Research Article: Introducing the North Water: Histories of exploration, ice dynamics, living resources, and human settlement in the Thule Region

Date Published: March 7, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Kirsten Hastrup, Anders Mosbech, Bjarne Grønnow.


The North Water is a recurrent polynya in the High Arctic situated between Northwest Greenland and Ellesmere Island of Canada. The North Water makes a dynamic space, where various processes may enhance or obstruct each other, accelerating or halting particular modes of human–animal relations in the region, where life itself depends on the North Water. This will be discussed in four steps. The first step posits the North Water as a perceived oasis for explorers and whalers hailing from Europe or America in the nineteenth century. The second step concentrates on the diverse rhythms inherent in the ice conditions, as affected by trends that are set in motion elsewhere. The third step highlights the implications of the dynamics of the ice and sea currents for animal life in the region. The fourth step gives an overview of human settlement patterns around the North Water across the ages. The article shows how natural and social features are deeply implicated in each other, even if they are not directly co-variant.

Partial Text

The central figure in this Special Issue is the North Water (Pikialasorsuaq), a recurrent High Arctic polynya at the top of Baffin Bay between Northwest Greenland (Avanersuaq) and Ellesmere Island and Baffin Island on the Canadian coast, roughly covering the area between 76°N to 79°N and 70°W to 80°W at its peak (Fig. 1). While itself an open water area, the North Water is demarcated by the surrounding, ever shifting sea–ice most of the year, and subject to seasonal changes in wind and sea currents as well as changes in temperature. The polynya responds to these factors; it expands or contracts and caters for different life forms at different times; it is these dynamics, including the present global warming, that cause destabilization of ice edges at seasons where they used to be stable. This is also what makes us see the North Water as a forceful agent in the entire region, and which we shall introduce here as a key to the interplay between ice conditions, animal migrations, human settlements, and hunting opportunities in both short- and longer term perspectives.Fig. 1Map of the North Water region (drafted by Kasper Lambert Johansen)

The passage to the North Water invariably goes through the Davis Strait, named after John Davis, the first navigator sent out in search of a Northwest Passage in late sixteenth century under the reign of Elizabeth I. In his third failed attempt, he made it as far as somewhere between 70° and 73°N before he had to return south along the western coast of the Strait due to foul weather. Today, the Davis Strait is geographically defined by the 70°N parallel between Greenland and Baffin Island and the 60°N parallel between Greenland and Labrador.

The North Water is defined in relation to the ice, if not with the ice (Fig. 1). With air reconnaissance and satellite data, it became possible to chart the annual cycle with some precision in the 1960s (Dunbar and Dunbar 1972), even though winter darkness still prevented permanent observation. Adding to this difficulty is the invariable lack of distinctiveness, even disappearance, of the North Water in summer, when it opens up and connects Kane Bassin with Baffin Bay. This takes us to the dynamics of the surrounding ice as a decisive factor in the North Water’s constitution.

In an attempt to circumvent the inaccuracies of aerial census techniques in measuring the relative abundance of wildlife in the region, a ground-based survey was made in the early 1990s on the coast of Ellesmere Island (France and Sharp 1992). Members of the expedition skied along the coast and counted what they saw; as it turned out, the method was not free of bias, nor was it necessarily more precise in its estimates, but it is interesting in its approach to ecological integrity, as France and Sharp call it. This refers to the wholeness, diversity, and degree of connectiveness within a biotic community, and can be viewed as an emergent property of ecosystems (France and Sharp 1992, p. 444). Inadvertently, this is a parallel to the way in which the Inughuit hunters perceive their surroundings—as a totality of diverse resources at particular points in time. A newer word for such ecological integrity is sea–ice community. This embraces all organisms from phytoplankton and upwards to higher trophic levels, seabirds, seals, whales, polar bears, and humans—all of them part of the biotic community and the ecosystem that depends on the ice and the open water in its midst, and crucially interdependent (AMAP 2011, pp. 59–61; Meltofte 2013, pp. 486–527; CAFF 2017) (Fig. 2).Fig. 2Map of Smith Sound published by Hayes (1866). Hayes wintered in Foulke Fjord (1860–1861) at the narrowest point of the Smith Sound, where he was stopped by the Ice. His tracks south of this relate to sailing, while north of this the tracks refer to sledging expeditions

In this section, we shall focus on social features that add to the complexity of the human involvement with the North Water. Humans are not simple consumers of the animals on offer, but they also have their own sense of what matters. Clearly, in hard times, of which there have certainly been many, the Inuit have had little choice of diet and life-style. Yet, there have also been preferences and not least practical skills that have placed the social communities in particular relations to the resources, and varying over time (Flora et al. 2018).

In this article, we have wanted to highlight the multiple dimensions of the North Water as a site for particular life forms, human and animal. The multi-species sociality of the North Water is not only based on adaptive synchronicity but has an element of chance connections between species at many trophic levels with each their life cycle and temporal dynamics. Human movements are not directly co-variant, but nevertheless deeply implicated with ice edges, sea currents, animal breeding patterns, and climate variations through their joint dependence on the North Water.




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