Despite being home to 4 million people, the Arctic is sparsely populated – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden do not even reach a population density of 6 people per square kilometre.
Depopulation can be attributed to a wide range of factors and ultimately comes down to natural changes and disparities between outward and inward migration in favour of the former. Amongst the major reasons for depopulation in the Arctic are urbanisation and migration.
About two-thirds of the Arctic population is concentrated in urban areas and people are increasingly moving to cities in search of opportunities. Urbanisation is leading to the depopulation and abandonment of smaller settlements. This trend has been observed across the North Atlantic – in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands – and Arctic Fennoscandia – a geographical region comprising the Scandinavian Peninsula, the Kola Peninsula, mainland Finland, and Karelia – the only exception being Northern Norway.
A related issue is the outward migration of young adults to the "mainland" (non-Arctic areas of their respective countries) or other countries for education and economic opportunities. Depopulation due to outward migration is, nevertheless, offset by population growth resulting from the opposite – an influx of economic migrants looking to work in a number of booming industries, such as resource extraction. The population of Iceland, which has already increased by 18 percent since 2000, is projected to increase by as much as a third by 2066 largely for this reason.
Economic migrants tend to be well-educated young people with an entrepreneurial spirit, which brings new ideas to the Arctic and fosters further economic development. Nevertheless, migrants do not necessarily establish themselves permanently in the Arctic and may migrate again if the economic tide changes. What is more, a disproportionate number of economic migrants are male, which does little to lessen the impact of another important challenge to population growth – low birth rates.
An ageing population and a low-birth rate are two other major trends contributing to population decline in the Arctic. In fact, the Arctic has one of the lowest birth and fertility rates in the world, with fewer than 13.3 births per 1,000 people (or 1.93 births per woman), which is insufficient to compensate for depopulation. Low birthrates are also tied to the fact that the Arctic has historically had a higher ratio of men to women compared to the rest of the world, though this trend is steadily declining to produce a more balanced gender distribution and is projected to reach a ratio of 109 men to 100 women by 2040.
The Russian Arctic is seeing depopulation everywhere but two oil and gas-producing areas – the northern areas of the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs. Over 75 percent of all evaluated settlements in the Russian Arctic have seen a decline in population growth throughout the twenty-first century.
While the city of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are responsible for 70 percent of population growth in Alaska, smaller settlements are experiencing population decline, and net migration in the state saw a loss of 4,398 people from April 2020 to July 2021, according to estimates from Alaska’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development. At 932 people, what little population did occur during this period was marginal, amounting to a growth of just over 0.1 percent and constituting the very first increase since 2016.
While Finland has seen an 11 percent increase in its overall population since 1990, only one of its Arctic regions – Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, with a population growth of 18 percent – displayed the same positive trend, having done so entirely for natural reasons. The populations of Finland’s two other Arctic regions, Kainuu and Lappi, declined by 19 and 10 percent respectively largely due to outward migration.
While Greenland’s capital of Nuuk has doubled in size from 1977 to 2016, its rural communities have shrunk considerably (the municipality of Avannaata, for instance, lost 85 percent of its people in the 20-29 age group over the past two decades), and the island’s overall population is expected to decline over the coming years. At 16 percent, the decline of Greenland’s working-age population is projected to overshadow the decline of the working-age populations in the Faroe Islands (at 6.6 percent), Finland (at 3 percent), and Denmark (at 3 percent).