Timeless Arctic – commercial hunting in the reconstruction of human impact in Svalbard

Under the title “Timeless Arctic – commercial hunting in the reconstruction of human impact in Svalbard”, my project takes us on a journey to Svalbard (Spitsbergen) from its first documentation by Willem Barents in 1596 till the present day. The popular image of polar bears roaming an untouched white wilderness is false. For over four centuries, human ingenuity and enterprise have had irrevocable consequences for the Arctic ecosystems. “Timeless” is an intentional play on words: it hints at the supposed timelessness of the region as well as the circumstance that there is no data to prove the opposite.

Svalbard is exceptional in the pan-Arctic context. There were no indigenous peoples. What we witness today is the uniquely undistorted impression of commercially-motivated hunting by Europeans in a peripheral region. “Timeless Arctic” has the scientific goal of quantifying the predominantly anecdotal references to hunting whale, walrus, polar bear, Arctic fox, and Svalbard reindeer, thereby generating new data sets. These will enable 1) the recognition of long-term trends in the anthropogenic impact on the polar environment and 2) the development of proxies and models to describe and explain the historical processes. Since all available sources will be consulted, it is a parallel strategic goal to synthesise the corpus of historical-archaeological knowledge into a research framework for the archipelago in order to standardise and regulate future prognoses and courses of action.
The historical materials for “Timeless Arctic” are diverse and multi-faceted. Logbooks, diaries, expedition reports, travel accounts, and company files in different languages, drawings, photos, and more are partly published or kept in international archives and libraries; Norwegian museums house archaeozoological collections from Svalbard; additional data will be collected during envisaged fieldwork in the islands. The results will primarily be presented in peer-reviewed journals and as an open-access database.

The value and contribution of “Timeless Arctic”, in which the uniqueness of Svalbard acts as a lab for the effects of commercial hunting, lies in the generation of crucial time-depth, which has not been possible through biological observation and simulation. Only a high temporal resolution will enable differentiated reflection on the past and allow for prognoses and science-based decision-making to benefit environmental education, ecological policy, and ecosystem management in the medium- to long-term.