The Arctic as Archive

ANDREW STUHL Image 3 Cover Page Offshore Drilling In Beaufort Sea[10]

The Arctic as Archive

Andrew Stuhl

Imagine, if you can, staring at a computer screen, in an office, somewhere thousands of miles from the Arctic Ocean. You type in a URL for the Beaufort Sea Engineering Database. You press enter. Your screen shows an interface that looks quite unassuming. Across the top sits a panel with the familiar options “File / View / Tools / Update / Help.” A side pane with a drop-down menu displays the heading “Viewable Map Layers.” In the center, occupying the most space, an outline of the shoreline sketches the western North American Arctic and the islands of the Arctic Archipelago. These outlines serve as a frame for the main image, the Beaufort Sea, which, for the time being, is merely empty white space. With a few clicks, however, you transform that body of water. You add bathymetric charts and trace the depth of the ocean in splashes of color (Figure 1). You zoom to selected barrier islands and overlay historical data on oil well sites and hydrological data on ice formations. Suddenly, you are much, much closer to the Arctic than you were just moments ago.

Figure 1: The Beaufort Sea Engineering Database allows users, principally in the oil and gas industry, to synthesize information that had previously been widely scattered. The result is a powerful tool for visualizing the Beaufort Sea environment and, consequently, advancing decisions relating to natural resource exploration and development.

The Beaufort Sea Engineering Database (BSED) was initiated in 2010 to make experiences like this possible, with the express purpose of opening the oil and gas resources of the Arctic Ocean to the world’s oil and gas giants. The BSED was the product of a collaboration between the National Research Council Canada and several multi-national energy companies, including British Petroleum (BP), ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil, and Statoil. Geological studies had projected significant petroleum and natural gas deposits in the Beaufort Sea. Recognizing their value on the global market, industry leaders purchased drilling licenses during the first decade of the 2000s in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet, oil executives and the Canadian federal government understood the Beaufort Sea posed significant physical barriers: it was covered in thick ice for much of the year and, during the rest, wind, moving ice, and variable temperatures created a harsh and unpredictable operating environment. The BSED was a direct response to both these economic reward and ecological risks of the Beaufort Sea. It provided oil and gas companies with information on sea currents; ice characteristics and strength; the movement of ice floes; and seismic activity in the seabed. According to the National Research Council Canada, this data facilitated “offshore and marine planning, engineering decisions and operations.”[1]

I treat the BSED as a historical object, one we might imagine in an exhibition on the Arctic.[2] Its creation marks in time a surge of renewed corporate and governmental interest in Arctic hydrocarbon resources, as well as the ways science and ecology shaped one another in the early 21st century. Indeed, an explosion in electronic forms of communication, the globalization of economies, and a rapid increase in petroleum consumption are all hallmarks of the Great Acceleration, a stage of the Anthropocene encompassing the years 1945-2015.[3] More importantly for my purposes here, though, the BSED signals for scholars the significance of certain practices of knowledge-making—like data storage and data manipulation—in our understanding of the Arctic during this moment in time. The BSED consolidated existing research that had previously been housed in separate locations and stored in various formats. According to Bill Maddock, Arctic Engineering and Technology Coordinator for British Petroleum, the BSED ensured that all parties were “working for a consistent and accurate data source.” The tool allowed Maddock and others “to plan and implement safe and responsible development projects in this region.”[4] In other words, it was BSED’s function as an archive, more than an interactive map, that lent it so much promise for knowing, overcoming, and unlocking the Arctic.

I explore how an explicit interrogation of archives like the BSED promotes a more nuanced and critical understanding of the Arctic, one that draws as much from the humanities as it does the sciences. As humanities librarian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Marlene Manoff notes, “the more data we produce, the more we need narrative to make sense of that data and find constructive ways to use it.”[5]  Especially since tools like the BSED promote strict, linear narratives of modern development, they do not capture the multidirectional and multidimensional nature of the past or present. Critical scholarship on archives is necessary to “reconceive the organizing premises of stored knowledge and to make hidden texts, material, and pasts immediately present.”[6]

Archives can serve a site for this kind of critical inquiry into the Arctic, principally because they have been foundational to exertions of power there. Jacques Derrida puts it this way: “[T]here is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”[7] The maintenance of empire hinged on the accumulation and management of knowledge; the material collections of the archive documented the progress and meaning of imperialism. The sense of control that colonial officials extracted from their archival institutions was significant, literary scholar Thomas Richards demonstrates, especially since archival objects offered much less resistance than Indigenous peoples, global markets, or local landscapes.[8] In this view, it should not be surprising that government agents and oil executives invested so much in the Beaufort Sea Engineering Database. For at least three centuries, there has been a sustained impulse toward archiving the Arctic. Think of gentleman travelers or expedition members swapping rifles for Inuit-made weapons and how these were ordered, displayed, and studied in a museum. Or the International Geophysical Year (of 1883-84, of 1932, of 2007-2009) and the shelves’ worth of grey literature, itself a compilation of years of observations regarding weather, magnetism, and hydrology. Or Encyclopedia of the Arctic. These are all kinds of Arctic archives that deserve their own recontextualization and reinterpretation.[9]

While it certainly would not be fair to equate a print encyclopedia with a digital, interactive database like the BSED, showcasing their similarities reveals the intellectual payoff of thinking of the Arctic as an archive. As Marlene Manoff explains, databases, like encyclopedias and catalogs, “perform archival functions in that they are aggregators or accumulators of knowledge; they save and transmit culture.” “These formulations,” she continues, “implicitly make the case for historical continuity. They imagine current configurations of database as a kind of logical unfolding of the archival impulse.”[10] In the case of the BSED, prospective users named these relations in how they put their new tool to use. Multinational oil companies held extensive experience in offshore operations in locations around the world and even in some nearshore areas of the Beaufort Sea. What they lacked was the ability to apply this experience in prospective sites for development, keeping in mind economic forecasts and the informational requirements of the regulatory process for drilling. Ivana Kubat, one of the project leaders from National Research Council Canada, described it like this: “We have established and populated a database that enables the storage, query and visualization of environmental information on the Beaufort Sea. This repository is already providing oil and gas companies with greater insight into the physical conditions of the Beaufort Sea.”[11] The BSED thus fused the knowledge gathered from years of exploratory work by multi-national companies with the computational capabilities of machines. In slideshows introducing the BSED to civil servants in federal regulatory agencies, industry partners, and others, Kubat and her team explicitly linked the computational power of data storage and synthesis with new applications for the future of the Arctic and the global oil frontier (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The framework for the Beaufort Sea Engineering Database. Notice the hierarchical relations among data, data storage, data manipulation, and the export of new data applications.

The BSED illustrates that some of what we understand the Arctic today and prepare for its future by way of the knowable past, itself embodied in the archive. But what if key events or experiences are excised? Archives exert power not only through what they contain, but also what they leave out. In fashioning collections, archivists can never achieve full preservation. For one, they are limited in what they can store by the technologies available to them.[12] Second, and more importantly, archivists choose what to save, which includes deliberately destroying or excluding some materials. The implications of this for understanding the Arctic are profound: the archive—so long associated with the establishment of empire—can also serve as a site for decolonization.[13]

Arctic scholars today benefit from Indigenous-led research on archaeology, oral history, and cultural history that built archives in traditional territories, often in cultural resource centers.[14] Settler scholars have at times collaborated with Indigenous people on these projects, at the invitation of representatives of Indigenous organizations.[15] Such relationships abide by best practices for consultation and representation in locations with a long history of appropriation and exploitation; they adhere to the adage “nothing about us without us.”[16] Indigenous political and cultural groups continue these practices through social media today, bringing their projects to decolonize archives into the digital era. These groups often share data of cultural significance, such as historic images or explanations of significant social practices, like clothing, dances, and subsistence activities.[17] These platforms, with their ability to challenge conventional framings of Arctic life circulated by mainstream media, have been central to recent Indigenous rights campaigns, such as the #sealfie movement.[18] Showcasing an archive of Indigenous provenance interrupts the standard, colonial explanation of events.

Scholars can help reveal the limits and impositions of digital archives by recovering the histories surrounding the data they contain. The BSED is explicitly a digital product in the service of natural resource development. It yokes its value to the recovery, digitization, and recirculation of existing scientific information so as to facilitate development planning and natural resource exploitation. Yet it does not necessarily connect the scientific information it contains from the historical contexts in which that information was produced. This is a form of decontextualization similar to the exclusion of Indigenous experiences and perspectives, yet distinct from it. It is also common to many digital archives and databases. As Manoff explains, “Databases and encoded texts implicitly privilege some things over others and thus determine the kinds of questions one may pose. In the digital environment, the nature of those limits is often invisible to the user.”[19]  Without historical context in the creation of the BSED, the picture is limited.  On April 15, 1976, the Government of Canada, acting through Cabinet, approved a proposal from Dome Petroleum Limited to drill two wells from ships in the outer continental shelf of the Beaufort Sea. These were the first oil wells drilled in the offshore regions of Arctic North America; they appear in the BSED as a layer of historical data on oil wells that can be turned on or off.

As with the BSED, the Cabinet approved Dome’s proposal by fashioning an Arctic archive of sorts. In 1973, the Cabinet tasked scientists in the Department of Environment to provide the terms and conditions for oil and gas operations in the outer continental shelf through a three-year study called the Beaufort Sea Project (or Beaufort Sea Study).[20] By late 1975, members of the Department of Environment most directly involved with the collection of field data for the Beaufort Sea Project had prepared more than 30 technical reports detailing the offshore environment, including its marine ecology, hydrology, weather, and migratory patterns of key marine species. These scientists had reached consensus that Dome Petroleum was not adequately prepared to mitigate the largest risk of its proposed drilling program: an oil spill or well blow-out that occurred late in the season, just before freeze-up. The Department of Environment formally recommended a delay of offshore drilling until industry developed technologies and contingency plans that lowered this risk to a more acceptable level. The recommendation was not available for public view.

Because the makers of the BSED were interested in particular bits of data – on sea ice formations and movements, on seismic activity, and on existing oil well sites –these previous experiences with knowledge production about the oil and gas resources of the Beaufort Sea did not receive the same attention. This is the contribution of a critical humanist approach to modern databases and archives: they give us pause when confronted with tools that appear to capture and consolidate information in the service of planning the future. In the case of the Beaufort Sea, historians are uniquely suited to this work because many of the documents that reveal these relations among regulatory agencies and information control were kept confidential and held. They are made publicly available on thirty-year timelines and at the request of scholars. Environmental activists involved with the issue of Beaufort Sea oil development in the 1970s recognized this. Douglas Pimlott, an environmentalist with the group Canadian Arctic Resources Committee and friends in the Department of Environment, called attention to the knowledge-excluding activities. “Despite all these conflicting considerations arising out of offshore drilling,” he wrote, “there has been no attempt to inform either Native groups or the public at large of the issues. Nearly all the substantive information on offshore drilling plans is contained in various confidential proposals put forward by the oil industry and in restricted reports prepared by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.”[21] Indeed, Cabinet’s support of offshore drilling in April 1976 rested on a “preliminary” report from the Beaufort Sea Project that had been prepared before all field research had been analyzed or shared with the broader Canadian public (Figure 3). When placed alongside the BSED, the “Preliminary Environmental Assessment” from 1975 suggests the myriad ways knowledge and power in the Beaufort Sea could be manipulated through archives. While establishing a comprehensive archive of data to facilitate rational decision making, either in the 1970s or in 2010, the Canadian government carefully maintained access to and interpretation of that archive—thereby exerting control in a contest for Arctic resources.

Figure 3: The cover page of the Preliminary Environmental Assessment, the document Cabinet used to approve the first ever oil wells in the North American Arctic offshore regions. Cabinet did not share it with the public or Indigenous communities whose traditional territories bordered the Beaufort Sea.

If the BSED can help us see the Arctic in the Anthropocene, in what it contains and what it does not, so too can the database’s fate. With increasing availability of natural gas in North America from hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota and Pennsylvania, the costs of offshore oil development in the Arctic became too much for multi-national oil companies to bear by 2015. As we approach the third decade of the 2000s, the BSED remains available online only through archived news articles and a slideshow presentation describing its background, interface, and potential uses.[22] This is a fitting end to the BSED, since it leaves us, as either users of that tool, or readers of this chapter, in an uncertain state—the exact condition it was meant to ameliorate. The oil and gas industry is subject to fluctuating prices on global markets and booms and busts of planning and development activity. The BSED sits as an artifact of a time in recent Arctic history where the hopes for cashing in on the Beaufort Sea’s immense oil and gas deposits combined with the dream of total preservation and maximum application of data.

The current status of the BSED is also fitting because this is how digital archives configure our relations with place and time. Humans today can reach the Arctic like they never could before – by following social media feeds of Indigenous political organizations, for instance, or even tracking daily changes in sea ice extent through databases of satellite imagery.[23] More to the point, national governments beyond Canada have recently looked to digital forms of data storage and data input to make their own bureaucracies more transparent and accessible, especially as it relates to the decisions around assessing environmental impacts of major resource development projects in the Arctic.[24] Each of these databases and archives hides something about the Arctic—its past, its human communities, or forms of knowledge and experience that cannot currently be stored as data files. At the end of the Great Acceleration, we are an odd position; as Marlene Manoff writes, we have “tremendous access to historical artifacts and digital surrogates while also experiencing a sense of being cut off from history.”[25] The proliferation of Arctic archives can teach us to hold both this access and separation in productive dissonance. Especially in the context of resource planning and oil development, we need not just more data about the Arctic, but more critical stories about it as well. 


Andrew Stuhl is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bucknell University. He teaches environmental history, history of ecology, environmental humanities, and Arctic studies.




[1] National Research Council Canada, “NRC helps the oil and gas industry chart new frontiers in the Beaufort Sea,”, accessed 10 May 2018

[2] I draw inspiration from the “Cabinet of Curiosities” event held at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in 2014. There, scholars presented a contemporary object as an entry in an exhibit on the Anthropocene. The presentations have since been compiled in a book. See Robert Emmett and Gregg Mitman, eds., Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[3] Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature,” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36, 8 (2007): 614-621.

[4] National Research Council Canada, “NRC helps the oil and gas industry chart new frontiers in the Beaufort Sea.”

[5] Marlene Manoff, “Archive and Database as Metaphor: Theorizing the Historical Record,” portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol 10, no 4 (2010): 393.

[6] Ibid, 394.

[7] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19950, 4, note 1.

[8] Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, (Verso Publishing, 1993).

[9] I explore some of this history of science and colonialism elsewhere. See Andrew Stuhl, Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[10] Manoff, “Archive and Database as Metaphor,” 392.

[11] National Research Council Canada, “NRC helps the oil and gas industry chart new frontiers in the Beaufort Sea”

[12] Manoff, Archive and Database as Metaphor”; Marlene Manoff, “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines,” Portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol 4, No 1 (January 2004), 9-25

[13] Manoff, “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines,”16.

[14] On Inuit-led scholarship in these areas, see Elisa J. Hart and Cathy Cockney, Yellow Beetle Oral History and Archaeology Project, 1999; Murielle Ida Nagy, “Aulavik Oral History Project on BanksIsland, NWT: Final Report,” 1999; and Murielle Ida Nagy, “Yukon North Slope Inuvialuit Oral History,” 1994. Each of these projects was supported by the Inuvialuit Social Development Fund, itself created through the Inuvialuit Final Agreement of 1984, the land claim settlement between the Inuvialuit of the western Canadian Arctic and the federal government of Canada. These documents were published by the Inuvialuit and maintained in the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Center in Inuvik, Northwest Territories (which sits in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region). They have limited circulation and scholars must have permission from the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Center staff to use information contained in them. In these ways, these publications and the Cultural Resource Center constitute an Indigenous-led archive in Indigenous territory.

[15] For an example with the Inuvialuit in the Beaufort Sea area, see Natasha Lyons, “Creating space for negotiating the nature and outcomes of collaborative research projects with Aboriginal communities,” Etudes/Inuit/Studies, vol 35, no 1-2 (2011): 83-1015. See also Natasha Lyons, Kate Hennessy, Charles Arnold, Mervin Joe, “The Inuvialuit Smithsonian Project:  Winter 2009-Spring 2011.” Report produced for the Smithsonian Institution, vol 1. June 2011; and Charles Arnold, Wendy Stephenson, Bob Simpson, and Zoe Hoe, eds. Taimani: At That Time. Inuvialuit Timeline Visual Guide. Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, 2011. See also Kim TallBear, “Standing With and Speaking as Faith: A Feminist-Indigenous Approach to Inquiry,” Journal of Research Practice, vol 10, no 2 (2014).

[16] Many Arctic Indigenous groups maintain guidelines for how visiting researchers ought to best collaborate with them. Some Indigenous groups also maintain compendia of possible research topics and projects that would be beneficial to them. See Inuit Tapariit Kanatami, National Inuit Strategy on Research, available at, accessed 10 May 2018.

[17] See, for instance, the Twitter or Facebook feeds for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, @InuvialuitCorp.

[18] Eva Holland, “#Sealfie vs. #Selfie, One Year Later,” Pacific Standard,, (accessed 10 May 2018).

[19] Marlene Manoff, “Archive and Database as Metaphor,” 394.

[20] In 1973, in response to a global energy crisis and the promulgation of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, Cabinet had committed to a three-year research program—called the Beaufort Sea Project or Beaufort Sea Study—to develop the knowledge necessary to regulate oil and gas production in deeper waters with appropriate environmental safeguards. See “Minutes of the Twenty-Seventh Meeting of the Western and Northern Regional Board held at Edmonton, Alberta, on December 2, 1975,” RG108, Accession 1995-1996/133, Box 9, File 1165-36/R53-3 Part 1, Library and Archives Canada

[21] Douglas Pimlott, “Offshore Drilling in the Beaufort Sea,” Northern Perspectives vol 2, no 2 (January 1974), 1

[22] Ibid. See also National Research Council Canada, “Beaufort Sea Engineering Database,”, accessed 10 May 2018.

[23] National Snow and Ice Data Center, “Charctic Interactive Sea Ice Graph,”, accessed 10 May 2018.

[24] Daniel J. Graeber, “U.S. extends comment period for Beaufort Sea drilling,” United Press International,

[25] Marlene Manoff, “Archive and Database as Metaphor,” 389.

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