The Arctic can be defined in various ways.

  • Geographically, the Arctic is the region where the sun remains above the horizon for at least one full day in summer and below the horizon for one full day in winter. This is the region north of the Arctic Circle at 66°34’ latitude.
  • Botanically, the Arctic is often defined as the region north of the tree line though tundra can be found farther south as well.
  • Oceanographically, the presence of seasonal or perennial sea ice is one definition of Arctic waters, which can be located far to the south of the Arctic Circle.
© Ronnie Campbell

Northern Ice Melt

Sea ice creates a unique ecosystem with many species found nowhere else on Earth. The cultures of Inuit, Inuvialuit, Iñupiat, and Yupik peoples have developed in concert with their environment and the animals they depend upon. For centuries, people around the world have been fascinated by the Arctic regions.

Globally, the Arctic is more than just a curiosity. Sea ice and snow reflect sunlight and help regulate global temperature. Loss of sea ice thus results in further warming, creating a positive feedback. The Bering and Barents Seas are some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. And the Arctic appears to have large mineral and petroleum reserves attracting the interest of governments and corporations.

Today, climate change threatens to alter the environment in which Arctic peoples and species have developed and thrived. Loss of sea ice means that Arctic waters are becoming—in biological terms at least—subarctic areas. While Arctic cultures are characteristically flexible, adaptable, and resilient, the rate of change means that some hard-won traditional knowledge about the environment is becoming obsolete.

In addition, new industrial access threatens to have the same types of environmental impacts seen elsewhere in the world: pollution, habitat disturbance, and fragmentation, and population declines for many plants and animals. Unfortunately, climate change may increase the pressure of industrial development by allowing easier access to Arctic areas.