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Frequently asked questions about the Arctic

Other FAQs

1. Where is the Arctic?
2. Where is the North Pole?
3. What is it like at the North Pole?
4. Why should we study the Arctic?
5. How do we study the Arctic?
6. How do conditions in the Arctic impact human life?
7. How will studies of the Arctic affect my daily life?
8. Who lives in the Arctic?
9. Are conditions in the Arctic the same today as they were 100 years ago?
10. Is it true that the North Pole is now water?
11. Is there an ocean current circling the North Pole, similar to the circumpolar current moving clockwise around the Antarctic continent at the South Pole?
12. How far is my location from the North Pole?
13. How far is the North Pole from the magnetic north pole?
14. Is the Arctic environment changing?
15. Will sea levels rise if the North Pole ice cap continues to melt?
16. What is the difference between rubble ice and pressure ridges?
17. What is the size of the Arctic region and the Arctic Ocean?

1. Where is the Arctic?

In the strictest sense, the Arctic is all of the Earth north of the Arctic Circle, which is located at 66 degrees, 32 minutes North Latitude. However, there are other definitions to suit specific scientific or political interests. For instance, the U.S. Congress has decreed that all of the Bering Sea, which extends southward to about 53 degrees North Latitude, is part of the Arctic for internal U.S. planning and budgeting purposes. Others make use of the such markers as the southernmost extent of winter sea ice for oceanic boundaries of the Arctic, or the treeline for terrestrial boundaries.

2. Where is the North Pole?

Graphic source and copyright is Athropolis Productions Limited
http://www.athropolis.com

If you think of the earth as a spinning top, then the north and south poles are the top and bottom of the top. As the earth spins we get day and night. At the North Pole, however, night occurs continuously for half the year, and day occurs continuously for half the year depending on whether the pole is facing toward or away from the sun. Click here for today's view looking down on the North Pole from 1,000,000 kilometers in space.

More info:
Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia
Maps


3. What is it like at the North Pole?

More Information

The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. The ocean is 4000 meters deep. Although it is an ocean, it is water you can walk on. There are 2-3 meter thick ice floes floating on the water at the North Pole. In summer the temperatures are near 0 centigrade and there is light. In winter the temperature is about -30 centigrade and it is dark. With the Interactive Arctic Climate Map, you can see mean monthly temperatures for many locations in the Arctic (including the North Pole). You can view the North Pole scenery in summer daylight as images and animations with the North Pole Web Cam, and compare changes in conditions in different years.

4. Why should we study the Arctic?

The Arctic environment is unique in many ways and offers the opportunity for a great many discoveries about how the physical and biologic environments function under the "extreme" conditions found in the Arctic. Several species of animals are unique to the Arctic (e.g., polar bear, walrus, musk ox) and many species of birds have their summer home there.

The Arctic, unlike the Antarctic is inhabited by humans, including diverse Native communities with a longer history than many of the southerly societies. Although European-derived culture is now dominant in the Arctic, study of the Native culture is important for its preservation, and for what it can teach others about long-term human survival in the Arctic. The Arctic has many natural resources that could be exploited for economic benefit. Crude oil, gold and industrial metals, and diamonds are presently being extracted now, yet much of the Arctic's potential for natural resources is unknown.

More recently, we have learned that the Arctic is not as isolated from more heavily populated areas as was once thought and our modern civilization is having an impact on the Arctic. For example, industrial activities are responsible for the presence in the Arctic of many persistent organic pollutants and toxic metals that are neither produced nor used there, but rather are transported there through the atmosphere and deposited to land and water surfaces. This is of great concern to the Native and other residents of the Arctic, many of whom survive on wild plants and animals that may be contaminated with these materials. Over the past two decades, a series of unusual changes have occurred in the Arctic that may be related to release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by industrialized nations. Sea ice and permafrost are decreasing, precipitation patterns are changing, the air is warmer, and the intensity of harmful UVB radiation is increasing. In addition to posing difficult challenges, and perhaps new opportunities, to people living in the Arctic, these changes may ultimately influence other parts of the Earth. Melting of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland Ice Sheet could increase sea level and change the strength of the global ocean circulation. Other changes in the Arctic, could alter the relative amount of the Sun's energy that is absorbed, reflected, or radiated in the Arctic. Thus, the Arctic has the potential of providing unexpected deviations in the rate of "global warming".

5. How do we study the Arctic?

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Scientific study of the Arctic historically has been conducted by "expeditions". The earliest expeditions had as their goal reaching the North Pole, finding a "northwest passage" for shipping, or searching for whales or other species that could be harvested. Recently, expeditions have been replaced by cruises on scientific research vessels, temporary manned camps on the ice or on land, or permanent manned research facilities. Most recently, capabilities for unmanned observation of the Arctic have been developed. These include satellites and automated instruments or sensors that can be left on the ice, in the water, or on land for weeks and months at a time. Automated instruments can either record data for later retrieval, or even send data directly to a laboratory via a satellite link. Another modern method for studying the Arctic relies on creation of computer-based models of the Arctic atmosphere or ocean for example, and then perturbing these models to see how the natural system might respond.

6. How will conditions in the Arctic affect human life?

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For humans that live in the Arctic, conditions there dictate lifestyle to a very great extent. Residents must cope with very low temperatures and constant darkness in the winter, and temperatures above freezing and constant daylight in the summer. While temperatures are below freezing, the frozen, snow covered ground, ice covered rivers, and shore-fast ice are utilized for transportation using dog sleds (traditionally) or snowmobiles (recently). In warmer weather, transportation is based on small boats on ice-free coastal waters and flowing rivers. Most indigenous people live along the coast or on river banks. Diet is based on foods that can be taken from the natural environment (fish, seals, whales, caribou, berries, plants), since agriculture is impossible. Until recently, indigenous people often migrated seasonally, or established "camps" to be near food sources. The harsh climate limited European immigration in many Arctic areas, and the indigenous people have continued a non-market, subsistence economy even today. However, conditions are changing. Recent discoveries of oil, minerals, and diamonds in Arctic areas, and a growing interest in Arctic tourism are bringing many non-indigenous people to the Arctic to live or visit. Simultaneously, the indigenous people are blending many parts of western civilization into their lifestyle (e.g., city water and sewerage, food markets, the internet).

For humans that live in the mid-latitudes, impacts from the Arctic come mainly in the form of weather and climate. Wintertime outbreaks of cold Arctic air are responsible for unusually cold or persistent low temperatures, high winds, and blowing snow that are frequent characteristics of mid-latitude winters. We are still at the early stages of discovery in learning how the Arctic Oscillation (see link) impacts temperatures and precipitation in the mid-latitude belt below the Arctic, but it seems clear that the AO is a dominant feature in controlling our weather and climate on annual to decadal scales. The Arctic is an area with a net loss of heat to outer space due to the long periods of little or no sunlight and the high reflectivity of the snow and ice even when the sun is present in the Arctic. The circulation of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans moves heat from the tropics to the poles, making the Earth overall a much more habitable place. Over longer time scales, changes in the reflectivity of the land and ocean surfaces in the Arctic, or changes in ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, that could result from different sea ice conditions in the Arctic, can alter the extent to which heat is redistributed from the tropics. Thus the climate in the mid-latitude belt depends significantly on natural processes in the Arctic.

7. How will studies of the Arctic affect my life?

Studies now underway in the Arctic should lead to more reliable forecasts of weather over the Arctic and in heavily populated mid-latitude areas. We will learn more about how the Arctic influences the global climate and achieve greater insight about the climate our children will experience. We will be better able to quantify, manage and use the natural resources of the Arctic.

8. Who lives in the Arctic?

The Arctic is inhabited by several different groups of indigenous people, and also by relatively recent immigrants of mostly European background. In Alaska, for example, indigenous people account for about 70% or more of the total population in mainland areas bordering the Bering, Chukchi, or Beaufort Seas. In Russia, only 15% or fewer of the inhabitants along the north coast are indigenous people. There are three main groups of Alaska Natives, the Inuit, Aleut, and Indian, while in Russia, there are 16 recognized minority indigenous peoples. The total populations of indigenous people in the Alaskan and Russian Arctic are about 50,000 and 70,000 respectively. The Canadian Arctic has about 50,000 indigenous people, representing 50% of the total population of the area, from three recognized groups: Indian, Inuit, and Métis. Inuit people are also found in Greenland.

9. Are conditions in the Arctic the same today as they were 100 years ago?

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There is no simple answer to this question. Good records of temperature and precipitation are available for the last 50 years, but data quantity and quality are diminished in prior years. It is clear that the Arctic has undergone significant change in the last 50 years, but the changes differ in different regions in the Arctic. For example, Alaska has experienced significant warming over the past 30 years, with average wintertime temperatures about 6 degrees warmer now than in the 1960's. In contrast, northeastern Canada has experienced a cooling trend over the same period. Such changes may be part of natural processes, but recent studies have shown links between the build-up of greenhouse gases and the changes, both warming and cooling, observed in the Arctic. Yet, there was a period of warming in Alaska in the 1920-1940 period that was less likely to have been caused by greenhouse gases. There are studies underway to discover the driving forces for this warming earlier in the 20th century.

See Question 14 for more information about the present state of the Arctic environment.

10. Is it true that the North Pole is now water?

More Information

Recently there have been newspaper articles describing the existence of open water at the North Pole. This situation is infrequent but has been known to occur as the ice is shifted around by winds. In itself, this observation is not meaningful. Of more importance is the evidence that the Arctic ice cover has been thinning over large areas during the last twenty years. If this trend continues, there may be significant changes in the northern hemisphere heat balance and possibly in ocean circulation.

11. Is there an ocean current circling the North Pole, similar to the circumpolar current moving clockwise around the Antarctic continent at the South Pole?

More Information

The circulation at the North and South Poles are quite different. The South Pole is in the middle of Antarctica, which is a continent with an ocean surrounding it. The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is an ocean with land virtually surrounding it. Circulation in the Arctic Ocean is composed of several internal gyres or loops. The link below describes in detail the internal workings of the Arctic Ocean:

http://www.whoi.edu/science/PO/arcticgroup/projects/proshjohnson-two-regimes.pdf

12. How far is my location from the North Pole?

You can calculate the distance from your location to the North Pole using Great Circle Navigation with two easy web calculators. First, find the latitude and longitude for the city using http://www.arrl.org/locate/locate.html. Then find the distance between any two locations using http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/2265/gcsail.htm. The result of the calcuation will appear under your inputs on the calculation website. For this calculator, use a North Pole location of 89 degrees 59 minutes North and 0 degrees 0 minutes East.

13. How far is the North Pole from the magnetic north pole?

More Information

The strength and direction of the Earth's magnetic field are constantly changing. Scientists monitor these changes and track the location of the magnetic north pole, which is not fixed at a specific geographic location. The magnetic north pole moves by a significant but variable amount from day to day and year to year (on the order of 40 kilometers or 25 miles). Compass directions, which are based on the earth's magnetic field, must be converted to true directions, by applying corrections to account for the variations in the strength and location of the magnetic north pole, since maps and navigation are oriented to the location of the true (geographic) North Pole.

14. Is the Arctic environment changing?

The Arctic is a vast, ice-covered ocean that is surrounded by tree-less, frozen land, which is often covered with snow and ice. The rigors of this harsh environment are a challenge to living, working and performing research in the Arctic. None the less, the Arctic is an ecosystem that teems with life including organisms living in the ice, fish and marine mammals living in the sea, birds, land animals such as wolves, caribou and polar bears, and human societies.

The Arctic has been changing in the last 30 years. Some of the clearest indicators of this change are warming of spring temperatures in Alaska, the warming of winter temperaturess in N Europe, the loss of sea ice area in the central Arctic, and the conversion of tundra to wetlands and shrub lands in E. Siberia and NW Canada and Alaska. These changes in physical conditions also have impacted marine and terrestrial ecosystems. An overview of the current status of the Arctic from 1970 to the present can be seen in this table of Arctic Change Indicators. Changes in the last decade are continuing, major and unprecedented.

Up-to-date status of Arctic environment is available from NOAA's new Near-realtime Arctic Change Indicator website, which provides information on the present state of Arctic ecosystems and climate in a historical context, with easy to read and understand narratives.

15. Will sea levels rise if the North Pole ice cap continues to melt?

The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Ice on the ocean is already floating, so if the North Pole ice cap melts it has little effect on sea level. It would take melting ice on land (Greenland and Antarctic glaciers) to raise sea level significantly. See the NOAA Arctic Report Card essay on conditions in Greenland.

17. What is the size of the Arctic region and the Arctic Ocean?

Multiple ways to define the Arctic region:

The National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) presents three definitions of what constitutes the Arctic region. A common definition is everything north of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees, 32 minutes North). Wikipedia offers an article with the definition of the Arctic Circle and how its location varies slightly over time.

However, Arctic researchers also define the Arctic region as the area north of the tree line (i.e., the northern limit of upright tree growth), or as the high latitude regions where the average daily southern temperature does not rise above 10 degrees Celsius. The NSIDC provides a map showing these three definitions of the Arctic (the Arctic Circle, the tree line, and the 10 degree Celsius isotherm ( ~50°F)). A similar map is offered by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

The size of the Arctic:

The area encompassed by the Arctic Circle is about 6 percent of the Earth’s surface area, according to the US government's Energy Information Administration). The National Geophysical Data Center reports that the total surface area of the earth is 510,082,000 square kilometers.

The Arctic region, defined as the Arctic Ocean and surrounding land, including all of Greenland and Spitsbergen, and the northern parts of Alaska, Canada, Norway, and Russia, is 14.5 million square kilometers (5.5 million square miles), as indicated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute educational website , which also offers a map showing this and other boundaries of the Arctic.

The size of the Arctic Ocean:

The National Geophysical Data Center states that the Arctic Ocean covers an area of 15,558,000 square kilometers, and the total surface area of the earth is 510,082,000 square kilometers.

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