Nordenskiöld, an Early Pioneer of Nordic Conservation

by Seija A. Niemi
Arcadia, 2012, no. 12

In the history of explorations, Nordenskiöld is best remembered as the explorer who first sailed the Northeast Passage during a 1878-1879 expedition. A lesser known fact is that he was also an influential pioneer in Nordic conservation history. His 1880 essay Förslag till inrättandet af Riksparker i de nordiska länderna (A Proposal for Establishing National Parks in the Nordic Countries) is a seminal text, comparable with George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864) or Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949).

Nordenskiöld wrote Proposal in order to help people realize the damaging effects of technological innovations on the environment. He wrote:

“The accumulated influence of the great inventions of the last century on the nature around us is becoming increasingly evident day by day. The farthermost countryside will soon be crisscrossed by railways and telegraph lines. Sawmills and other kinds of mills are located deep in the wilderness …. The transition brings happiness and welfare for millions and demonstrates the true measure of a country’s development … But, at the same time, there is a melancholy feeling that future generations will barely be able to imagine what the land of their fathers was like.” — Nordenskiöld Förslag (Proposal), 1880

Portrait of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1902)

In his writings, he warned of the downside of the cultural progress: the destruction of nature. However, at the same time he understood and accepted progress, because it often brought improved welfare to people.

Furthermore, to him, nature was a source for human inspiration and innovation. He himself got some of his most innovative ideas from his observations of nature, such as his development of ice breakers, floating breakwaters, and artesian wells. For example, his observation of how an ice drift calmed turbulent water, making it safe to sail behind or beside the ice, prompted him to design the floating breakwater.

Animal protection and the survival of species were also important to Nordenskiöld. In his diary from his first expedition to Spitsbergen in 1858, he described how greedy eider hunters collected all the eggs and killed most of the birds for their feathers. He considered it a miracle that the bird colonies were not completely exterminated. In his reports from subsequent expeditions, he spoke about the over-harvesting of whales, walruses, and seals committed by Norwegian and other northern European fishers in the Arctic Ocean.


Nordenskiöld’s concern for the environment was new to Europe at that time. His diverse writings about the damages and changes caused by humans played an important role in the awakening of environmental consciousness in Europe and his Proposal eventually led to the passing of Sweden’s Conservation Act of 1909, which established nine national parks - the first ever in Europe.

Stora Sjöfallet National Park in Northern Sweden. Established in 1909 under Sweden’s first major conservation legislature.

How to cite

Niemi, Seija A. “Nordenskiöld, an Early Pioneer of Nordic Conservation.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (2012), no. 12. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

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ISSN 2199-3408
Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia

Further readings: 
  • Conwentz, Hugo. “Om skydd åt det naturliga landskapet jämte dess växt- och djurvärld, särskildt i Sverige.” Ymer 1 (1904): 2-42.
  • Hares, Minna, Anu Eskonheimo, Timo Myllyntaus & Olavi Luukkanen. ”Environmental literacy in interpreting endangered sustainability. Case studies from Thailand and the Sudan.” Geoforum, 1 (2006): 128–44.
  • Häkli, Esko. A. E. Nordenskiöld. A Scientist and his Library. Helsinki: Helsinki University Library, 1980.
  • Nordenskiöld, Adolf E. “Förslag till inrättandet af riksparker i de nordiska länderna” [Proposal on establishing national parks in the Nordic countries], in Per Brahes Minne 1680, 12 September 1880 (Stockholm, 1880).
  • Orr, David W. Ecological Literacy. Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
  • Sundin, Bosse. “Environmental Protection and the National Parks.” In Science in Sweden: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1739–1989, edited by Tore Frängsmyr, 199–226. Canton: Science History Publications, 1989.