Ruminating on Sea Ice (K. Dodds)

K Dodds2Ruminating on Sea Ice

Professor Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics, Royal Holloway, University of London

I have had my fair share of experiencing ice, all kinds of ice for that matter, in both the Arctic and Antarctic. One of the most spectacular experiences was piloting a zodiac inflatable and weaving around floating sea ice off the Antarctic Peninsula, while a pod of killer whales glided through those ice-filed waters. In the Arctic, on the other hand, I have listened intently to the stories told by members of northern communities (and researchers based there) in Alaska, Canada and Greenland about icy fluctuations and the challenges and opportunities for mobility, exchange, and subsistence livelihoods.

Coming up to Durham University for the ice law workshop presented me with an academic challenge. I am not a physical geographer conversant with the changing distribution and thickness of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean (or polar ice sheet stability in the case of the polar continent for example). Nor am I an anthropologist or human geographer who can draw upon a portfolio of experience and engagement with indigenous peoples in what the Norwegians would call the High North.

My presentation was, by necessity rather than clever design, one of improvisation. For me, when I think of sea ice, I conjure up an intensely homo-social world of the 1940s and 1950s when a series of white British men (no women were allowed to serve) were instructed to map, survey and photograph the ice, rock and water of the Antarctic. Fueled by a geopolitical dispute with Argentina and Chile, the idea was to turn the ice into ‘Pink Ice’; a colonizing project designed to ensure that British authorities administered a substantial part of the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. But the ice was not a straight forward accomplice – it was commonplace to read in their reports of the ice frustrating, tricking and overwhelming those attempts to map, survey and photograph. Fingers froze and machines failed to operate. It was a tough business and all done in the name of Queen and country. The ice was, as a consequence, gendered, racialised and nationalized.

Then I turned my attention to the Cold War and the Arctic. Another group of white men (in the main) were at the forefront of endeavours to better understand how sea ice would play havoc with anti-submarine detection on the one hand and on the other hand provide opportunities for US submarines to get a physical and technological edge over their Soviet rivals. The Arctic ocean, including the ocean floors and seabed, was truly a volumetric space (as geographers such as Stuart Elden remind us). I used the term military-industrial-academic sea ice complex, with apologies to President Eisenhower and Senator Fulbright, to ruminate on how the sea ice became both the subject of military strategizing and the object of academic research. Interesting, a generation of British physical scientists owed their careers in part to their time on board US and UK submarines during the Cold War.

Finally, the presentation concluded with an aside about a board game called Northwest Passage. Released in the aftermath of the inaugural voyage of SS Manhattan along the Northwest Passage, the game was intended to recreate something of the drama of an US oil company dreaming of using supertankers to transport recently discovered oil from the Alaska North Slope to European and North American markets. As became clear this vision of the Canadian Arctic as a supertanker highway was frustrated repeatedly by sea ice. It was not to be. But the consequence of such an initiative was immense as the then Canadian government used the experience to introduce new legislation designed to increase their powers to regulate this maritime space and worked with other states, especially Russia, to introduce an important clause in the United Nations Convention of the Sea regarding ice-filled waters. Sea ice was put to work in facilitating a project designed to increase the sovereign powers of coastal states such as Canada all in the name of environmental stewardship.


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