[ahrk-tik or, especially for 7, ahr-tik]
Arctic, the northernmost area of the earth, centered on the North Pole. The arctic regions are not coextensive with the area enclosed by the Arctic Circle (lat. 66°30'N) but are usually defined by the irregular and shifting 50°F; (10°C;) July isotherm that closely corresponds to the northern limit of tree growth and that varies both N and S of the Arctic Circle. The regions therefore include the Arctic Ocean; the northern reaches of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and the Atlantic Ocean; Svalbard; most of Iceland; Greenland; and the Bering Sea.


In the center of the Arctic is a large basin occupied by the Arctic Ocean. The basin is nearly surrounded by the ancient continental shields of North America, Europe, and Asia, with the geologically more recent lowland plains, low plateaus, and mountain chains between them. Surface features vary from low coastal plains (swampy in summer, especially at the mouths of such rivers as the Mackenzie, Lena, Yenisei, and Ob) to high ice plateaus and glaciated mountains. Tundras, extensive flat and poorly drained lowlands, dominate the regions. The most notable highlands are the Brooks Range of Alaska, the Innuitians of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the Urals, and mountains of E Russia. Greenland, the world's largest island, is a high plateau covered by a vast ice sheet except in the coastal regions; smaller ice caps are found on other Arctic islands.


The climate of the Arctic, classified as polar, is characterized by long, cold winters and short, cool summers. Polar climate may be further subdivided into tundra climate (the warmest month of which has an average temperature below 50°F;/10°C; but above 32°F;/0°C;) and ice cap climate (all months average below 32°F;/0°C;, and there is a permanent snow cover). Precipitation, almost entirely in the form of snow, is very low, with the annual average precipitation for the regions less than 20 in. (51 cm). Persistent winds whip up fallen snow to create the illusion of constant snowfall. The climate is moderated by oceanic influences, with regions abutting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans having generally warmer temperatures and heavier snowfalls than the colder and drier interior areas. However, except along its fringe, the Arctic Ocean remains frozen throughout the year, although the extent of the summer ice has shrunk significantly since the early 1980s.

Great seasonal changes in the length of days and nights are experienced N of the Arctic Circle, with variations that range from 24 hours of constant daylight ("midnight sun") or darkness at the Arctic Circle to six months of daylight or darkness at the North Pole. However, because of the low angle of the sun above the horizon, insolation is minimal throughout the regions, even during the prolonged daylight period. A famous occurrence in the arctic night sky is the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

Flora and Fauna

Vegetation in the Arctic, limited to regions having a tundra climate, flourishes during the short spring and summer seasons. The tundra's restrictive environment for plant life increases northward, with dwarf trees giving way to grasses (mainly mosses, lichen, sedges, and some flowering plants), the ground coverage of which becomes widely scattered toward the permanent snow line. There are about 20 species of land animals in the Arctic, including the squirrel, wolf, fox, moose, caribou, reindeer, polar bear, musk ox, and about six species of aquatic mammals such as the walrus, seal, and whale. Most of the species are year-round inhabitants of the Arctic, migrating to the southern margins as winter approaches. Although generally of large numbers, some of the species, especially the fur-bearing ones, are in danger of extinction. A variety of fish is found in arctic seas, rivers, and lakes. The Arctic's bird population increases tremendously each spring with the arrival of migratory birds (see migration of animals). During the short warm season, a large number of insects breed in the marshlands of the tundra.

Natural Resources

In parts of the Arctic are found a variety of natural resources, but many known reserves are not exploited because of their inaccessibility. The arctic region of Russia, the most developed of all the arctic regions, is a vast storehouse of mineral wealth, including deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds. The North American Arctic yields uranium, copper, nickel, iron, natural gas, and oil. The arctic region of Europe (including W Russia) benefits from good overland links with southern areas and ship routes that are open throughout the year. The arctic regions of Asian Russia and North America depend on isolated overland routes, summertime ship routes, and air transportation. Transportation of oil by pipeline from arctic Alaska was highly controversial in the early 1970s, with strong opposition from environmentalists. Because of the extreme conditions of the Arctic, the delicate balance of nature, and the slowness of natural repairs, the protection and preservation of the Arctic have been major goals of conservationists, who fear irreparable damage to the natural environment from local temperature increases, the widespread use of machinery, the interference with wildlife migration, and oil spills. Global warming and the increasing reduction in the permanent ice cover on the Arctic Ocean has increased interest in the region's ocean resouces.


The Arctic is one of the world's most sparsely populated areas. Its inhabitants, basically of Mongolic stock, are thought to be descendants of a people who migrated northward from central Asia after the ice age and subsequently spread W into Europe and E into North America. The chief groups are now the Lapps of Europe; the Samoyedes (Nentsy) of W Russia; the Yakuts, Tungus, Yukaghirs, and Chukchis of E Russia; and the Eskimo of North America. There is a sizable Caucasian population in Siberia, and the people of Iceland are nearly all Caucasian. In Greenland, the Greenlanders, a mixture of Eskimos and northern Europeans, predominate.

Because of their common background and the general lack of contact with other peoples, arctic peoples have strikingly similar physical characteristics and cultures, especially in such things as clothing, tools, techniques, and social organization. The arctic peoples, once totally nomadic, are now largely sedentary or seminomadic. Hunting, fishing, reindeer herding, and indigenous arts and crafts are the chief activities. The arctic peoples are slowly being incorporated into the society of the country in which they are located. With the Arctic's increased economic and political role in world affairs, the regions have experienced an influx of personnel charged with building and maintaining such things as roads, mineral extraction sites, weather stations, and military installations.

History of Exploration

Many parts of the Arctic were already settled by the Eskimos and other peoples of Mongolic stock when the first European explorers, the Norsemen or Vikings, appeared in the region. Much later the search for the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage to reach Asia from Europe spurred exploration to the north. This activity began in the 16th cent. and continued in the 17th, but the hardships suffered and the negative results obtained by early explorers—among them Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson, William Baffin, and William Barentz—caused interest to wane. The fur traders in Canada did not begin serious explorations across the tundras until the latter part of the 18th cent. Alexander Mackenzie undertook extensive exploration after the beginnings made by Samuel Hearne, Philip Turnor, and others. Already in the region of NE Asia and W Alaska, the Russian explorations under Vitus Bering and others and the activities of the promyshlennyki [fur traders] had begun to make the arctic coasts known.

After 1815, British naval officers—including John Franklin, F. W. Beechey, John Ross, James Ross, W. E. Parry, P. W. Dease, Thomas Simpson, George Back, and John Rae—inspired by the efforts of John Barrow, took up the challenge of the Arctic. The disappearance of Franklin on his expedition between 1845 and 1848 gave rise to more than 40 searching parties. Although Franklin was not found, a great deal of knowledge was gained about the Arctic as a result, including the general outline of Canada's arctic coast.

Otto Sverdrup, D. B. MacMillan, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson added significant knowledge of the regions. Meanwhile, in the Eurasian Arctic, Franz Josef Land was discovered and Novaya Zemlya explored. The Northeast Passage was finally navigated in 1879 by Nils A. E. Nordenskjöld. Roald Amundsen, who went through the Northwest Passage (1903-6), also went through the Northeast Passage (1918-20). Greenland was also explored. Robert E. Peary reportedly won the race to be the first at the North Pole in 1909, but this claim is disputed. Although Fridtjof Nansen, drifting with his vessel Fram in the ice (1893-96), failed to reach the North Pole, he added enormously to the knowledge of the Arctic Ocean.

Air exploration of the regions began with the tragic balloon attempt of S. A. Andrée in 1897. In 1926, Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew over the North Pole, and Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth flew from Svalbard (Spitsbergen) to Alaska across the North Pole and unexplored regions N of Alaska. In 1928, George Hubert Wilkins flew from Alaska to Spitsbergen. The use of the "great circle" route for world air travel increased the importance of Arctic, while new ideas of the agricultural and other possibilities of arctic and subarctic regions led to many projects for development, especially in the USSR.

In 1937 and 1938 many field expeditions were sent out by British, Danish, Norwegian, Soviet, Canadian, and American groups to learn more about the Arctic. The Soviet group under Ivan Papinin wintered on an ice floe near the North Pole and drifted with the current for 274 days. Valuable hydrological, meteorological, and magnetic observations were made; by the time they were taken off the floe, the group had drifted 19° of latitude and 58° of longitude. Arctic drift was further explored (1937-40) by the Soviet icebreaker Sedov. Before World War II the USSR had established many meteorological and radio stations in the Arctic. Soviet activity in practical exploitation of resources also pointed the way to the development of arctic regions. Between 1940 and 1942 the Canadian vessel St. Roch made the first west-east journey through the Northwest Passage. In World War II, interest in transporting supplies gave rise to considerable study of arctic conditions.

After the war interest in the Arctic was keen. The Canadian army in 1946 undertook a project that had as one of its objects the testing of new machines (notably the snowmobile) for use in developing the Arctic. There was also a strong impulse to develop Alaska and N Canada, but no consolidated effort, like that of the Soviets, to take the natives into partnership for a full-scale development of the regions. Since 1954 the United States and Russia have established a number of drifting observation stations on ice floes for the purpose of intensified scientific observations. In 1955, as part of joint U.S.-Canadian defense, construction was begun on a c.3,000-mi (4,830-km) radar network (the Distant Early Warning line, commonly called the DEW line) stretching from Alaska to Greenland. As older radar stations were replaced and new ones built, a more sophisticated surveillance system developed. In 1993 the system, now stretching from NW Alaska to the coast of Newfoundland, was renamed the North Warning System.

With the continuing development of northern regions (e.g., Alaska, N Canada, and Russia), the Arctic has assumed greater importance in the world. During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) more than 300 arctic stations were established by the northern countries interested in the arctic regions. Atomic-powered submarines have been used for penetrating the Arctic. In 1958 the Nautilus, a U.S. navy atomic-powered submarine, became the first ship to cross the North Pole undersea. Two years later the Skate set out on a similar voyage and became the first to surface at the Pole. In 1977 the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika reached the North Pole, the first surface ship to do so.

In the 1960s the Arctic became the scene of an intense search for mineral and power resources. The discovery of oil on the Alaska North Slope (1968) and on Canada's Ellesmere Island (1972) led to a great effort to find new oil fields along the edges of the continents. In the summer of 1969 the SS Manhattan, a specially designed oil tanker with ice breaker and oceanographic research vessel features, successfully sailed from Philadelphia to Alaska by way of the Northwest Passage in the first attempt to bring commercial shipping into the region.

In 1971 the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX) began an international effort to study over a period of years arctic pack ice and its effect on world climate. In 1986 a seasonal "hole" in the ozone layer above the Arctic was discovered, showing some similarities to a larger depletion of ozone over the southern polar region; depletion of the ozone layer results in harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth from the sun. In the 21st cent. increased interest in the resources of the Arctic Ocean, prompted by a decrease in permanent ice cover due to global warming, have led to disputes among the Arctic nations over territorial claims. Practically all parts of the Arctic have now been photographed and scanned (by remote sensing devices) from aircraft and satellites. From these sources accurate maps of the Arctic have been compiled.


Classic narratives of arctic exploration include F. Nansen, In Northern Mists (tr. 1911); R. E. Amundsen, The North West Passage (tr., 2 vol., 1908); R. E. Peary, The North Pole (1910, repr. 1969); V. Stefansson, My Life with the Eskimo (1913) and The Friendly Arctic (1921).

For history and geography, see L. P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960); R. Thorén, Picture Atlas of the Arctic (1969); L. H. Neatby, Conquest of the Last Frontier (1966) and Discovery in Russian and Siberian Waters (1973); L. Rey et al., ed., Unveiling the Arctic (1984); F. Bruemmer and W. E. Taylor, The Arctic World (1987); R. McCormick, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas (1990); F. Fleming, Barrow's Boys (1998) and Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole (2002); C. Officer and J. Page, A Fabulous Kingdom: The Exploration of the Arctic (2001).

The Arctic is the region around the Earth's North Pole, opposite the Antarctic region around the South Pole. The Arctic includes the Arctic Ocean (which overlies the North Pole) and parts of Canada, Greenland (a territory of Denmark), Russia, the United States (Alaska), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The word Arctic comes from the Greek word arktos (άρκτος) , which means bear. The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the "Great Bear", which dominates the northern region of the celestial sphere.

There are numerous definitions of the Arctic region. The boundary is generally considered to be north of the Arctic Circle (66° 33’N), which is the approximate limit of the midnight sun and the polar night. Other definitions are based on climate and ecology, such as the 10°C (50°F) July isotherm, which roughly corresponds to the tree line in most of the Arctic. Socially and politically, the Arctic region includes the northern territories of the eight Arctic states, including Lapland, although by natural science definitions much of this territory is considered subarctic.

The Arctic region consists of a vast ice-covered ocean (which is sometimes considered to be a northern arm of the Atlantic Ocean) surrounded by treeless, permafrost. In recent years the extent of the sea ice has declined, and there is some evidence suggesting Arctic water may be ice-free in summer. According to the Norwegian International Polar Year Secretariat and polar scientists, this ice cap may disappear over the summer of 2008. Life in the Arctic includes organisms living in the ice, zooplankton and phytoplankton, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants, and human societies.

The Arctic region is a unique area among Earth's ecosystems. The cultures in the region and the Arctic indigenous peoples have adapted to its cold and extreme conditions.



The Arctic's climate is characterized by cold winters and cool summers. Precipitation mostly comes in the form of snow. The Arctic's annual precipitation is low, with most of the area receiving less than 50 cm (20 inches). High winds often stir up snow, creating the illusion of continuous snowfall. Average winter temperatures can be as low as -40°C (-40°F), and the coldest recorded temperature is approximately -68°C (-90°F). Coastal Arctic climates are moderated by oceanic influences, having generally warmer temperatures and heavier snowfalls than the colder and drier interior areas.


Arctic vegetation is composed of plants such as dwarf shrubs, graminoids, herbs, lichens and mosses, which all grow relatively close to the ground, forming tundra. As one moves northward, the amount of warmth available for plant growth decreases considerably. In the northernmost areas, plants are at their metabolic limits, and small differences in the total amount of summer warmth make large differences in the amount of energy available for maintenance, growth and reproduction. Colder summer temperatures cause the size, abundance, productivity and variety of plants to decrease. Trees cannot grow in the Arctic, but in its warmest parts, shrubs are common and can reach 2 m (6 ft) in height; sedges, mosses and lichens can form thick layers. In the coldest parts of the Arctic, much of the ground is bare; nonvascular plants such as lichens and mosses predominate, along with a few scattered grasses and forbs (like the Arctic poppy).


Herbivores on the Tundra include the Arctic hare, lemming, muskox, and caribou. They are preyed on by the Arctic fox and wolf. The polar bear is also a predator, though it prefers to hunt for marine life from the ice. There are also many birds and marine species endemic to the colder regions. Other land animals include wolverines, ermines, lemmings, and arctic ground squirrels. Marine mammals include seals, walrus, and several species of cetacean -- baleen whales and also narwhals and belugas.

Natural resources

The Arctic includes sizable natural resources (oil, gas, minerals, forest – if the subarctic is included – and fish) to which modern technology and the economic opening up of Russia have given significant new opportunities. The interest of the tourism industry is also on the increase.

The Arctic is one of the last and most extensive continuous wilderness areas in the world, and its significance in preserving biodiversity and genotypes is considerable. The increasing presence of humans fragments vital habitats. The Arctic is particularly susceptible to the abrasion of groundcover and to the disturbance of the rare reproduction places of the animals that are characteristic to the region.


During the Cretaceous, the Arctic still had seasonal snows, though only a light dusting and not enough to permanently hinder plant growth. Animals such as Chasmosaurus, Hypacrosaurus, Troodon, and Edmontosaurus may have all migrated north to take advantage of the summer growing season, and migrated south to warmer climes when the winter came. A similar situation may also have been found amongst dinosaurs that lived in Antarctic regions, such as Muttaburrasaurus of Australia.

Indigenous population

The Inuit are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule culture, a nomadic people who emerged from western Alaska around 1000 CE and spread eastwards across the Arctic, displacing the related Dorset culture (in Inuktitut, the Tuniit). Inuit legends speak of the Tuniit as "giants", people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit, but who were easily scared off and retreated from the advancing Inuit. Researchers believe that the Dorset culture lacked dogs, boats and other technologies that gave the expanding Inuit society a large advantage over them. By 1300, the Inuit had settled west Greenland, and finally moved into east Greenland over the following century.

The Tuniit survived in Aivilik, Southampton and Coats Islands, until the beginning of the 20th century. They were known as Sadlermiut (Sallirmiut in the modern spelling). Their population had been ravaged by diseases brought by contact with Europeans, and the last of them fell in a flu epidemic caught from a passing whaler in 1902. The area has since been resettled by Inuit. Genetic research suggests that there was little or no intermarriage between the Tuniit and the Inuit over the thousand years of contact in the Canadian Arctic.

International cooperation and politics

The Arctic region is a focus of international political interest. International Arctic cooperation got underway on a broad scale well over ten years ago. The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), hundreds of scientists and specialists of the Arctic Council, the Barents Council and its regional cooperation have compiled high quality information on the Arctic.

Territorial claims

No country owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The surrounding Arctic states, the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland), are limited to a 370 kilometre (200 nautical mile) economic zone around their coasts.

Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has ten years to make claims to extend its 200 mile zone. Due to this, Norway (ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (ratified in 1997), Canada (ratified in 2003) and Denmark (ratified in 2004) launched projects to establish claims that certain Arctic sectors should belong to their territories.

On August 2, 2007, two Russian bathyscaphes, MIR-1 and MIR-2, for the first time in history descended to the Arctic seabed beneath the North Pole and placed there a Russian flag made of rust-proof titanium alloy. The mission was a scientific expedition, but the flag-placing raised concerns of a race for control of the Arctic's vast petroleum resources(See 2007 Russian North Pole expedition)

Foreign Ministers and other officials representing Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States met in Ilulissat, Greenland on May 28, 2008 at the Arctic Ocean Conference and announced the Ilulissat Declaration.

A strategic military region

Some countries claim the Arctic has never been under the political control of any nation, although some nations' militaries have attached a strategic importance to the region. Canada has an outpost in the region (in Alert, Nunavut) and has long laid claim to much of the Arctic. Several recent excursions by the Canadian navy have taken place, with more planned to underline Canadian sovereignty in the region. On July 9th, 2007, Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada will build up to eight armed patrol ships with helicopter pads and a deep water port at a location yet to be disclosed to reassert Canada's sovereignty over Arctic territories.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Arctic was often used by submarines to test new weapons, sonar equipment, and depth capability. During the Cold War, the Arctic region was extensively monitored by the United States military and NATO, since it was believed that the first warnings of a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union would have been indicated by ICBMs launched over the North Pole towards the United States. (See Distant Early Warning Line.) The United States placed such importance on the region that two military decorations, the Arctic Service Ribbon and Coast Guard Arctic Service Medal, were established for military duty performed within the Arctic Circle.

In 2006, Envisat and EOS Aqua revealed a polar route connecting Spitsbergen and Siberia. Increased Russian activity has also been detected, though this can be attributed to the Chelyuskin icebreaker wreck expeditionary force.

Scientific exploration

Since 1937 the whole Arctic region was extensively explored by the Soviet and Russian manned drifting ice stations. Scientific settlements that were established on the drift ice were carried thousands of kilometers by the ice flow.


The Arctic is comparatively clean, although there are certain ecologically difficult localized pollution problems that present a serious threat to people’s health living around these pollution sources. Due to the prevailing worldwide sea and air currents, the Arctic area is the fallout region for long-range transport pollutants, and in some places the concentrations exceed the levels of densely populated urban areas. An example of this is the phenomenon of Arctic haze, which is commonly blamed on long-range pollutants. Another example is with the bioaccumulation of PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) in Arctic wildlife and people.

Climate change

The Arctic is especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming as has become apparent in the melting sea ice in recent years. Climate models predict much greater warming in the Arctic than global average. This fact has garnered significant international attention to the region. In particular, there are concerns that Arctic shrinkage, a consequence of melting glaciers and other ice in Greenland, could soon contribute to a substantial rise in sea levels worldwide. A recent study by a research group at Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California working with members of NASA and the Institute of Oceanology at the Polish Academy of Sciences estimate that the Arctic sea could be ice-free in the summer as soon as 2013. The Arctic sea ice melted at an unprecedented rate, well ahead of models, in 2007. However, according to the Norwegian International Polar Year Secretariat, the Arctic polar ice cap would be completely gone by summer 2008 .

Apart from concerns regarding the detrimental effects of warming in the Arctic, some potential opportunities have gained attention as well. The melting of the ice is making the so-called Northwest passage, the shipping routes through the northern-most latitudes, more navigable, raising the possibility that the Arctic region will become a prime trade route. In addition, it is believed that the Arctic seabed may contain substantial oil fields which may become accessible if the ice covering them melts. These factors have led to recent international debates as to which nations can claim sovereignty or ownership over the waters of the Arctic..

NOAA's Arctic Report Card presents peer-reviewed information on recent observations of environmental conditions in the Arctic relative to historical records. Collectively, atmosphere, sea ice, biology, ocean, Greenland ice sheet and land parameters indicate that the overall warming of the Arctic system continued in 2007. There are some elements that are stabilizing or returning to climatological norms. These mixed tendencies illustrate the sensitivity and complexity of the Arctic System.

Arctic waters

Arctic lands

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