20: Cities of the Arctic

The stereotypical image of the Arctic is a windswept, barren, frosty plain filled with nothing but snow and ice. This isn’t wrong, there is definitely barren snow and ice a-plenty up there, but it’s also not the whole story. The Arctic is full of animals, and home to least 4 million people. These people sometimes live in little frontier villages, but others make their homes in cities, attend their universities, watch their football teams play and do other, general city things. This week we’ll take a look at why there are few cities in the Arctic and some of the difficulties attached with living there, alongside exploring how some of the ones that are there have managed to survive, or even thrive!

The stereotypical Arctic wilderness (Picture: DC Productions/Getty Images)

Why there are few cities

Historically cities have often sprung up in places based on the surrounding environment. Perhaps this is on the coast, as it provides access to fishing and shipping (especially back in the day before air travel, when ships provided a link to the rest of the world). Perhaps it was near good farm land so the cities could host markets to sell the food grown, or in the bend of a river that would provide a good natural defence to protect one group from another group they were warring with. Perhaps these communities sprang up because of a mineral resource like coal or silver.

Settlements in the Arctic have also been connected to resources, though perhaps slightly differently than mentioned so far. Historically Indigenous communities have often resided near the coast because of access to fishing, and these have been somewhat settled communities. Inland resources have been a bit scarcer in winter, as farming is very difficult in that climate and the animals people hunt would migrate, so inland communities had to remain small and mobile to survive. Of course, this is a broad generalisation, but it shows some of the reasons why many northern communities are small. However, the Arctic does have cities, so what caused them to be created and survive? Let’s take a look at some of these cities…

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A classic small Arctic coastal community. This is Naajata in Greenland (Picture: HerbyThyme/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0)


Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the west coast of Norway is actually a littlequite a bit warmer than many other places at the same latitude. Here you can find the major Arctic city of Tromsø, home to 68,000 people. Tromsø (pronounced Troms-uh) was historically very small, first being home to the Indigenous Saami many thousands of years ago who fished there. It was then occupied by a Norse chieftain in the Middle Ages as an outpost of Norway which defended the rest of the country from the north against what was then part of Russia.

Despite only being home to around 80 people, Tromsø was designated as a city at the end of the 1700s by the King. This was because the city of Bergen in the south had recently lost its monopoly on the trade of cod, but Tromsø could, and eventually did, become a new centre of Arctic hunting. Arctic exploration started to set off from here too, but the biggest growth in the city came from three things- the building of an airport, a university and the Norwegian Polar Institute. By making itself accessible and creating jobs and opportunities to work on the Arctic in the Arctic, Tromsø managed to create an administrative and educational work base that has allowed the city to rapidly grow and sustain itself. It is known across Norway as being one of the best places to study law, and of course is very strategically placed for studying Arctic history in terms of environment, climate and Indigenous culture.

The island on which Tromsø is built. (Picture: Ragnilius/Wikimedia commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)


The most northerly city in Russia is Norilsk at a latitude of over 69o. It is home to a permanent population of around 175,000 people but this rises to 220,000 people when the temporary population is included. To build a city in this very harsh part of Siberia, which is covered in permafrost and with average winter temperatures down to -35 °C (-31 °F), though it can get a lot colder, would seem completely mad and something no one would want to do. Well, the majority of people who built it actually didn’t want to do it… Norilsk was largely built by forced labour when Russia was still the Soviet Union, using labour from their Gulag system in the early 1900s. To give you an idea of really how tough it was, during the existence of the enforced work camp there from 1935-1956, 16,806 prisoners died whilst constructing the city.

Norilsk was mainly built to allow for mining in the area, and is still inhabited largely for the mining and smelting of nickel, copper, cobalt, platinum, palladium and coal. In fact mining is a common theme for Russian Arctic cities, as the climate is so much harsher here without the Gulf Stream that building simply for administrative reasons wouldn’t make much sense. Vorkuta in west Russia, also built by workers in gulag camps and now home to around 70,000 people, is a coal mining city too. On the other hand Murmansk, the Arctic’s largest city at around 307,000 people, was built for very different reasons.

Murmansk is on the very north west coast of Russia, bordering Finland. It was originally built as a railway and port town during the First World War, as Russian allies could ship military supplies to the area which would then be taken by train to the rest of the country. It became an administrative centre for the Murmansk Okrug (region or district) and during World War 2 once again became an important link to the western world for supplying military but also manufactured and raw goods, which were then taken on once more by train. Finally during the Cold War Murmansk became a centre of activity for the ice breaking and submarine activities of the Soviet Union. It grew by merging with another nearby settlement and today remains an important shipping and fishing port, as well as the home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear ice breakers. There is also a state technical school and naval school.

The port in Murmansk (Picture: Photo Agency)

Sweden, Finland and North America

Sweden has large Arctic settlements too like the iron mining town of Kiruna. Mining is such an important industry, that many of the inhabitants aren’t too bothered that the town is literally being moved a few miles away to allow more mining to happen under the land where the town now. The local reindeer herders aren’t too happy, but that’s a whole other story. However, it is a town, not a city, so sorry Kiruna you are being ignored.

Finland has the city of Rovaniemi, home to the University of Lapland and supposedly Santa Claus. Tourism is big here, as is the University, but unfortunately it’s just under the Arctic circle so we’re skipping over you too, sorry!

As for Canada, the city of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories is a hub for diamond mining, but home to only around 18,000 people and actually quite a bit south of the Arctic Circle. All Canadian Arctic communities are pretty small.

The U.S does have a legit Arctic city called Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) in the very north of Alaska. This is a genuine city, has a heritage centre and college, and is the economic centre for Alaska’s North Slope Borough (district) as well as providing support to oil operations. However, it should be mentioned that the city’s population is around 4,000 and subsistence hunting is a very important part of life there, suggesting the city might only be able to sustain a small population as it currently is.

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Utqiagvik in Alaska which is technically a city but quite a small one (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Creating a city in the Arctic is often impractical. It can be hard to get materials out there, the harsh climate can make functioning difficult for large numbers of people who are not used to it, and unless it is constantly being met by trains, planes and boats of supplies, the population is limited by how much can be provided by a subsistence lifestyle. That’s why Canada and Alaska only really have small communities in their Arctic.

Resources like metals are the big pull towards the Arctic, but even then it’s quite impractical to have large numbers of people around them. Alaska’s Red Dog mine is huge, providing 10% of the worlds zinc, yet its inhabitants are temporary workers who come there for shifts but do not live in the area permanently. The difference between there and Russia is infrastructure. As Russia had access to slave labour in the past and intentionally put these labour camps in hostile places, they were able to create infrastructure around mines which makes it a lot more possible for the cities to survive today. Norway, and perhaps slightly Murmansk, have the help of the Gulf Stream warming them up to temperatures that are a bit more manageable than other Arctic areas.

The Arctic is a hard place to have cities and large numbers of people. However, there are still some and it’s important to remember this. The Arctic isn’t just ice and snow, but villages, towns and some decent sized cities too.

For more info:

List of the largest Arctic cities (we’ve covered most of them): http://www.theworldgeography.com/2011/12/10-largest-cities-within-arctic-circle.html

Music: kongano.com, Gary Clark Jr.

Cover picture: City of Norilsk, Russia (Picture: FEBC)

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