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Bowhead Whale Hunting in a Cooling Arctic, 1610-1640

Sat, March 17, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, RC F


Nearly five centuries ago, volcanic eruptions, a dip in solar activity, and changes in oceanic circulation dramatically cooled the world’s climate. Interdisciplinary scholars have recently established that this chilliest period of the Little Ice Age destabilized societies around the world. Yet, at the same time, Europeans explored and exploited frigid Arctic environments on an unprecedented scale, with profound consequences for northern ecologies and peoples.

In this paper, I will trace how these relationships unfolded in the early seventeenth century off Spitsbergen, the largest island in what is now called the Svalbard archipelago. I will begin by summarizing the latest science on the counterintuitive manifestations of the Little Ice Age in and around Spitsbergen. I will then describe how changes in the average regional surface temperature of the sea and atmosphere affected the behaviour of bowhead whales off Spitsbergen.

I will argue that these whales responded to climatic cooling in ways that provoked violence among groups of whalers from rival European powers. I will introduce evidence from three sources: ship logbooks kept by Arctic whalers, high-resolution satellite images, and archaeological excavations. Each provides unique perspectives on violent human responses to local environmental changes set in motion by global climate change. This bloody history shows that the Arctic resources wars widely anticipated in a warmer future also played out in the distant past.