Those who reside outside of the region often assume that the Arctic is an empty land—that no one lives there. If a population component is recognized, then it tends to be written off as insignificant—a few, widely scattered native groups who wander in nomadic fashion through a harsh, cold environment. The fact that there might be cities of several thousand people lying north of the 60th parallel usually escapes the attention of most observers. So does the fact that the Circumpolar North has a wide variety of population profiles—the Russian North looking significantly different from both the Nordic North and the North American North. The demographic trends found within the Arctic similarly vary from one subregion to another. In considering the overall population dimensions of the Circumpolar North, it is important to recognize that they are both variable and dynamic.
Broadly speaking, there are approximately 13.1 million individuals residing in the area of the Circumpolar North. This figure represents considerably less than 1% of the total global population. The population is distributed across 21.5 million square kilometers of territory spanning three continents and eight national jurisdictions. While the North is not an "empty land" by any means, it does not possess a very high population density ratio by any calculation.
It needs to be emphasized, however, that the population of the Circumpolar North is not uniformly distributed across this vast geographic area. A large majority of the total—some two-thirds—is found within the borders of one country, Russia. As a consequence, the population distribution varies significantly from one northern location to another. In the northern areas of Russia, the average distribution of population is approximately 95 persons per 100 square kilometers. This is a population density figure that is approximately 2.5 times larger than that found in Alaska, and roughly 50 times larger than that seen in the Canadian Arctic or in Greenland. On the other hand, the Nordic countries report population density figures for their northern regions that are, on average, four times as large as those recorded for the Russian North.
Not only are there disparities in population distributions between the main subregions of the Arctic, but there are differences in the actual location of northern populations within these same areas. In North America and the Nordic countries, the vast majority of their northern population is to be found within the southern tier of the region in small to medium-sized resource-based communities such as Prince George, Sudbury, Umea, and Oulu. In Russia, however, there are some very large population centers such as Murmansk and Arkhangel'sk that lie north of the Arctic Circle or close to it. This northern urban feature is one of the distinctive characteristics of Russia's population settlement pattern in its north. Nearly 80% of the country's northern population can be found in such locations. Today, there are 11 northern cities in the world with populations larger than 250,000—ten of these are found in Russia. As such, it would be quite wrong to view the contemporary circumpolar world as being primarily composed of small, widely scattered villages.
The population of the Circumpolar North also features some interregional differences with respect to both gender and age distribution. While all of these northern lands have been traditionally thought of as being the domain of the young—mostly male— workers, contemporary population data show that this long-accepted image may be quickly passing from the scene. In the case of the Nordic North, gender distribution totals have become fairly equalized over the past several decades. In some areas—such as Vasterbotten County in northern Sweden—women slightly outnumber men. In the case of northern Russia, the gender distribution is nearly equal. Only in the North American North does the male population continue to appreciably exceed that of its female counterpart. However, population trend lines suggest that this may not be the case for much longer.
There appear to be similar changes taking place with respect to the age structure of the population of the Circumpolar North. Where once it featured a significant bulge in its working-age cohorts, today this recognizable population profile is being dramatically altered across most of the subregions of the Arctic. Young workers—whether they are Russian, Canadian, or Swedish—are no longer flocking as readily to the North in search of jobs and an improvement in their economic conditions. In many cases, the young working population of the North is now looking southward for new employment opportunities and challenges. Simultaneously, the size of the youngest and oldest segments of the northern communities is on the rise. The increase in numbers of the very young can be attributed to both a decline in child deaths, due to improved health care access, and a marked increase in births—especially among aboriginal populations in North America. The growth in the number of elderly can also be attributed, in part, to improved health services in the region as well as the increasing trend for workers to retire within the North rather than in locations further south.
The Circumpolar North also encompasses a wide variety of different ethnic communities distributed unevenly across its various subregions. The original aboriginal populations of the North have always been rather small in number. The four largest groups are represented by the Inuit, the Saami, the First Nation communities of North America, and the various native peoples of the Russian Far North. Today the Inuit number approximately 136,000 individuals, with the largest of their communities found in Alaska (45,000), Canada (41,000), and Greenland (48,000), and a much smaller community in the Russian Chukotka (2000). The Saami peoples reside in the northern reaches of Nordic countries and in adjacent areas of northwest Russia. Their numbers are very small: Norway (25,000); Sweden (17,000); Finland (7000); and Russia (2000) (Saami population figures are for 1997 and have been derived from the Nordic Statistical Yearbook, 1998). The First Nation peoples of the northern portions of Canada and the United States represent a much larger (135,000) and diverse group spread out across a wide territorial area. They include such groups as the Aleut, Dene, Athapaskan, and Cree peoples living from Alaska in the west to Québec and Labrador in the east (Inuit and First Nations figures are for 1998 and have been derived from Statistics Canada www.statcan.ca and US Census, www.cen-sus.gov.). The Northern Minorities of Russia include the largest number of aboriginal peoples within the Circumpolar North totaling about 178,000 individuals. They represent some 30 distinct ethnic groups residing from the Kola Peninsula in the west to the Bering Sea in the east. Some of the larger communities include Evenks, Nenets, Khants, Chukchi, and Evens.
The settler populations from the south, however, have now become the dominant group within the Arctic region, accounting for the vast majority of the peoples who reside in the area. Again, however, the distribution of this settler population is not uniform across the North. In Alaska and northern Canada, this population group is found predominantly in the more southern and larger communities of the region. In most of the Nordic countries, this same pattern is repeated. In Greenland, the number of Danes living in the country has decreased since Home Rule was introduced in 1979. However in Russia, as noted above, there are large settler communities in the far northern urban centers of that country. The settler populations, for the most part, came to these northern lands in the 19th and 20th centuries as part of either planned government settlement programs or in response to individual efforts to secure their economic betterment. Most of the settlers have been traditionally employed in the natural resource economies of the area or have served at the military or security bases that were established in the region—especially during the Cold War era. The fortunes of these settler communities have risen and fallen according to the patterns of the natural resource markets and the degree of international tensions in the area. Today with a decline in both areas, the influx of new settlers has largely stopped.
The past decade has witnessed a significant degree of turbulence within the established population distributions of the Circumpolar North. The source, character, and degree of impact of these disruptions vary somewhat from region to region. As such there is no single "population problem" in the Arctic—there are several. Some like the depopulation of small rural communities are commonly shared across all sectors of the circumpolar region. Others like the rapid growth in numbers of indigenous children is limited, primarily, to one region—that of North America. Some of the current population issues encountered in each portion of the Circumpolar North are detailed below.
Clearly, the most important "population problem" facing northern Russia over this past decade has been the significant out-migration that the region has faced.
It is estimated that over the past ten years, more than 10% of the residents of this area have left. This represents a significant population crisis for the region and a major break with the previous large flows of inmigration to the area that had been characteristic of most of the Soviet period. The worst of this population outflow took place during the early portion of the last decade—from 1992 to 1996—but the trend of population loss continues up to the present date.
The one million residents who left the Russian North in the 1990s were largely composed of two groups. The first of these were young workers who left the region at the height of the "economic crisis" in pursuit of better economic opportunities elsewhere. Some of these individuals had been born in the Russian North. The vast majority, however, were workers who had been motivated to move North during the Soviet era with the promise of high-paying jobs and subsidized food and housing. This established system of wage and price subsidization came to a crashing halt in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its artificially protected northern economy. Facing real or expected unemployment and deprivation, many young workers headed south, seeking greater security in the more central core of the country.
The other group that contributed to the exodus from the Russian North comprised members of those ethnic groups whose nations had achieved their own independence since 1992. The north of Russia has always had a significant ethnic population composed of both Slavs and non-Slavic peoples. They came to the region as a result of both forced relocation policies pursued by the government of the day and through individual efforts at seeking economic betterment. Toward the end of the Soviet period, the Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Kazakh populations of the Russian North represented as much as 30% of some of the urban communities of the region. Starting in 1992, many of these peoples and other non-Russian groups took the opportunity to relocate to their newly independent homelands. It is estimated that some 300,000 have now left the Russian North.
This significant out-migration, combined with a falling birth rate in the region, suggests that for the next several decades the Russian North will be experiencing a significant decline in its population base. This is an unprecedented phenomenon for the region and suggests that there will not be a rapid improvement in either the economic or social conditions of the area in the near term. The loss of young, educated workers is particularly worrisome. Any future economic expansion in the region will require the very type of active and skilled labor that has been leaving the Russian North in large numbers over the past few years.
The population concern in the North American North is not one of massive out-migration as has been the case in Russia. The populations of the northern regions of Canada and the United States are continuing to grow in the aggregate. What is new, however, is that the rate of growth in the region has slowed down from the earlier economic boom decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Today there is much less new, in-migration into the area. As a result of the hard times that have faced the natural resource sector in the 1990s, the number of new workers coming into the region has dramatically fallen. Reductions in public sector spending have also reduced new employment opportunities and have also served to curb new population flows to the area.
A significant portion of the population increase that has taken place in the North American North over recent years has come from natural increase, immigration, and the slowing of the out-migration from the region—especially by the elderly. The northern birth rate has long been higher than more southern areas of Canada and the United States. Today it is growing sig-nificantly—especially among aboriginal populations. This development provides both a challenge and an opportunity for community leaders who desire to see their settlements grow and their economies expand.
As is the case in northern Russia, the North American North is also confronting a significant migration from small villages to larger towns and cities in the region. This has come about, in part, as a result of the decline in job opportunities in the natural resource economies of most rural areas. It has also been precipitated by the desire—especially on the part of the young—to access the more extensive educational, training, and cultural opportunities that are available in the regional centers of the North American North. Such movement poses a variety of social and economic problems for those rural communities that are drained of these young workers. Their future long-term growth and vitality, in many cases, may be threatened.
The issue of providing adequate support for the elderly in the North American North is also coming to the forefront as a population issue. Although not anywhere close to the dilemma confronting the Russian North, the northern residents of Canada and the United States need to consider how they are going to provide the necessary economic, health care, and social services required for the growing numbers of seniors who will populate their communities in the near future. New census data suggest that the population of the northern areas of North America is growing older (1998 data from Statistics Canada www.statcan.ca and US Census, www.census.gov). Fewer numbers of northern seniors are relocating at retirement age outside of the region for a variety of economic and social reasons. Interestingly, there seems to be a small increase in the number of seniors who are actually relocating to the North. Dealing with this new demographic change will require new innovative strategies on the part of governments and citizens of the region.
With respect to the Nordic North, there has been a rather stable overall population profile for the region over the past decade. There has been no major outmigration as in the case of northern Russia, nor a significant rise in the natural rate of population increase as has been witnessed in the North American case. Instead, population numbers have remained relatively unchanged. Significant outflows of young workers that were once characteristic of the region in the 1960s and 1970s have been stemmed somewhat through improved higher educational opportunities in the region and the increased diversification of the area's economy. Nonetheless, the media of the region regularly features stories outlining various schemes to boost the local population, including the settlement of refugees in declining communities.
Questions also abound regarding the long-term trends for employment in the area. Declining natural resource and manufacturing sectors in the Nordic North suggest that some long-established jobs in the area may be threatened. Unemployment in the forestry, fishing, and mining industries has been quite high over the past decade. Cuts in public expenditures—including the downsizing of the military presence in the Nordic North—have raised a number of concerns regarding the ability of those who have been displaced to find new jobs in the secondary and tertiary economies. Can a northern regional economy be sustained largely upon public sector spending and a growing tourism and recreation industry?
Like other areas of the Circumpolar North, the Nordic North faces the challenges of providing for an increasingly aged population. The adequate delivery of health care services remains an ongoing challenge. Of the three northern regions examined, the Nordic North has aged the most extensively. This is particularly true for its small rural communities. Many of the younger residents of these towns and villages have already departed for the more extensive work and educational opportunities found in the larger urban centers to the south. Ironically, this aging phenomenon has brought one particular employment benefit to the region—the creation of a significant number of new care-giving jobs.
Thus as the character of the Circumpolar North changes, so does our need to adjust our perspectives on the people who inhabit it. Today the region is much more urbanized, feminized, aged, and multicultural than it was but a few decades ago. It is no longer predominantly the domain of the young, male natural resource workers who seek to earn an economic stake and then depart for the south. Northern settlement is becoming a permanent condition, with a variety of social, cultural, and environmental concerns contesting with purely economic and employment demands. It is necessary that we gather the appropriate information on these population-related developments if we are to truly appreciate the character of this significant transformation.
In gathering this information and insight, it is important that we do so on a truly comparative basis. As has been previously noted, there are several different norths within the circumpolar world. Due to various difficulties encountered in gathering appropriate data from such a broad and diverse region, few truly comparative studies of population dynamics in the circumpolar world have emerged. Until quite recently, there has been a tendency for most researchers to concentrate their efforts on only one of the sectors—usu-ally their own portion of the circumpolar world. As a consequence, we tend to develop quite a bit of information about conditions and challenges confronting our own northern residents, but we continue to remain uninformed about the peoples from other northern communities. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for some scholars to generalize from their sector-based knowledge and to draw portraits of population settlement in the Circumpolar North that truly reflects only one segment of a broader phenomenon. The challenge for ongoing research focusing on the population of the Arctic is to move away from this narrow sectional thinking and to more fully embrace the diversity and complexity of the broad human experience in the North.
Douglas C. Nord
See also Human Population Trends; Indigenous Peoples' Organizations and Arctic Environmental Politics; Relocation
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