Everyone thinks they know about this vast landscape, but how much do we really know? As I wrote this piece, I realized I didn’t know much. The general understanding is that the region is an ice covered wilderness with vast open spaces, that is generally inhospitable to human life. However, there’s a lot beyond this surface understanding, and much of it very surprising. As world leaders meet in Paris to discuss the future of the planet, the spotlight is suddenly on the Arctic, as climate change accelerates, the Arctic may just become the most important area of the world. 

Here’s a beginner's guide to the Arctic to help you better understand its importance:

1/ The Arctic is the North Pole, right?

Technically, yes. The Arctic is the region of the world surrounding the north pole located at the northernmost area of the Earth. It includes parts of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Iceland, Finland, Greenland, Norway and Sweden.

Arctic Ice The sun shines over the Arctic Ocean Sept. 1, 2009.
Image: Flickr U.S. Geological Survey

2/ So it’s cold there, right?

Yes, but like any other place in the world the weather varies from day to day and month to month. One unique feature of the arctic is that it experiences constant darkness in the winter with below freezing temperatures, and constant sun in the summer with temperatures above freezing.

Spring in the Arctic
Image: Flickr, Madhav Pai

3/ Did you know that people live in the Arctic?

Not only do approximately 4 million people live there now, but anthropologists believe that people have called this area home for over twenty thousand years.  More specifically, the arctic is home to over 40 different indigenous groups, whose way of life and culture are shaped by the environment.  The Inuit in Canada and Greenland, and the Iñupiat, and Athabascan in Alaska are just a few of the groups that are native to the region.

Inuit child sailing his toy boat with caribou skin sails / Un enfant inuit fait voguer son bateau avec des voiles en peau de caribou Title / Titre : Inuit child sailing his toy boat with caribou skin sails / Un enfant inuit fait voguer son bateau avec des voiles en peau de caribou Creator(s) / Créateur(s) : Donald Benjamin Marsh Date(s) : Unknown / Inconnu Reference No. / Numéro de référence : MIKAN 3838961 collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&... collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&... Location / Lieu : Eskimo Point, Northwest Territories, Canada [Arviat, Nunavut] / Eskimo Point, Territoires du Nord-Ouest, Canada [Arviat, Nunavut] Credit / Mention de source : Donald Benjamin Marsh. Library and Archives Canada, e007914499 / Donald Benjamin Marsh. Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, e007914499
Image: Flickr, BiblioArchives

4/ And where do all these people live?

Although the landscape of the Arctic is meant to only support a thinly spread out population, many people live in modern day cities created by European Migrants to the area. Like Norilsk in Siberia. These cities depend on air transport and extensive logistical support, since there are very little roads and infrastructure in the area.

Image: Flickr, Сан Саныч

5/ Can anything grow in this harsh climate?

 Well, it surprised me to find out that although it is virtually impossible to sustain agriculture long term, locals are defying the cold to make this possible. Some locals have even started building greenhouses to provide for their towns. People in the region also live off of animals, like seals, fish, whales, birds and others found in the area. These animals are a main source of food, and are also used for clothing, tools, and even housing.

Polar Bear and a Barrier Island on the Alaska Arctic Coast A polar bear looks out over a barrier island on the Arctic coast of Alaska. These islands are important habitat for the polar bear.
Image: Flickr, Alaska Region U.S. Fish

6/ What does the natural life look like in the Arctic?

Even with these technological advances, the Arctic still has the lowest number of species of plants and animals in the world. The short summers and general temperatures don’t aid much in sustaining long term growth.

Flowers in Tundra This photo of arctic flowers was taken near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada in the summer of 1974. The Tundra near Resolute is almost totaly devoid of vegetation; however, occasionally nature produces a small but spectacular display of life. PS likely purple saxifrage.
Image: Flickr, PROJP Newell

7/ How does climate change factor in?

Due to the rampant climate change all over the world, the arctic is crucial to our understanding of global warming. The melting of the ice caps is a direct example of of the general rising temperatures throughout the world. Global warming is occurring much more noticeably in the Arctic than in other regions in the world. As the Arctic loses snow and ice, the bare rock and water left behind absorb more of the sun’s energy, making the climate even warmer.

Arctic Sea Ice Comparison Satelite composites of sea ice extent at the Summer Minimum, in September 1979 and 2007. You can read more about this at climatesafety.org
Image: Flickr, climatesafety

8/ What does this mean for the area in the short-term?

Because of the ice in the sea melting the Arctic ocean has become more navigable. Traffic and commercial activity have been steadily increasing in the region. You may even be able to take a cruise to the arctic in the next couple years.

Image: Flickr, DVIDSHUB

9/ So what happens if global warming continues to worsen?

Well, if the general temperature of the world continues to warm, the development of the Arctic will be inevitable, and countries will begin extracting resources. Don’t be surprised to see infrastructure and roads in the decades to come.

10/ What does this all mean for poverty in the Arctic?

The indigenous people of the Arctic are already dealing with rising levels of poverty. As the region is developed, more and more of the indigenous are being left without jobs and opportunities to support their families. The development of the region needs to take into account the fact that despite popular opinion many people call this region of the world their home, and their home needs to be protected.

Image: Flickr, Tunde Pecsvari

The Arctic is one of the least developed areas of the world. People are dealing with rising levels of poverty, hunger, and resources to live productive lives. Mostly because of a lack of awareness and the harsh conditions, this region of the world is left untouched. This makes it an incredibly exciting place to research. As our planet continues to warm - what can we do to protect those communities, make sure they get the nutritious food they need and provde the resources they need to lift themselves out of poverty. 


Defend the Planet

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By Bree Dyer