Arctic Archive

Postcards from the Arctic with Bathsheba Demuth

In a series of essays next week for Radio 3, Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast, a prize-winning environmental history of the Bering Strait, looks into the interconnectedness of people and animals in the Arctic landscape. Postcards from the Floating Coast starts at 10.45pm on Monday. In the first episode, Demuth examines “the shifting historical relationship between humans and dogs and the impact of that intimacy on commerce and imperial aspiration”.

Railway or reindeer: the choice for Lapland

A proposed new railway could bring more industry and jobs to Lapland — but it could also wreck Europe’s last great wilderness and spell the end of the traditional reindeer-herding life of the Sami people. Tom Wall and the photographer Joel Redman produced an excellent report for Guardian Weekend (which I’ve only just got round to reading because I was busy the Saturday it appeared — February 23).

Journey to the top of the world

Physical location on a map; faraway place in our imagination: both those aspects of the North Pole feature in The Top of the World, a BBC World Service programme first broadcast yesterday morning. Joining Bridget Kendall are Felicity Aston, the explorer, author and former climate scientist; Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-author of the forthcoming book The Arctic: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press); and Michael Bravo (see earlier post).

The call of the cold


If you’re drawn to cold places, or just to reading about them, and you’re not a long way from Notting Hill, you might want to add this to your diary. On February 7, the Lutyens and Rubinstein Bookshop is bringing together two writers whose subjects are Poles apart. One is Jean McNeil, whose Ice Diaries: An Antarctic Memoir, was acclaimed on its publication in 2016 in Canada and is now available in Britain from the same imprint, ECW Press. The other is Michael Bravo, who has spent his career travelling and researching in the Arctic and writing about the region, and whose latest book, North Pole, a cultural history, is due out on February 21 (Reaktion Books).

On safari — in the Arctic

Horatio Clare, for the Financial Times, joins a snowmobile safari in the Arctic: “Wild Svalbard is dizzying…The ranges of ice and silence are Matterhorns, Eigers and Skiddaws thrown together in a god’s workshop of mountains. Height and space fling your gaze between cliffs and crests. The changing light makes horizons shift and billow.”

Palin and the Victorian ship that went to the Poles

Michael Palin’s Erebus (Hutchinson), the stirring story of a Victorian ship that went to the Poles, is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. You can read my review of it — which appeared at the weekend in The Daily Telegraphhere on Deskbound Traveller.

The scientist playing bear in the Arctic

Conducting scientific research in the Arctic is expensive, hard and dangerous. Studying the creatures who live there sometimes calls for a novel approach, as Tim Flannery reveals in a piece for The New York Review of Books about the work of the conservationist Joel Berger:

Berger decided to try to determine whether musk oxen fear bears, reasoning that if they did, then bears must be significant predators. So he dressed in a bear costume and approached herds of musk oxen, recording their response. Just to be sure that it was the bear costume they were responding to, he also approached the same herds dressed in a caribou outfit.

Berger discovered that the approach must be made from at least a mile away and, like that of a bear bent on attack, it must not be direct. With a wind-chill factor of–15° C and a skin of ice over the snow, on his first attempt Berger took an hour and a half to get within forty-five yards of the herd. Then a bull charged—from twenty-five yards away. Instinct kicked in, and he tossed the head of his bear costume skyward, causing the confused bull to halt. Berger then struggled through the deep snow toward his colleagues, who were approaching on their snowmobiles.

The astonishing thing is that Berger did not give up but repeated the exercise again, and again and again, over deep snow, sharp rocks, and permafrost, enduring hours of agonizing cold. At most, he got to record two encounters per day, but often only one. Over the years, he built a data set of more than one hundred encounters and got charged “seriously” by bulls four times. Always, in the back of his mind, a question lurks: What if, while dressed in his costume, he meets a real bear?

Water that flows in the veins

A beautiful intro to an excellent piece, by Peter Kujawinksi, in The New York Times about Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, which is much more to the locals than a body of water:

Thousands of years ago, every lake was like Great Bear Lake. So pure you could lower a cup into the water and drink it. So beautiful that people composed love songs to it. So mysterious that many believed it was alive. Today, of the 10 largest lakes in the world, it is the last one that remains essentially primeval.