Cold Science. Environmental Knowledge in the North American Arctic during the Cold War

Bocking, Stephen; Heidt, Daniel
Routledge Studies in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
Abingdon / New York 2019: Routledge
308 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Teresa Ashe, Associate Lecturer, The Open University

The years after the Second World War brought significant shifts and innovations in the organisation, tools and knowledge of “western” science. Playing into both the antagonistic and cooperative dynamics of the newly emerging Cold War world order, this fascinating period of geo-scientific and geo-political history is brought to life in this book, through a focus on a key region of strategic and scientific significance. Adding both to the existing literature on the history of Cold War science in the “West” and to Arctic studies more generally, its focus on the Arctic region adds specificity and detail to a wide topic. The book provides an engaging look at the ‘Cold Science’ that made the cold regions an arena, proxy, metaphor, opportunity and challenge for the wider political and scientific efforts of the Cold War.
This regional focus elevates the book, providing a rich, multifaceted and complex depiction of the topic arranged around a unifying thread: the meaning that this place has had for various actors at various times. The editors, Stephen Bocking and Daniel Heidt, begin the book with an introductory chapter, which recognises renewed interest in the Arctic in the twenty-first century. As environmental and geopolitical developments bring it back into focus and promise new shifts in coming decades, they point out that much of this new interest in the resources, opportunities, threats and tensions in the Arctic rely heavily on the knowledge generated in that early Cold War period when the strategic significance of the region suddenly became apparent. The focus of the book is on North America, with Chapter One providing contextual information on the Cold War and the Arctic science. The editors also emphasise the importance of polar geoscience for developing understandings of the planet that paved the way for later environmental concerns.

The five chapters that make up Part 2 of the book consider the science and strategy of the region during the Cold War. Using case studies that range across media (films, lectures, photojournalism) and engaging with a range of actors (civilian, military and academic organisations and individuals) the authors together provide a clear sense of the importance of place in scientific activities. Mark Nuttall considers North Greenland’s Melville Bay as a site important for sea transport and made knowable in this context. His chapter is memorable for the juxtaposition of this scientific knowability and the regional knowledge of those for whom it has been home for generations. P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Daniel Heidt focus on the creation of the Joint Arctic Weather Stations (JAWS) network between 1947 and 1950. Here the relationship between the US and Canada, and between the civilian and military, are considered. Matthew S. Wiseman explores science and colonial attitudes in two films made in Northern Canada in 1948 and 1954. These films give insight not just into Canadian understandings of science and environment in the period, but also focus on human bodies and their experiences of the Cold. Chapter 5 looks at the discourses around Alaska created by the photojournalism of Life magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Victoria Herrmann explores how the growing significance of the area, due to the Aleutian Islands Campaign and the Distant Early Warning Line, lead to a portrayal of the region as both a strategic space, othered by actual or potential violence, and a domestic space of cultural familiarity. Matthew Farish’s chapter looks at the relationships between academic and military actors, focussing on the institutions that shaped how Canada and the US funded and framed their knowledge of the region. Through the case study of ‘Man in the Arctic’, a set of lectures that exemplify how military expansion and academic science intertwined, Farish makes clear how efforts to understand the effects of the Arctic cold on (white, military, southern) ‘man’ became dominant.

Shifting from the science of the military and academia, Part 3 looks at the research undertaken by business experts in the region. It’s four chapters focus on regional knowledge that had potential economic self-provisioning or profit, rather than military strategy, at its heart. The first chapter’s focus is fossil fuel energy. Robert Page considers the experiences of North American oil companies between 1968-82 as both scholar and participant. He reflects on the relationship between Canada and America, as well as their engagement with the Soviet Union, as collaboration and competition to better understand permafrost paved the way for the possibilities of oil pipelines in the far north. The next chapter continues this fossil fuel theme, with Stephen Bocking’s exploration of the linkages between science and military strategy in Canada, within the context of the petrol industry. Recognising the path dependency of Cold War Arctic science and the environmental and developmental politics of the region in more recent years, Bocking’s reflection on the boundary work done in this area highlights lasting tensions in the social role of science. Afterwards the focus shifts to other resource possibilities of the region, with Rafico Ruiz’s exploration of attempts to construct the area as an abundant source of fresh water, through the potential sailing of icebergs to equatorial countries. This is followed by a chapter considering the resources of the region as viewed by indigenous communities. Andrew Stuhl considers the successful negotiation of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement for land rights in Canada. This agreement involved recognising the renewable and non-renewable resources and land use valued by indigenous communities. The chapter makes clear the role of local knowledge in shaping the agreement.

Part 4 focusses on scientific organisation across boundaries, considering the roles of individual explorers, national institutions, international cooperation and the sensitivities of allies and belligerents finding ways to work together in times of national sensitivity and potential military conflict. Dawn Alexandrea Berry’s chapter focusses on aerial polar exploration and the integration of exploration, science, security and foreign policy of the US in Greenland between WW1 and the Cold War. This chapter recognises a change in US attitude to Greenland and the Arctic more generally in this time. Chapter 12 focus on institutions in the period of professionalising Arctic science. Explored by Lizé-Marie van der Watt, Peder Roberts and Julia Lajus, the role of explorers as actors co-creating institutional and national engagements with the region is emphasised. Then Danish representations of US activity in Greenland in the wake of the 1968 Thule B-52 accident are considered, with Henrik Knudsen concluding that Danish government actions are better understood as efforts to manage public perception of US involvement in Denmark than as a rejection of American military efforts there. P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Ryan Dean also consider the fall out of an international accident, but this time between Cold War enemies, rather than allies. With the crashing of the Soviet Cosmos 954 in the Northwest Territories in 1978, they focus on how the US and Canada responded to this crash together – both its potential nuclear hazards and its opportunities to examine Soviet technology. Tess Lanzarotta shifts to the scientific fostering of relationships between the USSR and the west through the creation of the Alaska Siberia Medical Research programs between 1982-88. The programs relied heavily on notions of Arctic communities that historically shared more culture and connection than the artificial divisions of the Cold War could erase.
Finally, Part 5 of the book contains a single Chapter, Adrian Howkins’, which contrasts experiences in the Antarctic and Arctic over the same period. This epilogue works to recognise the similarities (the cold, remoteness, difficulty of access, etc.) and the differences between the regions. The presence of inhabitants for whom the region is ‘home’ beyond the requirements of strategic or scientific habitation and the difference between the Arctic territories and the Antarctic’s preservation as an International Commons also allows the specificity of the arctic experience to become clearer and completes and complements the volume.

The book overall is an engaging and enlightening read, deftly overlapping regional, national, scientific, military, business and domestic experiences of place. The social construction of the Arctic is examined by reference to the overlapping, competing or mutual affirming discourses, which fluctuate across time and space to build a complex and fluid understanding of its significance. The book adds depth and specificity to any study of Cold War geopolitics or geoscience and useful genealogical detail from which to better consider the future of the region.

This book would certainly be of interest to all those with a regional specialism or interest in the history of the polar regions, giving a sense of the many lives that have encountered polar spaces and made them meaningful culturally, whether as domestic space or as other. As an extreme environment, albeit one that is ‘home’ to many people of many nationalities, the role of this region during the Cold War has prioritised cultural understanding that seeks to know and manage it, which has shaped understandings of global environment and paved the way for the development of the environmental movement and its political concerns of the latter part of the Twentieth Century. In these essays the nascent understandings of the planet, and its intricate weavings into the life and concerns of the people researching, living within, extracting from or managing it, is laid out to form a rich sense of the period and place studied.

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