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10 ways to think about the Arctic and climate change

Beautiful Ice in the Arctic
Flickr, Christopher Michel

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.

ArcticImage: 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.

Arctic SpringSpring 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 ArcticInuit child playing with his sailboat made from caribou skins
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.

Norilsk ArcticThe city of Norilsk
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.

Arctic AnimalsPolar Bear looking out over the Barrier Sea.
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.

Arctic FlowersImage: 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 Ice ComparisonComparison of ice levels in the arctic
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.

Arctic ShipsImage: 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.

ArcticArctic Sunset
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.