Location & Geography

Arctic Map

Mosaic of images of the Arctic by MODIS.

Jeff Schmaltz - NASA Earth Observatory

The Arctic, otherwise known as the north pole, is the northernmost region of Earth. Most of the Arctic region consists of the Arctic Ocean and it's adjacent seas, but it also contains lands associated with eight countries: The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, and Iceland. The warmest month in the Arctic is July, and average temperatures are below 50F (10C). During the winter months, average temperatures are sometimes as low as -40F (-40C).1

This region is currently being threatened by climate change. Increasing Arctic sea-ice melt and sea-ice shrinkage causes the release of methane from the ice in the permafrost regions of the Arctic. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, further contributes to the rising temperatures in the region due to the greenhouse effect. While there are large variations in the predictions of Arctic sea-ice loss, about half of all analyzed models show almost complete loss of Arctic sea-ice in September by the year 2100.2


Planococcus halocryophilus

Electron microscope image of Planococcus halocryophilus

Nadia C S Mykytczuk et al

Bacteria are everywhere! The Arctic is no exception. One of the many Arctic bacteria is particularly interesting, as it has been observed dividing at 5F (15C) and remains metabolically active at 25C. Lyle White, an environmental microbiologist from the McGill University team that isolated this bacteria, said: "We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water" ... "The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature ~(-16ºC), creating a habitable but very harsh environment." This discovery gives clues to where life might exist in other parts of the solar system such as Mars or Saturn's moon Enceladus, both of which have regions with similar environments to the enviornment where Planococcus halocryophilus was found.3


Although an environment as cold and harsh as the Arctic might seem like a place where plants would be completely unable to grow, life found a way! Many plant species grow in the Arctic, but there are some definite characteristics that most have evolved to adapt with this harsh environment. Two great examples of these hardy plants are: Bearberrys (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and the Arctic Willow (Salix arctica).

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Bearberry: Picture taken near Akureyri, Iceland.

Sten Porse (Own work) - [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Bearberry were appropriately named so, as they are a favorite of bears after coming out of hibernation. These plants do, however, have a significant place in folk medicine. Some folk tales suggest that Marco Polo stumbled across the plant in China, and thought that they were using it as a diuretic. In the summer time, the leaves are sometimes picked and dried for use in various folk medicine preparations.4 While generally regarded as safe, Bearberrys do have the potential for adverse side effects such as nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, back pain and tinnitus, and should not be used during pregnancy, breast feeding, or in children or patients with kidney disease.4 5 6 Native American tribes use bearberrys and the leaves of the bearberry shrub along with tobacco and other herbs in their religious ceremonies. This preparation is used as a type of incense or is smoked in a sacred pipe which carries the smokers prayers to the Great Spirit. When this preparation is mixed with tobacco and other herbs, it is referred to as kinnikinnick, from an Algonquian word for "mixture".7 8

The Arctic Willow (Salix arctica) is not what you would typically think of when you imagine a willow. This willow is a short-growing shrub that rarely grows above 6 inches (15cm) high, and has adapted to the harsh conditions of the cold and rocky lands surrounding the Arctic ocean.9 Salix arctica is an extremely slow-growing but long-lived species, with the oldest known Arctic Willow, found in eastern Greenland, being 236 years old. Arctic Willows serve as a food source for Muskoxen, caribou, Arctic hares and lemmings, who feed on the bark and twigs, and for the ptarmigan, which feeds on the buds. The plant has also been used by the Gwich’in and Inuit people for medicinal purposes, such as for relieving toothache, helping to stop bleeding, curing diarrhoea and indigestion, and used as poultice on wounds.10


The Arctic is home to many different animals, from birds to sharks and everything in between! In order to maintain life in such a harsh environment, it is important that animals have evolutionary adaptations to withstand the cold temperatures and other unique challenges such as food scarcity. The white fur of the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus), and the Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) is an excellent example of an adaptation that allows these animals to remain camouflaged in the snowy environment of the Arctic. In addition to the land animals, the Arctic is home to a large marine ecosystem. Some of the animals in this ecosystem include: the Narwhal (Monodon monoceros), Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata), and the Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus), all of which have unique adaptations to allow them to be successful in their respective environments.

Polar Bear

Three Polar bears approach the starboard bow of the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Honolulu (SSN 718) while surfaced 280 miles from the North Pole.

Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy

No article about the Arctic would be complete without including the mighty Polar Bear(Ursus maritimus)! Technically, these bears are considered marine mammals due to the fact that they spend most of their time on the sea ice.11 Polar Bears(Ursus maritimus) primarily hunt for their preferred food source, seals , from the edge of the sea ice. In the absence of sea ice, Polar Bears are unable to hunt and live off fat stores. Currently, these animals are considered vulnerable due to the increasingly shrinking sea ice as a result of climate change, with three of the nineteen Polar Bear subpopulations currently in decline.12Polar Bears rarely live beyond 25 years old, with the oldest wild Polar Bear on record having lived to 32 years old.13These animals are also known for their superb swimming and diving skills; sometimes swimming more than 200 miles over ten days with dives that can last over 3 minutes when approaching prey.

In contrast to the carnivorous Polar Bear(Ursus maritimus), the Arctic Hare(Lepus arcticus) is a much smaller herbivore.14 15 The Arctic Hare, while closely related to rabbits, is different in several ways. The Arctic Hare is one of the largest living lagomorphs, growing to an average size of about 23 inches (about 26 inches including the tail). Typically, these animals weigh between 6 and 12lb, although some can grow to be over 17lbs.16 By far, the Arctic Hare's most successful predator is the Gray Wolf.16 While Arctic Hares in the more northern longitudes of the Arctic keep their white fur year round, individuals in the southern Arctic regions shed their coat in the summer to a grey or brown color in order to better camouflage with their surroundings.17

Arctic Willow (Saliz arctica)

Greenland shark Somniosus microcephalus

NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Although the Arctic biome is home to many land species, one must not forget the diverse marine life that thrives in this inhospitable region. The Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is a very interesting looking marine mammal , males sporting a long helical tusk, sometimes reaching over 10 feet in length. While the largest tusks appear in male Narwhals, some females do grow shorter tusks with a less defined helical pattern. The tusk is actually considered a canine tooth, and grows from the left side of their upper jaw, protruding through their lip. While extremely rare, in about 0.2% of male Narwhals, both the left and right canine can grow in this fashion, forming two tusks on the animal. While the Narwhal tusk might look like a weapon, it actually is a sensory organ that takes in sea water and tells the animal about it’s environment. Another interesting looking species is the >Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata), which sports two white circles and stripes in it's black or dark brown fur. These seals spend most of their lives in the water, rarely coming ashore, especially during the summer and fall months.18 During this time, there is very little known about their habitat, as they spend most of their time in open water.19

One other particularly interesting species is Somniosus microcephalus, the Greenland Shark. By far, the most incredible thing about this species is it's long lifespan. The oldest known Greenland Shark was estimated to be roughly 400 years old, making it the oldest living vertebrate on record.20 This species of shark is very large, averaging about 12 feet in length, weighing almost 900lb! Notably, there are reports that very large Greenland Sharks can grow up to 3,100lb, with a length of about 24 feet.21 22 These dimensions rival that of a Great White Shark, but the Greenland Shark is a far slower, and therefore less terrifying species. Indeed, the average maximum speed for a Greenland Shark is about 1.6mph, about half of the maximum cruising speed of the seals on which it often preys, and about 7% of the maximum cruising speed of a Great White Shark. Due to the fact that this species spends most of it's time in very deep water, the Greenland Shark has adapted to increase it's buoyancy by accumulating high concentrations of Urea and TMAO (trimethylamine oxide) in it's tissues. TMAO is toxic and can cause a "drunken effect" in those who consume the meat of the Greenland Shark. 23

Key Points

  • The Arctic is the northernmost region of earth, otherwise known as the north pole.
  • Temperatures in the Arctic can average as low as -40F (-40C) during winter months.
  • The Arctic biome and it's inhabitants are at risk due to climate change. (See: Location & Geography)
  • Some places in the Arctic are similar to regions of Mars, and bacterial growth in these places on earth indicates the potential for bacterial life on Mars. (See: Microbes)
  • Plant species in the Arctic region adapted through evolution in order to survive in the harsh Arctic environment. For example: plants in the Arctic are noticeably shorter in size than their southern relatives, allowing them to avoid the frigid wind chill in the region. (See: Plants
  • The Arctic contains a large marine ecosystem, with many marine animals.
  • Evolutionary adaptations for many mammals in the Arctic region consist of white fur coloration (camouflage) and large fat stores to sustain life for prolonged periods of time and to conserve body heat.
  • Due to the extraordinarily slow growth rate among Arctic species, many of them are very long lived (See: Arctic Willow (Salix arctica) and Greenland Shark).



  1. Fundamentals of the physical environment. Routledge. p. 482. ISBN 0-415-23293-7.
  2. Serreze, Mc; Holland, Mm; Stroeve, J (Mar 2007). "Perspectives on the Arctic's shrinking sea-ice cover". Science. 315 (5818): 1533–6. Bibcode:2007Sci...315.1533S. doi:10.1126/science.1139426. PMID 17363664
  4. Blumenthal M (translation from German) (1998). Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Thieme. ISBN 978-0-9655555-0-0.
  5. Allen C. Bowling (2006). Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. Demos Medical Publishing. p. 127. ISBN 978-1-932603-54-5.
  6. Nordeng H. and Havnen, G.C. (2005) "Impact of socio-demographic factors, knowledge and attitude on the use of herbal drugs in pregnancy" Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica 84(1): pp. 26–33, note 16, doi:10.1111/j.0001-6349.2005.00648.x
  7. Upham, Warren (2001). Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encyclopedia. Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 481. ISBN 978-0-87351-396-8.
  8. Staff (2009) "Bearberry" Discovering Lewis and Clark The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation
  10. Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, S.G. Aiken, M.J. Dallwitz, L.L. Consaul, C.L. McJannet, L.J. Gillespie, R.L. Boles, G.W. Argus, J.M. Gillett, P.J. Scott, R. Elven, M.C. LeBlanc, A.K. Brysting and H. Solstad. 1999 onwards. Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Descriptions, Illustrations, Identification, and Information Retrieval. Version: 29 April 2003.
  12. IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, 2014.Summary of polar bear population status.
  13. Hemstock, Annie (1999). The Polar Bear. Manakato, MN: Capstone Press. ISBN 0-7368-0031-X.
  14. Lepus arcticus (Arctic hare), Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
  16. Burnie D and Wilson DE (Eds.), Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. DK Adult (2005), ISBN 0789477645
  17. Arctic Wildlife". Arctic Wildlife. Churchill Polar Bears. 2011. Retrieved January 30, 2012
  18. "Rare Arctic ribbon seal observed near Surfside". Chinook Observer. August 18, 2016.
  19. SCS: Ribbon Seal (Phoca fasciata).
  21. Eagle, Dane. "Greenland shark". Florida Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  22. Wood, Gerald (1983). The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. ISBN 978-0-85112-235-9.

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