The Arctic Circle is known as one of the most extreme regions of the world in terms of climate. When most people think of the Arctic, they think of polar bears, Santa Claus, glaciers, and snow. And while it’s true that the Arctic is an extremely cold place, you might be surprised at the diversity of terrain, weather, and climate found in the region.
The Arctic Circle is a unique and varied place, ranging from treacherous tundra that is nearly-impossible to travel to temperate seaside locales. Here is a guide to the weather and climate of the Arctic Circle so you know what to expect if you ever visit.
Weather and Climate in the Arctic Circle
The climate of the Arctic Circle is largely defined by the Earth’s axial tilt. Most people are aware that as the Earth orbits the sun, its position is not fixed; the Earth is slightly tilted on its axis. This tilt is responsible for creating the seasons, as the portion of the Earth that is tilted towards the Sun experiences summer and the part that is tilted away experiences winter. As the Earth revolves around the sun, different portions of the globe receive more or less exposure depending on the Earth’s location.
Seasonal effects are more pronounced the further one is from the equator, the center of the Earth. Because the equator gets roughly the same amount of exposure to the sun year-round, it tends to be hot regardless of what time of year it is. The further north or south you go, the more pronounced seasonal changes are. At the poles, the most extreme portions of the Earth, shifts between summer and winter are dramatic.
In the case of the Arctic, this translates into short, cool summers that are defined by excessive amounts of sunlight as well as long, cold winters where the sun rises briefly or not at all. During the summer, many Arctic locations experience all-day sunlight due to the sun either not setting at all or twilight being visible due to the sun being just past the horizon. As expected, this creates extreme variances in the seasons.
In the winter, a lack of sunlight results in extremely cold weather with considerable amounts of snow, though there is generally less snow in coastal regions. Cloud cover is a feature of some Arctic locales during winter months, such as northern Norway. Wind chill in some places can bring the temperature down even further. This situation is reversed in the summer, with excessive daylight allowing snow to melt in all but the most remote locales.
The Arctic Ocean acts as a moderating influence across much of the Arctic, preventing temperatures from dropping as low as they otherwise might. Indeed, the coldest location in the northern hemisphere is not located within the Arctic Circle, but in northeastern Siberia, due to the region’s continental climate and its isolation from moderating ocean winds.
One major exception to Arctic climate patterns is the northern portion of Scandinavia and the northwestern portion of Russia. Due to the North Atlantic Current, this region of the world features a more temperate climate than the rest of the Arctic, though it is still considerably colder than locales that are more southerly. The waters around this portion of the Arctic also remain ice-free year-round, unlike the rest of the Arctic Sea, which helped make Murmansk, a city located in this region, a vital Russian port.
Ice is a common feature of waters around the Arctic, which make sea travel outside of the summer months dangerous and impossible in some cases. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was constructed in the 1970’s because of this; oil tankers would have had difficulty reaching the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska’s North Slope. In recent years, the invention of icebreaker vessels has allowed for year-round sea travel in the Arctic.
Despite the seasonal shifts, glaciers, icebergs, and other ice formations are common in the Arctic year-round, making sea travel somewhat perilous. The North Pole itself is located on a constantly shifting sea of glaciers that make travel to it difficult and prevent the construction of permanent monitoring stations, like the ones many governments have built in Antarctica. Recent global warming has caused some glaciers to recede, potentially opening up the Arctic to resource exploitation and trans-polar travel via the Northwest Passage.
Due to the Arctic’s frigidity, wildlife in the region have evolved numerous defense mechanisms focused on keeping themselves warm. These include blubber pockets, fur coats, and small orifices (ears and eyes) to minimize heat loss. Many Arctic mammals, such as bears, also hibernate during the winter months, while birds migrate to southerly locales to escape the cold weather. Trees cannot grow in much of the Arctic due to excessive cold, with tree lines often visible when traveling large distances, marking the point at which trees cannot propagate.
Finally, weather in the Arctic is noted for its unpredictability, with storms and clouds developing at a moment’s notice. For this reason, travelers to the Arctic are urged to pack warm clothing, even if they are traveling during the summer. Despite the region’s lack of sunlight during winter months, it is still possible to get sunburned from prolonged sun exposure. The Arctic’s cold climate has historically limited human settlement in the region.
While many of the popular myths about Arctic weather and climate are true, there is a wide range of diversity among the Arctic Circle’s many regions. It’s true that much of the Arctic is cold, but there are locations that buck this trend, such as northern Scandinavia. Regardless of where you go in the Arctic Circle or what time of year it is, you are well-advised to pack warm clothing and take other precautions to deal with its constant weather shifts.