A selection of facts about the Arctic you’ll find rather interesting.
While researching ahead of my time in Antarctica, I was continually side-tracked by snippets of information relating to the Arctic, and articles making comparisons between the two polar regions of our globe. Stories from the rich history of the people who make the region their home, and the explorers seeking new discoveries about the region; the unique ecosystems and wildlife; fascinating geographical phenomena and the spectacular natural beauty of a landscape carved from rock and ice, dark and light.
I’ve long been fascinated by the polar regions, and have travelled widely in the European Arctic. I accidentally booked a bargain ski break to Finnish Lapland at the end of the polar night*; road-tripped from Tromsø to Kautokeino, Kirkenes, and Nordkapp in the never-setting sun; and sailed southwards from the Norwegian Arctic (ending up in the Algarve), crossing the circle on the way down. I’ve explored the north coast of Iceland, and the southern tip of Greenland, though whether those constitute the actual Arctic depends on the definition you prefer (see below).
*where I taught myself to ski Nordic-style and discovered the magic of saunas and salmiakki.
In the process, I’ve uncovered several interesting facts on which to hang my own experience and understanding, and I’m sharing the best of them here.
- The Arctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ N. Locations north of the line observe least one day of midnight sun at the June solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the December solstice, where the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon.
- Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, at 78° 13’N, experiences 125 days of midnight sun, where the sun never fully sets, between mid-April to mid-August. The polar night there lasts from mid-November to the end of January.
- The Arctic Circle passes through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, USA (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, and the very northernmost island of Iceland. Only 5 cities or towns with a population greater than 15,000 lie north of the circle: Murmansk, with over 295,000 residents; Norilsk, over 178,00 residents; Tromsø, around 76,000 residents; Vorkuta, around 58,000 residents; and Kiruna, over 17,000 residents. The largest settlement in the North American Arctic is Sisimut in Greenland, with around 5,000 residents.
- The name Arctic is derived from the Greek arktikós. Arktos means bear, and arktikós, the land under the bear, referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear). The brightest star in Ursa Minor is Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or North Star, which lies in-line with the earth’s rotational axis almost directly over the North Pole.
- Unlike the Antarctic, a continental landmass surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is a small, relatively shallow, ocean basin surrounded by the continents of Eurasia and North America. The Arctic Ocean has an area of around 14 million square kilometres, making it just a tenth of the size of the Pacific Ocean. Much of it is covered by ice, which varies in thickness and extent with the season. The maximum extent is seen in April, the minimum in September, and the difference between the two is somewhere around 7,000,000km2 (2,702,700 square miles), about the size of Australia.
- The first nautical crossing of the Arctic Ocean was made in the Fram, captained by Otto Sverdrup, between 1893 and 1896. The expedition was led by legendary explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who attempted to ski to the North Pole while Fram was locked in ice, reaching a record of 86° 13.6′N before being defeated by the southerly drift of the sea ice.
- Another definition of the Arctic is the region where the average temperature in July (the warmest month) is below 10°C (50°F). The isotherm marking the boundary slices across Iceland from northwest to southeast, sweeps up north of Tromsø, wiggles along the northern coast of Russia, before dipping down to take in the Aleutian archipelago, back north to Nome, then roughly tracing the polar circle across Canada, taking in northern Hudson Bay and Labrador, and passing far south of Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland.
- The coldest temperatures observed in the northern hemisphere aren’t actually found in the Arctic, rather in the interior of Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Russia’s Far East. Despite the extreme cold, with a record low of -67.7°C (-89.9°F), the region isn’t considered “Arctic”, as the continental effect on the climate means summers can be as warm as 15°C (59°F).
- Seven of the eight nations in the Arctic (Iceland is the exception) are home to indigenous peoples, who have lived in this region for millennia. Their cultures and customs have been shaped by the unique environment of their home, and their relationship with the landscape, natural resources, and climate of the region.
- Reaching the North geographic pole had been a goal for explorers since the late 19th century, and the first undisputed expedition reaching the pole was on the airship Norge in 1926, led by polar veteran Roald Amundsen. Previous claims by Dr Frederick Cook in 1908 and Robert Peary in 1909 had dubious veracity or were lacking in detailed records allowing independent verification, casting doubt on their assertations.
- Roald Amundsen also holds the distinction of leading the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean discovered by John Rae. He took his ship Gjøa from Norway to Greenland, then through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, to Nome, Alaska between 1903 and 1906. On the way, he spent two winters in the area now known as Gjøa Haven to learn skills from the Netsilik Inuit that proved rather useful later in his exploration career.
- The Greenland Ice Sheet is the largest body of ice in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet. It covers approximately 94% of the land area of Greenland, to a mean altitude of 2,135 metres (7,005′), and is over 3km (1.9 miles) thick at the thickest point.
- The Arctic hosts one of the most remarkable examples of international cooperation. The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard (Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is constructed deep inside a mountain, and currently holds 980,000 specimens of seeds from around the world to safeguard genetic diversity for the future, and provide resilience in the event of a natural or anthropogenic disaster. You can make a virtual visit here.
- Arctic plant life is characterised by adaptation to a brief, bright summer, and short growing season, followed by a cold, dark winter, often over permanently frozen earth creating a biome known as tundra. The boundary between the tundra and the boreal forests found further south is known as the tree line, which roughly follows the July 10°C (50°F) isotherm around the globe.
- The tundra supports a range of specialised wildlife, including herbivores like arctic hares, lemmings, muskox, and reindeer (caribou), and predators like wolverines, arctic foxes, snowy owls, and arctic wolves. It is also home to many species of birds that take advantage of long days and abundant insect life to lay eggs and raise their young, before migrating south for the winter.
- The Arctic Ocean is also home to a rich diversity of unique wildlife, including walruses, ribbon seals, and harp seals, belugas and narwhals, long-lived bowhead whales, and the apex predator of the region, the polar bear. Many of these creatures are dependent on the edge of the ice to find the ideal conditions for feeding and hunting.
- All is not well in the Arctic. As a result of climate breakdown, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth, resulting in the loss of sea ice, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and rising sea and air temperatures. It has been predicted that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in summer before the end of the century, and in worst-case scenarios by the end of this decade.
- The Greenland Ice Sheet was found to be melting at a much faster rate than previously thought, having lost more than 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992. Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet contributes directly to rising sea levels around the globe, as the ice rests on a landmass, unlike the floating sea ice.