History for the Future? What the Past Reveals About the Warming Arctic

In this blog, Dagomar Degroot of Georgetown University muses on an intriguing question behind his article (published online first, March 2019) in Environment and History, ‘War of the Whales: Climate Change, Weather, and Arctic Conflict in the Early Seventeenth Century’: can historians write credibly about the future, as well as the past? In an era of environmental and geopolitical uncertainty, can the insights of history help us to map the way forward?

Can historians write credibly about the future, as well as the past? Many historians recoil from the suggestion, holding to the idea that the ‘past is a foreign country’. If ‘they do things differently there’, after all, what can ‘they’ possibly teach us about ourselves? ‘Presentism’, of course, remains an ugly word in our field. When we view the past through the lens of issues in our own time, the thinking goes, we inevitably distort the unique character of the past.

Yet this way of thinking always struck me as defeatist, and more than a little dishonest. Whether we realise it or not, we cannot help but interpret sources or ask questions with the baggage of values and concerns that are inevitably anchored to our own time and place. No amount of empathy or detachment – opposite strategies with which we embrace the otherness of the past – can ever entirely rid us of that.

And thank goodness! For it is precisely the shifting nature of our present that has inspired some of the most innovative historical research. Many environmental historians, for example, trace the origins of their field to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, a small group of historians wondered how their field might open new perspectives on the perils of pollution and consumption.

It’s a similar story for climate history, a closely related field that overlaps with the sub-disciplines of historical climatology and paleoclimatology. The field has old roots – rotten roots, depending on how far back you go – but has lately gained vital urgency and dynamism as historians join the rest of humanity in confronting the growing crisis of anthropogenic climate change.

Fortunately for historians, the tools scientists have used to detect humanity’s imprint on Earth’s climate – model simulations and ‘proxy’ evidence derived from natural archives – also provide a revolutionary record of past climatic fluctuations. We can, at last, begin to follow human and climatic histories on similar scales in time and place. We can now connect not just the fates of societies but also the decisions of individuals and communities to climatic shocks and trends. And we can follow climatic upheavals to their environmental source: stratovolcanic eruptions, for example, or fluctuations in solar output.

There is something breathtaking about recovering ‘teleconnections’ between human and environmental agents across every conceivable scale in time and place. Such connections reveal that environments are far more than a passive stage for human drama, and they therefore give us a more accurate understanding of the past. Yet they also allow us to offer new perspectives on assumptions commonly made by political or natural scientists who project how climate change will influence human affairs in the coming centuries.

In ‘War of the Whales’ – a title I chose after carefully considering ‘Blubber Battles’ and ‘Battles for Bowheads’ – I unearth a history with relevance for a popular theory that warming in the Arctic will unleash renewed geopolitical competition. Retreating sea ice and melting ice sheets are exposing vast reserves of hydrocarbons, and opening sea lanes that provide quicker passage between Europe, North America, and Asia. Companies and countries vying for these resources, the theory has it, will eventually spark a war. In a media environment that encourages sensationalism, the theory has captured headline after headline.

In my article, I explore how bowhead whales and different European whaling crews interacted in the second decade of the seventeenth century. At the time, whalers struggled to establish a ‘Greenland Fishery’ in the Arctic bays of the Svalbard archipelago and the island of Jan Mayen. It was among the coldest decades of the ‘Little Ice Age’, a period of climatic cooling that may have reached the Arctic nearly four centuries earlier. Yet the volatility of weather and sea ice around Svalbard and Jan Mayen meant that whalers encountered radically different environmental conditions from year to year.

A late seventeenth-century painting depicts an imagined scene from the early history of Dutch Arctic whaling: sailors pursuing bowhead whales near a temporary encampment off Spitsbergen. Sea ice glitters near the coast while a whaler flenses a floating carcass near his ship. Other whalers hunt around the apparent entrance to the bay. Abraham Storck, ‘Walvisvangst bij de kust van Spitsbergen’, 1690. Stichting Rijksmuseum, Zuiderzeemuseum. Public Domain image.

Swings in average annual temperature had a profound impact on the geography of whaling in this corner of the Arctic. In warm years, Svalbard’s many bays were typically ice-free in the summer. Bowhead whales would disperse into each bay, and scattered whalers would hunt them from temporary coastal installations. In cold years, sea ice sealed Svalbard’s northern bays for much of the summer. Whales would congregate in a smaller number of southern bays, and so whaling crews would gather there, too.

If an increase in the accessibility or quantity of a resource raises the likelihood of competition and conflict – as that theory holds – then one would expect more violence between whaling crews in especially cold years of the Little Ice Age in the Arctic. Yet I found just the opposite. Whalers from different European nations tended to cooperate in these frigid years. Conflict only broke out when temperatures warmed and sea ice retreated.

To find out why, you’ll have to read my article. Its biggest conclusion is simply that human decisions and arrangements powerfully mediated the influence of climate change during the Little Ice Age. Shifting environmental circumstances did not merely dictate human responses – not even in the extreme environments of the Arctic, not even for whalers equipped with what we would consider rudimentary technology.

Environmental history, therefore, gives us reasons to doubt the simple links too often made between warming and war in the Arctic of the coming century. Yet that theory about the future also inspired me to uncover new relationships in our past. Historians, in my view, can open a fruitful dialogue between our reconstructed past and our projected future. It is a dialogue that may have much to tell us about the uncertain years ahead.

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