The Arctic is the region of Earth where the sun never rises for one 24-hour period in the winter and never sets for one 24-hour period in the summer. This area has been demarcated as north of the 66.5° north latitude and includes the northern parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Siberia, and the Svalbard archipelago, which lies 700 km north of Norway. In the summer, the air temperature reaches 22°C (71.6°F), and in the winter, the temperature stays around -50°C (—58°F). In some regions, temperatures have been recorded as low as —70°C (—94°F).
Because of the frigid conditions, the Arctic has long been thought of as uninhabitable and as a border to the edge of the Earth. Notwithstanding, curiosity fueled the desires of some to investigate this little-known territory. The first Arctic explorer was Pytheas, a Greek navigator from the colony of Massilia, around 325 BC. Pytheas christened his discovery Ultima Thule, which means “the outermost land.” The present-day location of Pytheas’s “outermost land” is debated, but theories of its location range from Iceland to Norway. After Pytheas came, more explorers, notably, the Norsemen, in the 9th century AD. One of the more famous of the Norsemen to travel to the Arctic was the Viking, Eric the Red, who was banished from Iceland to later discover the territory he named Greenland.
Arctic exploration really flourished toward the end of the 15th century when John Cabot, a Venetian, proposed the idea of a Northwest passage to India. This spurred many attempts to find other trade routes. However, it was not until the early 19th century that the incentive for Arctic exploration changed from commercial to scientific. Much of the outer regions of the Arctic were known at the time, but the interior was still unexplored.
William Parry was the first to attempt the rigorous trek to the interior of the Arctic in 1827. His journey to the North Pole was unsuccessful, but he paved the way for future explorers, including the German Captain Karl Koldeway, the American Charles Francis Hall, and British Captain Sir George Nares. The North Pole was finally reached in 1909 by American explorer Lieutenant Robert Edwin Peary.
With the advent of flight, the Arctic became much more accessible and opened up to research in many areas, such as natural resources, pollution, and climate. Natural resources of the Arctic include oil, petroleum, minerals, and wildlife. In addition, the Arctic is unique and ideal for studies on pollution and climate because of the cold weather, prolonged periods of light and dark, and the virtual absence of anthropogenic sources of pollution.
The first people credited with mastering the extreme Arctic environment were hunters from northeastern Siberia who lived about 40,000 years ago. Some of these hunters crossed the Bering Strait and expanded across Arctic North America. Archaeologists refer to these people as Paleo-Eskimos. (Note: The term Eskimo is no longer used and has been replaced by the term Inuit.). Arctic dwellers are compactly built, having a barrel-shaped torso and short arms and legs, which minimize heat loss. Today, there are almost 120,000 Inuit still living in the far north. Many live with modern comforts to varying degrees in towns or small settlements throughout the Arctic. Through the combined efforts of these local communities, the early explorers, and contemporary researchers, we now know much more about a part of our planet that was once believed to be uninhabitable and partly unknowable.
- Bottenheim, J. W. (2002). An introduction to the ALERT 2000 and SUMMIT 2000 Arctic research studies. Atmospheric Environment 36, 2467-2469.
- Liversidge, D. (1970). Arctic exploration. New York: Franklin Watts.
- Sugden, D. (1982). Arctic and Antarctic: A modern geographical synthesis. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books.