There’s a lot more to the northernmost part of our globe than just frigid landscapes. Read on for some fascinating facts about the Arctic region, and the people and wildlife who call it home:
1. BIRD POOP HELPS KEEP THE AREA COOL.
A study recently published in Nature Communications found that the massive amounts of bird guano in the Arctic release gases that contribute to cloud cover, which in turn slightly reduces the temperature of the surrounding air.
2. THE ARCTIC COMES TO LIFE DURING WINTER.
In some Arctic Ocean habitats, wildlife is even more active during the region’s long, desolate winter than it is in the summer. According to a recent study in Current Biology, “Biodiversity, abundance, growth, and reproduction in habitats studied were at similar or higher levels than in warmer months.” Researchers counted lots of plankton, crustaceans that aren’t often observed during summer, as well as certain cod and haddock species and a surprising number of birds.
3. IT’S HOME TO THE WORLD’S BIGGEST, MOST SECURE SEED STORAGE FACILITY.
More than 800 miles beyond the Arctic Circle lies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility run by the Norwegian government. The structure, which was built into the permafrost, holds seeds for more than 4000 plant species—including life-sustaining food crops—keeping them safe in the event of natural or manmade disasters.
4. THE FIRST MAN TO REACH THE NORTH POLE WAS OVERLOOKED FOR DECADES.
Robert Peary (1856-1920) claimed to have been the first man to reach the geographic North Pole, in 1909. Today, however, experts believe that it was his assistant, an African-American man by the name of Matthew Henson (1866-1955), who actually deserves the distinction. By the time Peary and Henson neared their destination, Peary was struggling with a bad case of frostbite, leaving him unable to walk. (He had to be pulled along on a sled instead.) As they got closer to the North Pole, Henson and two guides went ahead on foot, but accidentally overshot their destination—which meant that Henson technically reached the Pole about 45 minutes before Peary did.
5. LOTS OF PEOPLE LIVE THERE.
Despite its harsh conditions, more than 4 million people call the Arctic region home. The Arctic Circle encompasses parts of the U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, and Norway. Its economy amounts to around $230 billion annually, which is about the same as Portugal and Ireland.
6. THERE’S AN INTERGOVERNMENTAL ARCTIC FORUM.
Countries whose borders fall within the Arctic Circle are part of the Arctic Council, which, according to its website, “is the only circumpolar forum for political discussions on Arctic issues, involving all the Arctic states, and with the active participation of its Indigenous Peoples.” The Council works to assess, and come up with solutions for, the environmental and social issues faced by the people and wildlife living there.
7. THE WORD ARCTIC IS DERIVED FROM THE GREEK, ARKTOS.
Arktos means “bear,” and refers not to the region’s native polar bears, but to the constellation containing the North Star, Ursa Minor. (Ursa is Latin for “bear.”)
8. THE ARCTIC OCEAN IS THE WORLD’S SMALLEST.
It comprises 5.4 million square miles. By comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers 41.1 million square miles, and the Pacific 62.46 million square miles.
9. THE NORTH POLE IS MUCH WARMER THAN THE SOUTH POLE.
The Arctic is mostly ocean surrounded by land, while Antarctica is mostly land surrounded by ocean. So while significant portions of both are covered in sheets of ice, the water underneath the Arctic ice cap (which sits only about a foot above the water) can trap heat and help warm the surrounding air. In Antarctica, as Scientific American put it, “the surface of the ice sheet at the South Pole is more than 9000 feet in elevation—more than a mile and a half above sea level.” (Higher elevations, of course, result in colder temps.) The average summer temperature at the North Pole is 32°F. At the South Pole, it’s -18°F.
10. SANTA’S NORTH POLE HOME WAS DREAMED UP BY A 19TH CENTURY CARTOONIST.
The famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast began drawing illustrations of Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign for Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s. In a few of his drawings, he made reference to the fact that Santa’s mailing address was the North Pole—a place that had already captured the world’s imagination, as they watched a number of explorers attempt to reach the frigid destination. As for the real St. Nicholas? He was born in what is now Turkey.