If you’re looking to travel the world, you probably haven’t thought about visiting the Arctic Circle, but you should. Most people believe that the Arctic Circle is a barren landscape of ice and snow, which couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the Circle is an imaginary line that separates the Arctic from other regions. The entire area north of this line is one of the most majestic places on the planet. Because of its relatively harsh conditions, the Arctic Circle has remained mostly unspoiled, allowing visitors to take in its authentic and pure beauty. It’s also an incredibly interesting region with some surprising features.
If you ask an average person to describe what the Arctic Circle is, they’d probably describe a flat sheet of ice or something similar. In truth, there are eight separate countries in the Arctic Circle, and you can visit each one. The United State’s northernmost tip, Alaska’s Point Barrow, extends into the Arctic Ocean. A significant portion of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, and Russia each sit firmly in the Arctic Circle. So does most of Greenland, which belongs to Denmark. Finally, Grimsey Island lies slightly inside the circle, meaning Iceland also has some territory in the region.
With the desolate ice fields and chilling temperatures, most people imagine that nobody would want to live in the Arctic Circle. However, it has a surprisingly large population of around four million people. Approximately 10% of this population consists of indigenous people, some of whom come from tribes that have lived in the region for thousands of years. The largest non-indigenous population lives in the Russian city of Murmansk, which boasts almost 300,000 citizens. If you combine the economy of all active communities in the circle, it rivals countries like Ireland and Portugal. While the region isn’t for everyone, there are plenty of people who are happy to call it home.
Because the Arctic Circle is so close to the North Pole, there’s a prevailing thought that it must be incredibly cold. While this isn’t false, it also isn’t necessarily true. In winter, the temperature can drop to a ridiculous -58 F. However, in the same area, it can reach up to 86 F in the summer. Even as far as the North Pole, average summer temperatures are around 32 F. What most people envision is actually true at the South Pole, where the average summer temperature is -18 F.
The description for where the Arctic Circle lies is somewhat confusing, but it also describes one of the coolest things about this northern region. Once a year, the Sun sits above the horizon for over 24 hours and is completely visible at midnight. This occurs on the June solstice, which usually falls on the 21st day. Because of this, Finland’s northernmost point doesn’t experience a sunset for nearly 60 days. Despite most people’s imagination, the midnight sun doesn’t consistently provide daylight levels of light. However, it is still an incredible event to experience.
A commonly-told fact about the North is that the winters are completely dark. This isn’t entirely true, but it’s not far off. Just as the midnight sun lasts for 60 days, its exact opposite does the same. A polar night occurs when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for over 24 hours. For example, some cities in Alaska experience 65 days each winter, plunging the city into darkness. However, it isn’t pitch black. Instead, the entire region lights up with an eerie, but beautiful, twilight. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, regions far to the north can have almost 11 weeks of polar night.
Unlike most borders in the world, the Arctic Circle isn’t set in stone. While there are a few different descriptions of where the circle is, it marks the northernmost point at which the noon sun is visible on the December solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun is visible in June’s Solstice. Essentially, this means that the Arctic Circle’s position is constantly changing. Because the Earth has an axial tilt, the circle drifts 49 feet northward every year. This means that by 2050, the entirety of Grimsey Island will no longer be part of the Arctic Circle. Citizens measure the circle’s progress with a massive 9-ton concrete ball that they move each year.
Chances are that you’ve never thought about where the Arctic Ocean, Arctic Circle, and the region get their name. It’s really an interesting story. The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word “arctus,” meaning “bear.” Now, you might assume this refers to the massive polar bears that call the region home. In truth, the name is a reference to the Big and Little Bear constellations that are almost always visible in the arctic sky.
It’s hard to imagine that there’s much forestation or growth in the Arctic circle because it is so cold, but it’s one of the most lively places on Earth. Plus, it only gets more active during the winter. A wide variety of animals and plants call the area home and can survive despite the harsh conditions. Some indigenous groups are even able to raise animals and grow produce. One of their most prominent crops is cabbage. Plants grow extremely quickly, thanks to the continuous light of the midnight sun.
One of the most beautiful features that the North has to offer is Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. However, it takes a very specific set of conditions for the lights to be visible. Chances are, even if you visit the area, you probably won’t see them. That doesn’t mean that you’re missing out, though. If you’re lucky, you might get to see a water sky or iceblink, which are majestic light shows on the undersides of clouds. Mirages and other optical illusions are also extremely common and very beautiful.
When it comes to majesty and beauty, there are few places on the planet like the Arctic Circle. That being said, it isn’t without its quirks. A 2016 study published in Nature Communications found that the Arctic’s climate is highly susceptible to environmental change, especially during the summer. Because of this, bird poop can affect the atmosphere. Specifically, seabird guano produces an excess of ammonia, which then reacts with other particles and gases. As these new particles rise, they make the clouds brighter. The brighter a cloud is, the more sunlight it reflects. This means that bird poop helps cool down the Arctic.