Basic facts about the Arctic
The Arctic is a fragile yet harsh environment. Few tree species grow here, and most reptiles and other cold-blooded creatures cannot survive. But despite its extreme cold, snow and powerful winds, the Arctic is home to resilient wildlife adapted to withstand and even thrive in these tough conditions.
The Arctic tundra is covered in permafrost, a layer of soil that is mostly frozen year-round. The thin, active layer of soil thaws and refreezes each year, which allows only shallow-rooted plants to take root in the Arctic tundra. Surprisingly though, about 1,700 species of plants, algae, fungi and lichens are found in the Arctic. The tundra supports a range of wildlife, from musk oxen and caribou to lemmings and arctic hares, to arctic foxes and snowy owls.
Did You Know?
Some species of wildlife on the tundra have coats that turn completely white in the winter months, including the arctic fox, arctic hare, and arctic lemming.
Many birds migrate amazing distances to and from Alaska each year, including the northern wheatear, which travels approximately 13,000 miles one way from its breeding grounds on the Arctic Refuge, across Asia and the Middle East to its wintering home in Africa! The Arctic tern, another long-distance traveler, flies all the way to Antarctica. And the bar-tailed godwit may have the longest non-stop flight of all: These tiny shorebirds fly 7,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a single, non-stop flight between Alaska and New Zealand during their fall migration. The Arctic is an important breeding ground for all of these birds, and has an impact on ecosystems thousands of miles away.
Polar sea ice forms along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, allowing polar bears to hunt ringed and bearded seals and the occasional walrus. In some places, sea ice is present and accessible to polar bears year-round; in others, it recedes in spring, and polar bears must wait for the late autumn freeze-up to hunt seals again.
Ice-dependent seals, beluga whales, orcas and narwhals prey on arctic fish species, including cod and arctic char, which are a vital part of the marine food chain. Humpback, fin and gray whales were thought to spend just their summers in the Arctic, but new research tells us that many of these species remain in arctic waters for longer periods of time each year than previously thought. Bowhead whales spend the winter at the southern limit of the arctic pack ice and move northward in the spring to feed on zooplankton, other small invertebrates and fish.
Did You Know?
The red knot, a migratory shorebird, breeds in the arctic tundra in summer and travels 9,000 miles to South America for the winter!
The United States, Greenland, Canada, Russia and Norway all border the Arctic Ocean. Alaska is the only arctic state in the United States. Alaska Natives and other indigenous people have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, living off the land and sea and adapting their homes, clothing and lifestyle to survive arctic conditions.
Those that live here year-round, human and wildlife alike, depend on arctic resources for survival. This special landscape supports some of our most iconic species, such as the polar bear and beluga whale. And the loss of arctic sea ice has significant consequences for the pace of climate change impacts around the world. This globally unique landscape deserves thoughtful management and protection.