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, with 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.
Wildlife in the Arctic
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 like hares provide sustenance for Arctic foxes and other predators 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. Whales are prevalent, so keep an eye out for the likes of 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 - while you are on your Arctic cruise. Half of the world’s species of coastal and seabirds 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, eking 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.
If you are booking a cruise to the Arctic, then 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.