Jenna Gersie “Climate Change as ‘Evidence of Upheaval’: Insights from Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams”

Abstract: This paper provides an ecocritical analysis of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, published thirty-one years ago, through the lens of what we know about climate change today. It explores human impact on the Arctic environment and what we can learn about human relationships to nature through our understanding of the Arctic landscape. Though writing this classic environmental literary text before the scientific community agreed on human-induced climate change, Lopez nevertheless offers essential insights to our relationship to and treatment of the land, which can guide us in our actions to combat climate change today.

Keywords: Arctic, climate change, ecocriticism, environment, nature writing

Written thirty-one years ago in 1986, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, an iconic piece of nature writing, explores human relationships to and ideas of the Arctic landscape and seascape. Lopez writes about the natural history of the musk ox, polar bear, and narwhal; he details what we know about the Dorset and Thule cultures; he recounts various histories of Arctic exploration; he attempts to find a way to understand and view the Arctic through the eyes of those who have always lived there; and he questions our modern human impact on the Arctic landscapes and ecosystems.

Though comprehensive, Arctic Dreams fails to discuss the impacts of human-caused climate change on Arctic ecosystems. This is because, thirty-one years ago, when this classic environmental literary text was published, the scientific community had yet to agree on the wide-ranging impacts of human-induced climate change. With significant evidence of how climate change is playing out in the Arctic today, Lopez’s text is more relevant than ever to explore human understandings of Arctic ecosystems and human impacts on them. Lopez writes, “To contemplate what people are doing out here and ignore the universe of the seal, to consider human quest and plight and not know the land, I thought, to not listen to it, seemed fatal. Not perhaps for tomorrow, or next year, but fatal if you looked down the long road of our determined evolution and wondered at the considerations that had got us this far” (13)[i].

Thirty years down this long road, the fatal mark about which Lopez warned seems like it is here. Almost daily, we are confronted with science news describing melting ice sheets[ii], droughts, wildfires, intense storm patterns, rising sea levels, coral reef bleaching, and new records for warm temperatures, not to mention all of the ways that climate change will impact the most vulnerable human populations or the plant and animal extinctions that will occur. After years of encouragement from climate activists, communicators, and scientists, world leaders (barring the recent change in US leadership) are finally beginning to acknowledge that the time to act is now.

A close reading of Arctic Dreams, through the lens of what we know about climate change today, brings us closer to understanding what we can about the Far North—a place that is a refrigerator for the rest of the planet and a landscape whose integrity must be protected. Lopez writes, “Like other landscapes that initially appear barren, arctic tundra can open suddenly, like the corolla of a flower, when any intimacy with it is sought” (xxiv). By striving for this intimacy, by trying to know this cold landscape, we open ourselves to new knowledge about the climate crisis and to renewed activism, innovation, and dedication to combat human-induced climatic changes.

“It is hard to travel in the Arctic today and not be struck by the evidence of recent change” (xxv), writes Lopez in his preface. Long before we began to discuss changes in the Arctic as a result of a warming climate, Lopez was tuned in to human impacts on that landscape. He writes about oil exploration; lead-zinc mining; road building; increased ship, air, and truck traffic; the dumping of industrial waste in the Arctic Ocean; engineering projects such as dam building; and Arctic air pollution. He also writes about the power of wealthy people to enact these changes, while the people who have the most intimate understanding of the landscape and geography of the Arctic have few or no resources to prevent large projects or protect their natural landscape and local wildlife. For Lopez, these changes are “the evidence of upheaval,” and he is “wrenched” and led “to despair” by this “rude invasion,” this “heedless imposition on the land and on the people” (xxvii).

What despair must Lopez feel today? In addition to the problems he describes, today we are witness to earlier snow melt than ever before; thinner ice pack than ever before; record warm temperatures in the Arctic; rising sea levels; and changes in ocean circulation as a result of ice melt. Climate change is even impacting the position of the North Pole—as ice melts and the weight of water is redistributed to the oceans, the Earth’s axis is wobbling and shifting.[iii] Furthermore, many of these processes have set in place terrifying feedback loops, where melting leads to more melting, and the pace at which these changes are happening is accelerating.

For many of us, the Arctic is a far-off place; it is a region that few of us have visited. The changes to this landscape that we read about have little relevance in our modern, everyday lives. The melting of ice is something we can comprehend only in the abstract or in our imaginations. The extent of its effects are difficult to understand, as one cannot understand the feeling of timelessness in an open, uninhabited space until one has been there. For someone like Lopez, who has traveled widely in the Arctic, or for the people who live there and know and love those wide-open, icy, unforgiving spaces, seeing the human impact on them must be both startling and devastating.

In describing human artifacts left on the landscape, Lopez writes about the “scrap of worked caribou bone, or carved wood, or skewered hide” (xxv) that the Dorset or Thule left behind—human relics that were born from the landscape in which they were found, that belong in this place the way the seal or the ice belong. But he also writes about the twentieth-century remains: “red tins of Prince Albert brand crimp-cut tobacco, cans of Pet evaporated milk and Log Cabin maple syrup . . . used flashlight batteries in clusters like animal droppings, and a bewildering variety of spent rifle and shotgun ammunition” (xxv). To add to this list, today we leave behind carbon dioxide at 404 parts per million[iv], the bioaccumulation of pollutants and carcinogens in living species, including ourselves, and the degradation of landscapes that we haven’t even visited. As Bill McKibben describes in The End of Nature, there is no part of the Earth left untouched by humans. Our impact is found in the most desolate, hard-to-reach places[v]. The evidence of our impact is, as Lopez writes, “vaguely disturbing. It does not derive in any clear way from the land. Its claim to being part of the natural history of the region seems, somehow, false” (xxv). The evidence of our impact today is more than “vaguely disturbing,” however. More than being “false,” it is downright horrifying. Instead of the “Arctic dreams” that Lopez writes about—the metaphors that rise from that cold and shimmering landscape—we find ourselves in an Arctic nightmare.

In his article “From Arctic Dreams to Nightmares (and back again): Apocalyptic Thought and Planetary Consciousness in Three Contemporary American Environmentalist Texts,” Graham Huggan[vi] writes about the use of “apocalyptic rhetoric” to promote environmental advocacy, such as descriptions of the “spread of toxic substances in the far north” in Marla Cone’s Silent Snow and of the “devastating” local effects of global warming on the Arctic and “potentially disastrous” consequences for the planet in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Fieldnotes from a Catastrophe. While Huggan refers to Lopez’s Arctic Dreams as “deep-ecological spiritual travelogue” rather than apocalyptic narrative, he also acknowledges “Lopez’s sense of the Arctic as a dream-cum-nightmare world” in which “the all-encompassing nature of Arctic darkness becomes an oneiric metaphor for the futility of human endeavor.” Though Arctic Dreams is part celebration of the light and life of the Arctic, Lopez does not hesitate to acknowledge the violence of the Arctic landscape or the threat of human impact. Seen through the lens of what we know about climate change today, these images only become more nightmarish.

One of the iconic images that represents climate change in the Arctic—and that has become a global symbol of climate change—is that of a polar bear swimming across long stretches of ocean, desperate to find the stable ice where it can put its feet down. Lopez creates this image: “Perhaps someone recalled having seen a polar bear once, far offshore in a storm, swimming with measured strokes through great dark seas—and, with that, introduced yet another tension peculiar to the place, that between beauty and violence” (9). But he wasn’t writing about a polar bear swimming as a result of lost ice, and there is little that is beautiful about this well-adapted animal’s struggle to survive in an ecosystem that is violent enough without human interference. Lopez details some threats to polar bears: bioaccumulation of PCBs, heavy metals, and chlorinated hydrocarbons; disruption of female bears at denning sites as a result of transportation corridor development; the effects of industrial development on seals, the bears’ main food supply. We add to this list loss of and changes to sea ice habitat, resulting in reduced access to den areas, increased periods without access to prey, and the energy costs associated with increased time spent swimming.[vii]

Human impact on animal populations is nothing new. Lopez refers to vertebrate paleontologist Arthur Jelinek as saying that early man was “‘an extremely efficient and rapidly expanding predator group’ . . . with ‘a formidable potential for disruption’” (50). Jelinek was referring to the Pleistocene extinction, when large mammals in North America went extinct, most likely as a result of swift climatic change, but over-hunting by humans during a time of such environmental stress almost certainly played a significant role. Humans have been either directly or indirectly responsible for the extinction of several Arctic animals already, including the Eskimo curlew, the sea mink, the Labrador duck, Pallas’ cormorant, and Stellar’s sea cow. Our “formidable potential for disruption” has only grown as we’ve found ways to alter global biogeochemical cycles and taken little action to combat the effects of those alterations. The climatic shifts happening now are not the same as the ones that saw the end of North America’s megafauna 18,000 years ago; these changes are happening because of our actions, and more species will suffer as a result.

One of the few times that Lopez mentions climate change in Arctic Dreams is when he discusses animal migrations and changes in animal and plant communities as a result of climatic fluctuations. Animals “are experimenters, pushing at the bounds of their familiar areas in response to changes in their environment. Nothing is ever quite fixed for them” (168), he writes. He notes that cod, red fox, and many species of birds have moved further north or south of their typical ranges as a result of climatic changes. He also writes about tundra soil cores that show changes in Arctic plant communities in the fossil-pollen record due to climatic fluctuations. And he notes that ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet have shown fluctuations in average temperatures over centuries. Lopez writes, “Climatic change—the advance and retreat of glacial ice in the Northern Hemisphere—is the hallmark of the Pleistocene, the epoch of man’s emergence” (173-174). What we can add to this science today, however, is that human activities are responsible for current climatic changes. Now, climate change is the hallmark of the Anthropocene, the epoch of humankind’s alternation of Earth’s systems.

Our impacts on the environment are not hidden from those who know it the best. Eskimos, Lopez notes, “call us, with a mixture of incredulity and apprehension, ‘the people who change nature’” (39). “Have we come all this way,” he asks, “only to be dismantled by our own technologies, to be betrayed by political connivance or the impersonal avarice of a corporation?” (40). Our impacts are far-reaching, and decisions made by politicians and large businesses have implications for everyone, especially for those who live lightly on the planet. Eskimos “are uneasy,” Lopez writes, “about the irrevocability of decisions made by people who are not sensually perceptive, not discriminating in these northern landscapes, not enthusiastic about long-term observations” (96-97). In so many of our decisions, we choose to remain uninformed or to ignore long-term impacts, to the detriment of our planet and our societies. It is not that we lack sensual perception or critical thinking; rather, we choose not to use them.

These Arctic nightmares—these scientific facts that show our impact on the planet and the ways climate change will play out in the Far North—are relatively new fears. But fear is something that the people of the Arctic have always known. Eskimos know fear “because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful” (201). Lopez writes about two words for “fear” that Eskimos used: “Ilira is the fear that accompanies awe; kappia is fear in the face of unpredictable violence. Watching a polar bear—ilira. Having to cross thin sea ice—kappia” (7). For us, today, ilira is seeing imagery of a glacier calving into the sea. Kappia is realizing what that means for the future of our planet.

So what do we do in the face of this fear? Lopez writes, “. . . Because mankind can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him . . . to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive . . . He must learn restraint. He must derive some other, wiser way of behaving toward the land. He must be more attentive to the biological imperatives of the system of sun-driven protoplasm upon which he, too, is still dependent. Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that for centuries he has aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about where to defer” (38-39). And so we must defer to the scientists; we must defer to what we know about the planet; we must become activists—if not for our careers than at least in our individual decision-making and in what we ask of our politicians and world leaders.

In his chapter about narwhals, Lopez describes savssats, which take place when a band of ice forms across calm water at the mouth of a fjord. As the ice sheet expands toward the head of the fjord, narwhals and whales can find themselves trapped in feeding waters near the fjord. As more and more ice freezes, covering a distance too far for these mammals to hold their breath and swim beneath, hundreds can find themselves crowded into an increasingly smaller gap of open water. “Their bellowing and gurgling, their bovinelike moans and the plosive screech of their breathing, can sometimes be heard at a great distance” (132). I cannot help but wonder if we are creating a savssat for ourselves, if we are creating a trap that we won’t be able to work our way out of. The difference is that the narwhals and whales have no idea that they won’t be able to make their way back to open water; we, however, know better. We know what we are doing to our planet. The science is there. We “have the intelligence to grasp what is happening, the composure not to be intimidated by its complexity, and the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes” (52), and the future of our species and the future of the many species we share our planet with depend on this intelligence, composure, and courage. The need to act is imminent.

“It is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well,” Lopez writes. “And in behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains, it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us” (xxviii). What we know about the climate has changed since Lopez wrote Arctic Dreams, but his advice to us holds true.

[i] All quotes with page numbers, and references to Lopez’s writing, are taken from: Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.



[iv] (CO2 count from December 2016.)

[v] McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989. Print.






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