The Arctic Circle is a region of the world that has captivated peoples’ imaginations for generations. Remote, cold, and difficult to access, the Arctic’s natural barrier to human movement have traditionally kept people from settling there in large numbers. However, in the past century, improvements in technology combined with the discovery of vast mineral resources in the Arctic have spurred development in the region. The opening of the Northwest Passage to shipping has also increased interest in the Arctic.
What is living in the Arctic Circle like? While some aspects of Arctic living are similar to those in other parts of the world, the peculiarities of the region make long-term settlement there a difficult prospect for the unprepared. Here’s a brief guide to living in the Arctic Circle.
Living in the Arctic Circle
It’s worth pointing out that indigenous peoples have resided in the Arctic for millennia, long before industrialized powers began to take interest in the region. Groups such as the Inuit and Iñupiat have settled in parts of the Arctic for generations, though their numbers have always been relatively small due to the region’s extreme climate.
Long-term Arctic living is difficult due to the sheer cold created by its distance from the sun’s rays. One major exception to this is the coasts of Norway and northwestern Russia, which have a more moderate climate due to the Gulf Stream, an ocean current that mitigates the effects of Arctic cold. In general, however, Arctic regions have cooler summers and much colder winters than areas further south.
Inland regions of the Arctic can have wild temperature swings as the seasons change. For example, the inland Arctic city of Norilsk, Russia has recorded temperatures as high as 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) in the summer and as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Celsius) in the winter. Wind chill can also cause temperatures to drop considerably during the fall and winter months.
Another factor in Arctic living is wildly shifting day lengths due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis. On and around the summer solstice in June, most Arctic locales will have perpetual daylight due to the skies only reaching twilight and never becoming dark. This phenomenon can also be observed in some places south of the Arctic Circle. For example, the city of St. Petersburg, Russia, despite not being within the Arctic Circle, experiences a period of perpetual daylight in the summer, which it commemorates with the White Nights Festival.
Conversely, these same locations experience an excessive amount of darkness in the winter due to the North Pole being tilted away from the sun. In more northerly locales, some places may experience no daylight at all. Lack of sunlight can lead to Vitamin D deprivation and depression in some individuals. One benefit of long nights is that it allows people to experience the Northern Lights, which is nearly impossible to see in the summer due to excessive sunlight.
Due to the extreme climate and lack of sun during large portions of the year, very little vegetation can grow in the Arctic. Indeed, some portions of the Arctic are classified as “ice deserts” or “polar deserts” because they also receive little snowfall. Because of this, most indigenous peoples in the Arctic rely on meat- and fish-heavy diets. Raising livestock is also impractical due to lack of vegetation and cold weather, so most indigenous Arctic peoples hunt and fish for their sustenance instead.
Another issue to contend with in the Arctic is lack of infrastructure. Due to sparse settlement and extreme weather, many traditional means of getting around, such as cars, are not available. Indeed, many smaller villages lack road connections to the outside world. In much of the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, snowmobiles are the preferred means of land transportation; indeed, snowmobiles are more popular than cars in Iqaluit, the territorial capital of Nunavut.
For longer distance travel, airplanes are a necessity, with many bush pilots offering services in Alaska and Canada. Small-scale boat travel is possible in some locations, but the presence of hazardous sea ice in the Arctic Ocean makes it difficult for larger vessels to traverse the region.
When roads do exist, they tend to be unpaved and hazardous to drive for unprepared travelers. The Dalton Highway, the main artery connecting the oil fields in Alaska’s Arctic Circle to the outside world, is largely a gravel route and is mostly uninhabited along its more than 400-mile length. Services such as rest stops, cell phone service, and high-speed Internet are either unavailable or extremely expensive in these remote regions. Some road connections require the use of winter ice bridges, making them impassable in the spring and summer.
Because of this, travelers and residents of the Arctic are advised to pack thick clothing to protect themselves from the elements and carry first aid kits and other survival gear in the event of emergencies. Even during the summer, wearing multiple layers of clothing is recommended due to the fact that weather in the Arctic can change on a dime. Many rural Arctic communities are still reliant on fishing and hunting due to a lack of services and the expense of bringing in goods from the outside world, and many Arctic residents train themselves to perform maintenance tasks so they can be self-sufficient.
There are some exceptions to this. The most heavily populated portion of the Arctic Circle is the northern coast of Norway and the northwestern part of Russia. Murmansk, the largest city in the Arctic Circle, is located in this region, as is Tromsø, one of Norway’s major cities. Life in these places is not too dissimilar to life in other cities; indeed, Murmansk boasts an ice-free port due to the moderate climate caused by the Gulf Stream. However, some basic services may still be difficult to obtain; for example, the Arctic city of Norilsk did not obtain high-speed Internet until 2017.
Indigenous peoples in the Arctic traditionally survived through fishing, hunting, trapping, and whaling. Many indigenous communities still rely on these professions for employment, but new environmental regulations combined with fears of species extinction has severely impacted traditional ways of life in the Arctic. Poverty and alcoholism are common among Arctic indigenous peoples, with many villages in the U.S. and Canada reliant on government support to make ends meet.
Recent Arctic settlement has been driven by the discovery of vast quantities of natural resources in the area. The Klondike gold rush of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s helped spur settlement in Alaska and Yukon, while the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 drove a new wave of development in the region. The Soviet Union constructed numerous Arctic cities such as Norilsk and Apatity to exploit vast deposits of nickel, coal, and other minerals.
Climate change has also led to the Arctic assuming a new importance in international shipping. The depletion of Arctic sea ice has increasingly made it possible for shipping vessels to safely traverse the Northwest Passage, allowing direct sea travel between Europe and Asia without having to use the Panama Canal or sail around the coast of South America or Africa. Projects like the Arctic Sea Bridge are designed to take advantage of newly opened Arctic waters.
Finally, the Arctic is also significant from a military perspective. During World War II, Alaska became a hub of military activity, and during the Cold War, both the U.S. and Soviets constructed listening posts, observation stations, and other military bases in their regions of the Arctic. To this day, the military remains one of Alaska’s largest employers, and the city of Murmansk is a center of Russian naval activity in the Arctic.
Life in the Arctic Circle is radically different in many ways, but not so much in others. Regardless of where they live, Arctic residents have to be mindful of their environment, learn to become self-reliant, and stay prepared for extreme weather and potential disasters. It’s for these reasons that few people have traditionally settled in the Arctic, though with the continued exploitation of natural resources in the region, this could change dramatically in the future.