In This Article Polar Geography

  • Introduction
  • Polar Geography Journals
  • Gendered Arctic
  • International Polar Year

Geography Polar Geography
Heather Nicol
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0085


Originally a topic for explorers and scientists, driven by quest for territory, fame, and recognition, polar geography was a field for those who were willing to brave extreme weather conditions in the name of science and empire, and who were backed by foundations with funding to mount the extraordinary costs of an expedition. Up to the second half of the 20th century, academic geographers primarily engaged with polar regions in ways that focused on science. Barry (1983), published in the Annals of the AAG, summarized “polar geography” as a field for physical geographers. “Arctic Ocean Ice and Climate: Perspectives on a Century of Polar Research” spoke to ice and “large-scale ice-climate interactions” and “potential human-induced impacts on the Arctic ice regime” but was in no way a human geography. Similarly, Sudgen 1982 (cited under Books and Edited Volumes) attempted to redirect this interest and identified a range of issues and topics in “polar geography” of potential interest to both human and physical geographers. By and large, however, until fairly recently, human geographers were more interested in the Arctic than Antarctic, except for matters related to boundary delineation. The early 20th and 21st centuries saw research emphasis shift; however, as human geography grew to be more engaged in both polar regions, research areas were concerned with indigenous peoples, resources, and geopolitics of empire, science, colonization, and climate change. Human security broadly defined was also introduced as an important topic for geographical consideration in light of the growing recognition of the environmental vulnerability of polar regions to global patterns of pollution, industrialization and climate change. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the relationship between climate change and resource accessibility remains the main orienting theme of polar geography. It has led to a resurgence of geopolitical assessments of the Arctic, as well as new research concerned with understanding the relationship between indigenous peoples, human security, and economic development (Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), cited under Books and Edited Volumes). Among the more developed nations of Europe and North America, the International Polar Year, in 2007–2008 was largely responsible for reinvigorating geographical research in the north and for advancing knowledge concerning both the North and South poles. Much of this information is available through foundations and organizations, and the collaborative work of research teams that include physical and human geographers. The bibliographic references that follow reflect this. Polar geography has found a renewed interest in environment as a consequence of climate change and globalization, but it has also become a much more collaborative exercise. We begin with introductory, general, and seminal works on the geographies of each region and follow this with a series of links to journals and collections of articles and websites organized by relevant topics and themes.

General Overviews of Arctic and Antarctic

There are few contemporary comprehensive textbooks on polar geography, ostensibly because this field of research has grown so rapidly and encompasses such a tremendous variety of topics and sub-disciplinary themes. There is, however, an extensive introductory-level literature of general works on the Arctic and Antarctic. Many are written by historians or from the perspective of history, but they qualify as geographical sources because of the centrality of polar exploration to the development of the discipline of geography in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many are written as interdisciplinary works, with geographers as collaborators and contributors. Since the late 20th century, the geographies of polar regions have been linked by narratives of science and exploration, especially through the recent International Polar Year 2007–2008. But other geographical features besides climate have begun to define each region and to create a distinctive scholarship for each. A history of interaction with indigenous peoples and Cold War installations in the Arctic, for example, leads to a different scholarship than the study of the Antarctic Treaty System and a landscape of ice and research stations in the Antarctic. The major problem with the pre-IPY general literature on polar regions is that although collaborative, it is mainly descriptive and encyclopedic. Cast as exotic and a “frontier,” larger narratives in academia tend to be written for non-academic readers. Sugden 1982 (cited under Books and Edited Volumes) is an exception, but it is now dated. Similarly, more scholarly and critical coverage is found in many of the Arctic Council documents, such as the Arctic Human Development Report (a second version is due out shortly), and the series of reports produced through the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. Other general works encourage a critical reading of the current issues facing the north under conditions of climate change. Much like the case in the Arctic, however, many of these general works are encyclopedic and meant for less advanced readers. Overall, the academic study of Antarctica is not simply a descriptive recounting of the region and its features, but rather scholarship that identifies a series of important themes, such as the development of the Antarctic Treaty and the evolution of climate change. Dodds 2012 (cited under Books and Edited Volumes) and its treatment of Antarctica moves from a descriptive understanding of the physical environment and history of the continent, to a nuanced discussion of current discourses on science, governance, and environmental protection.

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