Located at the Earth’s northern extremes, the Arctic is defined by scientists as the area above the Arctic Circle, approximately 66 degrees north of the Equator. The centre of the Arctic Circle encompasses the vast Arctic Ocean, the islands within and the lands that fringe it. The ‘Circle’ brings together lands of different continents, cultures and political persuasions – the United States (Alaska), Russia, Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the myriad island chains over which these countries claim dominion.
Like its polar opposite, Antarctica, the tilt of the Earth ensures that at the extremes of summer the sun never dips below the horizon ensuring days of 24 hour daylight – hence The Land of the Midnight Sun. In stark contrast the sun never crawls above the horizon in winter meaning perpetual night. However, this may not mean complete darkness, the crisp, clear air reflecting the moon’s glow onto the bright snow below. Perhaps the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, may also cast their magical blue, purple, pink, lilac and green light across the landscape as they weave their spectacular, ethereal dance in the skies above. The seasons also determine the extent of the ice expanse, with the ocean freezing in winter and thawing through the summer.
Such harsh extremes have not deterred large, diverse and adaptable species of flora and fauna from flourishing here, many unique to the region. Over 20,000 species of micro-organisms, fungi, plants and animals have been recorded on the steppe, the coastal landmasses, the ice floes and in the sea. Grasses, mosses, lichens, flowers and shrubs abound when daylight lengthens providing food and shelter for the land-based mammals. Reindeer, caribou and musk oxen graze the plains while small rodents, hares and lemmings provide sustenance for weasels, wolves and Arctic foxes to feast on. On the coastal margins polar bears hunt, both on land and in the water. Seal and walrus lumber on the ice but become lithe, ferocious hunters of the abundant fish in the sea. Whale are prevalent, bowhead and grey whale along with beluga, the white whale, and the mystical narwhal with its long straight, spiralled tusk – the Unicorn of the Sea. Half of the world’s species of coastal and sea birds live in the Arctic Circle, the skies alive with wheeling gulls, terns, kittiwakes, cormorants and guillemots as they return to their cacophonous rookeries.
Despite the freezing cold and the harshness of the environment, approximately four million people now live in the region. Originally these were herders, hunters, fishers and fur trappers, eeking out a hard existence from the indigenous wildlife. The Inuit of Canada, Greenland and Alaska; the Nenets, Evenk and Chukchi of Russia; the Saami of Sweden, Finland and Norway – all endured the merciless winter, awaiting the coming of the summer when they could replenish their stock in readiness for the returning darkness. Now many people are employed in logging, and mining for minerals and oil and maintaining the essential infrastructure that makes life possible in the Arctic Circle.
The summer months between June and September are the best time to visit the magnificent Arctic Circle - when it’s at its most hospitable. In midwinter, however, adventurous travellers head north to witness the amazing dance of the spectral Northern Lights.