© Larry Malvin


Basic Facts about the Arctic

The Arctic is a fragile yet challenging environment.  This vast landscape contains five ecological regions: from the southern boundaries of the boreal forest to the forest-tundra transition of the Brooks Range northward to the alpine tundra and then along the coast to the coastal plain tundra, salt marshes, lagoons and Arctic beaches. Alaska is unique in that it has coastlines on the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea.  But despite its unique landscapes and marine qualities shaped by unpredictable weather including 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 made up of permafrost, a layer of soil that is mostly frozen year-round. The layer above the permafrost is a thin, active layer of soil that thaws and refreezes each year, providing limited growing space for shallow-rooted plants. . Surprisingly though, about 1,700 species of plants, algae, fungi and lichens are found in the Arctic. The Arctic supports a range of wildlife, from musk oxen and caribou to lemmings and Arctic hares, to Arctic foxes and snowy owls.

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 these birds, impacting their home ecosystems thousands of miles away.

Arctic sea ice forms along the shores of the Arctic Ocean each autumn and winter. This ice is called shorefast ice). This relatively young ice recedes earlier each spring due to warming impacts of climate change.   Each spring polar bears head out on the earlier melting ice to hunt ringed and bearded seals and the occasional Pacific walrus. In some places, older thicker sea ice is present and accessible to polar bears year-round but that ice is shrinking each year and it is often found in northern areas of the Arctic where ice dependent seals (polar bear prey) are not found since they need to feed in more shallow waters.

Ice-dependent seals, beluga whales, orcas and narwhals prey on Arctic fish species, including Arctic 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 including copepods and small shrimp-like animals called euphausiids.

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.

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Alaska remains one of the last pristine wilderness areas in the country. Defenders of Wildlife is committed to keeping it that way.
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With a coat that changes color and thick fur even on their paws, Arctic foxes are well adapted to their habitat’s extreme cold.