Human Ecology

, Volume 46, Issue 5, pp 685–700 | Cite as

‘Arctic Crashes:’ Revisiting the Human-Animal Disequilibrium Model in a Time of Rapid Change

  • Igor KrupnikEmail author


The paper introduces a new vision advanced by the recent project, Arctic People and Animal Crashes: Human, Climate and Habitat Agency in the Anthropocene (2014–2015) developed at the Smithsonian Institution. Unlike earlier top-down models of polar animal-climate-people connections that tied changes in Arctic species’ abundance and ranges to alternating warmer and cooler temperatures or high ice/low sea-ice regimes, rapid animal declines (‘crashes’) may be better approached at regional and local scales. This approach is close to Arctic peoples’ traditional vision that animals, like people, live in ‘tribes’ and that they ‘come and go’ according to their relations with the local human societies. As the Arctic changes rapidly and climate/sea-ice/ecotone boundaries shift, we see diverse responses by Arctic people and animals to environmental stressors. I examine recent data on the status of three northern mammal species – caribou/reindeer, Pacific walrus, and polar bear—during two decades of the ongoing Arctic warming. The emerging record may be best approached as a series of local human-animal disequilibria interpreted from different angles by population biologists, indigenous peoples, and anthropologists, rather than a top-down climate-induced ‘crash.’ Such new understanding implies the varying speed of change in the physical, animal, and human domains, which was not factored in the earlier models of climate–animal–people’s interactions.


Arctic Climate change Disequilibrium Human-animal relations 



This paper is an outcome of the Arctic Crashes project (Arctic People and Animal Crashes: Human, Climate, and Habitat Agency in the Anthropocene) implemented in 2014–2016 by a team of scholars at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center in collaboration with their academic colleagues and indigenous partners from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Greenland, and the Netherlands (Krupnik 2016; Krupnik and Crowell n.d.). Our 2-year study was funded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Grand Challenges Consortia grant, with additional funding provided by the Ernest S. (Tiger) Burch Endowment. It initially targeted historical and modern population cycles of five species – the Pacific and Atlantic walrus; harbor seal in Yakutat Bay, Alaska; harp seal in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Labrador Coast; North Atlantic bowhead whale, and caribou in Ungava–Labrador Peninsula. I am grateful to my partners on the Arctic Crashes team—Aron Crowell, William Fitzhugh, Stephen Loring, G. Carleton Ray, also to Erik Born, Peter Jordan, Morten Meldgaard, and Torben Rick—for their many helpful insights to the goals and outcomes of our joint work. The ‘Crashes’ team hosted two international symposia on Arctic people-animal relations (March 2015, Anchorage, Alaska; January 2016, Washington DC); these sessions helped expand our focus and added data on the Pribilof Islands fur seal, Alaskan caribou herds, Eastern Arctic narwhal, barren ground caribou in the Canadian High Arctic; seals, walrus, and caribou in prehistoric Greenland; bowhead whale and walrus off Svalbard, and other cases of Arctic crashes. The volume of papers from the ‘Arctic Crashes’ project is currently in production (Krupnik and Crowell n.d.).

The preliminary version of this overview paper was first presented at the symposium, Forging of Cultures in the Circumpolar North – a comparative perspective (September 24–25, 2015, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark). I thank the symposium organizers, Felix Riede, Rane Willerslev, and Pelle Tejsner, for inviting me to the session and encouraging this publication. I am grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier draft.


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© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural HistoryWashingtonUSA

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