Love in a cold climate: A life-long obsession with the Arctic

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Ever since he first saw a photograph of the Arctic as a young boy, Charles Emmerson has been fascinated by the idea of a magical, white wasteland. He explains his life-long obsession with the region

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My fascination started some time in the early 1980s. I'm not quite sure when, but I'm quite sure why.

I was seven or eight years old and I picked up a copy of National Geographic from 1978 which had an article about Spitsbergen, an island in the Arctic Ocean. It's a beautiful, severe place and, at that time, was caught up in a strategic tussle between the Soviet Union and the West. I've still got the magazine. At the time, I don't know what interested me more: the photographs, complete with polar bears, or the stories of the people who lived there, on the edge of the world.

Much of my child's view of the Arctic was about the magic of a place where there was daylight for half the year, and night for the other half. The Arctic was so far removed from London, where I grew up. There, in the Far North, it seemed to me, nature still seemed to rule supreme.

My obsession grew, and between the ages of nine and 18, I woke up every morning to a huge map of the world covering an entire wall of my bedroom, with these enigmatic white spaces and oddly shaped islands – Greenland, Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya – right in the middle. Their very emptiness on the map, compared with the dense cluster of towns and cities and names in Europe or North America, were an invitation to my imagination.

When I was about 10, I actually visited the Arctic for the first time. With my mother, I took the train from Stockholm in Sweden, up past Kiruna and into northern Norway. I slept through the moment when we actually crossed the Arctic Circle, and was angry at myself for not staying awake as we passed over that final northern frontier. I think I was genuinely surprised that the Arctic wasn't entirely flat, empty, white and cold when we got to Narvik, on Norway's west coast. The reality didn't quite fit with my expectation. But I was hooked nonetheless. I vowed to come back.

Those preconceptions I had about the Arctic as a child are the way that most of us tend to view the region. But they only apply to a part of it. In reality, there are several Arctics, from the massive ice sheet of Greenland smothering the land in millions of tons of ice, to the huge hinterland of the Canadian Arctic, to the Arctic of northern Europe, stretching across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

And not all of the Arctic is white. Much of it is green, certainly in summer. Although the Arctic can be viciously cold, it is not universally cold – it's much, much warmer, for example, on the northern coast of Norway than it is at points of similar latitude thousands of miles to the east in north-eastern Russia, which is shielded from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream by the giant Eurasian landmass.

And although the Arctic is sparsely populated, it's far from empty. There are Inuit populations across the Arctic, in North America, Greenland, northern Europe and Russia, whose interests and views are often ignored or simplified. In Greenland, there are very mixed views about the costs and benefits of Arctic climate change. I remember speaking to one Greenlandic politician who was quite clear that climate change opened up tremendous economic possibilities for Greenland from greater access to mineral resources onshore and offshore. This was Greenland's ticket to independence from Denmark, after centuries of dependency.

The Russian city of Murmansk has a (non-Inuit) population of around 340,000. At the height of the Cold War, when that part of the Soviet Union was one of the most heavily militarised parts of the world, home to a significant part of the Soviet submarine fleet, Murmansk had a population of nearly half a million. That city is now adjusting to a world where the financial support from the Soviet state is gone. But new opportunities – in Arctic shipping or oil and gas development – may be opening up.

Part of the story of my brushes with the Arctic as an adult is the realisation that many of my southern preconceptions about what the Arctic is were wrong. One of the reasons for writing a book about the Arctic was to explore how the region may change in the future under conditions of climate change and potential economic development, forcing us to reconcile our magical, pristine, imagined Arctic with a more messy reality.

In 2008, I left my job at the World Economic Forum – a non-governmental organisation where part of my work involved thinking through the interconnections between geopolitics, energy security and climate change – to investigate how much of my childhood vision of the Arctic still stood. I wanted to understand why the region as a whole is moving from the edges of our thinking about the world to somewhere much nearer the centre.

Of course, part of that is about climate change. We know the Arctic is warming much faster than other parts of the globe. What we don't yet know, and what is crucially important for us to understand, is how much the warming of the Arctic may accelerate global climate change through feedback loops associated with Arctic snow, ice and permafrost. One study, published by the US non-governmental organisation the Pew Charitable Trusts, indicated that the costs of the loss of the Arctic as a global air conditioner could be as much as $24 trillion (£15.3 trillion) over the next four decades.

My fascination and love of the Arctic is still there. I am still childishly thrilled by the prospect of crossing the Arctic Circle. I am still awed by the Greenland ice sheet, and by the realisation of the briefness of our human stay on the planet. None of that will change. But my love of the Arctic has matured as well – it's become less one-sided, more complex, more realistic. That may become necessary for everybody, and sooner than they may think.

Charles Emmerson was speaking to Rob Sharp

Charles Emmerson's The Future History of the Arctic (The Bodley Head) is published on 4 March; a slideshow of his photographs of the Arctic are available at independent.co.uk/environment

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