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The uniqueness of the Arctic

The Arctic has always gripped our imagination. The early explorers who came back from their journeys told the world about a barren land with ice, snow and darkness where they had to fight to survive. BY Thor S. Larsen

Their ships were often crushed from the force of the drifting ice; men died of starvation or scurvy, or for lack of equipment and clothing to protect them from the biting cold.

But could also tell of meetings with friendly people who had adapted to life in these harsh conditions, and who often helped them to survive. They copied the Inuit’s fur clothes and their simple, ingenious modes of transport, such as the kayak and the dog-sledge – things that are still used.

Their diaries described a world of reindeer, seabirds, seals, walrus, whales – and encouraged new expeditions to exploit these riches of the High North. Myths flourished then. Stories were told that the interior of Greenland was warm and lush, that there was an unknown, unexploited continent at the North Pole. Early explorers wanted to open a sea route from the North Atlantic Ocean to the Bering Strait, the so-called North West Passage. Other attempts were made to sail the North East Passage from Europe along the Siberian coast to

The Arctic still fascinates, even though we now know that the interior of Greenland is a massive ice cap and there is only drifting sea ice on the North Pole. Ice-going vessels are now able to penetrate the Arctic seaways most of the year and tourist expeditions to the North Pole are regular (if expensive) features. Now there is no unknown land to discover and map, what is so special about the Arctic, other than its impressive scenery and stunning beauty?

The Arctic is of great interest to biologists. It has only about 10% of the plant and animal species found in temperate regions, and a fraction of those in the tropics. But the few species that live in the Arctic are extraordinarily well adapted to life under marginal conditions. The growing season for plants is very short – and there is often no more than a few weeks to grow and set seeds. Little energy is wasted on unnecessary growth, so stems are short and tough. Some plants, such as the Arctic poppy, have adapted remarkably. Its white and
yellow flower forms a parabola that collects the sunlight in the centre where the seeds are formed. Its flower faces the sun as it moves across the sky each day, using all available sunlight. Other plants grow in small balls where the little heat from the sun is concentrated, in the middle where the roots are. Some plants require two or more summers to set seeds.

Thick blubber and greenhouselike
fur and skin system allow polar bears to stroll
around on the ice in biting cold.

Animals are also well adapted to the cold. Reindeer, seals and polar bears have thick layers of blubber under their skin that serves two main purposes. Five to ten centimetres of fat are very effective insulation against cold. Seals that bask on the sea ice or dive in ice-cold water do not feel the cold. The reindeer’s thick blubber layer is often combined with a long and dense fur that is an equally effective insulator. Polar bears have thick blubber and dense fur too. The white fur of these magnificent carnivores is almost transparent, so that sunlight can travel through the fur. But the skin is black, and so particularly effective in absorbing the heat from the sun. The combination of thick blubber and a greenhouse-like fur and skin system allows polar bears to stroll on the ice in biting cold. The polar bear’s comes during summer when it may get overheated and has to take to the sea to cool off.

Blubber is not just an effective insulator against cold. It is also an important reserve for nutrition and survival, not least for reindeer, who have little access to grazing during winter, and for polar bears, who must often live for weeks and even months without seals, their main prey. The blubber plays a particularly important role for denning emales. A pregnant bear comes ashore in late autumn to dig a den in the snow. There she gives birth to two very small cubs around Christmas. The births are premature, as the cubs are naked and blind with a weight around 250 grams. The female bear stays in the den for six months, without anything to eat. When the cubs emerge from the den in March or April, each of them has gained 10 kilos. How is it possible for their mother to survive for so long without food and to raise two cubs that have drained 20 kilos from her body? The answer is that the bear’s fat is transformed to rich, nourishing milk for her offspring, and she has no need to draw protein from her muscles. When the female bear leaves the den and heads for the sea ice with her cubs she is lean and her fat reserves are small. But she is still strong and fast, able to hunt seals for herself and her cubs.

Arctic species can often demonstrate a remarkable ability to adapt as living conditions

Arctic ecosystems are commonly seen as particularly vulnerable because their species are few. Tropical ecosystems are considered more robust because of their species richness. This is only partly true; though plants and animals in the tropics are highly specialized, Arctic species can often demonstrate a remarkable ability to adapt as living conditions change.

The Svalbard archipelago is a good example. There are no indigenous lemmings or other small rodents on the islands. Hence, falcons, owls and other birds of prey are also absent. The large glaucous gull has taken on their role, and lives on chicks from eiders and seabirds – it is even able to catch the small, fast flying auk in the air. Because lemmings and other rodents are absent, the arctic fox, too, has to turn to other little prey. In Svalbard, the fox hunts ducks and waders on their nests and has become a scavenger that collects dead birds under bird cliffs. It builds depots for the winter and it follows the polar bear on its seal hunt onto the ice during wintertime. Arctic foxes can often travel miles away from any shore. Fox tracks have been observed on the middle of the sea ice between Greenland and Svalbard.

There are also unique ecological adaptations in the Arctic’s marine environment. Scientists have found that algae can grow profusely under the sea ice, thereby establishing an upside-down sea-bottom system that nourish plankton, that in turn is food for fish, seabirds, seals and whales. When the ice recedes in spring, the exposed, nutritious seawater is exposed to 24 hours of sunlight that leads to sudden, intense marine production. This, combined with upwelling of nutrients from the seafloor, are the main reasons why northern seas such as the Bering Sea and the Barents Sea are such important commercial fishing grounds.


Arctic land comprises of:

  • Polar desert: bare soils and rocks with spares plant communities;
  • The Tundra: vast, open plain with continuous plant cover;
  • The forest-tundra: patches of continuous forest interspersed with tundra-like open areas.

Though there are few plant and animal species in the Arctic, some of them can appear in impressive numbers. Some flowers cover the ground as huge red, yellow and white carpets during summertime. Reindeer roam around in herds that can reach thousands of heads, and some seabird colonies have tens of thousands, sometimes even millions of inhabitants. But this richness is also a reason for environmental concern. The ice-edge and between the floes, where marine life is so rich, are also the places where oil spills get trapped and stay because it is so difficult to clean them up.

On the flat tundra, permafrost prevents pollutants from sinking into the ground. Hazardous substances remain in ponds and wetlands important to water birds and reindeer, and low temperatures slow down their deterioration. This has far-reaching ecological effects that are often more serious than in more temperate regions. Vehicles can tear up the thin active layer above the permafrost, exposing the frozen ground to melting. Because regrowth is so slow in the Arctic, water and thawing can easily transform a vehicle track to a flowing river in a very short time.

The Arctic provides opportunities for our modern world – but challenges too. What can we do about it? There are some things that everyone should agree upon. Indigenous people have made a living in the High North for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. They have developed unique lifestyles in harmony with the land and the sea. But these societies are now threatened. Indigenous peoples’ cultures and rights need to be respected, but should also be brought into line with the modern worlds’ political agenda. This include their right to find their own way to the modern world. There is a need to expand our knowledge of the Arctic’s ecosystems so that we are better able to manage its riches. There is also a need to enhance our awareness of the Arctic. And finally, we must foster political mechanisms and international agreements and instruments to secure the proper management and conservation of this very important part of our planet.

“The Arctic region is a global indicator of the impacts of pollution and climate change for the whole world”
Arctic Council at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, August 2002.


Extending 14 million square kilometres, twice the size of Australia, the Arctic lands are rich in resources with large potential for oil and gas drilling in particular. This is what the recently released United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Global Environment Outlook report (GEO3) states.

Not only have the Arctic states lately become a popular travel destination increasing tourism and a growing concern that tourists will put extra pressures on wildlife, water and other basic necessities. But the possibilities of exploitation of the huge deposits of oil, gas and minerals in the Arctic put serious pressures on the land.

The Arctic land consists of three main sub-systems, the high polar desert, the tundra and the forest-tundra. Under most of this land is a layer of permafrost, which is defined as ground that remains frozen for at least two summers in a row. This layer can reach depths of 1500 meters. When the upper level melts in the spring, the melt-water cannot sink below the
remaining permafrost and flows rapidly over the frozen surface into streams and rivers. The permafrost melts more easily with warmer temperatures and exacerbates an already widespread and increasing amount of erosion. In recent years approximately 70 million ha of tundra has been degraded through destruction of soil and vegetative cover resulting from prospecting, mineral development, cars, construction and, at certain location, overgrazing by reindeer.

Arctic governments have taken action to protect about 15 per cent of their land. However, that figure is misleading because nearly 50 per cent of the protected areas are classified as Arctic desert or glacier. These highly protected areas are also the least productive part of the Arctic. In Greenland most of the protected area is ice cap.

For further reading:
AMAP (1997) Arctic Pollution Issues:
A State of the Arctic Environment Report
CAFF (2002)

Thor S. Larsen

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