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Unfreezing the Arctic

Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

In recent years, journalists and environmentalists have pointed urgently to the melting Arctic as a leading indicator of the growing effects of climate change. While climate change has unleashed profound transformations in the region, most commentators distort these changes by calling them unprecedented. In reality, the landscapes of the North American Arctic—as well as relations among scientists, Inuit, and federal governments— are products of the region’s colonial past. And even as policy analysts, activists, and scholars alike clamor about the future of our world’s northern rim, too few truly understand its history.
In Unfreezing the Arctic, Andrew Stuhl brings a fresh perspective to this defining challenge of our time. With a compelling narrative voice, Stuhl weaves together a wealth of distinct episodes into a transnational history of the North American Arctic, proving that a richer understanding of its social and environmental transformation can come only from studying the region’s past. Drawing on historical records and extensive ethnographic fieldwork, as well as time spent living in the Northwest Territories, he closely examines the long-running interplay of scientific exploration, colonial control, the testimony and experiences of Inuit residents, and multinational investments in natural resources. A rich and timely portrait, Unfreezing the Arctic offers a comprehensive look at scientific activity across the long twentieth century. It will be welcomed by anyone interested in political, economic, environmental, and social histories of transboundary regions the world over.

The author intends to donate all royalties from this book to the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA) and East Three School's On the Land Program.

224 pages | 13 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Earth Sciences: Environment, History of Earth Sciences

History: Environmental History

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"Stuhl perceives climate change as an issue of human rights. It is simply the latest destructive incursion of the outside world; a tale of extraction and exploitation, of scientific, commercial, and colonial incursions that have pushed local people to the margins. The book puts a sharp focus on the far northern and western rim of the North American continent—Alaska and Canada—within a defined time period from 1881 until 1984. Stuhl examines environmental transformation in that part of the Arctic case by case in succeeding chapters, in an appeal to study the human history of the Arctic as an extranational phenomenon. The book is detailed and richly informed, not only by the thoroughness of its library research, but also by the author’s personal on-site experience living and working in the Arctic environment. Arctic specialists will want to devour it. Essential."


"Breaks new ground . . . . an important contribution to Arctic scholarship. The transnational focus is particularly well suited to studies of science and the environment, and Stuhl's innovative work should certainly encourage other historians to mentally overleap political boundaries throughout the circumpolar north."

American Historical Review

“This is a powerful and moving book. Stuhl’s case is well argued—the book is compelling and engaging, with a strong narrative enlivened by maps, photographs, and firsthand observations of the Arctic today.”


"Unfreezing the Arctic is a worthy addition to the recent wave of work on northern history. By ‘‘unfreezing’’ Andrew Stuhl means rejecting the notion of a North frozen in time — a sentiment certain to find hearty agreement among northern scholars. He also joins other historians in presenting a transnational view of the north, and emphasizing the evolving social and political roles of science. Bridging the histories of colonialism, resource management, military activity, and Indigenous self-determination, Stuhl focuses on Alaska and northwest Canada, including the Beaufort Sea, Mackenzie Delta, and surrounding region."

Canadian Journal of History

"Stuhl animates, or 'unfreezes,' this history to bring it into the present—in other words, to place the Arctic back in time."

Edge Effects

“As a non-environmental historian, but as someone with a deep interest in the Arctic, I found this book both readable, enjoyable, and instructive. I recommend it to anyone interested in viewing the last one and a half centuries of change in this part of the Arctic.”

James T. Andrews | Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research

"In this era of concern over the politicization of science and its embattled role in public policy, Andrew Stuhl's Unfreezing the Arctic offers a timely historical reflection on the important social role of science and scientists. . . . [the] account represents a novel contribution to histories of Arctic science."

Historical Geography

Unfreezing the Arctic offers a powerful and provocative antidote to current thinking about the Arctic, challenging its consensus status as a newly industrializing global region. Unafraid to make bold assertions, Stuhl moves deftly and confidently to answer the question of how we got to where we are today in Arctic North America. He thereby opens a window into the present, revealing the new landscape of post-industrial science and decision-making—a remarkable story of sharing, exchange, negotiation, cooperation, and exploitation. Powerful and nuanced, Unfreezing the Arctic will shake up how we think about the future of the Arctic itself.”

Michael Bravo, University of Cambridge

“Beginning in the nineteenth century, contested visions of development transformed the lands and peoples of the Western Arctic: visions driven by the fears, dreams, ambitions, and knowledge of whalers and trappers, explorers and scientists, militaries and corporations, federal governments, and indigenous sovereign Nations. In opening our eyes to that dynamic history, Unfreezing the Arctic shatters the myth of a far North frozen in time.”

Gregg Mitman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Stuhl has written a clear, compelling analysis of the historical complexities of the Arctic in an era of climate change. He shows how relevant history can be for current debates, and he sheds welcome light on the ways that the Arctic’s colonial past remains present in climate debates. Arctic ecologies and cultures have rich histories, and Stuhl makes a powerful case that sustainable futures require close attention to these histories.”

Nancy Langston, Michigan Technological University

“Lively written and boldly crossing geographical and disciplinary boundaries, Stuhl’s innovative Unfreezing the Arctic does an important job in demonstrating how authority in Arctic science was always bound up with practice and politics, in fur trading, reindeer herding, military planning, oil drilling, and environmental conservation. Drawing on firsthand experiences from living in the Arctic, he creatively and responsibly forges archives and ethnographies into a truly integrative and original environmental and science historiography. Above all, in a time when the Arctic risks being reduced to climate and science, Stuhl tells us to turn to history for integrative social narratives and solutions that take Arctic postcolonial politics seriously. Offering friction to conventional wisdom, this slim, engaging volume moves Arctic history writing strides forward.”

Sverker Sörlin, KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Unfreezing the Arctic is a highly original, extraordinarily fascinating, and persuasively argued book. Stuhl makes a significant contribution, both empirically and methodologically, to the history of Arctic science and exploration. This book will provide an exemplary model for junior and senior scholars intent upon studying the commingled political, economic, and social histories of transboundary regions anywhere in the world. It is a stellar contribution to the field.”

Tina Adcock, Simon Fraser University

"Andrew Stuhl's Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands breaks new ground by considering what he calls the "hybrid borderlands" of the western Arctic as a unified whole (6)... The transnational focus is particularly well suited to studies of science and the environment, and Stuhl's innovative work should certainly encourage other historians o mentally overlap political boundaries throughout the circumpolar north."

Janice Cavell | American Historical Review

Table of Contents

Note on Terminology

Is the Arctic out of  Time?

Chapter One
Dangerous: In the Twilight of Empires

Chapter Two
Threatened:  The Ambitions and Anxieties of Expeditions

Chapter Three 
Wild: Taming the Tundra

Chapter Four
Strategic: Defense and Development in Permafrost Territory

Chapter Five
Disturbed: The Impacts of a Postcolonial Moment

Unfrozen in Time

Archival Collections
Selected Bibliography


Forum for the History of Science in America: Philip J. Pauly Book Prize
Short Listed

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