Once, when I was a small child visiting my grandmother in North Haven, I borrowed a book of photographs of Svalbard, an archipelago a few hundred miles south of the North Pole, from the community library.
I remember two things about the book. Firstly, the instant irony I felt when I learned that the main town in a region that was shrouded in darkness for nearly half the year was called “Longyearbyen” (“byen” in Norwegian meaning “the city”). I will learn later that the city is named after John Longyear, an American industrialist behind the Arctic Coal Company which began mining the Arctic islands at the turn of the 20th century.
The other aspect of the book that struck me is the remoteness of the region. The book’s curator has selected images that romanticize this distance: an area untouched by man, one in which mountain glaciers sparkle with golden light against the mauve glow of late winter, one where bear cubs twin polar bears fight by the sea near the remnants of a recent catch. Several years later, I began my own life in the polar regions as a climate advocate and researcher, drawn in part to challenge this romantic view of the north.
We may all be familiar with images of hungry polar bears and water gushing from glaciers. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world and, in many ways, is the epicenter of the climate crisis. However, seeing the Arctic as inaccessible allows us to continue to tell that the climate crisis is happening in another space, at another time.
By the time this article is published, I will be alone, not far from the North Pole. All my possessions are in a sled, my red tent is on the ice floe and my neck is a swivel for polar bears. All around me are scenes that could very well have come from my library book. However, I’m not here for the romantic photos but for the plastic. The area is rarely visited by humans, but I find our fingerprints are everywhere. The plastic here comes from face scrubs, water pipes, fleeces and bottles that have been sent with letters on sea voyages.
On rest days, even at 82 degrees north, I use my iridium phone to break up any lonely feelings and connect to the world via Zoom. Many of my zooms will be with classrooms around the world for virtual excursions into the polar terrain, with researchers to link observations to satellite flybys, and with scientists to discuss airborne toxins. However, I will also speak with world leaders both at the UN and at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos to demand the centrality of the Arctic in global climate negotiations.
One of the reasons to break this concept of remoteness is that many of the same systems transporting plastics and toxins to one of the most isolated places on earth are wreaking havoc in our own backyards. The Gulf of Maine is therefore warming faster than all the world’s oceans except 1%. We watched our shrimp industry shut down, we hauled tropical seahorses to Boothbay, while oyster shells didn’t harden.
Whether it’s denim fibers embedded in the flesh of arctic fish or rising levels of methylmercury in pelagic predators in Maine, we can no longer think of the polar regions as foreign. The Amazon has long been considered the lungs of the world. We must now center the Polar Regions as the planetary core regulating circulatory systems around the globe. After all, everything is connected.
Valy Steverlynck is co-chair of the Freeport Sustainability Advisory Board and a member of the RSU 5 Sustainability Committee.
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