Once when I was a little kid visiting my grandmother on North Haven, I borrowed a photography book on Svalbard, an archipelago a few hundred miles south of the North Pole, from the community library.

I remember two things about the book. One, the instant irony I felt learning that the main town in a region that is in darkness for nearly half the year is called “Longyearbyen” (“byen” being Norwegian for “the town”). I’d later learn the town is named for John Longyear, an American industrialist behind the Arctic Coal Company that began mining on the Arctic islands at the turn of the 20th century. 

The other aspect of the book that sticks with me is the remoteness of the region. The curator of the book selected images that romanticize this distance: an area untouched by humans, one in which mountaintop glaciers glisten with golden light against the mauve glow of the late winter, one where twin polar bear cubs tussle at the sea’s edge near the remnants of a recent catch. Several years later, I would begin my own life in the polar regions as a climate advocate and researcher, drawn in part to challenge this romantic view of the north. 

We may all be familiar with images of starving polar bears and water gushing from glaciers. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world and, in many ways, is the epicenter of the climate crisis. However, seeing the Arctic as inaccessible enables us to continue a narrative that the climate crisis is happening in some other space, in some other time. 

By the time this piece is published, I will be alone, not far from the North Pole. All my possessions are in a sled, my red tent is on pack ice and my neck is a swivel for polar bears. All around me are scenes that very well could have come from my library book. However, I am not here for the romantic pictures but for the plastic. The area is rarely visited by humans, but I find our fingerprints are everywhere. The plastic here is from face scrubs, water pipes, fleeces and bottles that were sent with letters on ocean journeys. 

On rest days, even at 82 degrees north, I use my iridium phone to break through any secluded feelings and connect to the world over Zoom. Many of my Zooms will be with classrooms around the world for virtual polar field trips, with researchers to link observations with satellite flyovers and with scientists to confer about airborne toxins. However, I will also speak with global leaders at both the UN and at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos to demand Arctic centrality in global climate negotiations.

One reason to break through this concept of remoteness is that many of the same systems carrying plastics and toxins to one of the most isolated places on the planet are wreaking havoc in our own backyard. The Gulf of Maine is consequently warming faster than all but 1% of the world’s oceans. We have watched as our shrimp industry closed, as we have hauled tropical seahorses in Boothbay, as oyster shells fail to harden. 

Whether it is denim fibers embedded in the flesh of Arctic fish or the rising levels of methylmercury in Maine’s pelagic predators, we can no longer frame the polar regions as foreign. The Amazon has long been viewed as the lungs of the world. We now need to center the polar regions as the planet’s heart-regulating circulatory systems around the globe. After all, it’s all connected. 

Valy Steverlynck is the co-chairperson of the Freeport Sustainability Advisory Board and a member of the RSU 5 Sustainability Committee.

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