Celebrate Earth Day by Connecting with the Arctic Environment

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From the “Here” series — Esmarkbreen Glacier and Ymerbukta Bay in Oscar II Land, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway, 2015 [Photo courtesy of Megan Berner]
From the “Here” series — Esmarkbreen Glacier and Ymerbukta Bay in Oscar II Land, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway, 2015.

Celebrate Earth Day by Connecting with the Arctic Environment

Happy Earth Day! It’s always exciting to celebrate occasions that unite Americans with people around the world and help draw our attention to important causes.

Every person on the Earth relies on the environment for something, be it food, transportation, natural resources, recreation, or energy. Those who celebrated the first Earth Day nearly 50 years ago knew this, and today we know it more than ever.

This year, Earth Day is about educating our global citizenry with knowledge that can inspire action.  In honor of Earth Day 2017, I invite you to learn more about one of the most important regions on Earth: the Arctic. Not just about the environmental challenges the region is facing due to rapid change, but about the deep connection that those who live in the region enjoy with the Earth, especially the indigenous peoples who have inhabited the region for millennia. Antarctica may have penguins, but the Arctic has people. Four million people live above the Arctic Circle, spread across eight countries. And whether through its rapidly changing physical state, its harsh weather, its bounty or simply its beauty, the environment plays a large role in each of their lives.

Map of the Arctic Region [U.S. Department of State/INR Bureau]

The United States became an Arctic nation when we acquired Alaska 150 years ago from Russia. And thanks to the fact we have land above the Arctic Circle, the United States is part of the Arctic Council, the preeminent international forum for addressing issues in the circumpolar region. Since April 2015, we’ve been the chair of the Council. Holding the two-year rotating Chairmanship of the Arctic Council—an opportunity which only comes along once every 16 years—provides us the chance both to draw attention to this fascinating region and to explore our own Arctic identity.

 One way we did this was through the State Department’s Our Arctic Nation blog initiative. Each entry—51 in total—examined the ways in which each of our U.S. states plus the District of Columbia are connected to the Arctic. We learned through this initiative that America is an Arctic nation not only because of our geography, but because of our rich, unique, and exciting historical, economic, artistic, and cultural ties with this singular region at the top of the Earth.  

Importantly, the blog also revealed that one of America’s strongest connections to the Arctic is environmental. Our Arctic Nation unearthed (no pun intended) an astounding number of individuals in the United States who are working specifically to better understand, raise awareness of, enhance humanity’s relationship with, or protect the Arctic environment.

For example, there’s Betty Carvellas, a high school biology teacher from Vermont who took part is eight scientific research cruises on Russian and Canadian icebreakers in order to study the Arctic marine environment. There are scientists from both New Hampshire and New Mexico who conduct field work in the Arctic, battling hordes of mosquitoes while collecting soil samples on the Alaska tundra, or battling the hordes to study the mosquitoes themselves. 

Visual artist Megan Berner visits the Arctic as part of an artist residency, only to find herself reminded of the deserts in her native state of Nevada. As she says in her entry:

“The dramatic rises of the ranges in the Arctic were reminiscent of home. As foreign as the landscape was to me, it was strangely familiar. Although they seem like worlds apart, being in the Arctic made me feel that that landscape was intimately linked to my desert home, both shaped over millennia by the powerful elemental forces of ice, wind, and tectonics.”

The Muries near Jackson Hole, Wyoming 1956, when their ranch was headquarters for The Wilderness Society. [Photo courtesy of the Murie Center of Teton Science Schools]

And no discussion of the Arctic and the environment would be complete without mentioning Olaus and Mardy Murie. As the Wyoming entry explains, their passion for Alaska, combined with their scientific and conservation work, led to some of our country’s most important legal protections of wilderness in America’s Arctic and elsewhere.

Each of the Our Arctic Nation authors has a special connection to the Arctic, just as each person living on this planet has a special connection to the Earth. And while these connections might all be different, they are all to be celebrated, especially on Earth Day. 

About the Author: Erin Robertson serves as Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Demeipartment of State.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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