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New map re-envisions Arctic region without national borders

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Norwegian Polar Institute

"Maps are ideology," Christopher Connery, a professor of world literature and cultural studies, once wrote. If that is the case, then the map produced for the 2013 Arctic Frontiers conference is certainly an interesting case study. The colorful, stylized, and cartoonish map is not divided into countries, but rather into various regions with unusual place names. Not only are the names unusual, though: even the locations in which the boundaries are drawn is contentious.

Iceland is the only country that has its own name on the map. Yet the color used to represent Iceland, indigo, is the same as that chose for both Scandinavia and the British Isles. (Maybe this map, published quite some time ago, presaged David Cameron's speech today, which symbolically widened the gulf between the UK and the EU).

The lumping together of Iceland, Scandinavia, and the British Isles makes the five independent countries uncomfortable cartographic bedfellows. The United Kingdom and the Ireland are represented as one entity, the aforementioned British Isles, which I reckon would upset many people on both sides of the Irish Sea. The United Kingdom, too, has a history of polar exploration and a real interest in the Arctic, as represented by the military, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, and the Polar Regions Unit. (As an aside, Duncan Depledge explored UK interest in the Arctic in more detail today during his presentation, which you can listen to here).

By contrast, I'm not aware of Ireland ever expressing any strategic interest in the circumpolar north. Last to bear the indigo shade is Scandinavia, which in this map includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. This much is generally accepted in common geographic parlance, yet Denmark is a different color than Greenland. In this map, the autonomous island loses its Scandinavian identity and connection with Denmark, highlighting the separation between the two parts of the Danish Kingdom. Instead, Greenland is symbolized as having closer ties to its west, with parts of Nunavut just across Baffin Bay painted a similar shade of yellow. The indigenous-dominated Canadian territory doesn't get its name on the map, unlike its neighbor to the west, the so-called "Northern Territories," which bizarrely subsumes both the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Nunavut and Greenland

Nunavut and west Greenland do indeed share many historical links through the Inuit people, who have settlements on both sides of the bay. The links also extend to ecology and conservation, for in the 1980s, there was talk of twinning Ellesmere Island National Park Reserve (now Quttinirpaaq National Park) and Northern Greenland National Park, though the plans didn't come to fruition. This map ideologically reconnects both sides of Baffin Bay while distancing them from their respective southern capitals, Ottawa and Copenhagen. Alaska is given its own name on the map, though the United States isn't mentioned by name at all. The artist also took a lot of leeway in depicting the extent of the Alaskan panhandle, which looks significantly wider than it actually is.

Let's turn to the map's illustration of the Old Continent, which divides it into Northern Europe and Eastern Europe. There isn't really any coherence to Northern Europe as a group geographically, politically, or otherwise. Even when it is used, such as by the United Nations, it tends to include the Nordic countries, the Baltic countries, and the United Kingdom and Ireland. Yet on this map, the designation of Northern Europe has shifted southward to the continent, covering everything from France to Germany to Ukraine. Eastern Europe seems to have shifted eastward, including Finland, Estonia, and Russia west of the Urals.

The light green color, however, stretches from Finland all the way to the shores of the Pacific, where the map places the region of the Far East. The distinguishing of the Far East from Siberia conjures up a more Asian association for this distant corner of Russia, hearkening to the growing interests of China, Japan, and South Korea in the Arctic, along with their close proximity to the likes of Kamchatka and Magadan. It is also unusual to divide Russia into three parts, for in this map, in between the Far East and Eastern Europe is the vast landmass of Siberia. Even in Moscow, I would venture that traditional representations of Mother Russia see the Urals as splitting the country into two halves: the Europe-oriented west and the endless hinterlands of Siberia.

'The Arctic'

The name of "The Arctic" is given to the ice cap. The meaning of the Arctic is always up for debate, but here, it just seems to mean the quickly shrinking mass of ice on top of the globe. This is the area that some see as a global commons, while others see it as potentially part of their continental shelves.

Finally, I'm not sure what the eleven black lines connecting various regions to each other and the Arctic ice cap are supposed to represent – does anyone want to venture a guess?

Thus, the stakeholders named by the Arctic Frontiers map are Iceland, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Greenland, the Northern Territories, Alaska, Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Siberia, and the Far East. There's no mention of any of the Arctic 5 by name: the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark, or Russia. If we define frontiers to mean borders, the Arctic Frontiers map, then, is certainly charting new and unusual territories in terms of how the Arctic is conceptualized. The Arctic Frontiers map seems to most closely correspond with the following map of indigenous peoples in the Arctic produced by Winfried Dallmann of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

To paint a broad picture, there's the similar tripartite division of Russia, the linking of western Greenland and Nunavut, the indivisibility of the "Northern Territories" and the widening of Alaska. One of the biggest differences between the two maps though is that in NPI's version of the Arctic, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and western Russia are connected by a broad stroke of yellow representing the Sami people.

Update: A reader has informed me that the map is based on the one used in the board game, Risk, and the black lines represent lines of attack or troop supply. Certainly an interesting inspiration given the emphasis we hear on cooperation and peace in the Arctic!

Second update: The map originally analyzed in this post was a draft. The post has been updated to reflect the conference's usage of the final map, seen below. I apologize for my mistake.

2013 Arctic Frontiers poster, final version

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.