Geographic Imaginaries of Sea Ice: Territory, Substance, Symbol (S. Kane)

S Kane2Geographic Imaginaries of Sea Ice:  Territory, Substance, Symbol

Professor Stephanie Kane, Professor in the School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University

An ethnographic approach to ice worlds might trace alignments and contradictions emerging from ways of apprehending, living in and moving through the earth’s aquatic spaces. Analyzing the cross-cultural logics and practices, measurements, interpretations, judgments and technologies that inform territorial laws and claims, treaties, conventions and petitions, could provide the basis for negotiating sustainable, place-based futures for Arctic sea ice habitat as heritage, infrastructure and technozone.

Scientific and technological advancement at the poles, historically fueled by romanticized, patriarchal and nationalistic challenges of extreme exploration, continues to produce knowledge delineating the geophysics of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Yet, as data enter legal regimes that reproduce boundary-making practices based on land-water dichotomies, multiform understandings of sea ice dynamics are lost. Communicated via visual technologies such as remote sensing that flatten spatial sense, the  techno-scientific findings that circulate through institutional channels and cultural media tend to over-simplify, and by over-simplifying, exclude or obscure the textures and meanings animating life-worlds on/in ice.

As our workshop conversations made clear, application of techno-scientific knowledge in law-making requires abstract delineation of insider/outsider boundaries; legal constructions are cultural constructions that strive for clarity by avoiding the ambiguities inherent in complexity. The goal for the territory subproject, I believe, is to identify and study the dynamics of ice worlds and their analogs and to find ways  to integrate key geophysical and sociocultural dimensions of human-ice relationships across communities, jurisdictions and nations. Examining the active sense of territory enacted by place-makers inhabiting or exploiting ice formations, we could discover thematic possibilities that might  introduce nuance into the delineational processes of law.

About 12,000 years ago, as the ice sheets receded to the poles, and the Pleistocene epoch gave way to the Holocene, inventive humans in temperate and tropical climes began to move more freely about the earth. Eventually, industrialization and urbanization transformed so much of the planet’s crust and atmosphere  that some geologists are declaring that a new epoch, the Anthropocene, should be recognized  and acknowledged.[i]  The transformation of Arctic sea ice raises questions central to rethinking global practices of territorial boundary making in the Anthropocene.

Through most of these thousands of years, humans and non-human animals in the Arctic have negotiated the spatio-temporally changing interfaces of sea ice, water and land in relative isolation. But the effects of higher temperatures accompanying climate change supersede their origins, dramatically pulling the ice, animals and people of the Arctic into the ambit of the world powers shipping out of lower latitudes. Even as the frozen infrastructure of everyday life is undermined by seasonal melting, the venturing representatives of states and corporations seek to claim and exploit the new openings. What forms of knowledge should inform the newly emerging  territorializing processes that threaten traditional subsistence practices and the health of the polar environment?

An ethnographic contribution to the territory subproject could enrich the possibilities of the geographical imagination of ice worlds by documenting and analyzing alternative, holistic readings about beliefs, codes and practices informing boundary-making in the transformational spaces within or upon which life in the cold rely. In the readings contributed by the anthropology section of the workshop, I identified parameters that collectively begin to suggest a foundation for a holistic analysis of the forms, functions, processes, interactions and meanings of ice worlds. So far, they include:
1) Habitat: fresh and sea water ice as ecological calls for a place-based relational analysis of species distributed in particular formations, e.g., inter-species fishing at the edge of ice shelves.
2) Intelligence, spirit, agency: the sense or attribution of ice as an actor, with or without consciousness (depending on belief), whose characteristics, motions, and effects shape and condition the mobility, health, purpose and sense of belonging in cold habitats.
3) Water reserve: glaciers and frozen rivers near human settlement store fresh water supplies for distribution and use.
4) Infrastructure: like land, sea ice forms platforms for subsistence-based activities such as transport, construction of shelter, food provision (hunting, fishing, herding, cooking, preserving); and for the material expression of states and corporations that seek to exploit resources and colonize territory (e.g., oil pipelines).
5) Obstacle or hazard:  For lower latitude state and non-state agents planning on penetrating melted Arctic zones in warmer seasons, such as shipping and mining industries, various forms of ice (icebergs, ice shelves) may be perceived as obstacles to avoid or break up.  For persons engaged in subsistence activities, the changing form of ice can present hazards, e.g. a hunter getting caught on an ice flow.
6) Indicator and moderator of climate change: Ecologically, geophysically and symbolically, Arctic sea ice is central to the global imagination of climate change. As it actively interacts with the range of  cascading hydrological impacts  resulting from human pollution, it dramatizes the planet’s changing state.
7) Representation of extremes: frozen landscapes spiral through historical and contemporary mass-mediated genres of international culture shaping environmental imaginations and financial speculation.
And lastly, while not in the set of papers I read in preparation for the conference, but rather in the June issue of Harper’s magazine:
8) Dumping ground: States have used the Arctic for military bases, treating frozen sea ice as a wasteland in which toxic debris can be abandoned with impunity. There is increasing international pressure for states to recognize the unique sensitivity of ice environments and to legally work towards reversing and preventing site contamination. Like heritage and resource claims, these positive efforts are bound up with territorial politics.
Additional parameters should be added, especially pertaining to resource extraction in ice worlds. In practice, the salience of these parameters of human thought and action can occur  simultaneously (e.g. habitat, spirit, infrastructure) and can shift from one to another (infrastructure to hazard).  They can function as ethnographic foci in a variety of aquatic environments, frozen and otherwise, to inform environmentally and socially just law-making.


[i] Syvitski, James. 2012. An Epoch of Our Making. Global Change 78: 12-15.

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