Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: Ten Facts About the Arctic

What if everything you knew about the Arctic was wrong? From freshwater to the North Pole, polar bears to Santa Claus, watch this video for ten fun facts about this fascinating region that might surprise you.

Video Transcript

Many people think the Arctic is barren and empty. But people who live there know better! What if everything you knew about the Arctic was wrong? Here are ten underknown facts about the Arctic.

10. Freshwater

The Arctic and all its ice caps, sheets, and glaciers are home to 10% of the world's freshwater supply. The Greenland ice sheet is formed by the accumulation of ice and snow that's estimated to be between 500,000-250,000 years old. It covers an astonishing 1.7 million square kilometres, all entirely made up of ice. If recent estimates are accurate, the melting of that ice would cause a 7.3 metre rise in sea levels.

9. The North Pole Isn't on Land

You may picture the North Pole as a remote location in a land of snow and ice, but that isn't the case. Actually, the northernmost point on the planet is found in ice-covered waters. This was proven in 1958, when the submarine USS Nautilus travelled beneath the ice at the North Pole. The vessel started its journey in Alaska, transited the Arctic ocean beneath the polar ice cap, and made it all the way to Iceland.

8. The Secret Behind the Name

The word Arctic comes from the Greek and roughly translates to "bear." But, no, this isn't referring to polar bears. It's most likely the original use of the Greek Arktos, with regard to the north, referred to in navigation by the stars. The constellation Ursa Major, also known as the Great Bear or Arktos in Greek, is useful in locating the North Star.

7. The Arctic Isn't as Cold as You Think

Believe it or not, the Arctic is actually relatively warm. Not tropical—the lowest recorded northern temperature ever was -68 degrees Celsius—but still relatively warm compared to Antarctica's lowest temperature of -89.2 Celsius. They're both polar regions and covered in ice and snow. So, why is the Arctic much warmer than the Antarctic? The Arctic is primarily water and large bodies of water regulate temperature. Even though the Arctic Ocean is cold, it's still warmer than the ice that covers it for most of the year. This is in stark contrast to Antarctica, which is mostly land, including large mountains. Generally, the higher up you get, the colder it gets.

6. Polar Bears Are Marine Mammals

The Arctic is home to polar bears, known as the largest land predators in the world. These creatures are built for the frozen world of the Arctic. With thick layers of fur and fat, they're ready for the frigid temperatures found on land and sea. They're often seen miles out to sea during the summer months, looking for ice from which to hunt seals—their favorite prey.

5. The Arctic Ocean Is Opening Up

The shallowest and smallest ocean on Earth, the Arctic Ocean covers over 8.5 million square kilometres—that's nearly the size of Russia! This ocean is mostly frozen over for the majority of the year, as sea ice grows rapidly under frigid conditions. But due to climate change, Arctic ice cover is receding. One day, ships may travel regularly across the Arctic Ocean.

4. The Arctic Is Cosmopolitan

The Arctic region is home to about four million people. Indigenous peoples make up the majority of Greenland's population and over half of the Arctic Canadian population. There are many different groups of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic. These include the Inuit, who live in Canada, Greenland, and parts of Alaska; the Yupik and Iñupiat, who live in northern Alaska; and the Sámi people of the European Arctic.

3. There's Arctic Ice Underground

There's ancient, underground ice in much of the Arctic. Permafrost can be from 1-1,500 metres thick. Permafrost traps flora and fauna and—more alarmingly—methane gas, that may be released on melting. Rapid climate change is causing permafrost to melt in many regions of the Arctic. Among the results are warping roads, tilting houses, and potentially the introduction of long dormant diseases.

2. Santa Wasn't Always from the North Pole

Cartoonist Thomas Nast first drew Santa Claus as an Arctic dweller in the 1860s. This changed the popular view of the Christmas icon forever. In 1863, Nast depicted Santa delivering presents to a Union Army camp. The character became more popular as Nast started adding more details to his drawings. He even implied Santa could be reached by mail at the North Pole.

1. Your Compass Doesn't Point Due North

And, the #1 underknown fact about the Arctic: your compass doesn't point due north. Contrary to popular belief, your compass doesn't point to the North Pole. Finding the point around which the Earth spins will take some serious measurements and can't be done with just a compass. The magnetic pole location changes as the Earth's magnetic field fluctuates, and isn't in quite the same place as the geographic North Pole. As you get further south, the difference between magnetic north and true north—known as declination—is less and less obvious. But when you find yourself in the Far North, you may literally discover that your magnetic compass is useless.