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Regular version of the site

Article

Strategic Arctic science: national interests in building natural knowledge - interwar era through the Cold War

Journal of Historical Geography. 2014. Vol. 44. P. 60-80.
Doel R. E., Friedman R. M., Lajus J., Sorlin S., Wrakberg U.

From the 1930s through the 1950s—the decades bracketing the second and third international polar years—research in the physical and biological environmental sciences of the Arctic increased dramatically. The heroic, expedition-based style of Arctic science, dominant in the first decades of the twentieth century, gave way to a systematic, long-term, strategic and largely statefunded model of research which increased both Arctic presence and the volume of research output. Factors that made this change possible were distinct for each of the five circumpolar nation-states considered here. For Soviet leaders, the Arctic was an untamed land containing vast economic resources, all within reach if its long-sought Northern Sea Route became reality; Soviet officials sought environmental knowledge of this region with a range of motivations from economic and strategic concerns to enhancing the prestige of socialism. In contrast, United States officials largely ignored the Arctic until the outbreak of World War II, when military commanders quickly grasped the strategic importance of this region. Anxious that the Arctic might become a literal battleground between East and West by 1947, as the Cold War began, Pentagon leaders funded vast northern research programs, including in strategically located Greenland. Canadian leaders—while appreciating the national security concerns of its powerful southern neighbor—were even more concerned with maintaining sovereignty over its northern territories and gaining knowledge to assist its northern economic ambitions. Norway and Sweden, as smaller states, faced distinct challenges. With strong claims to Arctic heritage but limited resources, leaders of these states sought to create independent research strategies while, especially in the case of Norway, protecting their geopolitical interests in relation to the Soviet Union and the U.S. This article provides the first internationally comparative study of the multiple economic, military, political, and strategic factors that motivated scientific activities and programs in the far north, from the interwar period through World War II and the Cold War, when carefully coordinated, station-based research programs were introduced. The production of knowledge about Arctic's physical environment—including its changing climate—had little resemblance either to ideas of science-based ‘progress,’ or responses to perceived environmental concerns. Instead, it demonstrates that strategic military, economic, geopolitical, and national security concerns influenced and shaped most science undertakings, including those of the International Polar Year of 1932–1933 and the following polar year, the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958.