When it comes to polar destinations, most of us here down south immediately turn our sights to Antarctica (at the bottom!), a place of silence and sanity which some of us have had the privilege of experiencing. But cast your sights north to the Arctic.
The Arctic – an ocean surrounded by land with a frozen ice mass of 16 million kms² floating across the geographical North Pole and exiting between Greenland and Spitsbergen.
This area is approximately 6 times the size of the Mediterranean with its deepest basin plunging to 4665m. The pack ice averages 2.5m thick. Due to the effects of land configuration and ocean currents, the coldest place in the Arctic is not, in fact, at the North Pole but in Siberia.
Although the greater profusion of wildlife is found in Antarctica – penguins, seals, whales and marine birds, the Arctic offers us magnificent sightings of polar bears, musk oxen, sea birds, walruses and whales.
Where about 4000 species of land mammals exist in the world, only 48 occur in the Arctic. Whilst flora in the Antarctic consists only of lichens and mosses, the variety of plant life up north is much greater – such as saxifrage, arctic daisy and poppy, rhododendron and the Arctic willow which at 20cm high is regarded as a tree!
In fact, it was the Arctic that set off my personal passion for Polar and ultimately led to me starting our company, Unique Destinations.
In 1992 I was invited by the Arctic Institute of Holland on a journey to the archipelago of Franz Josef Land – a Russian archipelago of 122 islands covered in sea birds.
Lying in the Russian Arctic these were discovered by Von Payer from Austria who named them after the Emperor. Aboard a small 49 passenger ice-strengthened vessel used as a spy ship during the cold war, we spent 10 days revelling in the unspoilt scenery, hiking along pristine shores and enjoying the plethora of kittiwakes, guillemots, auks, skuas, gulls and terns that nested on the cliffs – it was nature at its healthiest.
The Arctic land mass comprises northern Canada & Russia, Greenland, Spitsbergen and Iceland, and the Russian islands of Severnaya & Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island which has the highest level of biodiversity in the High Arctic.
With greater land exposure, the hiking possibilities are numerous and the very indented coastline, with some of the world’s longest fjords, is ideal for kayaking.
Spitsbergen, the archipelago north of Norway is probably the most popular Arctic destination due to almost guaranteed sightings of polar bears, so always a firm favourite.
Due to Arctic warming, ice floes (sheets of floating ice) are found much further north and often not able to sustain the weight of the bears which can exceed 800kgs. Many are now found hunting seals and whales in the shallow inlets along the indented coast. Here they are able, with their massive paws, to easily take out a beluga or narwhal.
Global warming is very much in evidence in the Arctic with the recession of glaciers, some having pulled back as much as 1km in the space of 4 years – which is the case of the Monaco Glacier in West Svalbard.
With the massive ice cap slowly shrinking, vessels are now easily able to reach 80°N and whereas only icebreakers could proceed through the North West Passage in the past, ice-strengthened vessels can now easily pass through this famous passage first successfully navigated by Roald Amundsen of South Pole fame.
Late August and September are the best months to view the phenomenal Northern Lights. These auroral lights originate from the impact of charged particles of the upper air entering the atmosphere along the lines of magnetic force.
The arc and rays may extend up to 120km above the earth with the display occurring most often in the auroral zone surrounding the earth’s geomagnetic axis, the north Geomagnetic pole in northwestern Greenland.
The duration of a display can vary from a few minutes to many hours. Lying on your back on the deck watching a slow opera of colourful lights moving across the sky is truly one of the peak experiences ever to be had.
The Arctic with its amazing light show, geological strata, bird life of note, vastness of space, rich history of exploration and the fascinating Inuit cultures of Greenland, Canada and Siberia can well rival the Antarctic.
Head north for amazing mind spaces of silence and sanity in this very plastic and noisy world.
The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Alaska (United States), Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Northern Canada, Norway, Russia and Sweden.
The word Arctic comes from the Greek word for bear, arktos. It refers to two constellations in the northern night sky: Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear), which contains Polaris – also known as the North Star.
Polar bears live solely in the Arctic areas, while penguins on the other hand, are found in the Antarctic regions. For that reason polar bears and penguins never cross paths.
Animals in the Arctic include the reindeer, musk ox, moose, thinhorn sheep, Arctic ground squirrel, lemming, Arctic hare, Arctic fox, ermine, snowy owl, polar bear, grizzly bear, wolf and wolverine.
Marine mammals include seals, walrus, and several species of cetacean — baleen whales and also narwhals, killer whales, and belugas.
Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is not a continent which is the predominant difference between the two polar regions.
Because of the earth’s tilt, the Arctic receives 24 hours of sunlight each summer, but 24 hours of darkness each winter.
Travel in the Arctic is still dependent on icebreakers. An icebreaker is a very powerful ship capable of breaking up kilometres of sea ice, sometimes several meters thick.
In recent years various types of tourism have been intensively developed in almost all Arctic regions – expeditions, extreme tourism, ethnographic tourism, hunting, fishing and others.
If all the ice in the Arctic melted, the global sea level would rise about 24 feet. If all the ice in the Antarctic melted, it would rise about 200 feet.
By Hans van Heukelum – Unique Destinations, agents for Quark Expeditions