The Arctic Institute’s Infrastructure in the Arctic Series: Conclusion

The fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) surfaces through Arctic ice at the North Pole. Photo: US Navy

At the start of this series, “Infrastructure in the Arctic,”1) I questioned the utility of looking at infrastructure by asking: what can we learn from the hard bits? Over the last six months, twelve contributors have explored this query.

They consider how icebreakers support logistics systems that are crucial for economic development2) and how megaprojects, like the Northern Latitudinal Passage,3) especially with its construction of railways, “support cargo flows and other channels of connectivity” in the region. Subsea cables, and the networks they enable, are seen as critical for Arctic development4) and this necessitates5) their protection through the strengthening of international and national laws and policies. Satellite-based communications6) support various types of systems that “facilitate management and surveillance of vast maritime areas,” among other operations. Existing infrastructural structures can be transitioned from one usage to another as a means to react to current events and needs, such as the shift of a naval base7) in Norway between military and commercial usage. The reinvention of Svalbard’s economy8) from being predicated on coal mining to focusing on scientific research, education, and tourism provides a model for other Arctic cities who wish to transition to more sustainable economies. The interconnected structures – steamships, railroads, roads, bridges, and cabins – that made Norway accessible to tourists in the nineteenth century9) contributed to the lasting development of modern and national identities. Perceptions of nature and “the use of natural resources” have sustained impacts on the ways of living in the region and interacting with the natural and built environment. Finally, the precariousness of infrastructural systems is evidenced by the contamination of Iqaluit’s water supply.10) In all of these articles, connectivity, and the structures that facilitate it, is understood as paramount to the sustainable development and inhabitation of the Arctic region.

Infrastructure makes a landscape productive, protected, and inhabitable. It is a critical point of analysis for considering human impacts and needs in the Arctic, in that it acts as a mediator, or as an interface, between politics, government, people and the natural environment. The contributors to this series have shown that by centering structures we can understand how actors perceive their relationship to the environment and its inhabitants. Thus, “infrastructure is a means through which to explore the dynamics of foreign policy, political intentions, strategic investment, economic and financial innovations, the ability to marshal and distribute resources, narratives about Arctic space, interactions with the environment, and technological developments” .11) It is my hope that this series has suggested that “the built, and oftentimes unbuilt, environment provides a valuable lens through which to parse complex interrelationships.” By centering structures we can not only tell complicated stories about the region, but also provide valuable evidence for making more informed policy decisions.

Olivia Wynne Houck was a Visiting Fellow with the Arctic Institute in 2021. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Fulbright-National Science Foundation Research Grantee, based in Reykjavik

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