In Arctic Dreams

Alexa Firmenich
10 min readAug 20, 2023


In his novel Arctic Dreams — Barry Lopez’s beloved ode to these lands of ice and stone — one finds this exquisite description:

“The emptiness of the tundra ran out like a shimmering mirage into the Northern Ocean; the blue-black vault of the winter sky, a cold beauty alive with scintillating stars, the moaning and wailing in the winter sea ice as the ocean’s crust warped and shattered in the crystalline air… It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor with adumbration, a landscape of numinous events, a world of moonlight ice where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. There is something of original creation here.”

This is a mythic land, ancient, harsh, populated by sudden bursts of wildlife and expanses of silent winds. The Arctic, Barry writes, is a “long, unbroken bow of time”.

And yet even by the 1980s that long bow was being warped by early signs of strain, its timelessness punctuated by the first fits of industrialization. Barry observed mining operations crawling in, truck traffic, oil pipelines splintering the land like shards of frozen breath, whale massacres staining the ice red. The mysterious currents and intricate impulses that guide thousands of geese, narwhals, lichens, muskoxen and caribou across the tundra — ancient corridors of migration, older than the nations they fly from — were being dislocated. He witnessed the heartbreaking erosion of traditional ways of the indigenous peoples who had brilliantly learned how to make the ice their home.

Today, the Arctic has become Ground Zero for climate collapse. Warming three times faster than anywhere else on Earth, here the evidence of man-made disruption and the new geological era of the Anthropocene is branded across the land.

A northern cape of scattered islands, subterranean oil and mineral deposits, traditional fishing villages, aquaculture pens, jagged shark-teeth peaks around which clouds curve like white leopard paws, the Arctic is a rapidly disintegrating Earth organ that directly affects ocean currents from the Atlantic all the way down to the Antarctic.

Frozen crystals reflect sunlight and cool the planet, but when enough naked ground and dark water is revealed by melting ice, the Arctic heats more than it can cool. The thermostat flips. And for anyone who vaguely understands the delicate thermostat of their own body, when one major organ suffers, others rapidly follow suit. The conveyor belt of warm and cool waters (the AMOC) that regulates the temperature of northern Europe and America has already begun to languish to levels that climate models had predicted wouldn’t occur before the next decade.

In other words — Ground Zero in the Arctic means Ground Zero exponentialised everywhere else.

I was here, Barry’s tattered book tucked away in my backpack, convening in the Norwegian Arctic with a group of ocean lovers and oceanographers, CEOs, investors, educators, entrepreneurs, politicians, artists, scientists, mothers, fathers, and most importantly, caring citizens of Earth who happen to be alive during a time of great strain and cascading crisis. Sylvia Earle, possibly the most admired and loved oceanographer of the last century, was in our midst; this formidable elder has done more to illuminate the dark and secret lifeworlds of the deep ocean than any human alive or dead. Infatigable at 86 years old, tenacious in her determination to protect the oceans, Sylvia was with us diving, leading our science sessions, pumping her arms into the air every time she wanted to emote a particular point (coining the group anthem “OK, everyone, do the Sylvia arms!”). Her presence and tone channeled a rare blend of force worn smooth by love, reminding us that the oceans are both a physical realm and a terrain of the human heart.

As Sylvia kept reminding us — the oceans are suffering. They’ve absorbed 90% of the heat of a civilisation flung out of orbit, and have become a dumping ground for oil spills, fish nets, plastics (that other, slow oil spill…), PFAs and forever chemicals. The ocean is an ecosystem of ungoverned commons where dark fleets and competing nations trawl the sea floor and scoop out abhorrent amounts of sea life before it barely has had a chance to live.

Johan Rockström, the world-famous climate scientist who brought us the The Planetary Boundaries, presented the latest science from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. For those who haven’t come across the boundaries — they are not loose climate targets. They are not ‘nice to haves’. They are limits set by the Earth itself. Thresholds beyond which the Earth as we know it begins to spiral out of recognition. When boundaries are breached, we begin to experience cascading ‘tipping points’, moments where critical ecosystems flip into a new state.

What do tipping points lead to? The Amazon, that luscious poster child of multi-canopy foliage where toucans drop red fruits to monkeys below, flips into a dryland savannah. The Antarctic loses masses of ice the size of four US states in a month. The distant tundras of Siberia glow flame with thick dank permafrost turned fuel. Northern Europe experiences an ice age, linked to the slowing of the AMOC mentioned earlier. We’re talking mass migrations of 3.5 billion of our species and fellow humans, collapsing hydrological and monsoon systems (think, drought, agriculture, hungry ones on the move), failing states, resource wars.

One of these wild cards is the Arctic, another the deep ocean, and we were workshopping approaches to helping both. Between the necessary respite of hoisting sails starboard and tucking awkward orange kilts into kayaks to paddle into fjords, we held science sessions and brainstorm sessions, which really required some parallel group therapy sessions if you remained open to the emotional implications of the facts (luckily the Norwegians know how to host a good sauna). To make the abstract visceral, we descended into thick kelp forests, their fronds gelatinous to the touch and ridged like melted toffee. One jellyfish will remain with me forever, a pulsating nine-pointed star nebula, all tumbling petticoats of sienna and umber orange dancing in a medieval gown.

In the year of writing, 2023, humanity has crossed 6 out 9 boundaries. Let that sink in. We hang by a thread and we’re sleepwalking into collapse. And that is even before calculating in all the unknowns (oxymoron), all the cascades that can barely be understood. Effects we thought would happen in decades are already happening in 2023. This dance of facts versus feeling is the inhale, the exhale, one needs to inhabit when everything we think we know about the future radically shifts.

There are many unknowns, and not all are negative or terrifying. For me some of the most promising unknowns lie in the positive social tipping points that can occur when a society wakes up, coordinates, rolls up its sleeves and engages in mass mobilization. It turns out that it may not take so many of us to tip the scales, so contagious and malleable is the human psyche.

And some things are known. We need to give the Earth space to breathe. This means no-take fishing zones from the ocean. You sleep and regenerate every night. Let the oceans rest too. This means not tinkering with ecosystems where 90% of the species, bacteria, and chemistry is still unresearched and mysterious to us (I’m referring to deep sea mining — you won’t want to have sat by whilst this happened in your lifetime, answering awkward questions from your children; it’s far from “empty” down there and a small number of private interests group are eyeing a new mineral rush). As Sylvia said to us one day, “Earth is alive, and it’s governed not by humans but by the little guys in the deep ocean, and they can turn on a dime”. We need to reclaim our place as stewards of this sublime chemistry, and not ignorant net destructors.

An immediately actionable approach is holding countries accountable to the 30 by 30 commitments they agreed upon after the gruelling negotiations in December ’22 at COP15 in Montreal to protect 30% of all seas and land by 2030. The Arctic is not doing so well in this accounting framework. Less than 5% is protected, and the usual suspects are betting on targets not being met and rather on the melting ice to open up new trade routes, oil rigs, and fishing zones. We can’t let this happen. So here, in the Lofoten islands, we tentatively named our gang of 25 “The Lofoten Hope Initiative”, a seed of a greater movement, and will leverage our respective worlds and skills for the following goals:

  1. Help fast-track new « Hope Spots » and 30% protected areas in the Arctic Circle by 2030
  2. Advance the latest cutting edge science, data and monitoring to prove to the doubtful/curious/self interested why protection of the Arctic is really something that matters to everyone
  3. Tell stories of the beauty and hope of this region — because humans are moved by what we know and care about, not by anonymous words and statistics
  4. Expand the understanding and collective governance of global commons such as the Arctic. This last one I’ve added in as a long-term aspiration because the degenerative world system we inhabit is an invention of human minds, and those same minds can carve any other kind future if they believe in it enough — let no one tell you that anything is ‘inevitable’ or unavoidable. As Rebecca Solnit says, “The power of individuals is colossal, the scale of change in the world and the collective imagination of the last decades staggering. Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency, new things come forth. Danger and possibilities are sisters”.

Our tent has space for more. We want you involved. Please message me directly if you have ideas or offers of support for the above.

Now for the most important credits: a MASSIVE thank you to Keith Tuffley and the Abel Tasman crew (Isaak and Alex Rockstrom) for bringing us together, for so gracefully keeping a herd of faffing humans on track. Thank you to my fellow travellers and new friends — Brita Staal, Eva Karlsson, Mathias Wikström, Felipe Fernandez, Gemma Corrigan, Dee Yang, Ted Janulis, Nina Jensen, Ying Qin, PhD, Prof. Dr. Martin R. Stuchtey, Kimberly Mathisen, Jens Orback, Siobhán McLoughlin, Johan Falk, Gabrielle Walker, Gunhild Anker Stordalen, Taylor Griffin, Chris Monette, Sam Berry and Ruffle Tuffley — for the laughs, the wisdom, the deep conversations, the existential late night hot tubs, the crewmanship, the challenging questions, the unanswered conclusions. I am honoured to be part of this group, and know that together we will create ripples to serve that which we love.

“Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and the colors of the dawn and dusk.”
― Barry López, Arctic Dreams