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Waters that matter: how human-environment relations are changing in high-Arctic Svalbard

There is scientific consensus that the archipelago of Svalbard is warming up faster than other parts of the planet. People who live in or regularly visit this part of the European high Arctic observe and experience these changes in a subjective and relational manner.

Annette Löf / Published on 2 February 2023

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Sokolíčková, Z., Hincapié, E. R., Zhang, J., Lennert, A. E., Löf, A., & van der Wal, R. (2022). Waters that matter: How human-environment relations are changing in high-Arctic Svalbard. Anthropological Notebooks, 28(3), 74–109.

Svalbard, Norway

Photo: Annette Löf / SEI

This article illustrates how perceptions of environmental change are enmeshed with our ways of interacting with water(s) and dwelling in the landscape. What kind of water-related change do people talk about? How do changes in the different water worlds matter? How does water help us portray what environmental change means?

The authors show that “what” and “how” we know about water(s) amidst change are in many ways inseparable. Their contribution offers a benchmark for discussing water-related environmental change in Svalbard from a perspective that goes beyond “what long-term monitoring tells us” towards “what bodies experience.” Through accounts shared mostly by scientists, technicians, and tour guides, the authors explore notions of water in its various forms, such as sea ice, glaciers, rivers, the wetness of the tundra, snow, and weather phenomena including rain. They focus on processes such as disappearing, melting, freezing, swelling, saturating, drying up, eroding, appearing, and threatening, and discuss what the observed and experienced changes mean for human-environment relations. Their interlocutors emphasize many facets of their relationship with the landscape, including identity, expectations, emotions, knowledge, and practices.

This study demonstrates how the experiential perspective is largely ordered and filtered through activities and practices, among which mobility and reading, or predicting, the landscape stand out as particularly important. Through a relational approach to water(s) permeation, the authors apply Tim Ingold’s concept of taskscapes and his perspectives on dwelling to show how time scales and connection to place matter. They juxtapose scientific knowledge produced through long-term monitoring with experiential knowledge, and demonstrate their entanglement in the Svalbard context, dominated by scientific ways of knowing.

This work was conducted as part of SVALUR project (Understanding Resilience and Long-Term Ecosystem Change in the High Arctic: Narrative-Based Analyses from Svalbard), a research project which received Belmont Forum award as part of the call Resilience in a Rapidly Changing Arctic.

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Annette Löf
Annette Löf

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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