From the Historical Exploitation of Resources to a Modern Academic Understanding: Massachusetts and the Arctic

By Jed Willard, Director of the FDR Center for Global Engagement at Harvard College.

“Scene in the Arctic” by William Bradford (1823 — 1892). Bradford was an American artist and explorer from Fairhaven, Massachusetts and one the country’s most preeminent painters of Arctic seascapes and ships. (Image credit: William Bradford, circa 1880, De Young Museum, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)

The people of Massachusetts have a long and sometimes bloody tradition of Arctic engagement. Sailors out of Massachusetts ports from Nantucket to Provincetown braved the frozen waters of the far northern Atlantic from colonial times onward in search of whales. Whale oil — used for fuel, lubricant, and candle manufacturing — and other whale-derived products such as the many items manufactured from baleen — the bristly, tooth-like filtering system found inside the mouths of baleen whales— were essential export products for the state. To this day, the mansions of successful whaling magnates can still be explored along the Massachusetts coast, especially in the town of New Bedford.

(L) New Bedford, Massachusetts; (R) The dangerous business of whaling. (Image credits: The New Bedford Whaling Museum)

It was New Bedford that became the informal capital of Massachusetts whaling (and therefore Arctic exploration) following the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. New Bedford fleets exploited whales off the coast of Greenland and, following lengthy and hazardous voyages around the southern tip of South America, virgin bowhead stocks in the Bering Sea. The trade in whale products boomed especially around the time of the Civil War, when baleen for women’s clothing (think corsets and hoop skirts) was in high demand.

Massachusetts whaling was greatly scaled back in the later 19th century, in part due to the inherent hazard of Arctic maritime activity. New Bedford fleets were nearly wiped out off the coast of Alaska in both 1871 and 1876, thankfully with limited loss of life. In addition, competition to whale oil from cheaper petroleum and from rival whalers in Norway made Massachusetts Arctic whaling a less lucrative investment, and capital in the state was increasingly put to other uses.

Whale bone was a key structural underpinning for women’s fashion in the mid-1800s. It was integrated into corsets (left) and crinolines (right), which are the stiffened petticoats or hoops designed to make a woman’s skirt flare out. (Photo credits: (L) Wikimedia Commons; (C), (R) Elle)

While Arctic exploitation was on the decline, exploration was on the rise. Massachusetts-born Donald MacMillan, along with colleague Robert Peary, was one of the preeminent American Arctic explorers of the early-to mid-20th century. MacMillan brought the tools of modern exploration to the Arctic, introducing new technology on his many voyages and new open-mindedness in his extensive dealings with indigenous Arctic communities. MacMillan accompanied Peary at the outset of the latter’s successful voyage to the North Pole in 1908, and later assembled both the famed Arctic schooner “Bowdoin” and a dictionary of the Inuktikut language.

American Arctic Explorer Donald MacMillan at the wheel of the ship Bowdoin he used in Labrador. (Image credit: Digital Commonwealth)

Thankfully, it is MacMillan’s legacy of exploration and understanding that defines the Massachusetts-Arctic relationship today. Many of the state’s large number of research institutions maintain Arctic studies programs. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution conducts groundbreaking research in the Arctic on subjects ranging from shifting ocean currents to phytoplankton-based food webs. Their partners at MIT’s “Oceans” department bring additional technical expertise to understanding the region, particularly regarding the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, students at Tufts’ Fletcher School host an annual Arctic Studies conference, while their faculty maintain a partnership with Reykjavik University where discussions continue at an ambassadorial level.

“Understanding Arctic Sea Ice at MIT” — a great introductory video about Arctic sea ice featuring Principal Research Scientist Patrick Heimbach of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. (Video credit: YouTube/MIT.)
Max Holmes, a senior scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and an expert on permafrost thaw in the Arctic, collecting a water sample from the Mackenzie River near the Gwich’en “Indian” village of Tsiigehtchic, Canada. (Photo credit: Amy Pope.)

Here at Harvard, student and professors explore the region from a variety of disciplines — from climate to security to public health. Chair of the Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials Ambassador David Balton (A.B. 1981) treated us to a visit this fall, and inspired some of our students to embrace science diplomacy as one path to further international cooperation in the Arctic. Harvard professor James McCarthy, co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, serves on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and is one of our leading climate scientists. Upcoming projects include a conference on “contested narratives of the Arctic” and engagements with the Finnish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2017–2019).

Members of the 2014 Arctic Circle delegations from HKS and Tufts at the Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland. Pictured (from left to right): Halla Hrund Logadóttir, director of Iceland School of Energy, Kartikeya Singh (Tufts), Claudia Doblinger, Kai Tsai Ku, Katie Burkhart, Jennie Hatch, Sebastian Serra, Jennifer Austin, Trisha Shrum, Zhu Liu (all HKS), and Professor William Moomaw (Tufts). (Photo credit: Harvard’s Environment and Natural Resources Program.)
I heard several times that the Arctic is the “laboratory of the Anthropocene” during the Arctic Circle conference. This was said by indigenous peoples, heads of State, researchers and citizens. It means that rapid changes at global level are manifesting and driving change even faster in the Arctic. This is true both in relation to the surge of natural resources demand, which pressures for drilling and navigation in the region, as well as for climate change impacts. These issues were debated from their costs and their benefits standpoints. I was happy to see that there is a genuine conversation amongst so different players about immediate action. The Arctic is, therefore, not a topic for the future.
— Natalie Unterstell, Harvard MPA student in “Dispatches from a Warming Arctic,” HKS Center for Public Leadership Blog, November 2015.
(Image credit: Arctic Innovation Lab)

For a number of Massachusetts students, the Arctic was uncharted territory before they started preparing for the Arctic Innovation Lab, a new platform where “students and young professionals can pitch and develop ideas and work with experienced practitioners” in order to “facilitate an ongoing dialogue between generations to speed up knowledge transition and build capacity for the future of the Arctic.”

The Lab was launched in October 2016 at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, an annual event in Reykjavík that has become one of the world’s largest Arctic conference and attracts hundreds of participants from around the world. During the Assembly, a special Arctic Innovation Lab side event was organized by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in collaboration with the Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavík University, the University of Greenland, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and the University of Iceland. The event started with graduate students delivering 2 1/2 minutes talks to a packed room, sharing innovative ideas on everything from clean energy technology to science diplomacy in the Arctic. After the presentations, the audience voted on its favorite (the winner? An idea for electric car sharing in Iceland, courtesy of Harvard Kennedy School participant Shauna Theel), after which presenters joined audience members for round table discussions on how to move their innovations forward.

The 12 graduate students from Massachusetts, Greenland, and Iceland who delivered presentations as part of the launch of the Arctic Innovation Lab at the 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly. (Photo credit: Harvard Kennedy School)
After their presentations, the Arctic Innovation Lab students engaged in a dozen lively roundtable discussions with the nearly 200 audience members. (Photo credit: Arnthor Birkisson, HKS, via News Deeply)

As Dennis Schroeder, a 2016 Harvard MPA student observed, “Coming from various professional and academic backgrounds — from naval security, to renewable energy diplomacy, to environmental sciences — the students from Massachusetts who participated in the 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly approached the Arctic in a distinctly multidisciplinary fashion. The ability to focus diverse ranges of experience on specific issues is the distinct strength of Massachusetts’ exceptional, world leading higher education cluster. The Arctic Circle event attracted around 200 participants and made a lasting impression, with very positive feedback from guests and organizers alike. With new challenges arising due to environmental change and its economic, social, and political consequences, innovation and multidisciplinary solutions are very much in need.”

The questions that reverberated in my brain were: Who really “owns” the Arctic? Is it a world heritage site that belongs to humanity across borders and time? Is it territory divided among eight nations bordering the Arctic Ocean? Or is it the territory of indigenous people who live there today? Can non-regional populations resist development in the Arctic when the local populations support it? These local versus global and short-term versus long-term paradigms emerged as the ones we need to engage in to reconcile climate change and the needs of local populations.
— Pinar Akcayoz De Neve, Harvard student in “Reflections on the Arctic and Climate Impacts.” Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Fall/Winter 2015–2016.

Over centuries of engagement with the Arctic, the people of Massachusetts have come a long way. While the exploitation of Arctic whales was highly profitable for a time, it was terribly cruel, dangerous, and eventually untenable both financially and environmentally. The shift in the late 19th and early 20th centuries away from whaling and toward scientific exploration and deeper understanding marks a hopeful chapter in the long story of American engagement in the Arctic. May we keep this lesson in this new century.

The author. (Image credit: NATO)

About the Author: Jed Willard is Director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Adams House, Harvard University. The Center pursues solutions to current global challenges while keeping in mind their historical origins. Current efforts focus on adaptation to climate change, coping with information warfare, and revitalizing faith in the Enlightenment tradition. Jed is also interested in the Arctic, the Transatlantic Alliance, public diplomacy, and information operations. Jed was Founding Director of the Public Diplomacy Collaborative at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a founding partner and board member at LanguageCorps. His other experience includes media relations and market analysis, and he’s also an amateur forester and Cajun cook. Willard is a native of New Orleans, with a Bachelors Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Harvard. You can reach him at jed.willard@fdrfoundation.org.

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