The Arctic Fairytale: Let’s Make It Happy Ever After


The perception of the Arctic has varied through time and between cultures, but because of its fairytale beauty and menace, it has always occupied a special place in our imagination.


By Minik Rosing, Professor, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen


To the Latin world, the Arctic was a region of important resources: ivory and fish. To the Arab world, it was a source of mythological animals like the white falcon and the unicorn. The Anglo-Saxons showed little interest in the Arctic until the Spanish empire monopolized the known trade routes to the orient and the Arctic became a physical barrier to the goods of East Asia. To the Nordics, the Arctic was a part of the cultural heartland; it was home.

Invincible, monumental

During the colonial era, “conquering” the Arctic became the focus of storied national and personal obsessions designed to display expansionist bravery and fortitude, learning, and entrepreneurialism. It was arm-wrestling on a heroic scale with an opportunity to prove the superiority of one’s own culture and to bag the riches that lay beyond. But the Arctic was a formidable and dangerous opponent; deadly icefields spiked with merciless polar bears and raging walruses. While gentlemen could attempt exploration, it was no place for one to live. Mostly, the Arctic “conquered” these explorers itself.

But the Scandinavians were different. The Arctic was simply part of Nordic life, and its peoples were assumed to be descendants of old Nordic cultures. Its haunting splendor and remoteness offered plenty of opportunity for people made of “the right stuff”. The right stuff, in this case, was Nordic pragmatism. In their equally storied forays into their Arctic hinterland, these people made use of Inuit and Sámi knowledge and skills. They used dog sleds expertly, planned their rations to the last dog, got home safely.


Environmental and climate change concerns took root during the latter half of the 20th century, and the international perception of the Arctic began to change. Traditionally, its frozen landscape, awesome wildlife, and defiant ecosystems had been seen as unchanging and timeless. Now, it was vulnerable, even fragile. The emblematic polar bear morphed from explorer-devouring monarch of the animal kingdom to an endangered species clinging to melting scraps of once-eternal ice fields. Likewise, the peoples of the Arctic, whose survival skills were second to none and heritage of arts both austere and lush, were cast as disempowered victims of modernity with nothing to offer in a changing world.

Think again

The global climate crisis is well underway. It is time to change our view of the Arctic. What if it were not a lost cause, but instead could play a part in modern solutions? The Arctic and its peoples would no longer be objects of catastrophe research; they would be active and meaningful agents in shaping the future. After all, our future is not destined but a result of decisions and actions we make today.

Arctic Agency: a reason for optimism – joy, even

The classical nature of research is to focus on the inherent properties of individual domains of the world. We describe these as exhaustively and accurately as possible, and then move on to describe another domain. However, now is the right time to focus on the differences between domains, and how the latent power of potential differences between Earth’s regions can be brought into action in order to turn imminent and impending crises into new opportunities.

Due to its climatic and cultural peculiarities, the Arctic is vastly different in most aspects from the regions where the majority of the world’s people live. My focus is on a single, but potentially globally important, peculiarity of the Arctic, specifically Greenland. Greenland is host to the last remaining ice sheet in the Northern Hemisphere. Its presence has deep implications for local and global climates, biodiversity, societal infrastructure, and, surprisingly, for the global distribution of plant nutrients.

During the past 2.5 million years of glaciations, ice has carved the alpine landscapes we enjoy in Greenland today. Deep fjords and valleys are all eroded by moving glaciers which have pulverized the granitic basement of the Greenland subcontinent during their movement across the land. The fine debris from the glacial landscaping has been washed out to sea, where it has formed the large shallow fishing banks. This debris can be found in deltas and even in raised sea floor deposits on land. This fine-grained “rock flour” material is particular to the Arctic, in part because it takes an ice sheet to produce it and in part because the material, once formed, remains stable and unchanged in the cold Arctic environment.

At lower latitudes, in warmer climates, the minerals of the granitic continents have been subjected to warm acidic rainwater for millions of years. The rainwater acid has dissolved the primary minerals of the granite and left a residue of insoluble clay minerals. This process is called weathering. It provides nutrients to plants growing on land, as well as nutrients that reach the sea via rivers nurturing all life in the oceans. This process has worked well, but over millions of years of exposure, the primary minerals in tropical and sub-tropical soils have been exhausted. They can no longer provide nutrients to the crop plants, the food on which people of those regions depend. No fresh minerals left to nourish plants and ocean life. This is a major cause of undernutrition, malnutrition, and economic despair for populations in vast tracts of Earth’s warm regions.

If you went looking for these “rock flour” nutrients, you would find them in the fine mineral grains in the rock flour in billion-ton deposits along the margins of the Greenland ice sheet. When we connect the Arctic to the tropics, we can activate this resource that lies inactive in Greenland and release its immense potential for generating food and wealth in countries in desperate need of solutions. In addition to the potential for improving global food security, the glacial rock flour also holds another promise for the world. The weathering process that releases the plant nutrients consumes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere – enough that it may help reduce the excess CO2 content of the air and reverse global warming.


The 2023 Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award winner was chosen from a shortlist of four nominees. In addition to Minik Rosing and his winning rock flour idea,

Mary Albert, Toku Oshima, Lene Kielsen Holm (posthumous), Christopher Polashenski, Weiyang (Fiona) Li, Hunter Snyder, and Alyssa Pantaleo were nominated for developing solar-powered, locally and cooperatively owned portable fish-drying chambers in Greenland as a sustainable transition to a low-carbon future for Arctic coastal communities to help with local food security, and to increase income for fishers and improve energy security while investing in and respecting traditional knowledge, local decision-making, economic empowerment, self-determination and food security.

N. Stuart Harris was nominated for working with the Maniilaq Association to create a program of health monitoring with colleagues in the Northwest Arctic Borough of Alaska to quantify and qualify the impacts of climate change on human health using the lens of emergency medical care to provide evidence to impact health-informed decision making.

Scott Hosking, Tom Andersson, Ellen Bowler, James Byrne, Alden Conner and the team were nominated for working in close partnership with WWF and the Government of Nunavut Department of Environment using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to increase the accuracy and range of sea ice forecasts to help Arctic residents to prepare and adapt to changing ice conditions.

The Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award provides high-level recognition for innovative ideas that transform knowledge into action to help address the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. It comes with a 100,000 euro unrestricted prize, intended to help develop the idea through outreach, engagement and communication. The award is a joint activity of UArctic and the Arctic Circle.

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