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Squaring the Arctic Circle: Protecting and preserving Earth’s Far North

Back in 2019, your editor was trying to catch a ride on a ship. This was no ordinary sea voyage: the Polarstern, a German research icebreaker, planned to sail to the Arctic, where it would tether itself to an ice floe. Then, as the sea froze around it, the ship and its passengers – engineers, researchers and a scattering of journalists – would be carried through the long Arctic winter with the drifting ice, eventually expelled into the Fram Strait come spring.

“Nothing more wonderfully beautiful can exist than the Arctic night. It is dreamland, painted in the imagination’s most delicate tints; it is colour etherealised.” -- Fridtjof Nansen, polar explorer

I am only one in a long history of people who have felt drawn to the Arctic and its mysteries. Since time immemorial, it has been a place of myth and magic. The Ancient Greeks imagined a temperate paradise above the north winds, ruled by giants called Hyperboreans. Even today, the North Pole serves as the location of Santa’s workshop, staffed by elves. While an undeniably harsh landscape, the Arctic is by no means a wasteland. It is a province with rich ecological, cultural and geophysical significance. Yet days are numbered for its illusive inhabitants, and their real-world compatriots. The sea ice minimum is retreating at around 13 % per decade, and less that 5 % of the ice that remains is the thick, multi-year variety. We are likely to see ice-free Arctic summers within our lifetime. This has dramatic consequences for those that live there, and for the rest of us. The EU recently published a new Arctic Strategy, reiterating its intent to protect the Arctic’s environment and biodiversity, reduce EU-sourced pollution in the region, and support the inclusive and sustainable development of the area. Key to all of this is a better understanding of the Arctic: its climate, its flora and fauna, and its people. This Special section features seven EU-funded projects that focus on Arctic science. These include collaborative projects such as INTERACT, which brought 1 000 scientists to the polar north and gave its name to a new resident there, work to boost Earth observation data, research on the cultural identity and representation of the Arctic, and investigations into the consequences of a warming Arctic, both in the polar region and beyond. In the end, the Polarstern made its journey to the frozen north, but without me. I still hope that one day I might be able to visit the Arctic myself. I just hope that there is still some ice left to see. We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to

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