arctic Meltdown’ article is peppered with metaphors, his health metaphors are worth mentioning here. His first image describes the Arctic as the indicator of the sick patient planet earth: “If the Arctic is the barometer by which to measure the earth's health, these symptoms point to a very sick planet indeed.” The most popular metaphor for the Arctic as a warning symptom for a sick planet is the one of the “melting Arctic [a]s the proverbial canary in the coal mine of planetary health”.

There are many more metaphors out there describing the Arctic. If you find a good one, please email met at kathrin.keil@thearcticinstitute.org. I look forward to “Arctic Metaphors" Part II.