What Happens in the Arctic

Tromso, Norway — Zoë Rom

One cold February night, about 30 journalists, myself included, huddled in a small Norwegian cafe. Beers were ordered, shots of aquavit were poured. Snow gathered on the windowpanes and drinks were distributed to the sound of hushed Norwegian chatter and the shuffling of chairs.

On the agenda for the evening was a discussion of journalism in the Arctic, as part of the Arctic Frontiers conference, a gathering of politicians, industry leaders, indigenous people, and of course, journalists interested in all things Arctic. I had traveled to Tromso, Norway with my professor, Tom Yulsman, who specializes in covering climate science and the Arctic, and who was a panelist for the discussion.

New to covering the Arctic (and journalism in general), I listened as professionals with years of experience reporting on the Arctic discussed what to us down here may seem like a far away or niche beat, but to all those living in the Arctic is everyday life.

One man commanded a particular presence on stage at the bar. Arne Holm, editor of the High North News (based out of Norway) was the picture of an aging Arctic journalist — worn leather jacket, fur-trimmed boots and long white hair pulled back into a ponytail. He had a thick, commanding accent and booming voice that filled with emotion as he spoke. He was disappointed in coverage of Arctic issues, and accused the press of covering starving polar bears more thoroughly than than people whose lives are impacted by the changing climate and economics of the Arctic. Holm became so animated, he sprang from his stool, pounding his fist on the seat to emphasize his point.

I was struck by this sentiment. I had traveled to the Arctic to cover exactly the kind of story Holme was critiquing, one that focused more on ice floes and charismatic megafauna than people. Don’t get me wrong — stories about science are interesting and important, too. But all these stories impact the lives of real human beings.

What happens when native people are displaced by mining operations? When their reindeer run out of land to graze on? How does a warming climate change the way they eat, dress or live? People have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Who are they? What are their lives like? What can they teach us about their places? What are their favorite condiments? What do they have in common with each other, and how are they different?

In the next season of Threshold, we’ll find out.

This discussion happened long before Amy boarded a plane to the high north and Threshold decided to construct a season around the Arctic, but it has been on my mind whenever I sit down to write a story. As a science writer, it’s so tempting to revel in the minutiae of cells and electrons, to hide behind obfuscating language and lean on technical jargon to convey some semblance of a narrative. But Arne Holm’s words echo in the back of my head. Where’s the human element here? How does this affect the lives of people in ways I might not expect? How do we show people “down here” that they should care about what happens “up there”?

As oceans heat up and ice caps melt, warming waters leave the Arctic and begin a southward voyage. There’s a phrase oft repeated by people with a particular interest in the Arctic — either in its science or its citizens: “What happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” The lessons we’re learning up north, about a changing climate and how it affects people, are stories worth sharing. While it’s not going to include very many pictures of cuddly polar bears or seals (we at Threshold do love our charismatic megafauna), we’re passionate about sharing stories that are all too often overlooked.

We can’t describe exactly what this is going to be yet, because we don’t know. One of our core values is to let the subjects lead — to let the people we meet tell us their stories, in their own voices, framed in the ways that make sense to them. We’re not here to extract the perfect quote for a story we’ve already written. We’re going to the Arctic to learn, and listen, and then share it all with you.

Zoë Rom

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