Cold Climates and Cultural Connections: Minnesota, Norway and the Arctic

By Eivind Heiberg, Norway’s Consul General in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minnesota is not an Arctic state.

This is probably a surprising opening statement for those of you who came here expecting to learn how Minnesota contributes to America’s identity as an Arctic nation. Yes, it may certainly feel like the Arctic when temperatures creep below the range of normal thermometers. And with our snow, you might think you are much further north when you see roads covered for months by a layer of white flakes so thick that it would have caused schools and public offices elsewhere in America to close down immediately.

But still, we are not an Arctic state.

Minnesotans make the most of their Arctic-like winters, often playing hockey on frozen lakes and ponds. (Photo credit: Brian Adams)

Similar to Alaska — America’s Arctic state — and other spots around the region, Minnesota is a place where outdoorsy people thrive, even in the winter. A Minnesotan’s threshold for what constitutes “cold” weather is usually pretty high. Our continental climate means that winter temperatures in some places can drop as low as -60° Fahrenheit. In the town of International Falls in northern Minnesota, which calls itself the “Icebox of the Nation,” schools close only when the temperature dips below 50 degrees below zero.

Angle Inlet, at the very top of Minnesota, is the closest spot in the contiguous 48 states to the Arctic Circle (in blue). (Image credit: U.S. Department of State)

Minnesota is not located in the Arctic, either. However, the geographical oddity of Angle Inlet, Minnesota — located at a latitude of 49.22° north — is the only part of the contiguous “Lower 48” that falls above the 49th parallel. This makes Minnesota the closest state besides Alaska to the Arctic Circle (which is located at 66.56083° north).

But Arctic-like weather and near-Arctic geography still don’t make Minnesota an Arctic state.

So what are the state’s connections to the Arctic, and how does it contribute to America’s identity as an Arctic Nation?

Searching for an answer, I reached out to some fellow Minnesotans to see what they had to say.

Winter (or a cold spring, in this case — this photo of Lake Superior was taken in March) doesn’t hold Minnesotans back from getting outdoors. (Photo credit: Travel. Garden. Eat. under Creative Commons)

One person I heard from was Joseph Robertson, Global Strategy Director for the non-profit, non-partisan organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby, who sees a couple major ways in which Minnesota is connected to the Arctic:

  1. Intense warming of the Arctic climate means routinely warmer winters for Minnesota. This has profound impacts on human activity (including winter sports and tourism, and also on agriculture and on the kind of ecosystems and species that thrive in Minnesota).
  2. Destabilization of the Arctic climate affects climate everywhere, destabilizing life-support systems we take for granted but without which, human civilization is a lot harder to conceive and defend. This destabilization will undoubtedly affect the U.S. and Minnesotan economies, international relations, and what our country and state are able to invest in locally, nationally and globally.

I also heard from students and staff at Eden Lake Elementary School, located in the “Twin Cities” area comprised of both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, who are interested in the Arctic and in climate. Last fall, when local TV’s celebrity weatherman Sven Sundgaard — who is part Norwegian himself — traveled north in late 2015 to the Canadian Arctic to observe first-hand the effects of climate change on polar bears, 17 fifth graders in Eden Lake were eagerly following him online. Through a blog and Twitter, Sven shared his experiences and observations, bringing the Arctic directly into this Minnesota classroom.

“Each day there was a different activity that the students were required to do, and all of it was based around Sven,” recalls Sheryl Cater, the education coordinator at Eden Lake.

Noah Nieman, a fifth grader in the class, says he found it fascinating and that it was “really cool” to learn about polar bears.

Minnesota has, as many will know, strong cultural ties with Scandinavian countries like Norway, where the Arctic is very much a part of the national identity. Nearly 10% of Norway’s population lives north of the Arctic Circle, as part of thriving communities that offer everything you would expect to find in a developed society. Northern Norway is also rich in natural resources, both at sea and on land, as well as its well-known natural beauty.

A map of the United States and Canada with number of Norwegian Americans and Norwegian Canadians in every state and province, including Washington, D.C. (Image credit: Matt783 under Creative Commons)

It’s no wonder that immigrants from Scandinavian countries like Norway quickly felt at home and were able to thrive when they first arrived in Minnesota in the middle of the 19th century. (And no wonder that the state’s professional football team ended up being called the Vikings).

(Photo credit: Norway’s Consulate General in Minnesota)

Norway has had a diplomatic presence in Minnesota since 1906. The state is today home to nearly 900,000 people who claim Norwegian roots — the largest group of Norwegian descendants outside of Norway, nearly 16% of the state’s population. Even today, Norwegian traditions like the holiday Syttende Mai (“May 17th”), which marks the signing of Norway’s constitution and Norway’s beginning as an independent nation, are celebrated in Minnesota.

A particularly strong and reciprocal relationship exists between the Norwegian Home Guard and the Minnesota National Guard, whose annual American-American-Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange(NOREX) began in 1974. Today, NOREX represents the longest-running military exchange partnership between any two nations.

(Photo credits: Minnesota National Guard)

Just like the Arctic, Minnesota is guarding a massive storage of fresh water. The mighty Lake Superior, one of the largest bodies of water on the planet, is right at our doorstep. With many of the most densely populated regions of the world facing increasing water scarcity and food insecurity, there is a very real shift in the value of fresh water, wherever it can be found. This could lead to competition for local water resources, even in the water-rich Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Ice-covered Lake Superior, October 2009 (Photo credit: Justin Link via Creative Commons)

Believe it or not, in Minnesota there is even a “Save the Winter” movement. The initiative helps to educate people about the declining reliability of deep cold that allows for such a robust and prolonged winter sports season in Minnesota. This shift is one of the ways a rapidly warming and destabilized Arctic climate system is affecting Minnesota.

So while Minnesota might not be an Arctic state like Alaska per se, its cultural and environmental ties to the Arctic region are strong, for better or worse. And for visitors and Minnesota residents alike, the Arctic — and the Arctic nation of Norway — will continue to influence the state for years to come.

About the Author:

Eivind Heiberg serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Sons of Norway and Sons of Norway Foundation. Prior to his appointment as CEO in 2009, Mr. Heiberg served as Fraternal Director of Sons of Norway since 2002. On September 1, 2015 he was appointed Honorary Consul General for the state of Minnesota.

Mr. Heiberg currently serves on the Boards for the Minnesota Insurance and Financial Services Council and Ski for Light, and is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Mass Communications, cum laude, from Concordia College and completed his coursework for a Masters in Speech Communications from the University of Minnesota.

Eivind is married to Michele and is the proud father of triplets.

Next week’s featured U.S. state: NEW MEXICO

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