Five years ago this week we completed a survey among visitors to Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in which we asked one question: What comes to mind when you hear the word “Arctic?” The first four words on the list, in order of most frequent to least, were:

  1. Cold
  2. Polar Bears
  3. Ice
  4. Snow

Number five on the list was “penguins.” We’ll forgive those of you who may have included this word in your list; it’s a common mistake. But last time we checked (and we check pretty much every day) there were no penguins in the Arctic. They are a uniquely southern bird.

As we pointed out five years ago, those first four words aren’t incorrect; they just don’t tell the whole story. We were most struck by what was not in the list of answers: there was no mention of people, fish, land animals (the iconic polar bear is considered a marine mammal), plants or environmental issues of any kind. No mention of a rich, vibrant culture or the idea that there is a lot of land in the Canadian Arctic. There are, after all, 32,000 islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and 25 communities scattered among them in the High Arctic. There was no mention of change — social or environmental on the list at all.

A few of your favourite words.

A few of your favourite words.

It was clear that organizations like ours needed to do a better job at helping people understand the Arctic from a variety of perspectives, and provide a picture of the Arctic that was more than cold, snowy ice with polar bears. We challenged ourselves to tell a more complete Arctic story — one in which humans play a prominent role and one that includes the social, political, economic and cultural contexts in which the Arctic occurs.

Fast forward to today as we look over the results of the same survey run over the last few months. How has our perception of the Arctic changed in five years? See for yourself. Here are the top four words on the list:

  1. Cold
  2. Ice
  3. Polar Bears
  4. Snow

And Number 5?

Penguins.

Now, we know what you’re thinking because we thought it too: Have we really effected no change in the public understanding of the Arctic in the last five years? But then we looked a little closer. Five years ago, phrases such as “climate change” didn’t even crack the Top 20 on our word list. The Arctic and climate change simply weren’t linked in people’s minds, even though the Arctic is experiencing change at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet. This year, if we skip down past “north,” “beluga” and “white” (numbers 6, 7, and 8), we get “melting,” “global warming” and “climate change” at numbers 9 through 11.

Arctic Connections

Polar bears are far from the only creatures living in the Arctic. The North is home to plenty of people who are grappling with the effects of climate change. Here, Eric Solomon talks with an Inuit elder in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

Granted, those aren’t at the top of the list, but the cold, ice, snow and polar bears are such iconic symbols of the Arctic that it would take an awful lot to bump them out of the top spots. What we can celebrate is that words like “melting” and “global warming” have made it on the list at all, and they are in the Top 10.

There’s still no mention of Inuit or culture, or caribou or food security, but changing the public’s perception about the Arctic is a lot like changing course in an aircraft carrier — it’s a long, slow process and it takes patience and perseverance.

As our Arctic awareness campaign draws to a close, we’re happy to see increased awareness of the relationship between climate issues and our rapidly changing Arctic. Of course, we will be even happier when those issues are more top-of-mind than penguins when we hear the word “Arctic.”

Blog post by Eric Solomon, director of Arctic Connections at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.  

Learn more about issues facing Canada’s Arctic at www.vanaqua.org/ournorth

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