Arctic, the

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Arctic, the

northernmost area of the earth, centered on the North PoleNorth Pole,
northern end of the earth's axis, by convention at lat. 90°N. Because the earth's rotational axis wobbles slightly over time, the location where the northern end of the axis intersects the earth's surface shifts, although it is always within a few meters of the
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. The arctic regions are not coextensive with the area enclosed by the Arctic CircleArctic Circle,
imaginary circle on the surface of the earth at 66 1-2°N latitude, i.e., 23 1-2° south of the North Pole. It marks the northernmost point at which the sun can be seen at the winter solstice (about Dec.
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 (lat. 66°30'N) but are usually defined by the irregular and shifting 50°F; (10°C;) July isotherm that closely corresponds to the northern limit of tree growth and that varies both N and S of the Arctic Circle. The regions therefore include the Arctic OceanArctic Ocean,
the smallest ocean, c.5,400,000 sq mi (13,986,000 sq km), located entirely within the Arctic Circle and occupying the region around the North Pole. Oceanography and Environment
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; the northern reaches of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and the Atlantic Ocean; SvalbardSvalbard
, archipelago (23,958 sq mi/62,051 sq km), island group (2015 est. pop. 2,700), possession of Norway, located in the Arctic Ocean, c.400 mi (640 km) N of the Norwegian mainland and between lat. 74°N and 81°N.
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; most of Iceland; GreenlandGreenland,
Green. Kalaallit Nunaat, Dan. Grønland, the largest island in the world (2015 est. pop. 56,000), 836,109 sq mi (2,166,086 sq km), self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark, lying largely within the Arctic Circle.
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; and the Bering Sea.


In the center of the Arctic is a large basin occupied by the Arctic Ocean. The basin is nearly surrounded by the ancient continental shields of North America, Europe, and Asia, with the geologically more recent lowland plains, low plateaus, and mountain chains between them. Surface features vary from low coastal plains (swampy in summer, especially at the mouths of such rivers as the Mackenzie, Lena, Yenisei, and Ob) to high ice plateaus and glaciated mountains. Tundrastundra
, treeless plains of N North America and N Eurasia, lying principally along the Arctic Circle, on the coasts and islands of the Arctic Ocean, and to the north of the coniferous forest belt.
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, extensive flat and poorly drained lowlands, dominate the regions. The most notable highlands are the Brooks Range of Alaska, the Innuitians of the Canadian Arctic ArchipelagoArctic Archipelago
, group of more than 50 large islands, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, N Canada, in the Arctic Ocean. The southernmost members of the group include Baffin (the archipelago's largest island), Victoria, Banks, Prince of Wales, and Somerset islands; N of
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, the Urals, and mountains of E Russia. Greenland, the world's largest island, is a high plateau covered by a vast ice sheet except in the coastal regions; smaller ice caps are found on other Arctic islands. Because ice is a significant component of arctic lands and shores, sometimes alone and sometimes as a component of frozen soils, coastal erosion due to global warming is much greater in the Arctic than elsewhere.


The climate of the Arctic, classified as polar, is characterized by long, cold winters and short, cool summers. Polar climate may be further subdivided into tundra climate (the warmest month of which has an average temperature below 50°F;/10°C; but above 32°F;/0°C;) and ice cap climate (all months average below 32°F;/0°C;, and there is a permanent snow cover). Precipitation, almost entirely in the form of snow, is very low, with the annual average precipitation for the regions less than 20 in. (51 cm). Persistent winds whip up fallen snow to create the illusion of constant snowfall. The climate is moderated by oceanic influences, with regions abutting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans having generally warmer temperatures and heavier snowfalls than the colder and drier interior areas. Much of the Arctic Ocean remains covered by ice throughout the year, although the amount of ocean ice varies seasonally. The extent and thickness of the summer ice has shrunk considerably since the early 1980s; in 2016, when Arctic ice reached its modern minimum, the extent of ocean ice at its smallest was roughly three fourths of the average minimum extent from 1981 to 2010. In the 21st cent. warming temperatures in the Arctic have been especially pronounced in N Russia.

Great seasonal changes in the length of days and nights are experienced N of the Arctic Circle, with variations that range from 24 hours of constant daylight ("midnight sun") or darkness at the Arctic Circle to six months of daylight or darkness at the North Pole. However, because of the low angle of the sun above the horizon, insolation is minimal throughout the regions, even during the prolonged daylight period. A famous occurrence in the arctic night sky is the aurora borealisaurora borealis
and aurora australis
, luminous display of various forms and colors seen in the night sky. The aurora borealis of the Northern Hemisphere is often called the northern lights, and the aurora australis of the Southern Hemisphere is known as the southern
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, or northern lights.

Flora and Fauna

Vegetation in the Arctic, limited to regions having a tundra climate, flourishes during the short spring and summer seasons. The tundra's restrictive environment for plant life increases northward, with dwarf trees giving way to grasses (mainly mosses, lichen, sedges, and some flowering plants), the ground coverage of which becomes widely scattered toward the permanent snow line. There are about 20 species of land animals in the Arctic, including the squirrel, wolf, fox, moose, caribou, reindeer, polar bear, musk ox, and about six species of aquatic mammals such as the walrus, seal, and whale. Most of the species are year-round inhabitants of the Arctic, migrating to the southern margins as winter approaches. Although generally of large numbers, some of the species, especially the fur-bearing ones, are in danger of extinction. A variety of fish is found in arctic seas, rivers, and lakes. The Arctic's bird population increases tremendously each spring with the arrival of migratory birds (see migration of animalsmigration of animals,
movements of animals in large numbers from one place to another. In modern usage the term is usually restricted to regular, periodic movements of populations away from and back to their place of origin.
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). During the short warm season, a large number of insects breed in the marshlands of the tundra.

Natural Resources

In parts of the Arctic are found a variety of natural resources, but many known reserves are not exploited because of their inaccessibility. The arctic region of Russia, the most developed of all the arctic regions, is a vast storehouse of mineral wealth, including deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds. The North American Arctic yields uranium, copper, nickel, iron, natural gas, and oil. The arctic region of Europe (including W Russia) benefits from good overland links with southern areas and ship routes that are open throughout the year. The arctic regions of Asian Russia and North America depend on isolated overland routes, summertime ship routes, and air transportation. Transportation of oil by pipeline from arctic Alaska was highly controversial in the early 1970s, with strong opposition from environmentalists. Because of the extreme conditions of the Arctic, the delicate balance of nature, and the slowness of natural repairs, the protection and preservation of the Arctic have been major goals of conservationists, who fear irreparable damage to the natural environment from local temperature increases, the widespread use of machinery, the interference with wildlife migration, and oil spills. Global warming and the increasing reduction in the permanent ice cover on the Arctic Ocean has increased interest in the region's ocean resouces, and led the nations bordering the ocean to make territorial claims on vast sections of seabed.


The Arctic is one of the world's most sparsely populated areas. Its inhabitants, basically of Mongolic stock, are thought to be descendants of a people who migrated northward from central Asia after the ice age and subsequently spread W into Europe and E into North America. The chief groups are now the Sami (Lapps) of Europe; the SamoyedesSamoyedes
or Samoyeds
, partly nomadic, partly settled agricultural tribes found in N Siberia and the Taimyr Peninsula, especially in the basin of the Ob and Yenisei rivers. Traditionally they hunted reindeer and held shamans in high repute.
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 (Nentsy) of W Russia; the Yakuts, TungusTungus
, Siberian ethnic group, numbering perhaps 30,000. They are subdivided into the Evenki, who live in the area from the Yenisei and Ob river basins to the Pacific Ocean and from the Amur River to the Arctic Ocean, and the Lamut, who live on the coast of the Okhotsk Sea.
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, Yukaghirs, and Chukchis of E Russia; and the EskimoEskimo
, a general term used to refer to a number of groups inhabiting the coastline from the Bering Sea to Greenland and the Chukchi Peninsula in NE Siberia. A number of distinct groups, based on differences in patterns of resource exploitation, are commonly identified,
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 of North America. There is a sizable Caucasian population in Siberia, and the people of Iceland are nearly all Caucasian. In Greenland, the Greenlanders, a mixture of Eskimos and northern Europeans, predominate.

Because of their common background and the general lack of contact with other peoples, indigenous arctic peoples have strikingly similar physical characteristics and cultures, especially in such things as clothing, tools, techniques, and social organization. The arctic peoples, once totally nomadic, are now largely sedentary or seminomadic. Hunting, fishing, reindeer herding, and indigenous arts and crafts are the chief activities. The arctic peoples are slowly being incorporated into the society of the country in which they are located. With the Arctic's increased economic and political role in world affairs, the regions have experienced an influx of personnel charged with building and maintaining such things as roads, mineral extraction sites, weather stations, and military installations.

History of Exploration

Many parts of the Arctic were already settled by the Eskimos and other peoples of Mongolic stock when the first European explorers, the Norsemen or VikingsVikings,
Scandinavian warriors who raided the coasts of Europe and the British Isles from the 9th cent. to the 11th cent. In their language, the word "viking" originally meant a journey, as for trading or raiding; it was not until the 19th cent.
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, appeared in the region. Much later the search for the Northwest PassageNorthwest Passage,
water routes through the Arctic Archipelago, N Canada, and along the northern coast of Alaska between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Even though the explorers of the 16th cent.
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 and the Northeast PassageNortheast Passage,
water route along the northern coast of Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Beginning in the 15th cent., efforts were made to find a new all-water route to India and China.
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 to reach Asia from Europe spurred exploration to the north. This activity began in the 16th cent. and continued in the 17th, but the hardships suffered and the negative results obtained by early explorers—among them Martin FrobisherFrobisher, Sir Martin
, 1535?–1594, English mariner. He went to sea as a boy, and spent much of his youth in the African trade. He later gained the friendship of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, through whom he became interested in the Northwest Passage.
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, John DavisDavis or Davys, John,
1550?–1605, English navigator. He made his first voyage in search of the Northwest Passage in 1585, continuing the work of Martin Frobisher.
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, Henry HudsonHudson, Henry,
fl. 1607–11, English navigator and explorer. He was hired (1607) by the English Muscovy Company to find the Northeast Passage to Asia. He failed, and another attempt (1608) to find a new route was also fruitless.
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, William BaffinBaffin, William,
c.1584–1622, British arctic explorer. He was pilot on two expeditions (1615–16) sent out to search for the Northwest Passage under command of Robert Bylot, who was formerly with Henry Hudson.
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, and William BarentzBarentz or Barents, Willem
, d. 1597, Dutch navigator. He made three voyages (1594, 1595, 1596–97) in search of the Northeast Passage to Asia. He reached Novaya Zemlya on the first two expeditions.
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—caused interest to wane. The fur traders in Canada did not begin serious explorations across the tundras until the latter part of the 18th cent. Alexander MackenzieMackenzie, Alexander,
1822–92, Canadian political leader, b. Scotland. Emigrating (1842) to Canada, he worked first as a stonemason in Kingston, Ont., and then as a builder and contractor in Sarnia. In Lambton he became editor (1852) of a Liberal newspaper.
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 undertook extensive exploration after the beginnings made by Samuel Hearne, Philip Turnor, and others. Already in the region of NE Asia and W Alaska, the Russian explorations under Vitus BeringBering, Vitus Jonassen
, 1681–1741, Danish explorer in Russian employ. In 1725 he was selected by Peter I to explore far NE Siberia. Having finally moved men and supplies across Siberia, Bering in 1728 sailed N through Bering Strait but sighted no land and did not
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 and others and the activities of the promyshlennyki [fur traders] had begun to make the arctic coasts known.

After 1815, British naval officers—including John FranklinFranklin, Sir John,
1786–1847, British explorer in N Canada whose disappearance caused a widespread search of the Arctic. Entering the navy in 1801, he fought in the battle of Trafalgar.
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, F. W. BeecheyBeechey, Frederick William,
1796–1856, British admiral and Arctic explorer. He accompanied an expedition N of Spitsbergen in 1818 and wrote an account of it in his Voyage of Discovery towards the North Pole (1843). He accompanied W. E.
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, John RossRoss, Sir John,
1777–1856, British arctic explorer and rear admiral. In 1818 he went in search of the Northwest Passage but turned back after exploring Baffin Bay.
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, James RossRoss, Sir James Clark,
1800–1862, British polar explorer and rear admiral. In 1818 he accompanied his uncle, Sir John Ross, in search of the Northwest Passage and commanded the Erebus.
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, W. E. ParryParry, Sir William Edward
, 1790–1855, British arctic explorer and rear admiral. He entered the navy at 13 and made his first voyage to the Arctic under Sir John Ross in 1818 in search of the Northwest Passage.
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, P. W. DeaseDease, Peter Warren
, 1788–1863, Canadian explorer. He was in the North West Company before its merger with the Hudson's Bay Company and later was a Hudson's Bay Company trader. He was a member of the party of Sir John Franklin's second arctic expedition.
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, Thomas Simpson, George BackBack, Sir George,
1796–1878, British explorer in N Canada. He accompanied Sir John Franklin on arctic expeditions in 1818, 1819–22, and 1824–27. On an expedition (1833–35) to search for the missing John Ross, Back explored the Great Fish River (now Back
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, and John RaeRae, John,
1813–93, Scottish arctic explorer, b. Orkney Islands. A physician in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company in N Canada, Rae made (1846–47) a journey of exploration from Fort Churchill to the Gulf of Boothia, which he described in his
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—inspired by the efforts of John BarrowBarrow, Sir John,
1764–1848, British geographer, promoter of arctic exploration. His early travels as secretary to Earl Macartney (who was ambassador to China and governor of the Cape of Good Hope colony) were recorded in Travels in China (1804) and
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, took up the challenge of the Arctic. The disappearance of Franklin on his expedition between 1845 and 1848 gave rise to more than 40 searching parties. Although Franklin was not found, a great deal of knowledge was gained about the Arctic as a result, including the general outline of Canada's arctic coast.

Otto SverdrupSverdrup, Otto
, 1855–1930, Norwegian arctic explorer. A companion of Fridtjof Nansen on the voyage across Greenland in 1888 and on Nansen's later (1893–96) polar expedition, Sverdrup was leader of an arctic expedition (1898–1902) that attempted to reach the
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, D. B. MacMillanMacMillan, Donald Baxter,
1874–1970, American arctic explorer, b. Provincetown, Mass., grad. Bowdoin College, 1898, and studied at Harvard. After a decade of teaching, he went on the expedition (1908–9) of Robert E. Peary to the North Pole.
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, and Vilhjalmur StefanssonStefansson, Vilhjalmur
, 1879–1962, Arctic explorer, b. Canada, of Icelandic parents, educated at the Univ. of North Dakota, the State Univ. of Iowa, and Harvard. He led several expeditions of exploration and of ethnological and archaeological investigation in the Arctic.
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 added significant knowledge of the regions. Meanwhile, in the Eurasian Arctic, Franz Josef LandFranz Josef Land
, Rus. Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa, archipelago, c.6,300 sq mi (16,320 sq km), in the Arctic Ocean N of Novaya Zemlya, Russia. It consists of more than 190 islands of volcanic origin, including Aleksandra Land, George Land, Wilczek Land, Graham Bell Island,
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 was discovered and Novaya ZemlyaNovaya Zemlya
[Rus.,=New Land], archipelago, c.35,000 sq mi (90,650 sq km), in the Arctic Ocean between the Barents and Kara seas, NW Russia. It consists of two main islands, Severny [Rus.,=Northern] and Yuzhny [Rus.
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 explored. The Northeast Passage was finally navigated in 1879 by Nils A. E. NordenskjöldNordenskjöld, Nils Adolf Erik, Baron
, 1832–1901, Swedish geologist and arctic explorer, first to navigate the Northeast Passage, b. Finland. He served as geologist on several expeditions to Spitsbergen under Otto Torrell, the noted Swedish geologist, on one of which
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. Roald AmundsenAmundsen, Roald
(Roald Engelbregt Grauning Amundsen) , 1872–1928, Norwegian polar explorer; the first person to reach the South Pole. He served (1897–99) as first mate on the Belgica
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, who went through the Northwest Passage (1903–6), also went through the Northeast Passage (1918–20). Greenland was also explored. Robert E. PearyPeary, Robert Edwin
, 1856–1920, American arctic explorer, b. Cresson, Pa. In 1881 he entered the U.S. navy as a civil engineer and for several years served in Nicaragua, where he was engaged in making surveys for the Nicaragua Canal.
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 reportedly won the race to be the first at the North Pole in 1909, but this claim is disputed. Although Fridtjof NansenNansen, Fridtjof
, 1861–1930, Norwegian arctic explorer, scientist, statesman, and humanitarian. The diversity of Nansen's interests is shown in his writings, which include Eskimo Life (1893), Closing-Nets for Vertical Hauls and for Vertical Towing (1915),
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, drifting with his vessel Fram in the ice (1893–96), failed to reach the North Pole, he added enormously to the knowledge of the Arctic Ocean.

Air exploration of the regions began with the tragic balloon attempt of S. A. AndréeAndrée, Salomon August
, 1854–97, Swedish polar explorer, grad. Royal Inst. of Technology, Stockholm. An aeronautical engineer and head of the Swedish patent office's technical department, he was the first to attempt arctic exploration by air.
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 in 1897. In 1926, Richard E. ByrdByrd, Richard Evelyn,
1888–1957, American aviator and polar explorer, b. Winchester, Va. He took up aviation in 1917, and after World War I he gained great fame in the air. He commanded the naval air unit with the arctic expedition of D. B. MacMillan in 1925.
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 and Floyd Bennett flew over the North Pole, and Amundsen and Lincoln EllsworthEllsworth, Lincoln,
1880–1951, American explorer, b. Chicago, Ill. He was a surveyor and engineer in railroad building and later a prospector and mining engineer in NW Canada. He became the financial supporter and associate of Roald Amundsen in his arctic aviation ventures.
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 flew from Svalbard (Spitsbergen) to Alaska across the North Pole and unexplored regions N of Alaska. In 1928, George Hubert WilkinsWilkins, Sir George Hubert,
1888–1958, British explorer, b. Australia. He made a number of trips to Antarctica and to the Arctic. Valuable experience gained when he accompanied Vilhjalmur Stefansson's expedition (1913–18) to the Arctic and Sir Ernest Shackleton's
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 flew from Alaska to Spitsbergen. The use of the "great circle" route for world air travel increased the importance of Arctic, while new ideas of the agricultural and other possibilities of arctic and subarctic regions led to many projects for development, especially in the USSR.

In 1937 and 1938 many field expeditions were sent out by British, Danish, Norwegian, Soviet, Canadian, and American groups to learn more about the Arctic. The Soviet group under Ivan Papinin wintered on an ice floe near the North Pole and drifted with the current for 274 days. Valuable hydrological, meteorological, and magnetic observations were made; by the time they were taken off the floe, the group had drifted 19° of latitude and 58° of longitude. Arctic drift was further explored (1937–40) by the Soviet icebreaker Sedov. Before World War II the USSR had established many meteorological and radio stations in the Arctic. Soviet activity in practical exploitation of resources also pointed the way to the development of arctic regions. Between 1940 and 1942 the Canadian vessel St. Roch made the first west-east journey through the Northwest Passage. In World War II, interest in transporting supplies gave rise to considerable study of arctic conditions.

After the war interest in the Arctic was keen. The Canadian army in 1946 undertook a project that had as one of its objects the testing of new machines (notably the snowmobile) for use in developing the Arctic. There was also a strong impulse to develop Alaska and N Canada, but no consolidated effort, like that of the Soviets, to take the natives into partnership for a full-scale development of the regions. Since 1954 the United States and Russia have established a number of drifting observation stations on ice floes for the purpose of intensified scientific observations. In 1955, as part of joint U.S.-Canadian defense, construction was begun on a c.3,000-mi (4,830-km) radar network (the Distant Early Warning line, commonly called the DEW line) stretching from Alaska to Greenland. As older radar stations were replaced and new ones built, a more sophisticated surveillance system developed. In 1993 the system, now stretching from NW Alaska to the coast of Newfoundland, was officially superseded by the North Warning System.

With the continuing development of northern regions (e.g., Alaska, N Canada, and Russia), the Arctic has assumed greater importance in the world. During the International Geophysical Year (1957–58) more than 300 arctic stations were established by the northern countries interested in the arctic regions. Atomic-powered submarines have been used for penetrating the Arctic. In 1958 the Nautilus, a U.S. navy atomic-powered submarine, became the first ship to cross the North Pole undersea. Two years later the Skate set out on a similar voyage and became the first to surface at the Pole. In 1977 the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika reached the North Pole, the first surface ship to do so.

In the 1960s the Arctic became the scene of an intense search for mineral and power resources. The discovery of oil on the Alaska North Slope (1968) and on Canada's Ellesmere Island (1972) led to a great effort to find new oil fields along the edges of the continents. In the summer of 1969 the SS Manhattan, a specially designed oil tanker with icebreaker and oceanographic research vessel features, successfully sailed from Philadelphia to Alaska by way of the Northwest Passage in the first attempt to bring commercial shipping into the region. In 1971 the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX) began an international effort to study over a period of years arctic pack ice and its effect on world climate. In 1986 a seasonal "hole" in the ozone layer above the Arctic was discovered, showing some similarities to a larger depletion of ozone over the southern polar region; depletion of the ozone layerozone layer
or ozonosphere,
region of the stratosphere containing relatively high concentrations of ozone, located at altitudes of 12–30 mi (19–48 km) above the earth's surface.
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 results in harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth from the sun.

The Polarstern, a research icebreaker, drifted in the Arctic ice during 2019–20, echoing Nansen's expedition as part of the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (Mosaic). The largest-ever scientific expedition to the region, with participants from 20 nations, it made oceanic, atmospheric, and other observations in an effort to understand the effects of global warming on the the Arctic. Practically all parts of the Arctic have now been photographed and scanned (by remote-sensing devices) from aircraft and satellites. From these sources accurate maps of the Arctic have been compiled. In the 21st cent. increased interest in the resources of the Arctic Ocean, prompted by a decrease in permanent ice cover due to global warmingglobal warming,
the gradual increase of the temperature of the earth's lower atmosphere as a result of the increase in greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution. Global warming and its effects, such as more intense summer and winter storms, are also referred to as climate
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, have led to disputes among the Arctic nations over often extensive territorial claims.


Classic narratives of arctic exploration include F. Nansen, In Northern Mists (tr. 1911); R. E. Amundsen, The North West Passage (tr., 2 vol., 1908); R. E. Peary, The North Pole (1910, repr. 1969); V. Stefansson, My Life with the Eskimo (1913) and The Friendly Arctic (1921).

For history and geography, see L. P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960); R. Thorén, Picture Atlas of the Arctic (1969); L. H. Neatby, Conquest of the Last Frontier (1966) and Discovery in Russian and Siberian Waters (1973); L. Rey et al., ed., Unveiling the Arctic (1984); F. Bruemmer and W. E. Taylor, The Arctic World (1987); R. McCormick, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas (1990); F. Fleming, Barrow's Boys (1998) and Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole (2002); C. Officer and J. Page, A Fabulous Kingdom: The Exploration of the Arctic (2001); J. McCannon, A History of the Arctic (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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For the whole Arctic, the ACIA projects additional warming of 4-7[degrees]C over the next century.
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