The Arctic is defined as the area north of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees 30' latitude), which is 2,655 kilometers (1650 miles) south of the North Pole, or an area in the northern hemisphere (excluding high mountains), where the warmest month has a mean temperature of less than 50 degrees F (10 degrees C). The coldest part of the Arctic, the "polar segment," is where the warmest month has a mean temperature of less than freezing (32 degrees F, 0 degrees C). Areas where the mean temperature of the warmest month is between freezing and 50 degrees F are sometimes called the "subarctic."

The Arctic is colder than the equator because the slant of the earth in the Arctic region means that it gets less direct sunlight than the equator where the earth directly faces the sun. In the winter parts of the Arctic doesn't receive any sunlight at all because the earth’s tilt causes the Arctic regions to become situated beyond the sun’s rays.

In the summer of 2007, Russian scientists plunged through the ice pack at the North Pole and planted their flag on the bottom of the ocean. Upon surfacing, the explorers declared that the feat had strengthened Moscow claims to nearly half the Arctic seabed.

Sources: Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Western European Arctic and the White Sea

The Western European Arctic is located on the White Sea, Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean and borders Russia, Norway and Finland. It is a brutally cold place where winter lasts for 11 months, children wear wool hats the year round, blustery winds are the norm, and 30 kinds of mosquitos emerge in the one month of relatively warm weather when the temperatures climb into the 50s. Even so the Arctic Russia has 50 times the population as Arctic Canada.

The White Sea has recorded the world's lowest surface sea temperature (28 degrees F). Much of it is covered by ice until mid June. The weather on it gets rough starting in mid-September. The White Sea is navigable more months of the year than you would think because the Gulf Stream ends at Solovetskiye Island in the White Sea and keeps the sea relatively ice free. That is why the Soviets selected the area as the location of their largest submarine base.

The Kola Peninsula is 100,000-square-kilometer potato-shaped piece of land that juts into the Arctic Ocean and is bordered by the White Sea to the south and the Barents Sea to the north. Also known as Russian Lapland, it is covered by tundra, forest and low mountains. There is only one major city (Murmansk), one major highway (the road to Murmansk) and few scattered industrial and mining towns. Although it is above the Arctic Circle, the climate is warmer than might be expected because of the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.

The area has been traditionally occupied by Sami reindeer herders—who originally wandered freely between the Kola Peninsula and northern Scandinavia—and Russian trappers and fur traders known as Pomors. After the discovery of a northern sea route to the peninsula a tiny settlement was set up on the sea. The region was developed further with British help in the early 20th century and was used as supply port for lend-lease shipments in World War II.

In the Stalin era much of the coastline was declared off limited and rich mineral resources in the Khibiny mountains in the center of the peninsula were developed. The region become an important mining area and strategic military zone. Many many gulags and a notorious dumping ground for nuclear waste were placed there. Two nuclear bombs were exploded above ground at the Knibiny mountains (the last in 1984).

Eastern Soviet Arctic

The Eastern Soviet Arctic is a 5.2 million square kilometers (2 million square mile) expanse, underlain by permafrost. More than a dozen ethnic groups call it home. Tsarist Russia began making its presence known in the late 1600s. Indigenous people felt the impact of the Soviet Union when they became educated and their land was appropriated to gain access to natural resources—with cost often being their traditional ways of life.

The Bering Sea is a body of water between Siberia and Alaska. It is a rich fishery filled with king crab, halibut, sockeye salmon and pollack (the source of fish sticks and fake crab). Located in the North Pacific and comprising less than two percent of the Pacific, it is located mostly in United States territorial waters with a large chunk in Russian water and a small "donut hole" of international waters in the middle. It is also home to fur seals, polar bears, walruses and whales.

Chukotka is a sparsely populated region about twice the size of Germany. Most of the people are reindeer herders, fishermen or miners. Chukotka is rich in minerals but many of them lie deep under the ice or the permafrost and are expensive to extract. In the Soviet era, the economy was propped up. Even basic goods were flown in from Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the bottom fell out of the Chukotka economy and life became a matter of simple survival. Food was in short supply and many people didn’t have heat in the long winters. Things improved when the oligarch Roman Abramovich was elected governor in 2000.

Arctic Ocean

The Arctic Ocean (also known as the Northern Ocean) is located in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Arctic north polar region. The the smallest and shallowest of the world's five major oceanic divisions, it is recognized by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) as an ocean, although some oceanographers regard it as an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean or a water body like the Mediterranean Sea. The salinity of the Arctic Ocean is the lowest on average of the five major oceans, due to low evaporation, heavy fresh water inflow from rivers and streams, and limited connection and outflow to surrounding oceanic waters with higher salinities. [Source: Wikipedia]

In some places in the Arctic Ocean the water is highly stratified with relatively fresh water supplied by river water on top and more saline water in the lower depths. In some basins the water has remained undisturbed and isolated for more than 500 years. Rivers supply about a third of the fresh water that enters the Arctic Ocean. Scientist can track down the source of these water by the unique chemical signature of the water.

The movements of ice, surface water and near surface water are driven by the clockwise Beaufort Gyre. Below this is a contraclockwise current that moves water primarily of Atlantic origin to the east along the continental margin.

Arctic Ice

Almost completely surrounded by Eurasia and North America, the Arctic Ocean is partly covered by sea ice throughout the year (and almost completely in winter). The Arctic Ocean's surface temperature and salinity vary seasonally as the ice cover melts and freezes. The summer shrinking of the ice has been quoted at 50 percent. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) uses satellite data to provide a daily record of Arctic sea ice cover and the rate of melting compared to an average period and specific past years. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ice flows that endure through several summers are called multi-year ice flows. They can be more than ten feet thick. In the summer they can melt so blue melt ponds are produced on the top of the ice. A phenomenon called elastic gravity waves and sonar from submarines can be used to measures the thickness of ice.

Arctic ice is always moving. Large expanses of water doesn’t necessarily mean that ice has melted. Often it has simply been pushed in one direction or another by winds or currents.

Northeast Passage

The 3,500-mile-long Seasonal Northern Sea Routes connect ports along the Arctic Ocean between Murmansk and the Bering Strait. Summer sea ice still abuts against land in some places and icebreakers are needed to open channels through the ice. About 300 ships a year plied this route in the 1990s.

The Northeast Passage is the fabled route across the northern Russia from Norway to the Bering Sea that today can traversed aboard Russian icebreaker in 22 days. The price of the trip is around $10,000 without airfare. The trip begins in the Spitsbergen Islands, famous for its glacier carved mountains, polar bears and strange circular natural circle stones.

The first major Russian stop is Cape Novaya Zemlya Island where the explorer William Barents spent a winter in the 16th century. A few bones and timbers is all that remains. Helicopters aboard the icebreaker allow tourists to see the island’s huge ice cap. From here the vessel sets off for Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point in Europe. The is a lot of pack ice in between which means there is a chance of spotting polar bears.

The second week starts in Severnaya Zemlya which is made up of three ice packed islands and numerous smaller ones. There is abundance of birds here, including the rare Ross gull and large numbers of white whales known as belugas. Two days late the icebreaker arrives in the New Siberian Islands where travelers disembark to explore the tundra on foot. The region is covered with fingoes, strange heaps of earth pushed up by frost action. Many mammoth tusks have been found here. Using zodiacs visitors explore the nearby small islands which abound with approachable walruses.

Arctic Weather

The coldest places in the Northern Hemisphere are not around the North Pole; they are in Siberia, in some cases south of the Arctic Circle. This is because the seas around the North Pole absorbs heat during the summer and release it in winter, even through snow and ice. Plus there are currents that bring in warmer water from the south. The coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere is Verkhoyansk, Siberia, which is just north of the Arctic Circle and has a mean January temperature of -59 degrees F (-50 degrees C). It is far inland and is considerable colder than the North Pole because there is no ocean water to warm it.

The Arctic is less inhospitable than people think. Within the Arctic Circle there is little wind. Blizzards and storms usually only occur when major air masses push through. The winter air is extremely dry and generally less snow falls at the North Pole than in New York City or Chicago.

In the past the Arctic was quite balmy and rich in plant life as evidenced by the significant amounts of oil that lie beneath the Arctic seabed (oil and fossil fuels are created from dinosaur-age or older plants). Based on drilling of seabed sediments, the most carbon-rich period was around 55 million to 49 million years ago, when scientist believe that warming greenhouse gases were trapped even more than today. The warmth was caused by the release of massive amounts submarine deposits of methane. Around 49 millions ago when the climate was cooling there was a huge release of fresh water into the Arctic, which allowed thick layers of Duckweed-like Szol ferns to cover the sea’s surface.

A high pressure system over the Arctic is very important for weather and climate in the Northen hemisphere. If the system where to shift it could result in the relatively balmy winters in the Arctic and Europe becoming much colder, This could have a profound affect on agriculture, tourism and energy use there.

Long Arctic Nights

Above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines for only two hours a day in mid winter. In the winter there is an eery twilight that runs from midmorning until about two in the afternoon. In the extreme north the sun doesn't rise for months. This is because in the winter some parts of the Arctic don't receive any sunlight at all because the earth is tilted so the Arctic regions are beyond the suns rays.

In many Russian cities there is only four hours of sunlight during winter. At 10:00am it is still dark and by 3:30pm its dark again. The four hours of light are little more that dusky twilight. The night lasts from about 4:00pm to 9:30am. On average, there is only 19 hours of sunlight in Moscow in the entire month of December, which works out to about 40 minutes day. The rest of time it is either dark or the sky is overcast. Daylight only lasts from the morning to late afternoon.

During the Arctic winter streetlight are always on and people always drive with their headlights on. Cross country skiers have to use headlights. Describing a November day in a far northern city, Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker, "The day was sleeting and dark, and remained that way for at least two hour—until the sun began to vaguely skirt the horizon. By noon, waiters were putting candles on the tables of the city's lunch spots. Shortly after that complete darkness returned." One resident of Murmansk told the Washington Post, "The only thing everyone talks about is when the polar night begins is how to survive it."

Arctic Oscillation

The Arctic oscillation describes a weather pattern in which high and low pressures migrate between the Arctic and lower latitudes. It has a profound affect not only on the weather and ice conditions in the Arctic but also the weather in the whole northern hemisphere.

The Arctic oscillation has a warm phase and a cold phase. During the warm phase, which occurred in the 1990s, a low pressure over the Arctic and strong eastward winds keep cold air in the north, resulting in relatively mild winters in the mid latitudes. When strong winds push the ice out of the arctic water is expose to sunlight, speeding up the melting process. The process is intensified as warm, salty water from the North Atlantic spews in.

During the cold phase which occurred in the 1960s a high pressure over the Arctic and weak winds in the high latitudes allow cold Arctic air to drift southward, bringing harsh winters to the mid latitudes. A strong clockwise gyre of winds and currents develops that keeps cold water circulating within the Arctic, shuts out warm, salty water and prevents ice from melting.

The Arctic oscillation is currently experiencing a warm phase. Some scientists think this is related to global warming. Others have suggested that maybe ice melting blamed on global warming is in fact the result of the Arctic oscillation.


Tundra is the treeless plain within the Arctic Circle that has low-growing vegetation and permanently frozen subsoil (permafrost). It is the northernmost of the five primary natural zones of Russia. Much of the Arctic is too cold for trees to grow. Much of the landscape is covered by a treeless, marshy plain, with a carpet of plants, called tundra, that spreads for as far as the eye can see in many places and is undisturbed except for streaks of snow, pools of water and rock piles. Most tundra areas lies within the Arctic Circle.

About 10 percent of Russia is tundra. The tundra is Russia's northernmost zone, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, then running south along the Pacific coast to the northern Kamchatka Peninsula. The zone is known for its herds of wild reindeer, for so-called white nights (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and for days of total darkness in winter. The long, harsh winters and lack of sunshine allow only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost. Although several powerful Siberian rivers traverse this zone as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean, partial and intermittent thawing hamper drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, gradually shaping a landscape that was severely modified by glaciation in the last ice age. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Tundra regions sometimes receive less rain than a desert, but because there is hardly any evaporation and seepage is inhibited by the permafrost the land is spongy and soggy. And even though the growing season is very short plants can grow for 24 hours a day under the midnight sun.

Sedges, grasses, scrub willows, birch, juniper, cloudberries, cranberries, blueberries, lichens, mosses and fungi are the plants best adapted for growing in the tundra. These provide enough food to support large numbers of hares, mice, squirrels, voles, waterfowl, migratory birds—and yes, insects, including lots and lots of mosquitos. The main large animals living in the tundra are reindeer, musk oxen and bears. Trees that grow in the tundra are stunted dwarfs. The permafrost doesn’t allow trees to send down deep roots.

Less than 1 percent of Russia's population lives in the tundra zone. The fishing and port industries of the northwestern Kola Peninsula and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia are the largest employers in the tundra. With a population of 180,000, the industrial frontier city of Noril'sk is second in population to Murmansk among Russia's settlements above the Arctic Circle. *


Permafrost is permanently frozen condition of soil except for surface soils that thaw when air temperatures rise above freezing. Thawing and refreezing cause instability of the soil, which greatly complicates the construction and maintenance of roads, railroads, and buildings. Permafrost covers roughly the northern one-third of the Russian Federation.

Much of land in the Arctic is frozen permanently into permafrost. Permafrost is essentially a bog frozen hard a brick. Sometimes the permafrost is several feet under the ground. Sometimes it lies under ice and snow at the surface. Melting permafrost creates bogs and pools of stagnant water and swamps filled with lichens, mosses and berries..

Nearly two thirds of Siberia is covered permafrost. Some of the permafrost created more than a million years ago and is more than 1,400 feet thick. In some places the permafrost is over 1,400 feet thick. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deepest recorded permafrost (more than 4,500 feet deep) was recorded near the Viluy River, Siberia in February 1982.

In most places not covered by ice permafrost lies between two to six feet below the surface. In the summer when the earth above it melts the land becomes swampy because the permafrost prevents water from draining into the soil (in non-Arctic regions water percolates through the ground but in the Arctic it can't do that because the permafrost ground is frozen).

Permafrost also serves as a great preserver. Chocolate, bread, oatmeal, canned meat, preserved cabbage and food left by explorers in a permafrost cache in 1900 was found in 1976 and later eaten. An explorer who tried the food told the Times of London, “Although everybody was afraid to try it, the canned soup with meat proved to be very tasty.” This got the Russian government thinking. Some officials began making plans to set up a kind of strategic reserve for food in the permafrost. See Mammoths.

Melted permafrost turns flat ground into rippled, undulating ground and creates “drunken forest” made of trees tilting this way and that. Moss is critical to the permafrost. It insulates the soil, keeps it at subfreezing temperatures and helps it preserve ice throughout the summer. Permafrost is threatened by fires that burn off the moss and expose the permafrost to summer heat causing it to melt.

Living on Permafrost

Houses on the permafrost are anchored to pilings driven into the permafrost. Building are built on stilts bored 10 meters in the ground. Buildings on concrete foundations, which melts the permafrost, tilt ands sag. Under the pressure from wheels, railroad tracks and foundations, permafrost turns to mud. To keep them from sinking road beds have to be insulated and buildings erected in logs.

During the summer, the permafrost prevents drainage, turning the landscape into a swamp, filled with ponds, lakes and pools. When permafrost melts it creates a smell like rotting vegetation. In some part parts of Siberia anything deeper that a foot is solid ice year round and people simply use their basements as refrigerators. Some hunters have frozen rabbits piled up in their basement like firewood.

Great care has to be taken when placing buildings on permafrost. In some cases the non-permafrost ground is removed and layers of gravel and other materials are placed over the permafrost. In other cases special refrigeration equipment is installed to keep the ground frozen in the summer.

Permafrost is incredibly hard and almost impossible to dig by hand. Pick axes bounce right off it. It takes three days to dig a grave in the permafrost' and houses sometimes snap in two when the ice beneath them shifts a little. Miners use explosives, high-powered pressure water hoses that rip away permafrost layer at surprising speed but also at great expense. These hoses can eject 32,000 liters of water per minute from 100 meters away at pressures reaching 300 pounds per square inch.

Global Warming and Permafrost

The permafrost in a beat bog the size of France and Germany is melting in Siberia. The landscape is being transformed in a series of swamps and lakes, releasing billions of tons of methane trapped in the frozen peat In other places the permafrost line has moved 80 miles northward.

Melting permafrost results in drowned forests (as the permafrost melts the land sinks and is inundated with water), the creation of silk holes, buckled and cracked roads,, buildings with undermined foundations, unsafe bridges, and moving of runways.

Places that used to melt down to about 15 centimeters in the summer now melt down to 30 centimeters. Melting permafrost can expose nuclear, chemical and biological contaminants that had been buried and were thought to be safe from release in the frozen ground.

One of the biggest worries with global warming is the effect it will have on the vast methane deposits that are tied up in frozen bogs and permafrost. If the worlds’ largest frozen peat bogs in Siberia melt it will releases vast amounts of methane, which is 20 times more powerful from a global warming perspective than carbon dioxide..

To track the retreat of permafrost scientist examine plant-covered mounds called palsas that form naturally over ice in the soil of northern peat bogs. Their disappearance is sign that permafrost is melting.

Studying the Arctic

Scientists who study the Arctic: 1) take core samples of ice to look for clues that the ice may provide about weather, ice and sea conditions; 2) use remote controlled explorers to video sea life found at great depths; and 3) examine satellite imagery to trace the movement of ice.

A CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) Rosette is a set of monitoring instruments that provide detailed information about the water column through samples taken at as many a s 24 different depths. The most sophisticated of these devices can be set in one location for several years, sending back data via satellite .

People working in the Arctic Ocean wear an orange flotation suits and thermal boots stuffed with thick wool socks. Marksmen keep a look out for polar bears.

Ice Stations in the Arctic

Beginning in 1937, Soviet scientists were deposited on floating platforms of Arctic ice to study currents, weather, seawater properties, ocean topography and other phenomena to provide data to the Soviet military that would give it an advantage over its rivals, particularly the United States. Thirty-one drift stations were set up and billions of rubles was spent before the research came to a halt with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, February, 1997]

The United States collected similar data. During the Cold War, the Arctic was regarded as a likely staging area for World War III. The Soviet Union and the United States prepared contingency plans in which submarines would punch holes through Arctic ice to fire ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads at targets in their rival's territory. Things like topography, currents, temperature and salinity in the Arctic Ocean were all carefully studied because they affect acoustics, which in turn affect a submarine's ability to hide from pursuers.

During the three or so years a drift station supplied data, it was no unusual for it to drift several thousand kilometers in zig-zagging pattern from the Russian side of the Arctic to the Canadian side, propelled by ocean currents and prevailing winds.

Russia maintained four bases in Antarctica. One if them, Vostok, was located on top of two-mile thick ice over an enormous lake that has not been exposed to air for a million years and may harbor extraordinary life forms. Drills approached but did not break through to the lake because no way has yet been figured out to penetrate the lake without contaminating it. Vostok is also where the world's lowest temperatures, -128.6 degrees F, was recorded on July 21, 1983.

Due to a lack of funds, Russia had to close down one its Antarctic bases in 1999. Staff and operations at the other bases have been greatly reduced. In some cases the bases receive only one shipment of supplies a year.

Scientists on the Arctic Ice Stations

Outfit in fur and housed in canvas tents insulated with down from Arctic ducks, the four-men drift station teams were made up of a hydrologist, radio operator, magnetician and leader. After being dropped off by an icebreaker the first thing the scientists did after they arrived was use bulldozers and dynamite to make a runway for supply planes. Next they built their ski-mounted living quarters. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, February, 1997]

The scientists worked in the winter when temperatures dropped below -50 degrees F and winds gusted at 60 mph. Other dangers included storms, polar bears, frostbite, pools of standing water, holes and cracks in the ice ,and "meat grinder" pressure systems in which relatively thin platforms of ice were pressured on all sides by thicker ice. Scientists were occasionally forced to move buildings to keep them from falling into crevasses. If a situation became too dangerous, the scientist were rescued with helicopters and ski-equipped supply planes.

The scientist had dogs to warn them of approaching polar bears and kept their spirits up in the winter of total darkness with light therapy. They relaxed in makeshift saunas after which they rolled around in the snow and ice. A typical diary entry read: "The snowstorm raged unabated...we felt our ice floe quake again..hearts begin to palpitate. Our rundown condition is telling on us."

One group of scientist became national heros after they were rescued from a meting ice floe after spending nine months drifting across the Arctic Sea . A plane that was sent to reduce them couldn't land because there were too many crevasses. The scientist continued collect data in ankle-deep seawater right up until the time they were rescued in April, 1991 by a Soviet icebreaker.

Nuclear-Powered Icebreakers

Russia is a world leader in icebreaker technology. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Rossiya and its sister ships Soveyskiy Soyuz and Oktyabryskaya Revolutsiya were the most powerful icebreakers every built. Built in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the Rossiya weighed 28,000 tons, was 460 feet long and was powered by 75,000 horsepower nuclear engines.

The duty of the nuclear-powered icebreakers has been to break up the ice for convoys of cargo-carrying ships. Describing one in action, a Washington Post reporter wrote, "The ice would submit meekly to the nuclear-powered colossi. It would crack and break way, falling off to the sides, piling up in huge wedges higher than the bridge of the vessel itself. It amazing sight."

Describing what it is like when an icrebreker plows through multi-year ice floes, Jennifer Steinberg Holland wrote in National Geographic: The ship “groans as it battles the white sheet—the thick sheet....grinding, clanging and squealing as steel meets ice...The pointed bow comes down like a sword on the massive slab, sending cracks racing ahead like frightened snakes and ice cubs the size of VW Beetles rolling over along the hull.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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