The Changing View of the Arctic: The University of Illinois and Arctic Studies

By Mark Safstrom, Ph.D., lecturer in Swedish and Scandinavian Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Students from Illinois and The Royal Institute of Technology of Stockholm hike across the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway in 2012. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

Though Illinois is firmly planted in the American Midwest, Illinoisans have long looked north to the Arctic for research and educational opportunities…and maybe even a little adventure. This is especially true for the faculty and students here at the University of Illinois, who have enjoyed a great deal of contact with the Arctic over the years. In the wake of explorer Robert Peary’s polar journey in 1906, which had claimed to have discovered a new landmass, “Crocker Land,” another expedition was launched in 1913 called the Crocker Land Expedition with the assignment to explore this new territory. Among the crew who ventured out on this expedition were University of Illinois alumni and Champaign County native, Elmer Ekblaw (1882–1949), as well as Maurice Tanquary (1881–1944), a professor of entomology and a pioneering beekeeper. The expedition itself was even co-sponsored by the University of Illinois.

Image from the University of Illinois’ Exhibition Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Crocker Land Expedition to the Arctic. 1913–1917. (Imagine courtesy of the University of Illinois.)

Even though Crocker Land itself turned out to be a hoax, the expedition changed focus and continued to conduct other research based out of Etah, a village in northwestern Greenland where Peary’s crew landed, until 1917, despite several misadventures and tragedies. Hundreds of photographs and artifacts returned to Illinois, which are now housed at the Spurlock Museum on the university campus. These artifacts were recently the focus of several lectures and a featured exhibit during the 2015–16 academic year, a summary of which can be found here.

(Top) A polar bear watches members of the Crocker Land Expedition in canoes; (Bottom left) Members of the expedition pull a sled up a hill; (Bottom Right) Expedition researchers in a boat photograph distant iceberg with people under an arch (Photos courtesy of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures Collection at the University of Illinois.)

Prior to this, between 1878 and 1880, the American Geographical Society launched one of the many expeditions sent to investigate the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition(from 1845). Illinois native and Army Lieutenant, Frederick Schwatka (1849–1892) was recruited to head up this effort to find any written records that might have been left behind from Franklin’s expedition. The crew traveled by sledge hundreds of miles through Arctic Canada, finding some remains, but not the hoped-for written records. Schwatka’s own personal “Arctic Library” eventually came into the possession of the University of Illinois Library when it was sold by his widow in 1924.

Frederick Schwatka in polar apparel (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

These materials became a focal point of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection of Arctic literature, which Adam Doskey, our Visiting Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, and other staff continue to build upon today. In addition to historic artifacts from Illinoisans engaged in polar research, the collection includes numerous works from American, British, German, and Scandinavian expeditions in the Arctic.

This Arctic interest is even evident in the library building itself. Visitors climbing the grand staircase cannot help but notice a gigantic mural of the “polar hemisphere,” which commemorates the expeditions of two American polar explorers, Robert Peary’s attempt at the North Pole in 1909 (from Ellesmere Island) and Richard Evelyn Byrd’s attempt at the North Pole in 1926 (from Svalbard).

The “polar hemisphere” mural in the grand staircase of the University of Illinois Library. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

These early adventures during the age of polar exploration, have since given way to more serious research related to the Arctic. Groundbreaking research in glacial geology — Arctic and otherwise — has been conducted in Illinois itself. The geological record of Illinois bears the marks of some of the glaciers that covered the top of the globe during the Pleistocene Epoch (or “Ice Age”), between 2 million and 10,000 years ago. As explained by Steven E. Brown, Chief Scientist for the Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois hosts the evidence for the southernmost extent of glaciation during the last ice age (one of the time periods for the last glaciation is even named after Illinois — the “Illinois Episode” or “Illinoian Stage” between ~130,000 and ~190,000 years ago).

This period was the subject of the History Channel’s “How The Earth Was Made” series in “America’s Ice Age” (season 2, episode 12). In the 45-minute episode, Steven Brown, Brandon Curry, and William Shilts of the Geological Survey take viewers for a 10-minute tour of the glacial features in Illinois through a hot air balloon flight, examination of deposits in a quarry, and explanations and demonstrations of continental glaciation. The Geological Survey has produced many geologic maps that depict the glacial deposits across the state.

Arctic ice sheets extended down to Illinois during the Pleistocene era. (Image credit: Britannica.com)

Not to be outdone by his older brother Elmer, George Ekblaw (1895–1972) of the Illinois State Geological Survey, developed the concept of the “Kankakee Torrent,” named after Kankakee, Illinois, with evidence for an enormous flood of glacial meltwater (now considered to possibly represent a number of glacial meltwater floods) that coalesced the meltwater drainage from glaciers in Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana.

Another example of a leading researcher who helped to fill in this historical record was Professor William Hilton “Hilt” Johnson (1935–1997), whose work in Quaternary geology established him as a leading expert in the field. Hilt Johnson’s doctoral work in the stratigraphy and petrography of the Kansan drift and Illinoisan drift in central Illinois led to a career of research and teaching that contributed to the knowledge of glacial and periglacial geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, permafrost conditions, and ice sheet dynamics.

U. of I. professor Feng Sheng Hu led a study of carbon cycling and forest fires in the boreal forests of the Yukon Flats in Alaska. (Photo credit: Illinois News Bureau.)

Current research in the natural sciences continues to have significance to Arctic studies, including work in plant biology. Professor Feng Sheng Hu and colleagues have researched the present and past distribution of plant species in the Arctic region, particularly how this reflects changes in the global climate. Fieldwork in Alaska on this topic, for instance, has contributed to the understanding that large parts of Alaska were ice free during the last glaciation period, reflected in the plant species — including trees — that were able to survive there.

In the field of atmospheric sciences, Professor Emeritus John Walsh and colleagues have focused their work on Arctic sea ice and extreme weather events, through analysis of polar climate data gathered from weather stations and satellites. Climate models generated through this data allow for predictions of sea ice coverage for the next one hundred years, as well as predictions of the frequency of extreme weather events (cold waves, heat waves, strong winds, floods, and droughts).

In the field of geology, Associate Professor Alison Anders’ work has recently brought her to Alaska to study the formation and flow of ice sheets. In collaboration with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Anders and colleagues are working on understanding past climates and erosion by glaciers, namely the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet (which once covered much of Northern Europe) and a small ice cap that grew over the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State — both from about 20,000 years ago. Comparative work in the distribution of talus slopes (rock slopes made of fractured blocks of rock) in Alaska is making use of microclimate models in order to account for variations, like cold-air pooling in mountain basins and differential warming because of aspect (north-facing vs. south-facing slopes). This information can then be used to identify the temperature ranges most closely associated with talus slopes, and thus fill in the picture of global temperature change.

U of I English Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s book examines how the Mt. Tambora eruption of 1815 effected the entire world, including the Arctic. (Image Courtesy of the Princeton Press).

These are all just a small sampling of some of the scientific research at the University of Illinois related to or driven by the ongoing study of the Arctic region. In addition to the natural sciences, the humanities have also engaged with Arctic studies, and even crossed disciplines to seek to understand how climate and environment are interconnected with society and culture. One example is the work of English Professor, Gillen D’Arcy Wood, who recently led the Tambora Project that researched the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, the largest volcanic event of the past 10,000 years. The resulting book, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (2014), sought to understand this eruption as a global event, tracing its impact in thermal deficits and rainfall anomalies, which precipitated episodes of famine, disease, and social unrest stretching from China to Western Europe, impacting population displacement, interruptions of trade, and political changes. As it turns out, Tambora created favorable climate conditions in the Canadian Arctic between 1815–18 that briefly opened up the Northwest Passage just enough to entice British explorers in a wave of early polar exploration that would continue for decades.

Swedish researcher, Dr. Dag Avango, explains the history of Longyear City, Svalbard to students from Illinois and KTH in 2012. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

Since 2012, faculty and students at the University of Illinois and KTH–The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden have collaborated in an interdisciplinary summer course in Arctic studies called “Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic.” The first three-weeks have taken place in Stockholm on KTH’s campus, followed by a two-week research visit in the Arctic; this has been held on the archipelago of Svalbard in 2012 and 2013, and in Lapland, Sweden in 2014, 2015, and 2016. This has been a rich collaboration with colleagues at KTH and Stockholm University, involving Scandinavian studies, the history of technology, geology, glaciology, and genomic biology, among other fields. Planning and logistics have been organized by KTH, led by Dr. Dag Avango, with support from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat. In Sweden, Stockholm University’s Tarfala Research station has provided essential support, led by Professor Gunhild Rosqvist.

While staying at Stockholm University’s Tarfala Research Station, students have visited Storglaciären, the great glacier beneath Kebnekaise, Sweden’s tallest peak. Researchers have been monitoring the decrease in these glaciers for decades. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

This has been one of the most fruitful professional exchanges I personally have experienced in my career. In assisting with this course, I have benefited from meaningful exchanges with colleagues in the natural sciences at the University of Illinois, notably Drs. Bruce Fouke, Alison Anders, and Jonathan Tomkin. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my own training as an historian and a teacher of Scandinavian literature would lead me and my students into the Arctic. Yet, the history of Arctic expeditions have been full of far more bizarre reasons for entering this unique part of the globe, and academic study has been part of Arctic history almost from the beginning.

My own research in Scandinavian history and literature has found an application in this course as the students and I have analyzed Arctic-related literature, including the accounts of polar explorers. Our readings span a millennium, including the Viking sagas, the age of the Enlightenment, Romantic era fairy tales, and the heroic exploration narratives from the 18th century to the present. Although some students have come with little experience with critical reading of literature, most have quickly transitioned from thinking that these are quaint diversions from contemporary issues — like climate change and resource extraction — to actually seeing how relevant and persistent these historic cultural narratives can be in shaping how people continue to view the Arctic today.

The city of Kiruna in northern Sweden is being relocated due to mining activity that is literally undermining the city. Students learn how this and other iron mines and human settlement have impacted the ecosystem both historically and presently. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

Much of our time in the field is spent visiting historic sites related to the mining industry, as well as museums and historic preserved buildings. For this reason, our discussion is conducted within the framework of public history, focusing on the “delivery areas” of history, such as museums, documentaries, oral history, national parks, monuments, historic sites and built environments, as well as indigenous methodologies. Our students have encountered an overwhelming array of narratives in these venues, such as cultural centers and museums in Svalbard, Kiruna, Jokkmokk, and the UNESCO world heritage site of Laponia. At the same time, students are also challenged by the faculty from the natural sciences to take into consideration environmental factors, such as ice and glacier dynamics, the health of reindeer populations, and the impacts of mining on the ecosystem.

“…Most (students) have quickly transitioned from thinking that these are quaint diversions from contemporary issues — like climate change and resource extraction — to actually seeing how relevant and persistent these historic cultural narratives can be in shaping how people continue to view the Arctic today.”
Visits to mines, like this one in Gällivare, Sweden in 2015, present students with a chance to understand the scope, impact, and challenges of large-scale mining activity in Arctic ecosystems. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

Perhaps the most valuable opportunity of the field site is the chance for students to talk to people with vested interests in the industries that operate in the Arctic. In Svalbard this includes Norwegian and Russian coal mining companies, and in Sweden this includes iron and copper mines, as well as representatives of the indigenous Sámi communities. To read more about the experiences of past students visit the EU Center’s “Across the Pond” blog.

The research and educational opportunities that we have with our students in the Arctic have helped to provide us all with new comparative perspectives.

One student in 2012 wrote, “This study abroad experience has given me a new insight to how one’s views are shaped by not only historical standpoints, but also present day interactions with the environment and individuals with a distinctive message.”

The issues that are raised in one field or discipline intersect with others, and there is much to be gained from these interdisciplinary collaborations. Regardless of their field of study, when students are challenged to make connections with other fields this can hopefully prepare them to be the kind of well-informed citizens that we need to address the complex questions facing both our environment and society in the years to come.

Students on a hike out of Petunia Bay, Svalbard in 2013. (Photo credit: Mark Safstrom)

About the Author: Dr. Mark Safstrom is Lecturer in Swedish and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he serves as Coordinator for the Scandinavian Program of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. Dr. Safstrom’s research is in 19th and early 20th century Nordic history, religious history, immigration to North America, and polar exploration. He teaches courses on Scandinavian history and literature, including Arctic studies. During the summers, he has frequently taught at KTH–The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden as part of the “Stockholm Summer Arctic Program: Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic” with field site components in Svalbard, Norway and Northern Sweden.

Special thanks Alison Anders, Steven E. Brown, and Adam Doskey for supplying content on Arctic-related research at Illinois. Thanks also to the many partners who helped to establish and maintain the Stockholm Summer Arctic Program and ongoing Arctic studies partnerships, including: KTH-The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm University, and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat; the University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Illinois Study Abroad, the European Union Center, the School of Earth, Society, and Environment, Global Studies; the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Spurlock Museum; to the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation and the Swedish Institute; and especially to colleagues Dag Avango, Alison Anders, Bruce Fouke, Gunhild Rosqvist, Anna Westerståhl Stenport, Jonathan Tomkin, and Hanna Vikström.