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Early morning in Tasiilaq, East Greenland

Arctic Overview

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The North Pole brings to mind a stark land of cold, snow, and polar bears (and perhaps visions of Santa and Mrs. Claus and a group of hard-working elves). Visiting this remote region is a trip of adventure, as you cruise through chilly seas reflecting the high blue sky and scattered with drifting ice. In the summers, the ice pack that covers the North Pole diminishes, making it easier for ships to come near the pole.

Those who take an Arctic cruise may think of the many expeditions that tried—and failed—to reach the elusive 90°. This includes the doomed American Polaris expedition in 1871 and Fridtjof Nansen’s near success in 1895, as well as Robert Peary’s disputed claim of victory in 1909, and Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth’s undisputed sight of the Pole from a plane in 1926.

A cruise through the Arctic Ocean means experiencing the region of the midnight sun, where summers have no sunset and winters have no dawn. Such travel also means the chance to see exotic wildlife, from giant albatrosses to tiny puffins, from beluga whales to long-horned narwhals, and from long-tusked walruses to polar bears whose white coats make them invisible against the ice. Visitors to the Arctic will come to agree that this remote part of the world is a slightly chilly version of paradise.

The Cultural Side of an Arctic Tour

The peoples and cultures of the Arctic span several countries—including the Eskimo of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland; the Saami (or Lapps) of Scandinavia; the Nenets of northwest Russia; the Sakha (or Yakut) of Russia; and the Chukchi of Siberia. Despite the harsh climate it may surprise visitors on an Arctic tour to learn that people have been living in the Arctic for a millennia. In Siberia, for example, there is evidence of human presence as far back as 40,000 years ago. Humans first inhabited North America approximately 15,000 years ago, while Greenland was settled around 4,000 years ago.

Over the years, these peoples learned to adapt to the climate. When the area was first settled, people made houses from hides, whalebone, sod, driftwood, and snow. As resources are limited in the Arctic, those living there learned to make use of everything possible. When they hunted sea mammals such as seals, walruses, and land animals like caribou, reindeer, and musk oxen, they not only ate the meat, but used the bones, hides, wool, and blubber, wasting nothing. They made their shoes, clothing, their weapons, fuel, and their transportation from the animals they killed. Meat, however, was not their only sustenance. A number of edible plants and berries are found in the tundra, which helped to supplement the diet of meat and fish.

Today, on an Arctic tour you will notice that the peoples of the Arctic have added modern technology to their historic adaptation skills. While dog sleds, skis, snowshoes, and kayaks have largely been supplanted by snowmobiles and fiberglass boats, the traditional methods of transportation are still occasionally utilized. In the past century, many formerly nomadic peoples have settled into towns scattered across the Arctic. Despite the shift from the traditional way of life to a more modern one, many of the native people of the Arctic are still rooted to the land and the natural world. Preserving their ancient traditions is becoming increasingly important, and the people are hanging onto their culture by telling stories, passing on traditional hunting and survival skills, speaking their native languages, maintaining close family ties, and teaching traditional arts and crafts to the younger generations. The Inuit people, for example, make such lovely carvings from soapstone and turpentine that they have received international recognition.

Current issues for the indigenous people of the Arctic include making land claims for their ancestral territories, seeking to be represented in regional government, improving their quality of life through educational reforms, establishing an Arctic College, and promoting the region as a desirable travel destination.

Environmental Discoveries on an Arctic Cruise

It is especially important to practice responsible travel methods when taking an Arctic cruise. The Arctic Ocean and surrounding area are made up of the extremely fragile tundra ecosystem. Compared to the rest of the earth, there are relatively few plant and animal species, and those that have adapted to the harsh climate live together in a delicate balance that can far too easily be disrupted. Because of its extreme sensitivity, the Arctic is considered an early warning system as far as climatic change is concerned. The ecosystem is both slow to change and slow to recover, and the disruptions caused by global warming, over-fishing, and pollution have had severe impacts in the region. Walruses and certain whales that make their homes in the Arctic are endangered species, and the polar icepack is shrinking due to rising global temperatures. At certain times during the year, there is also a hole in the ozone layer above the North Pole.

While the number of plants is sparse compared to the Amazon Rainforest, those enjoying an Arctic cruise will find the tundra is home to such flora as birch and willow shrubs; berry plants including lingonberries, bilberries, and blueberries; heath, bake-apples, and arctic poppies; and grasses such as cottongrass, lichens, and moss. South of the arctic treeline is the boreal forest, which is made up of trees such as spruce, fir, larch, mountain ash, and birch. The Arctic may consist of a spare, harsh environment, yet it is also a place of stunning beauty. Ice stretches in every direction, the white dazzling beneath bright sunshine.

Resources in this chilly region include sand and gravel aggregates, placer deposits, polymetallic nodules, fish, marine mammals such as seals and whales, and oil and gas fields. Disputes have arisen between the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark over who owns which territory—and who has the rights to the coveted non-renewable resources.

A Geographic Look at the North Pole

If you are planning a cruise to the Arctic, it is important to note that unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is not located on any land mass. Rather, it is found in the Arctic Ocean, covered by a three-meter-thick drifting polar ice pack that grows and diminishes according to the seasons. If you take an Arctic tour in the summer, this ice pack is surrounded by open water, but by wintertime the ice pack can spread to the solid land of the northern countries. In the winter and spring, the snow cover is about 8-20 inches deep on the ice pack, and is generally present 10 months out of the year.

The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the world’s oceans, and has two important waterways—the Northwest Passage north of the U.S. and Canada, and the Northern Route, north of Norway and Russia. These waterways are seasonal, open only in the warmer summer months. Other ocean routes, as well as land and air routes, are sparse.

Half of the area beneath the Arctic Ocean consists of a continental shelf, which surrounds a central basin divided by three underwater ridges. The ocean’s salinity changes from season to season, which can influence the marine wildlife viewing opportunities on your tour of the region. When the ice pack expands during the winter months, the water has a high salinity level, which decreases in the summer when the ice melts.

Arctic Travel: A Look into History

Today’s travelers to the North Pole will join the long history of explorers who have been trying to reach the pole – latitude 90 degree North – since the mid-1800s. But for decades trying was all they were able to do. The American Polaris expedition, in 1871, was a disaster from start to finish. A party of 25 sailors, guides, and scientists set off in the ship Polaris in the fall of 1871, led by Charles Francis Hall. Unfortunately, he was resented by many of the other members of the group and was not able to maintain discipline. Shortly after the ship docked in Greenland for the winter, Hall became violently ill after drinking a cup of coffee. He accused several of the others of poisoning him. Whether or not this was the case, Hall continued to suffer from vomiting and delirium, and died on November 8. After this inauspicious beginning, the expedition never recovered. The next year Polaris became embedded in ice, leaving the crew to sail south in small boats to be rescued by a whaler. The year following that, those remaining in the party tried to extricate Polaris from the ice, but when the ice began to break up, a group of 19 was separated from the rest of the party. For the next six months they floated over 1,500 miles on an ice floe, and were finally rescued off the coast of Newfoundland by the whaler Tigress. After that, the expedition gave up, having never reached the North Pole.

Two decades later, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen reached 86° 14´, in 1895 the closest any explorer had come to reaching the North Pole. In 1909, Robert Peary, an American, claimed to have reached the elusive 90°. However, this claim was disputed by some of the others in his party, none of whom were trained in navigation and able to confirm Peary’s calculations.

The first undisputed sight of the North Pole was not from land. Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth first flew over it in a plane during a trip from Norway to Alaska in 1926. Over the next several decades other firsts were accomplished—Joseph Fletcher and William Benedict landed an aircraft at the pole in 1952; a U.S. Navy submarine surfaced there in 1959; and finally, in 1968, Ralph Plaisted was the first person to undisputedly reach the North Pole, coming neither by air nor by sea, but across the surface of the ice. In 1977, the Soviet icebreaker Arktika was the first surface vessel to complete travel to the North Pole. In 2005 the U.S. Navy submarine the USS Charlotte surfaced at the pole through 61 inches of ice.

Over the years, different countries have made claims on the territory surrounding the North Pole. Canada claimed the area between 60°W and 141°W longitude in 1925, but this claim is not universally recognized. Canada, Denmark, Russia, and Norway have claimed certain waters as internal, but those claims are generally opposed by the U.S. and the EU. Prior to 1999, the North Pole and Arctic Ocean were largely considered to be international territory. However, since the polar ice has begun to recede more rapidly due to global warming, the now-open waters have become more desirable, and the northern countries are making claims on underwater ridges and open water. These areas are potentially valuable for the possible reserves of petroleum and natural gas below the ocean floor, and further disputes over these coveted resources are probable.

The Weather in the North Pole

The North Pole is a land of extremes, not so much in temperature or climate as in daylight. Summers have no sunset; winters have no dawn. If you plan to take an Arctic cruise in the summer, when the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, the region experiences 24 hours of sunshine, while in the winter months it is darkness that reigns for 24 hours.

The region has a consistently chilly polar climate. The summer season in the Arctic is short—usually lasting only from mid-July to the end of August. Winters are cold and dark, but weather conditions are stable, and the clear air provides a stunning 24-hour view of the night sky and layers upon layers of stars. Summers have 24-hour daylight, but the weather is damp and foggy, and weak cyclones bring rain or snow to the region. Winter temperatures generally hover around –20° F, though occasionally they plummet to -40° or below. In the summer, however, you might enjoy temperatures as high as 32°F during your cruise of the Arctic.

Wildlife Wonders on an Arctic Trip

While the number of species found in the Arctic is not nearly so numerous as in more temperate and tropical zones, the area is home to a number of unique and exotic animals. When on an Arctic trip, one may see birds such as the albatross, with its six-foot wingspan, or the tufted puffin, a pigeon-sized water bird whose orange beak and yellow tufts of feathers along the head are striking against its inky black body. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, snowy owls, and the chicken-like ptarmigans make their homes in the tundra, along with geese, swans, gulls, loons, and ducks.

Mammals that live in the tundra include the arctic fox, which has a dark coat in the summer and a white coat in the winter, as do the tiny lemmings that live on plants and berries. Large mammals include the musk ox, whose abundant wool is used to make scarves and other cold-weather clothing. Large herds of caribou and reindeer can also be seen during an Arctic trip, though reindeer, which were domesticated about 2,000 years ago, are more popular in northern Asia and Europe, as native peoples in Alaska and Canada would rather hunt caribou than herd reindeer. The most well known Arctic animal, however, may be the polar bear, which lives year-round in the tundra. Their white coats blend invisibly into the ice and snow, effectively hiding them from their prey—primarily seals and fish.

Many sea mammals have adapted to the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean and are of particular interest to people enjoying an Arctic cruise. Plump white beluga whales swim and sing, making such a wide variety of sounds that they have earned the nickname “sea canary.” Narwhals, distinctive because of their one long horn, also live in the northern seas. Black and white orcas can be seen swimming in the Arctic as well, their six-foot-tall dorsal fins slicing through the waves. Bowhead and hump-backed whales swim the waters, along with playful sea otters, sleek seals—including the bearded, harbor, hooded, ringed, and harp seals—and enormous, tusked walruses.

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