Living in the Arctic

Färgglada, färgkodade trähus i gult, grönt, turkost och rött, med snö i bakgrunden. Från Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

The harsh arctic climate has constantly forced people in the area to adapt. Local naural resources have been crucial for survival –  extracted for domestic use as bulding materials or food, but also for trade. Today, most of the Arctic's resources are exported to industries. The global quest for minerals and fossil fuels is causing political tensions to rise.

Natural Resources

Resources are everything in nature that people can make use of.  Through the years, people in communities around the Arctic have extracted natural resources on a small scale, for domesticuse and trade. Today, most resources extracted from the Arctic are exported to industries.

Resource extraction may benefit local Arctic communities economically, but it can also have the opposite effect. It can disrupt other local activities, such as reindeer herding, hunting, berry-picking, tourism and disturb residents.

Global Treasure Hunt For Raw Materials

The Arctic region’s rich natural resources have supported both the people who live there, and companies elsewhere. In recent years, the external pressure has grown more intense.
When the supply of minerals, water, fish and fossil fuels runs dry in other parts of the world, states and companies look north.

Today the Arctic landscape is under threat, not only from climate change but from the global treasure hunt for raw materials.

Greenland – a Territory Rich in Precious Stones

An important natural recourse in Greenland is gemstones. Greenland's largest ruby and sapphire findings are located on the southwest coast, near the village of Fiskenaesset/Qeqertarsuatsiaat. Amazonite, diamond, kornerupine, lapis lazuliruby, peridot, quartz, sapphire, spinel, tugtupite, topaz, and tourmaline can be found as well.

The Arctic is estimated to contain about 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas, 34 million barrels of oil in U.S. waters alone. Only Russia has bigger deposits.

Reuters, 2015/04/01

Map over transportation routes in the Artic, protected areas and places for gas and oil production. Illustration: Hugo Ahlenius, Nordpil. From the Arctic Resilience Report 2016.

Hunting, Fishing and Livestock Farming

In the coldest places good conditions for hunting, fishing and livestock farming are essential for human survival. In places where almost nothing can grow, meat and fish are the most important – and sometimes only – food. The hunt for vitamins, calories and protein is constant.

In northern Scandinavia, not only did people make use of the reindeer’s meat, horns and pelts – they also made cheese from the milk. In areas with permanent settlements, people kept other animals as well, such as sheep, goats and cattle. Icelanders made “skyr” from the milk, a yoghurt-like product.

In Greenland, commercial fishing is the biggest source of income and has become a great industry in the Arctic. Royal Greenland is the world’s top distributor of cold-water prawns.

Norway and Iceland are also major fishing nations. Small-scale fishing methods differ from place to place, relying on tools like nets, rods and harpoons.

Alongside fishing, the hunt for ocean mammals was and remains important. In the northernmost parts of Greenland seal, walrus, whale and shark have long been hunted.

Ice fishing in Puruvesi, Finland. Photo: Snowchange cooperative

Forestry and Agriculture

The agriculture in northern Sweden often involved several complementary industries. Livestock farming and hay production dominated, but people also grew barley, winter rye, oats and – from the early 19th century on –potatoes.

The always indispensable forest has provided building materials, fire fuel and raw materials for making charcoal and tar. In the early 19th century, opportunities to export forest products increased as the demand grew. Forestry became an ever larger industry, and today it is an important source of income in many parts of the Arctic.


Berries – a Source of Vitamin C

The natural vegetation of the Arctic has been an important and accessible resource for humans – the berries are sources of vitamin C. People have gathered, dried, watered, made jam and squash out of berries for centuries, either for own use or for sale.

Cloudberries – "Norrland's Gold"

Cloudberries are sometimes called “Norrland’s Gold”. These berries have always been coveted for their nutritional value and flavour. Today, berries generate income. Seasonal labourers travel, sometimes very long distances, in hopes of harvesting the Artic grounds. The berries, particularly lingonberries, can be said to be a part of the Nordic culture.

Renar på snötäckt fjäll mot blå himmel

Reindeer Herding in the Arctic

In Siberia, herding of domesticated reindeers has been practised for at least 2.000 years.

Large-scale reindeer herding in Europe and Asia took off in the 16th and 17th centuries. The conditions for reindeer herding vary from country to country:

In Finland, you have to be a member of a grazing community, but you don’t have to be a Sami.

In Russia, the herding industry was forced to collectivise in the 1930s, but has been reprivatized since 1989.

In Sweden, you have to be a member of a Sami community, pursuant to the Reindeer Husbandry Act of 1928. Norway’s regulations are similar to Sweden’s.

Today, there are 51 Sami villages in Sweden and around 2.500 people are directly depending on incomes from reindeer hearding.

Controversial Mining Operations

Minerals like iron, silver and copper are found in the bedrock. For thousands of years, the people in the Arctic have extracted and processed minerals to make jewellery, tools and weapons.

Today, minerals are used in all the technology surrounding us – in telephones, computers and infrastructure – and the demand is steadily increasing. However, new mines often spark protests. Mining demolish large areas, damaging landscapes and wildlife.

Illustration över gruvor i Arktis. Av Hugo Ahlenius, Nordpil.

Life Around the Mines

In Sweden, Norway, Finland, North America and Greenland many people depend on the mining industry. Around the mines there is security, service and infrastructure.

In older mining communities like Kiruna and Malmberget, many consider the mines to be the basic foundation of life in the area. The mines are important to the countries’ national economies, but also to the global market.

At the same time, however, the mining industry creates problems for people who use the land for other businesses, and for those who wish to preserve a natural landscape.


And even though we’d been living near the mine for ten years, I had never been underground in a mine, and the black mine opening looking so awfully dangerous against the backdrop of a lovely summer morning.

Hilding Ollikainen describing his first day of work at the Tingvallskulle mine, 1929.


Bild över personalen i Kirunagruvan år 1911, som står uppställda mot bergväggen.

Railway car filled with iron ore in Kiruna. Photo: Gunnar Lundh/ Nordiska museet

Kiruna – a City Shaped by Mining

Iron ore mining at Luossavaara and Kirunavaara dates back to the 17th century. Back then, the area was considered remote. The mining industry made deals with the Saami, who carried the ore by reindeer sleigh across the frozen winter landscape. To enable large-scale mining, the state built a railway to inland Norrbotten. 

The city of Kiruna was established in 1900 to facilitate mining. The first labourers to arrive lived in huts and tents. To prevent the establishment of a permanent township, the mining company built a model city, following a strict zoning plan with high-quality housings. In the 1960s, the older urban construction was largely replaced by concrete point blocks. Kiruna was going to be the most modern city in the Nordic.

Parts of the City Moved Due to Cave-In Risk

As the mine expands under Kiruna, the bedrock becomes unstable with a great risk of collapse. In 2007 it was decided to move large parts of the city to the east, away from the old city centre. 

As a result of an architectural contest, a new city plan was adopted in 2013. Some of the most important buildings were moved to the new area, such as the Kiruna Church.

Vy över Kiruna år 2006, skog och berg i bakgrunden.


Malmberget, a mining town. Photo: Camilla Andersen/ Nordiska museet

Permanent and Mobile Homes

Some Arctic residents have lived in permanent settlements, while others were nomadic. Some have been forced to move due to climate change, lack of food or the redrawing of borders. Others have done so out of curiosity. In the Arctic, it was long an advantage to live in small groups that could move quickly to new areas. Today, most people live in permanent settlements all year round.

The Frost Thaws and the Ground Falls Apart

In many places in the Arctic, climate change is already affecting people’s lives. When the permafrost thaws, ground that was once frozen and firm turns to mud and starts to slide. The surface cracks and collapses.

In northern Siberia, houses subside and walls crack as the ground can no longer bear their weight. The world the homes were built in has changed.


  • Home interior at the Greenland National Museum and Archive. Photo: Nordiska museet
    Home interior at the Greenland National Museum and Archive. Photo: Nordiska museet
  • Vy över hus och isberg, Grönland. Foto: Nordiska museet
    Greenland. Foto: Nordiska museet
  • Settlement covered in snow, Jamal, Russia.
    Settlement covered in snow, Jamal, Russia. Photo: Dmitry Arzyutov
  • Flooded hut site with a luovve (storage hut) still standing, Ritsemjokk, Sörkaitums herding cooperative. 1939. Photo: Ernst Manker/Nordiska museet
    Flooded hut site with a luovve (storage hut) still standing, Ritsemjokk, Sörkaitums herding cooperative. 1939. Photo: Ernst Manker/Nordiska museet
  • Snötäckt gata med färgglada trähus i Vilhelmina. Foto: Nordiska museet
    Vilhelmina. Photo: Nordiska museet
  • Hus på pålar på dimmiga klippor i Grönland. Foto: Nordiska museet
    Greenland. Photo: Nordiska museet
  • Flooded settlement, Ritsemjokk, Sörkaitums herding cooperative. 1939. Photo: Ernst Manker/Nordiska museet
    Flooded settlement, Ritsemjokk, Sörkaitums herding cooperative. 1939. Photo: Ernst Manker/Nordiska museet

Protection Against the Wind, Damp and Cold

There are no trees growing in large parts of the Artic. Before the timber trade started, people built their houses from materials available in the local area.

In Greenland, people built there houses of stone, driftwood and whalebone. They used peat or animal skins for insulation. Hardpacked peat provided effective protection against both damp and cold. Some settlements were partially dug into the ground to withstand severe weather. Houses made of snow (igloos) were used primarily while hunting or moving.

In Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the traditional houses were built out of timber, stone and peat. In the heavily forested areas of the Nordic countries, the Sami built huts of timber or long wooden poles that were coveverd with birch bark. The Sami who lived a more mobile life built from materials that were easy to pack and carry.

Man på fyrhjuling på snötäckt gata i staden Vilhelmina. Ett grönt och gult hus med snötäckta bilar syns vid gatukanten.

New Times and New Materials

When Greenland was colonised in the 18th century, wooden houses were built out of imported lumber from the south. Wooden houses soon became the dominant building type in all regions. In the 20th century, more and more people started to live in permanent settlements and move into modern houses with electricity and central heating. Even concrete buildings have been built in the Arctic, but over time they have been severely battered by the harsh Arctic climate.

Bright Colours Against Pale Landscape

In the 18th century, Greenland’s buildings were colour-coded by function. The tradition still lives on to a great extent.

The buildings in Svalbard are strictly colour-coded as well. Here the houses are painted in an artistic palette designed by colour design professor Grete Smedal. In 1981, she developed what became known as the “Longyear colour palette” for the buildings of Longyearbyen. The intense pops of warm colours shine brightly against the deserted landscape, which is covered in show for most of the year.

Jamal, Russia. Photo: Dmitry Arzyutov

Food From Nature's Resources

For obvious reasons, agriculture is difficult in the Arctic region since summers are short and the weather is unreliable. In the coldest places hunting, cattle-farming and fishing have been humankind’s most important assets. From seals and reindeers people got both food and clothes, and still do in some parts of the Arctic.

Meat, Fish and Bird Eggs – the Staple Foods of the Arctic

Meat, fish and bird eggs have been the staple foods in the Artic region for a long time. There is a variety of traditional food preparation methods: drying, smoking, boiling or fermenting. Raw meat and blood are valuable sources of vitamin C and iron. Vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy, a life-threatening disease. 

Today, traditional cooking is still practiced, in addition to imported food. However, long transport distances raise the prices and lower the quality.

Bark Rich in Vitamins

Bark was collected from tree trunks to be used as an ingredient in bread, soups, stews and porridges. Pine bark was also used to dilute flour during years of bad harvest. For this, all layers of the bark were utilized. It was a nutrition-poor diet, sometimes even a health risk.

The Sami, on the other hand, have long known to use only the innermost layer of the bark. The outer layer was removed, and the inner preserved and dried to reduce the concentration of toxic substances. The result was a product rich in Vitamin C and minerals.

A Sami bark knife, for cutting the bark off trees. The bark was then dried and prepared for grinding. Russia, Pechenga. NM.0070180. Photo: Nordiska museet

On the Menu in the 1800s

In his book about the second Dickson expedition to Greenland, published in 1883, geologist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld includes the menu from a feast in Greenland. To create a variety of flavours, a variety of cooking methods were used: meat and fish were boiled, dry or fermented.

1. Dried whitebait (always the first dish).
2. Dried seal meat.
3. Boiled seal meat.
4. Rotten seal meat.
5. Boiled auk.
6. A piece of whale tail (it was for the sake of this delicacy the banquet was actually held).
7. Dried salmon.
8. Dried reindeer meat.
9. For desert, crowberries pickled in whale oil and the contents of a reindeer’s stomach.

Nordenskiöld notes, even at that time, that it was an old-fashioned dinner. Eating and drinking habits were changing. He writes:

Nowadays, coffee is as essential at a feast in the tent or winter house of the Western Greenlander – and in the Lapp’s hut – as it is at a European banquet.