Eclipse Sound Nunavut
4592 Miles (7390 Kilometers) North
The Arctic. The word is often used as a synonym for frigid – in other words, cold. It is also thought of as big. Empty. A community where only the hardiest life survives. Our perception of the Arctic is formed by what we read and see – usually from others. Even our venture into the Arctic was only a thin slice of both time and place. An outlier? Perhaps. But add these outliers to your own collection of thoughts and eventually you will build an impression of a world unto itself.
What is the Arctic? To begin, it seems easiest to think about the surface of the earth that lies north of the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is located roughly 4592 miles north of the equator. As the earth spins, rotates, wobbles and orbits the sun, it tilts just far enough so once a year the sun stays below the horizon and once a year the sun never dips below the horizon. This is known as the Arctic Circle and is the maximum geographical line (latitude) 66.33 degrees north of the equator where perpetual daylight and darkness occur at least one day of the year.
The Arctic is more than just a land encompassed by a geographical line. It is an environment defined by climate. The concept of climate is the key. Climate is defined by the weather conditions that prevail over a long period of time that give rise to both the geological forces that shape the earth’s surface, and the development of indigenous organisms that have evolved to survive under these circumstances. The Arctic is not a geological force – it is an environment controlled by light and temperature. This provides a unique situation that helps to modulate our planet’s atmosphere, shape the earth’s surface and test organic life. The result of this gives rise to frozen grounds and tundra, glaciers and ice sheets whose mass is so great it causes the underlying rock to sink, only to rise again after it has melted. These large masses of accumulated ice move slowly and with enormous power to pulverize and carve rock. They dam rivers and deposit moraines and glacial till. But it is not just large scale ice doing the work. At the microscopic level, the freeze thaw cycles (Gelifraction) involve crystallization of water expanding and melting ever relentlessly to split the rock. The constant freeze and thaw lets soil flow across deeper permanently frozen land.
At a grand scale, the cold freezes the oceans and provides “bridges” for life to wander. The ocean ice in turn blocks the sun’s rays from heating the waters below, affecting worldwide ocean currents and creates unique environmental niches for life. This ice can block ports, eventually breaking up and invading shipping lanes well south of its original boundaries.
The arctic is the theater. The setting is cold climate conducive to cumulative forces to shape the land and eliminate only those organisms that can survive. Whilst large catastrophic, cataclysmic events are the headlines that punctuate geological history, it is in fact the slow uniform processes, unseen or felt, the proverbial “grains of sands”, that over time, slowly and indubitably write the script.
The Arctic environment is not simply defined by a geographic line. It is a land which is defined by climate, affecting geological processes, vegetation and dictating which animals can survive. This environment wanders north and south along an artic isothermal line. The landscape we think of as “Arctic” is not constrained by a north-south geography. Elevation, regional and even local climate can cause arctic landscapes. Even in more temperate climates, what we see around us, reflects past Arctic conditions. The Earth’s climate has been cooler and warmer in geological history, and this has influenced the geomorphology, that is, the shape of the landscape. Today we may bask in hot sunny temperatures while being surrounded by remnants of glacier shaped islands (e.g. San Juan Islands of Washington State) deep glacier caused lakes (e.g. Finger Lakes region of New York) and hanging valleys perched above the landforms (e.g. in the Rocky Mountains)
The past cooler average temperature of the earth allowed massive continental glaciers to shape the land well south of today’s boundaries. Jökulhlaup or glacial lake outbursts from the last ice age scoured Eastern Washington and formed the scablands of Central Washington, depositing the wine rich loess soils where summertime temperatures today exceed 100 degrees. Whether it is in the Puget Sound or Great Lakes we also marvel at deep water formed by glaciers moving across the countryside. All processes that can be seen in the Arctic region today.
It is into this world that we ventured – to observe, to validate our perceptions of the Arctic and to explore.