Polar ice can be found at the most extreme points of our planet: the Arctic, home to the often mythologised North Pole, and the southernmost point of all, the glacial and largely uninhabited continent of Antarctica.
These frozen landscapes are home to animals that we see nowhere else on earth: from minke whales to chinstrap penguins, our polar regions are a veritable wonderland of unique life forms. Those of us lucky enough to visit might catch a glimpse of this world from sailing boats as we cut a swathe through the icy waters of the Arctic north or, at the opposite end of the Earth, alongside the majestic ice sheet that makes up Antarctica.
Antarctica is made up of the largest single mass of ice on Earth, covering 14 million square kilometres in the midst of the Southern Ocean. At the South Pole, the average winter temperature is -49 degrees.
It’s hardly a secret that massive threats to this delicate environment exist. Currently around 10% of the Earth’s surface is covered by ice, although this is decreasing at an alarming rate. In fact, the polar ice caps are now melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s, with 6.4 trillion tonnes of ice being lost from Greenland and Antarctica alone between 1992 and 2017. With their home habitats diminishing, the animals that reside here are the first to feel the brunt of human-made changes to this most precarious of landscapes.
- Temperatures below freezing
- Long winters
- Ice caps
- Low levels of biodiversity
- Little precipitation
- Ice sheets
The melting of polar ice caps and glaciers is well documented, and possibly the most prominent example of climate change in action. The warming of the sea around the poles causes increases in weather events such as typhoons and hurricanes, and can increase coastal erosion. Flooding and destruction of polar habitats are also consequences of this, with estimates saying that 400 million people could be at risk of flooding by the end of the current century.
Other threats to these regions include increased pollution and overfishing. As their natural habitat in the Arctic melts, polar bears in Russia are increasingly being forced towards nearby towns in search of food, which has the potential to cause conflict with human inhabitants.
For those planning a trip to the Arctic Circle, another world awaits. Exploring this part of the world might include walking on glaciers, camping out to try and spot the Aurora Borealis, dog or husky sledding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, kayaking, sailing, hiking, snowshoeing and even taking a helicopter ride over the ice.
Many will visit the Arctic with wildlife watching in mind, and there are few better places on Earth from which to do it. Many visitors will spend time whale watching and polar bear spotting, as well as taking the opportunity to seek out seals, walrus and Arctic seabirds in their natural environment.
Unlike the Arctic, trips to Antarctica always need to be organised via a tour company. Tours will always be by boat, and activities could include taking a kayak to try and spot whales and dolphins, disembarking to visit penguins, and camping, scuba diving, or even (if you dare) taking an icy plunge into the water.
The stunning ice caps and expansive seas of our polar regions will be a familiar sight, even if only from photographs. Key areas of natural beauty within the Arctic include Prince Leopold Island in Nunavut, Canada; Svalbard, found in the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole, and the Northwest Passage, which explorers searched for for three centuries before it was discovered. The Aurora Borealis is also often a highlight of trips to this region. In Antarctica, Drake Passage, the South Shetland Islands, Blood Falls, and the Lemaire Channel are all locations of note.
Polar regions are home to whales, seals and snowy owls, with five species of penguin found in the Antarctic and 19 subpopulations of polar bear in the Arctic. Other animals found in the Arctic include reindeer, narwhal, walrus, Arctic and snowshoe hare, Arctic fox, wolverine and Atlantic puffin. Birds including the sheathbill, snow petrel, kelp gull and south polar skua call the Antarctic home.
Because of the harsh conditions, there is very little plant life in polar regions. Algae, lichen and moss can survive here, but few other plants have adapted for this level of cold.
Areas that make up the Arctic include parts of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The continent of Antarctica, on the other hand, has no countries within it - rather, it is a mass of ice that is mostly uninhabited and used by various countries for research purposes.