Arctic Travel and the Arctic Environment

There is considerable disagreement as to how to define the Arctic environment. To complicate matters even more, one must consider different criteria when describing the marine Arctic and the terrestrial Arctic. 

     The polar circles are often used to delineate the geographical areas of both Antarctica and the Arctic. These boundaries are based upon the orientation of the Earth in relation to the Sun. The Earth is tilted on its rotating axis by approximately 23.5° relative to the vertical plane of its orbit around the Sun. On the day of each solstice one pole is facing away from the Sun at an angle of 23.5° and the other is facing toward the Sun at that same angle. Because the Earth is a sphere, a person located at a position less than 23.5° from the North Pole on the day of the northern Winter Solstice would not see the Sun rise above the horizon. On that same day (the southern Summer Solstice), a person located less than 23.5° from the South Pole would not see the Sun set. The two poles switch positions relative to the Sun on sequential solstices. The relative latitudinal positions at 23.5° from the two poles correspond to 66.5° N and 66.5° S latitudes, and these are termed the Arctic and Antarctic circles (the actual polar circle latitude is 66° 33′ 36″ or more simply 66° 33.6′). The polar regions are often defined as the territories which endure at least one complete day of direct sunlight and one complete day of no direct sunlight each year, or to put it more simply-the areas north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle. This definition may work fairly well for Antarctica, because most of that continent is located within the Antarctic Circle. Unfortunately, it does not work so well for the Arctic. 

     There are several problems with restricting the Arctic to only that territory which is found north of the Arctic Circle. For instance, a significant portion of the Greenland Ice Cap is located south of the Arctic Circle. It would be ludicrous to claim that this section of the great ice sheet, which stretches nearly 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is not part of the Arctic environment. Geologists and engineers often use the southern limit of permafrost as the boundary of the Arctic. Geophysicists prefer to define it as the area surrounding strong magnetic storms, the Aurora Borealis, and radio blackouts. Both of these definitions, however, are rather impractical for the general population to deal with. 

     Another accepted definition describes the Arctic as that area in which the warmest month does not exceed 10° C (50° F). Most ecologists and geographers, however, prefer using the treeline (the northern limit of arborescent growth) as the Arctic boundary. Fortunately, these last two definitions correlate with each other very closely (they do not match exactly, because tree growth is affected by more variables than just Summer temperature, including wind, soil qualities, permafrost, etc.), and the treeline provides a very practical definition of the Arctic. There are several advantages with this…the treeline can easily be documented by aerial photography, there is a significant environmental change at the treeline, it is a boundary for the very strong surface winds to the north that severely affect animal life (wind chill factors come into play here), and north of this boundary drifting snow is more pronounced. 

     The northern treeline is the preferred Arctic boundary for our purposes. In essence, then, the Arctic environment includes the Svalbard Archipelago, Greenland, the Peninsule of Quebec, and the North Cape of Scandinavia of the Atlantic region, as well as the Canadian Archipelago, the narrow northern and western coasts of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, the narrow northern coast of Siberia, northeastern Siberia (Chukotskiy), and north central Kamchatka Peninsula. It also includes the Arctic Ocean (and its associated seas), the Greenland Sea and the Bering Sea, the Davis Strait, Hudson Bay, and all their associated islands. This represents a huge area, with the land area (including glaciers and ice sheets) accounting for some 7,600,000 sq. kilometers (2,900,000 sq. miles). Of this total area, Canada contains 3,100,000 sq. kilometers (1,200,000 sq. miles), Greenland includes 2,200,000 sq. kilometers (800,000 sq. miles), Russia has 2,000,000 sq. kilometers (750,000 sq. miles), Alaska has some 200,000 sq. kilometers (75,000 sq. miles), and the Svalbard Archipelago includes about 65,000 sq. kilometers (25,000 sq. miles).

Read more about Arctic exploration travel.

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