Arctic Environments

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Polar Environments are very diverse and fascinating. This section will provide in-depth information on arctic environments and climate.

Inland Waters


Although precipitation levels are low enough to qualify much of the Arctic as a desert, water is abundant. There are more than one million lakes and countless rivers and streams in the Arctic. As well, many low-lying areas are wetlands covered with ponds, bogs, or marshes. This surprising abundance of surface water in a desert setting has two explanations. Firstly, the permafrost layer acts like a poor liner trapping meltwater or rain on the surface. Secondly, water on the surface is slow to evaporate because of the low air temperatures.

Inland waters of the Arctic are classified using standard terms such as ponds, lakes, rivers, or streams, but they are unusual. Arctic ponds can be more than a kilometer long and less than a meter deep. Lake basins in some areas of the Arctic were created by wind action and are all oriented in the same direction. Many long rivers flow for just a few weeks each year.



Arctic landscapes are other worldly. Great glaciers coat the northern mountains with a white frosting that can be a kilometre thick. At other locations, the land lies exposed. In many places, these polar landscapes provide perfect classrooms for geology – bedrock lies on the surface or jumbles of boulders signal the retreat of glaciers. In other areas, the ground is covered with finer particles, reflecting the presence of rocks that were ground to powder by glaciers or were sediments uplifted from the sea. Viewed from the air, these surfaces show patterns of cracks and mounds that make the landscape look like the hide of some primeval beast. In a few regions, ice volcanoes erupt from the tundra.

Marine Waters

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Canada's North is a marineland. It is Canada's largest marine coastline, stretching from the western reaches of the Beaufort Sea to the eastern shores of Ungava Bay. It is home to the world's largest inland sea – Hudson Bay. It is the deep basins of the Arctic Ocean and the shallow seas that surround our northern archipelago of islands. It is filled with mammoth icebergs and tiny floes, bergy bits and ice slush. Not only is the Arctic a waterscape of spectacular beauty, it is a driver of global climate. It's a setting worth exploring. To learn more about Canada's Arctic marine waters, browse the topics below.


It's not just Arctic organisms that are exotic and strange; it's the physical setting. There are startling and mysterious sights in the northern skies which have long excited the interest of visitors and residents alike. Ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere and strong surface temperature inversions refract light, producing rainbows around the sun, great pillars of light, and visions of multiple moons. Frozen flames in the night sky, dancing curtains of northern lights, and brilliant green flashes of the sun are just a few of the other phenomena that one encounters when gazing at the Arctic sky.

Arctic History

The Arctic and the Great Bear

In the northern sky, a series of seven bright stars form the shape of a soup ladle – the big dipper. The ancient Greeks, who incorporated stars in their mythology, regarded this group of stars as part of the form of a giant bear. The Greek word for "bear" is arktos, which through the ages took the forms arcticus and artic. The modern use of the word arctic to describe the northern polar region refers to the northerly position of the bear constellation. This group of stars is still known as Ursa Major – ursa being the Latin word for "bear".

What do the Canadian Inuit make of Ursa Major?

Canada's Inuit universally associate the stars in Ursa Major with one or several caribou. This group of stars is thus known by various versions of the Inuktitut word for this animal – Tukturjukin the singular, Tukturjuit in the plural. Interestingly, this is the only cluster of stars that represents an animal in Inuit culture; all other celestial representations of animals or people are based on a single star.

Why a bear?

The cluster of stars known as Ursa Major resembles a bear – an association explained by the ancient Greeks with a mythical tale of love and jealousy. The Greek god Zeus fell in love with a beautiful nymph who bore him a son. When Zeus' wife discovered the romance, she turned the nymph into a bear, but Zeus took pity on his lover and placed her among the stars. The wife did not like this either – it was too much to see her rival glittering in the night sky – so she made a pact with the ocean god. Together, they arranged that the bear would never be able to reach down to the water to drink. And indeed, Ursa Major never touches the horizon in northern latitudes; the nymph that was once loved by Zeus suffers from eternal thirst.