Glasgow Digital Library Voyage of the Scotia BRUCE PEOPLE SHIP ANTARCTIC INDEX
Scotland and the Antarctic

Section 1: Background - Arctic and Antarctic ... Comparison of Arctic and Antarctic regions

The Arctic

Small outline map of the Arctic

The Arctic Ocean is four times the size of the Mediterranean Sea. The sea is frozen for most of the year north of the latitude of north Greenland and Svalbard. The depth of the floating ice varies between 1.5-9.0 metres (5-30 feet). The largest mass of ice in the Arctic is found on Greenland where it reaches a depth of 3,000 metres (9,800 feet).

In winter the Arctic ice is a solid mass but in the summer it breaks up into floes with wide leads of water between. Under strong wind conditions the ice can pile up into ridges over 30 metres (100 feet) high. Ice tends to block the passages through the islands north of Hudson Bay making any navigation extremely difficult. The circulation of ice is mainly clockwise and it takes three years for the ice to complete one circuit. Icebergs mainly come from Greenland's west coast. One of these sank the Titanic.

Physical features

The Arctic Ocean is mostly surrounded by low-lying land although there are high mountains in Alaska (Mount McKinley), Novaya Zemlya and the Urals. Much of the land surrounding the Arctic consists of Pre-Cambrian rocks which have altered little in over 500 million years.

The sea floor under the Arctic Ocean forms the largest area of continental shelf in the world - up to 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) wide off northern Russia. There are however deep ocean basins with a maximum depth of over 4,500 metres (15,000 feet).


Temperatures in the area of the frozen Arctic Ocean in winter are between -10C and -30C but in summer the average is 0C (even at the North Pole). Large leads appear in the ice in summer and icebreakers have broken through to the North Pole on several occasions. The coldest temperatures in the Arctic are in northern Siberia.

The lowest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic was -48C at Verkhoyansk although the summer temperature can be as high as 16C (very different from the Antarctic).

Precipitation is mainly in the form of snow. In the Arctic basin it averages 130mm and in the coastal areas 260mm (snow is melted to give figures for comparison with rainfall).


Plant life in the Arctic is far more abundant than in the Antarctic. The ice cap is devoid of vegetation but a journey south into the tundra regions of the great continents which surround the Arctic Ocean will encounter an increase in mosses, lichens, then grasses and even stunted trees. The higher summer temperatures in the Arctic tundra can result, for a short time, in a profusion of flowering plants.


The land surrounding the Arctic Ocean has a great variety of land animals such as foxes, hares, bears, wolves, lemmings, caribou and other animals. A large number of land birds, including geese, also migrate to the Arctic area during the summer months from southern latitudes.

Life in the sea is mainly found around the ice edges which are also important fishing grounds for people such as the Inuits (Eskimo population). Whales, seals and walrus are found and hunted. Perhaps the most unusual of the Arctic animals is the polar bear which hunts on the ice and in the water.

Human impact

People came to the polar lands looking for wealth, to conduct scientific research (including mapping the new lands), to investigate magnetism and climate and, in the case of the Arctic, to look for sea routes around the northern land masses, for example the Northwest Passage.

Most economic exploration around the Arctic has been done by the USA, Canada and Russia. Minerals have been mined in the Arctic but due to the harsh environment and difficult communications they have to be of high value. Oil has been found in these three countries. One of the largest oilfields to be discovered is in northern Alaska. The oil is piped south to the ice-free port of Valdez. The great danger of oil in the Arctic is in any spillage which might take place. The oil does not readily break down and can remain in the area for years.

There are no political conflicts about exploration of the Arctic lands although there is strong opposition from environmental groups.

Military bases are found in the Arctic. The American DEW (Distant Early Warning) stations detect missiles and the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) bases at Clear, Alaska and Thule, Greenland (together with Fylingdales, England) may be used for the 'Star Wars' missile defence system.

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Glasgow Digital Library Voyage of the Scotia BRUCE PEOPLE SHIP ANTARCTIC INDEX