10 Freezing Facts About the Arctic's Ecosystem
You’ll find the Arctic at the northernmost part of our planet, consisting of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, the USA, Greenland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. The Arctic is a harsh and fragile ecosystem populated by some of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. You won’t find much plant life, or reptiles either, but it’s far from a barren landscape. Here are 10 fascinating facts about the ecosystem of this remarkable place.
1. THE ARCTIC IS THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN.
Because of the Earth’s tilt, Arctic day and night are topsy turvy. There, you’ll find one day per year that’s entirely dark, and another full of only sunshine—usually at the summer solstice, around the 23rd of June. At the North Pole, there are almost six months of continuous daylight, although it stays darker longer in the winter.
2. DESPITE SEVERE WEATHER, MANY ANIMALS THRIVE IN THE ARCTIC.
Though the landscape of the Arctic seems harsh and unfriendly to animals and plant life, more than 1700 species of plants, algae, fungi and lichens live and grow there. From enormous musk oxen and caribou to lemmings, Arctic hares and snowy owls, wildlife teems throughout the region.
3. THE ARCTIC IS HOME TO THE "UNICORN OF THE SEA."
The males of a fascinating creature found only in the Arctic, the narwhal, has a long straight tusk that can grow to over three meters in length (hence the nickname, the “unicorn of the sea.”) The tusk is actually an enlarged tooth, with sensory abilities. These amazing sea creatures can hit weights of up to 4200 pounds and grow to lengths around 17 feet.
4. POLAR BEARS AREN'T REALLY WHITE.
Although a polar bear’s fur appears white, it’s actually nearly transparent, and only appears white thanks to the reflection of the sun off the ice. Meanwhile, the skin underneath is black, which helps them better absorb the sun's intense rays.
5. IT'S HOME TO THE LESSER KNOWN WHITE WHALE.
Unlike the mighty white sperm whale of Moby Dick fame, Belugas are relatively unacknowledged, petite Arctic whales, ranging from about 13 to 20 feet. They only turn white at the age of five, when they reach sexual maturity. Forty percent of the white whale’s body weight is in its blubber, which keeps it warm and serves as an energy store. Belugas play an important role in the Arctic ecosystem by eating abundant marine species that would otherwise run rampant.
6. THE ARCTIC FOX CAN SURVIVE BLIZZARDS.
The Arctic fox, with its camouflage of white and gray, is one of the hardiest Arctic animals. It can survive frigid temperatures as low as –58°F with its uniquely adapted furry soles, short ears, and tiny muzzle. Although these foxes generally live in burrows, they can survive blizzards by tunneling into the snow for shelter.
7. ARCTIC FISH MAKE THEIR OWN ANTIFREEZE.
The Arctic Ocean can reach remarkably chilly temperatures, as low as -1°C—which would be cold enough to freeze water, were it not for the water's high salt content. In conditions like that, you'd expect less salty fish blood to freeze, but it doesn’t. That's because Arctic fish have evolved antifreeze proteins (AFPs), which prevent the fish from freezing to death by binding to ice-crystal nuclei that pop up in the fish’s body, preventing them from developing.
8. THE ARCTIC PERMAFROST IS IN DANGER OF THAWING.
Permafrost is frozen soil that has remained below 32°F for more than two years, untouched by summer sun. Permafrost soil is extremely rich in organic carbon, which remains inert while frozen. Due to global warming, however, permafrost layers are beginning to thaw all over the globe, and more rapidly than previously thought at the Arctic. When these layers thaw, the carbon contained within the permafrost is released from the soil (along with small amounts of methane) into the atmosphere. The newly-thawed soil can also be unstable, contributing to sinkholes and shifting landscapes.
9. THE ARCTIC IS AN ENORMOUS ECOSYSTEM THAT AFFECTS THE WHOLE GLOBE.
What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The frigid Arctic region interacts with warmer southern regions of the world, bringing massive cold air to the south in the winter, while warm winds from the south travel north. Mammals, fish, and birds migrate to eat and breed at the icy edges, estuaries, and wetlands. Sea water cools currents as they move north towards the Arctic, and the cold fresh water there adds to the great ocean “conveyer belt” that affects the climate on land as well as at sea.
10. ARCTIC ICE IS THE WORLD'S AIR CONDITIONER.
Consider that Arctic ice contains around 10 percent of the world’s fresh water and covers 5.4 million square miles. That's a region bigger than Europe. The massive amount of ice creates a giant frozen reservoir that keeps the region cool by reflecting sunlight, and, more importantly, stabilizes our global climate.