Environment

The Canadian arctic environment is very unique from southern Canada, but separate regions of the Arctic are also extremely distinct from one another.

There are high mountains in some areas (the Northern Rockies), and flat low tundra in others. In many places throughout the Arctic the soil is permanently frozen and known as permafrost. However one of the problems caused by climate change is that the permafrost is melting in different areas at different rates thereby making the foundations of houses unstable and roads unusable.

Map showing the distribution of Permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere

Distribution of Permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere

In these areas, the winters are usually quite long and cold, and the summers are quite short and of more temperate temperatures. In many places, the temperature will never go above 15° to 20°C and will go as low as -30° or -40°C in the winter.

For the Inuit who inhabit the Arctic, sea ice is also an important characteristic of their surroundings. Sea ice is frozen ocean water. Inuit hunters walk upon it while hunting, and sea ice also determines the migration route for many Arctic animals that often give birth to their young ones on the sea ice and hunt for food here. So the immense loss of sea ice we are now experiencing is having a devastating impact on the environment.

The amount of sunlight in the Arctic varies considerably, depending on the time of year and where in the Arctic you are located. For example, in the capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, there are only four hours of sunlight on the shortest day of the year (December 21) and on the longest day of the year (June 21) they have 24 hours of sunlight! The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours (for the summer and winter solstices, respectively). North of the Arctic Circle, the sun is above the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year and below the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year.

The position of the Arctic Circle is not fixed. It directly depends on the Earth’s axial tilt, notably due to tidal forces resulting from the orbit of the Moon. The Arctic Circle is currently drifting northwards and moves a distance of approximately 15 m per year.

 

Map showinbg the location of the Artic Circle

The Artic Circle

Many dangers also exist in the Arctic. Besides the cold and dark winters, there are windstorms, large snowdrifts and whiteouts that can blind you as well as sudden and unexpected changes in the weather that are especially dangerous for hunters or anyone traveling in the Arctic.

However, the Inuit have adapted to these harsh conditions through a variety of tactics. Most notably, people in the North have developed many types of clothing and accessories that protect them from the cold. Using animal hides, the Inuit make winter parkas and boots (mukluk or kamik), usually they are made using sealskin or caribou hide. To protect their eyes from the glare, the wind, or the blowing snow the Inuit would fashion snow goggles made from bone, ivory or antlers. They would use sinew to make the strap and use soot on the inside of the goggles to cut down the glare even more. In Inuktitut these snow goggles are called ilgaak or iggaak.

A young Inuit man wearing a pair of snow goggles

Inuit snow goggles

To travel or hunt throughout the Arctic, one needs specialized transportation adapted to that environment. So the Inuit became experts at building kayaks, boats or dog sleds that could overcome these weather and environmental conditions.

However, the environment is now undergoing massive transformations due to climate change. For example, the sea ice around the North Pole and in the Arctic Ocean has melted considerably more than ever before. This change influences the animals in the Arctic as well as its people, and it will continue to create serious problems for the inhabitants of the Arctic.

The main implications of climate change are that the Inuit are very dependent upon their wildlife and their environments, if it is altered in any significant manner, their traditional lifestyles are also altered. For example, if the ice melts earlier in the certain place or even disappears, it means that the animals to be hunted will move elsewhere or maybe even disappear from that area. The traditional hunters are then at a loss to hunt in their usual areas.

The melting of the sea ice can cause land erosion and in some cases such as an Alaska whole villages have had to be relocated. All of this is a major disruption for the people who live there.

It is now generally accepted that much of the climate change that we are experiencing has been caused by human activity, though some is also thought to have been caused due to natural cycles.

You may want to think about what are some of the other impacts on the environment and what if anything may be done to lessen those effects.

A major concern in the years to come is to balance the protection of the environment with resource development of oil, gas and minerals. The Inuit are not against resource development but as long as it does not harm the environment. “Resource development is one way we can both work together for the betterment of our communities while remaining protectors of the land we rely on for our food and for our traditional way of life.” (Terry Audla, President of ITK. Feb 2014)