The Arctic Realm

The Arctic Realm, as here defined, are those terrestrial areas where the average temperature for the warmest month is below 10℃. It therefore includes all of the Arctic Circle including almost all of Greenland, the northern coast of Siberia and northern Scandinavia, northern Alaska, and northern Canada including the high arctic islands. The focal point is of course the Arctic Ocean, the smallest, shallowest and coldest of the world’s oceans and in many ways little more than an estuary of the North Atlantic. It consists of a roughly circular basin generally taken to include the Barents, Beaufort, Chuckchi, East Siberian, Greenland, Kara, Laptev and White seas, along with Hudson Bay and other tributary bodies of water. The latter is connected to the Pacific Ocean by the Bering Strait and to the Atlantic through the Greenland and Labrador seas. The Arctic Realm is bordered by the Nearctic and Palearctic realms to the south, and has affinities to both in terms of its fauna.



The Polar Ice Cap


Coasts and Satellite Islands


Anthropogenic effects on the flora and fauna

The Arctic Realm was among the last places on Earth to be permanently settled by humans. The first to live there arrived in Siberia around 20,000 years ago, from where they slowly migrated eastward across the Bering Strait land bridge to North America and, finally, Greenland. These prehistoric peoples were, and largely remain, nomadic hunter-gatherers, entirely dependent on the reindeer herds and marine mammals for sustenance. They ultimately developed into the Inuit, a group of culturally similar indigenous people that live throughout the region today.

Modern European exploration of the Arctic Realm also began relatively late. Greenland was first reached (and partially mapped) as early as 1499 by the Portuguese explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real. After that, exploration was undertaken either by land east from Russia, or by western Europeans seeking a Northwest Passage to the Old World. The latter would result in the mapping of what is now the Canadian High Arctic, Alaska, and the islands of the northern Pacific. By the early twentieth century the focus was the North Pole. In 1908–09 the Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary each claimed to have reached it, although both are now widely doubted. In 1926 Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth, and Umberto Nobile in the airship Norge became the first definitely known to have sighted the North Pole. With the coming of Europeans to the Arctic during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pollution and hunting began to take more of a toll, particularly on large animal populations. However, the latter were also responsible for the creation of the first national parks and environmental protections. The northern polar region remained relatively pristine up until very recently. Indeed, it still contains some of the last, and most extensive, wilderness areas remaining in the world. Today, however, the Arctic is being opened up at an increasing pace for exploitation of its vast wealth of natural resources, which include oil, natural gas, minerals, fish, and, to some extent, forests. Settlement and tourism will only increase as human populations continue to expand, perhaps encouraged by the Arctic’s extraordinary abundance of freshwater (about one-fifth of the world’s total). All of this will be to the detriment of its sensitive environment, fragmenting habitats, eroding ground cover and disturbing important breeding grounds. The primary threat, however, is now global warming, with the consequent shrinkage (and ultimately perhaps complete loss) of arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet, as well as the thawing of permafrost.

In recent historical time (i.e. since ad 1500), the Arctic Realm has lost three subspecies of mammal and one species of bird. In addition, there are 14 species/9 subspecies currently threatened with extinction (that is to say, either Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List, as well as certain forms either listed as Data Deficient or Not Assessed but which are clearly at some risk of extinction). Of these, 5 species/9 subspecies are mammals, and 9 species are birds.