Arctic Weather Part 1 - Is it REALLY that cold?

As Santa Claus and his reindeer will tell you, the north pole is a cold, dry and windy place only fit for the Abominable Snowman.

All myths aside, the Arctic polar region is generally kinder and gentler than its southern counterpart, Antarctica. That’s because the most northern part of the Arctic is open ocean, which retains more heat and keeps the north warmer than the Antarctic.

Arctic BirdsHow warm is it? Not very. By definition, “polar” indicates that it’s below freezing for more than half the year. Polar climates basically lack warm summers. Trees don’t grow, but glaciers and ice sheets do.

How dry is it? Like the Sahara, only colder. Northwest Greenland gets around 75mm of precipitation a year. That’s not much.

The Arctic is hard to describe because it covers such a huge area. One way to define the Arctic is by its climate and ecology. The Arctic is everything north of the 10°C (50°F) summer isotherm, which represents the average temperature in July. An isotherm indicates a line of equal or constant temperature, and it’s used to show temperature distributions on weather maps. The summer isotherm is basically tree line for most of the Arctic, though a lot of Arctic maps also include the Subarctic when drawing boundaries around the northern polar region.

The Arctic Circle (66° 33’N latitude) is near the limit of the midnight sun and the polar night. The Arctic winter is around nine months long, when the polar night lasts 20-24 hours. The midnight sun occurs in the summer, when the sun is still visible at midnight.

The Arctic Ocean, which is actually several seas coming together, is surrounded by a broad and shallow continental shelf. Pack ice still covers nearly half of the Arctic Ocean even in the summer, when the southern peripheral ice recedes. That means most of the Arctic waters are static.

Think of the Arctic Ocean a marine parfait – it’s multi-layered. The upper layer is the frozen crust. Below that lies a rich, thin layer of water that is fed mostly from Siberian rivers. The next water layer is deeper and warmer, and it comes from the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, an even deeper layer that sits below 800 meters (2,625 feet) is very cold and still.

The most impressive glaciers in the northern hemisphere are formed by rivers of ice that come from the Greenland ice cap. The largest of these calve off huge icebergs into Disko Bay on the west coast. Smaller icebergs are created in Scoresby Sound of East Greenland. Svalbard, Spitsbergen is also a great place to see Arctic glaciers, river beds and ice grottos up-close and personal.

Arctic Rainbow

The Ocean Effect

The Arctic waters manage to support plenty of wildlife, especially in the fringe areas near land, where the continental shelf is shallow and the peripheral ice melts in the summer. The nutrient-rich surface waters promote seasonal plankton blooms that nourish fish, birds, seals, and whales during their summer grazing. The Arctic Ocean’s warming effect and the surrounding land masses provide habitat for plants as well as user-friendly travel and migration routes for the local animal populations.

A Land Of Extremes

The Arctic region sees big fluctuations in climate and environment, and the ecological balance is fragile and slow to recover. Plants and animals need a lot of therapy to adapt to this stressful life.

In the winter, anticyclones – high pressure systems that rotate clockwise – dominate the region’s weather patterns. In the summer, these systems decrease and warmer, wetter ocean air visits the region.

During the winter, it’s cold, dark and the temperature rarely gets above freezing. Summer hits quickly with nearly continuous daylight from May to July, and that’s when everything comes to life in the Arctic. There’s a frenzy of growth and activity. Plants bloom and insects take over during that brief warm and sunny spell. Animals and migratory breeding birds take advantage of those few months. Spring and fall are mere blips on the Arctic radar.

[TRIP TRIVIA: The coldest spot in the north is NOT the North Pole. It’s near Verkhayansk, Siberia! That’s because the interior of Asia’s large northern landmass is too cold to hold moisture – it’s just a big frozen desert – while the Arctic Ocean is comparatively warmer.]