Where in the World?

The Arctic is the area of the world above 60 degrees latitude. This region is also known as the Arctic Circle. It sits like a cap on top of the Earth. The Arctic Circle is one of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the Earth. It is the parallel of latitude that runs 66° 33′39″ north of the Equator. The region north of this circle is known as the Arctic, and the zone just to the south is called the Northern Temperate Zone. The equivalent Polar circle in the Southern Hemisphere is called the Antarctic Circle.

The Arctic Circle includes the Arctic Ocean (which overlies the North Pole) and northern parts of Canada, Greenland (a territory of Denmark), Russia, the United States (Alaska), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The Arctic Ocean takes up most of the area that makes up the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the five Oceans.

The word Arctic comes from the Greek word arktos, which means bear. The name refers to the star constellation Ursa Major, the "Great Bear", seen clearly in the northern sky inside the Arctic Circle.

It’s very cold in the Arctic most of the year. As the Earth orbits the Sun and its northern area tips away from the Sun, the Sun slips south. This is the Arctic winter where the land is usually in continuous darkness with cold and stable weather conditions and clear skies. The opposite happens in the Arctic summers as the northern area of the Earth tips toward the Sun again. Twenty-four hours of daylight, damp and foggy weather, and weak cyclones with rain or light snow are typical weather patterns in the Arctic Circle during this time.

Here In the World!

Click here to see a map of the Arctic Region

People and the Past

Indigenous people have been living in the Arctic for a few thousand years. They hunted and fished in small bands or groups along the edge of the water, surviving in a very harsh environment.

The largest group of people in the Canadian Arctic is called the Inuit. They live along the coast and hunt seal, caribou (reindeer) and whales. They also collect bird eggs, trap small mammals and birds, and fish. The Inuit used to be known as Eskimos (ES-kee-mohz - which means "eaters of raw flesh"), but the term Inuit is now used. “Inuit” means "the people". The language they speak is Inuktitut. There are seven different dialects of the Inuit language.

Between the 16th and early 20th centuries explorations to learn more about the vast unknown frozen lands lying above the Arctic Circle became important to sailors and traders from around the world.  The most famous quest was that for discovery of the Northwest Passage- a mysterious and legendary waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over the top of North America. People thought that the Northwest Passage would help shorten the shipping trade route to Asia from Europe. Despite years of searching and many lost ships and sailors, no passage was ever discovered.

The second great Arctic quest was to reach the North Pole. It took many attempts over a 400 year period, and it was a great achievement for explorers when it was finally reached. Robert Peary of the USA, along with Matthew Henson and Inuit explorers Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ookeah managed to reach the North Pole on dog sledges. They departed from Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island, Canada, in early March 1909 and reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. Today we use ice-breaker ships sailing through the ice to reach the pole.

There are only three main ports for ships in the Arctic: Churchill (Canada), Murmansk (Russia), and Prudhoe Bay (US).

Economically the region depends largely on natural resources such as oil, gas, metal ores, fish, reindeer, and birds. In recent decades, tourism has become an important part of the economy in many Arctic regions.

Animals on the Tundra

Land in the Arctic is called the Tundra. Tundra is an area where the subsoil is permafrost, or permanently frozen soil. The word tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturi, meaning treeless plain. Animal life on the tundra includes the Arctic hare, lemming, muskox, and caribou. They are hunted by the Arctic fox and wolf. The polar bear is also a predator, though it generally hunts for marine life like seals while out on the ice. There are also many birds that use the Arctic in the warmer summer months to build nests and raise their chicks. Many millions of birds such as geese, cranes, ducks and terns visit each year. Other land animals include wolverines, ermines, lemmings, and arctic ground squirrels. Marine mammals include seals, walruses, and several species of cetacean—baleen whales and also magical creatures like the unicorn-like narwhals and the ghost-like, all-white belugas.

Polar Bear FastFACTS

  • The polar bear, or the sea/ice bear, is the world's largest land predator. They can be found in the Arctic, the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway. 
  • About 25,000 to 40,000 polar bears roam the Arctic.
  • All countries either banned hunting or established rules for how many polar bears could be hunted within the bears’ territorial boundaries.
  • Male polar bears may grow over 3 meters and weigh over 635 kg. Females reach 2 meters and weigh 295 kgs
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  • In the wild polar bears live up to age 25.
  • Polar bears have been known to swim over 162 kilometers at a stretch.
  • Humans are the polar bears only predator.
  • Polar bear babies (cubs) weigh less than .5 kg when born. Usually a mother bear has two cubs.

Ice and Climate Change

The far north of the Arctic is home to a diversity of plants, animals and people uniquely adapted to surviving in some of the most extreme conditions on our planet. Even though few people live in the Arctic, the rest of the world has a huge impact on the environment and life up there. Many scientists look at environmental conditions in the Arctic as a signal to changes in the Earth’s climate. Some conservation concerns include endangered marine species such as polar bears, seals, walruses and whales; a fragile ecosystem slow to change and slow to recover from disruptions or damage from mining and petroleum activities; and the thinning polar ice pack.

On average, the temperature on the Earth’s surface has increased by 0.6°C over the last 200 years. Most scientists believe that much of the warming observed in the past 50 years is the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, things like oil, natural gas and coal. If changes in the Arctic climate happen too rapidly it becomes difficult for life in the Arctic, like polar bears and walruses, to adapt. This is the same for the creatures in the South Pole or Antarctic, like penguins.

Arctic FastFACTS

  • Full name: Arctic (Ocean)
  • Nickname: northern polar region or North Pole
  • Population: about 4 million spread across four countries (UN, 2007)
  • Area: 14.056 million sq km
  • Comparative size: slightly less than 1.5 times the size of Australia or the USA
  • Coastline: 45,389 km
  • Lowest point: Fram Basin -4,665 m
  • Highest point: sea level 0 m
  • Natural Resources: Copper and uranium deposits, diamonds, oil and gas fields, fish, marine mammals (seals and whales)