Research Article: Living in an oasis: Rapid transformations, resilience, and resistance in the North Water Area societies and ecosystems

Date Published: March 8, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Erik Jeppesen, Martin Appelt, Kirsten Hastrup, Bjarne Grønnow, Anders Mosbech, John P. Smol, Thomas A. Davidson.


Based on lake sediment data, archaeological findings, and historical records, we describe rapid transformations, resilience and resistance in societies and ecosystems, and their interactions in the past in the North Water area related to changes in climate and historical events. Examples are the formation of the polynya itself and the early arrival of people, ca. 4500 years ago, and later major human immigrations (different societies, cultural encounters, or abandonment) from other regions in the Arctic. While the early immigrations had relatively modest and localised effect on the ecosystem, the later-incoming culture in the early thirteenth century was marked by extensive migrations into and out of the area and abrupt shifts in hunting technologies. This has had long-lasting consequences for the local lake ecosystems. Large natural transformations in the ecosystems have also occurred over relatively short time periods related to changes in the polynya. Finally, we discuss the future perspectives for the North Water area given the many threats, but also opportunities.

Partial Text

The Arctic is facing major shifts in the sea-ice system, and this is also true for the North Water polynya although changes are not straight-forward. The North Water area includes the lands on the Greenland side bordering the polynya from Cape York to the Humboldt Glacier, and on the Canadian side, the lands south of Fort Conger to the northeastern side of Lancaster Sound. In recent years, glaciers and icecaps have been portrayed as canaries in coal mines and become part of a growing set of narratives about climate change that are highly relevant when it comes to address the challenges to humans and nature in the near future (Daniels and Endfield 2009). The metaphor of the canary is understandable, but it may potentially skew the issue in the public mind by presenting the climate-change indicators as “lone voices, single examples of a species or object, presented in emotive isolation from their ecological contexts” (Hamblyn 2009, p. 231). Whether the ‘voice’ belongs to the glacier or the polar bear, there is a risk of forgetting how components of the ecosystem connect and make up comprehensive wholes of interdependent elements and histories. The implicit repression of complexity is often sustained by a particular visual strategy, for instance an image of a skinny polar bear or, indeed, an indigenous Arctic hunter, jumping from floe to floe in dramatic pursuit of his livelihood (Martello 2008). The far more complicated issue is to show how the fates of polar bears and indigenous hunters are tied up with multiple species, long histories, and natural processes of many kinds and temporalities, and with pressing issues of governance and power—all of which will be addressed in this article.

There are many examples of fast transformations and differential degrees of resilience and resistance in the societies and ecological systems as well as in interactions between societies and ecosystems—embraced in the term socio-ecological system, to which we shall return later. In this section, we provide some examples from the North Water area.

Discussing rapid transitions in the Arctic, notably in the North Water area, makes one realise the extreme complexity of the issue as has transpired from the cases described above. When and how do particular transformations qualify as transitions or even tipping points? Life in the multi-species community in the Thule Region has been sustained by the post-glacial polynya, which allowed both animals and humans to settle and remain there over four millennia—even if human settlement in the area was discontinuous (Hastrup et al. 2018). The hiatuses have a lot to do with climate fluctuations, as have the current changes, social and ecological, although there is no simple causality, as we have seen. In this section, we discuss current notions of fast transitions, resilience, and resistance with a view not only to past events but also to present and future prospects for the socio-ecological system. It underscores the need for human agents and political bodies to take action.




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