The Arctic Circle remains one of the few locations on Earth that is relatively unpopulated by humans. Due to its harsh climate and physical remoteness, only four million people live north of the Arctic Circle. While indigenous people have thrived in the region for generations, it wasn’t until relatively recently that large-scale human habitation begun, with a number of cities and towns established to take advantage of the region’s considerable natural resources.
While the bulk of the Arctic’s population is located in Europe and Asia, there are also a fair number of people living in the American and Canadian Arctic. Read on to learn about the largest cities in the Arctic Circle, what they’re known for, and why you should consider visiting them.
Largest Arctic Cities in Russia
The largest share of the Arctic’s population is located in Russia, largely driven by resource exploitation during the Soviet era. Four of the five largest cities in the Arctic are located in Russia.
Murmansk is the largest city by far in the Arctic Circle, with a population of 295,374, and is also the oldest Arctic city in Russia.
The last city founded by the Russian Empire, Murmansk was established in 1915 as a military port. During World War I, Russia’s allies were unable to ship supplies to the country’s ports along the Baltic and Black Seas due to German and Ottoman blockades, necessitating the creation of a port that was outside of the Central Powers’ control. Murmansk was selected due to its relatively temperate climate. Because it was free of ice, unlike other Arctic ports, Murmansk could be used by supply vessels year-round.
Originally named Romanov-on-Murman after the Romanov dynasty, the city was renamed Murmansk following the February Revolution in 1917. Following the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, Murmansk was occupied by the anti-Bolshevik White Army and the Western powers, who used it as a staging ground during the Russian Civil War. The Soviets took control of the city in 1920.
During World War II, Murmansk once again served as an important port, allowing the Western Allies to circumvent German naval blockades and deliver supplies to the Soviets. The airfield in neighboring Severomorsk was used by the British Royal Air Force to protect these convoys.
Following Hitler’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union in 1941, German and Finnish forces launched a joint attack on Murmansk as part of Operation Silver Fox, designed to cripple the Soviets’ ability to receive supplies. While the city suffered immense destruction, poor weather and strong Soviet resistance kept the Germans from taking the city. In 1985, Murmansk was designated a Hero City by the Soviet government in honor of its resistance during the war.
Murmansk would later become a focal point for Soviet icebreaker and submarine operations during the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Murmansk retained its military importance, with nearby Severomorsk serving as the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet. Due to its importance as a military base, Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared Severomorsk a closed city in 1996, barring outsiders from visiting it without special permission.
Murmansk also serves as the home port of Atomflot, the only fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers in the world. Additionally, Murmansk is planned as the Russian terminus of the Arctic Bridge, a sea route that will link Russia to Canada via the Arctic Ocean.
Murmansk remains one of the most important cities in Russia and is home to a number of tourist attractions, including the decommissioned icebreaker Lenin and the Alyosha Monument, which commemorates the city’s resistance during World War II. It is also home to the Azimut Hotel Murmansk, founded in 1984 as the Hotel Arctic and the tallest building north of the Arctic Circle. Murmansk is also a popular destination for tourists interested in seeing the Northern Lights, as auroras are common in and around the city.
Located on the northern edge of Siberia, Norilsk is the second-largest city in the Arctic Circle and the northernmost city in the world with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Norilsk has a population of 179,554, though the city also has a large number of seasonal and temporary workers.
Founded in 1935, Norilsk was established by the Soviet Union in order to exploit the nickel, copper, and palladium deposits in the area, estimated to be the largest in the world. It was largely constructed using forced labor from the Norillag gulag, with 16,806 prisoners dying between 1935 and 1956, the years in which the camp was in operation. Poor conditions in the camp led to the Norilsk uprising in 1953, the first major revolt in a Soviet gulag.
To this day, Norilsk remains an important mining center in Russia, with thousands of workers relocating every year for work. The city’s mining industry is a major source of pollution, with the Russian government naming Norilsk as the most polluted city in the country and the Blacksmith Institute naming it as one of the ten most polluted cities in the world. According to some estimates, one percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions come from Norilsk.
Norilsk boasts a number of tourist attractions, including the Norilsk Polar Drama Theater and Norilsk Golgotha, a monument to the gulag prisoners who died during the city’s construction. It is also home to the northernmost mosque in the world, constructed in 1998 for the benefit of the local Tatar community.
Situated just west of the Ural Mountains, Vorkuta boasts a population of 56,088, the fourth-largest in the Arctic Circle, and is the easternmost city in Europe. Similarly to Norilsk, Vorkuta was founded in 1936 in order to exploit natural resources in the area: namely coal. Also like Norilsk, Vorkuta was largely built by forced labor from the gulag system. The Vorkutlag gulag, established in 1932, was the largest gulag in European Russia and was the center of the Vorkutlag uprising in 1953. During the Cold War, Vorkuta served as a forward operating base for Soviet strategic bombers.
To this day, Vorkuta remains a center of coal mining in Russia, though many mines have closed since the collapse of the Soviet Union due to poor profitability. Vorkuta was the site of one of the deadliest coal mining accidents in Russia in 2016, when a methane leak ignited and exploded, killing 32 people.
Located southeast of Murmansk, Apatity is the fifth-largest city in the Arctic Circle, with a population of 55,713. The city was named after the rich deposits of apatite in the area and was founded in 1935. Many early residents of the city were kulaks who were forced to move there as part of Joseph Stalin’s Dekulakization program, as well as various ethnic minorities from other parts of the Soviet Union.
Apatity remains an important source of apatite, a raw mineral used to produce fertilizers. Apatity is also the hometown of former NHL player Fedor Fedorov, who played for the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers.
Largest Arctic Cities in Norway, Sweden, and Greenland
Located along Norway’s Arctic coast on Tromsøy Island, Tromsø boasts a population of 75,638, making it the third-largest city in the Arctic Circle. It is also one of the longest-inhabited regions of the Arctic Circle, with evidence of human habitation stretching back 10,000 years, largely due to the area’s temperate climate.
Written evidence of Tromsø’s significance stretches back to the ninth century. The Viking chieftain Ohthere, whose accounts serve as an important source of information on Viking society, is believed to have lived in the vicinity of Tromsø. The area was also noted as a border between the Norse and the Sámi, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia.
During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Norway established Tromsø as a frontier town to guard against incursions from Kievan Rus’, the predecessor to the modern state of Russia. Commercial development began to ramp up in the 17th and 18th centuries, with Tromsø receiving a city charter in 1792.
During the 1800’s, Tromsø became an important center of Arctic hunting and was nicknamed the “Paris of the North” due to its wealth and prestige. At the end of the 19th century, Tromsø was also a hub of Arctic exploration because of its location and its residents’ knowledge of the region. Many Arctic explorers launched expeditions and recruited seamen in Tromsø due to their expertise in navigating the Arctic Ocean.
Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940, Tromsø briefly served as the seat of Norwegian government, where Norwegian forces attempted to regroup before the entire country was conquered. While no significant fighting took place in the city, the German battleship Tirpitz was sunk by British bombers off the coast of Tromsø in 1944. After the end of the war, Tromsø was flooded with refugees from northern Norway following the use of scorched earth tactics by German forces retreating from Finland.
Since the end of World War II, Tromsø has developed rapidly, becoming a hub of education and culture in the northernmost part of Scandinavia. The city is home to the University of Tromsø, the northernmost university in the world, and the Norwegian Polar Institute. It also boasts a number of tourist attractions such as Tromsø Cathedral and the Verdensteatret theater (the oldest continuously operating theater in Europe), and is also a hub of Sámi culture. Tromsø is also popular among Northern Lights enthusiasts, as auroras can be easily viewed in and around the city.
Situated in northern Norway, Bodø’s population of 51,558 makes it the seventh-largest city in the Arctic Circle. Founded in 1816 as a fishing and shipping center, it is best known for the Bodø affair, in which British traders were caught smuggling goods into the country. At the time, Norway was part of Sweden, and the Swedish government’s overly favorable treatment of the British angered Norwegians, helping fuel the country’s independence movement.
Bodø was largely destroyed during a German attack in 1940, but was rebuilt after the war. During the Cold War, it served as a major hub of NATO activity due to its proximity to the Soviet Union. It also served as a flashpoint during the U-2 Crisis in 1960; American pilot Gary Powers had been traveling to Bodø from Pakistan when he was shot down in Soviet territory.
Today, Bodø is known as a hub of nature tourism and military activity, serving as the home of the Norwegian military’s Joint Operational Headquarters. It also features a number of tourist attractions, such as the Bodø Cathedral and the Norwegian Aviation Museum.
Situated in the province of Lapland, Kiruna is the northernmost city in Sweden and one of the largest cities in the Arctic Circle, with a population of 18,148. Inhabited by native Sámi people for generations, Kiruna was founded in 1900 in order to exploit the wealth of iron ore in the area. While the presence of iron ore had been known for some centuries prior, the isolation of the area prevented large-scale development, and even after the city’s founding, it was not connected by road to the rest of Sweden until 1926.
Kiruna was hard hit by the Great Depression, which saw a 70 percent drop in ore production. This was reversed upon the beginning of World War II, as development in the area increased to meet German demands for materiel. Kiruna also served as a major military hub during the war, as the Swedish government stationed soldiers there to guard the country’s neutrality. The city also housed many war refugees from Norway and Finland.
Following the war, the economy began to diversify and become more reliant on tourism, as Swedes flocked to see the region’s unspoiled natural beauty. The city is currently being moved several kilometers to the east due to concerns about sinkholes caused by mining. At the moment, Kiruna serves as a major center for skiing and other winter activities, as well as tourists interested in the Northern Lights. It is also home to the Icehotel Jukkasjärvi, a hotel constructed entirely out of ice.
Positioned on Greenland’s western coast, Sisimiut is the second-largest city in Greenland, with a population of 5,524. Continuously inhabited by indigenous peoples for generations, Sisimiut was founded in 1764 as a Danish trading post under the name of Holsteinsborg. In the decades prior to its founding, the area around Sisimiut had been contested by the Dutch and Danish until the former were expelled in 1739 following a series of battles.
Sisimiut has since grown into a hub for fishing, whaling, and tourism, including dogsledding, hiking, and kayaking. It is currently the fastest-growing city in Greenland and is also known as a center of indigenous culture.
Largest Arctic Cities in the U.S. and Canada
Located on Alaska’s North Slope, Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the United States, with a population of 4,581. Inhabited by indigenous Iñupiat people since 500 A.D., Utqiagvik was first sighted by Europeans in the 1800’s, when British Royal Navy officers mapped it as part of their exploration of the Alaskan coast.
Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the U.S. Army constructed a meteorological research station in the area in 1881. The area slowly attracted migrants who worked in the fishing and whaling industries. In 1935, famed humorist Will Rogers was killed several miles south of Utqiagvik after his plane stalled and crashed into a river while he was en route to the city.
Since then, Utqiagvik has grown into a major hub of tourism and industry in northern Alaska, as well as a support base for oil extraction operations along the North Slope. Originally named Barrow, the city was renamed Utqiagvik in 2016. Utqiagvik, like many Native Alaskan communities, prohibits the sale of alcohol as a measure to curb alcoholism, though importing alcohol from other communities is allowed.
Inuvik, Northwest Territories
Inuvik is one of the northernmost cities in Canada, with a population of 3,243. Founded in 1953, it was intended as a replacement for the hamlet of Aklavik, which lacked room for expansion and was known for flooding. In 1963, the city became the home of NRS Inuvik (later renamed CFS Inuvik), a naval signals monitoring station that fueled Inuvik’s growth during the Cold War. CFS Inuvik was closed in 1986, devastating the local economy.
Today, Inuvik is a hub for Arctic tourism, aided by the completion of the Dempster Highway in 1979, linking it to the rest of the nation and making it one of the northernmost cities in Canada that can be reached by land. The city is also home to the Great Northern Arts Festival and also boasts the northernmost mosque in North America.
Situated along Alaska’s North Slope near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, Deadhorse serves as a hub for oil extraction. While only boasting a permanent population between 25 and 50, seasonal workers bring the total population to 3,000. Deadhorse was established in 1977 after the discovery of the oil field and the completion of the Dalton Highway, linking it to the city of Fairbanks in the Alaskan interior.
Deadhorse serves as one of the biggest centers of oil extraction in the U.S., and it also attracts tourists who want to visit the Arctic Circle. Tourists often take guided tours along the Dalton Highway. Due to security concerns and the fact that most roads in Deadhorse are owned by private companies, public access to the city is restricted.
Arctic Bay, Nunavut
Arctic Bay is a small city located on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, boasting a population of 868. Occupied by Inuit for thousands of years, the region gained its name after a European whaling ship passed through the area in 1872. Arctic Bay is best known for Nanisivik Naval Facility, a Canadian naval base intended to strengthen the country’s presence in the Arctic. Nanisivik Naval Facility was announced in 2007 and is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
Today, Arctic Bay is known as a hub for polar bear hunting and Inuit cultural activities. It is also a center for the Royal Canadian Army Cadets, a program that trains youth in marksmanship, hiking, and other outdoors activities. It is also the home of former Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak.
Despite an enduring presence in the Arctic by indigenous peoples, settlement in the area remains limited due to climate and geographical concerns. However, as more and more natural resources are opened up to exploitation and Arctic tourism increases, it is likely we will see an increasing number of people journeying to the Arctic to enjoy its abundance of riches.