Arctic Ocean

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Coordinates: 90°N0°E / 90°N 0°E / 90; 0


The Arctic Ocean, with borders as delineated by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), including Hudson Bay (some of which is south of 57degN latitude, off the map). Arctic Ocean - en.png
The Arctic Ocean, with borders as delineated by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), including Hudson Bay (some of which is south of 57°N latitude, off the map).

The Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of the world's five major oceans. [1] It spans an area of approximately 14,060,000 km2 (5,430,000 sq mi) and is also known as the coldest of all the oceans. The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) recognizes it as an ocean, although some oceanographers call it the Arctic Mediterranean Sea. It has been described approximately as an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean. [2] [3] It is also seen as the northernmost part of the all-encompassing World Ocean.

The Arctic Ocean includes the North Pole region in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere and extends south to about 60°N. The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by Eurasia and North America, and the borders follow topographic features: the Bering Strait on the Pacific side and the Greenland Scotland Ridge on the Atlantic side. It is mostly covered by sea ice throughout the year and almost completely in winter. The Arctic Ocean's surface temperature and salinity vary seasonally as the ice cover melts and freezes; [4] its salinity is the lowest on average of the five major oceans, due to low evaporation, heavy fresh water inflow from rivers and streams, and limited connection and outflow to surrounding oceanic waters with higher salinities. The summer shrinking of the ice has been quoted at 50 %. [1] The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) uses satellite data to provide a daily record of Arctic sea ice cover and the rate of melting compared to an average period and specific past years, showing a continuous decline in sea ice extent. [5] In September 2012, the Arctic ice extent reached a new record minimum. Compared to the average extent (1979–2000), the sea ice had diminished by 49 %. [6]

Decrease of old Arctic Sea ice 1982-2007 Decrease of old Arctic Sea ice 1982-2007.gif
Decrease of old Arctic Sea ice 1982-2007


North America

Human habitation in the North American polar region goes back at least 17,000–50,000 years, during the Wisconsin glaciation. At this time, falling sea levels allowed people to move across the Bering land bridge that joined Siberia to northwestern North America (Alaska), leading to the Settlement of the Americas. [7]

Thule archaeological site Cambridge Bay Thule Site 1998-06-28.jpg
Thule archaeological site

Early Paleo-Eskimo groups included the Pre-Dorset (c.3200–850 BC); the Saqqaq culture of Greenland (2500–800 BC); the Independence I and Independence II cultures of northeastern Canada and Greenland (c.2400–1800 BC and c.800–1 BC); and the Groswater of Labrador and Nunavik. The Dorset culture spread across Arctic North America between 500 BC and AD 1500). The Dorset were the last major Paleo-Eskimo culture in the Arctic before the migration east from present-day Alaska of the Thule, the ancestors of the modern Inuit. [8]

The Thule Tradition lasted from about 200 BC to AD 1600, arising around the Bering Strait and later encompassing almost the entire Arctic region of North America. The Thule people were the ancestors of the Inuit, who now live in Alaska, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern Quebec, Labrador and Greenland. [9]


For much of European history, the north polar regions remained largely unexplored and their geography conjectural. Pytheas of Massilia recorded an account of a journey northward in 325 BC, to a land he called "Eschate Thule", where the Sun only set for three hours each day and the water was replaced by a congealed substance "on which one can neither walk nor sail". He was probably describing loose sea ice known today as "growlers" or "bergy bits"; his "Thule" was probably Norway, though the Faroe Islands or Shetland have also been suggested. [10]

Emanuel Bowen's 1780s map of the Arctic features a "Northern Ocean". Map of the Arctic, 1780s - B&W.jpeg
Emanuel Bowen's 1780s map of the Arctic features a "Northern Ocean".

Early cartographers were unsure whether to draw the region around the North Pole as land (as in Johannes Ruysch's map of 1507, or Gerardus Mercator's map of 1595) or water (as with Martin Waldseemüller's world map of 1507). The fervent desire of European merchants for a northern passage, the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage, to "Cathay" (China) caused water to win out, and by 1723 mapmakers such as Johann Homann featured an extensive "Oceanus Septentrionalis" at the northern edge of their charts.

The few expeditions to penetrate much beyond the Arctic Circle in that era added only small islands, such as Novaya Zemlya (11th century) and Spitzbergen (1596), though, since these were often surrounded by pack-ice, their northern limits were not so clear. The makers of navigational charts, more conservative than some of the more fanciful cartographers, tended to leave the region blank, with only fragments of known coastline sketched in.

The Arctic region showing the Northeast Passage, the Northern Sea Route within it, and the Northwest Passage. Map of the Arctic region showing the Northeast Passage, the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry.png
The Arctic region showing the Northeast Passage, the Northern Sea Route within it, and the Northwest Passage.

19th Century

This lack of knowledge of what lay north of the shifting barrier of ice gave rise to a number of conjectures. In England and other European nations, the myth of an "Open Polar Sea" was persistent. John Barrow, longtime Second Secretary of the British Admiralty, promoted exploration of the region from 1818 to 1845 in search of this.

In the United States in the 1850s and 1860s, the explorers Elisha Kane and Isaac Israel Hayes both claimed to have seen part of this elusive body of water. Even quite late in the century, the eminent authority Matthew Fontaine Maury included a description of the Open Polar Sea in his textbook The Physical Geography of the Sea (1883). Nevertheless, as all the explorers who travelled closer and closer to the pole reported, the polar ice cap is quite thick, and persists year-round.

Fridtjof Nansen was the first to make a nautical crossing of the Arctic Ocean, in 1896.

20th Century

The first surface crossing of the ocean was led by Wally Herbert in 1969, in a dog sled expedition from Alaska to Svalbard, with air support. [11] The first nautical transit of the north pole was made in 1958 by the submarine USS Nautilus, and the first surface nautical transit occurred in 1977 by the icebreaker NS Arktika.

Since 1937, Soviet and Russian manned drifting ice stations have extensively monitored the Arctic Ocean. Scientific settlements were established on the drift ice and carried thousands of kilometres by ice floes. [12]

In World War II, the European region of the Arctic Ocean was heavily contested: the Allied commitment to resupply the Soviet Union via its northern ports was opposed by German naval and air forces.

Since 1954 commercial airlines have flown over the Arctic Ocean (see Polar route).


A bathymetric/topographic map of the Arctic Ocean and the surrounding lands. IBCAO betamap.jpg
A bathymetric/topographic map of the Arctic Ocean and the surrounding lands.
The Arctic region; of note, the region's southerly border on this map is depicted by a red isotherm, with all territory to the north having an average temperature of less than 10 degC (50 degF) in July. Arctic.svg
The Arctic region; of note, the region's southerly border on this map is depicted by a red isotherm, with all territory to the north having an average temperature of less than 10 °C (50 °F) in July.

The Arctic Ocean occupies a roughly circular basin and covers an area of about 14,056,000 km2 (5,427,000 sq mi), almost the size of Antarctica. [13] [14] The coastline is 45,390 km (28,200 mi) long. [13] [15] It is the only ocean smaller than Russia, which has a land area of 16,377,742 km2 (6,323,482 sq mi). It is surrounded by the land masses of Eurasia, North America (including Greenland), and Iceland. It is generally taken to include Baffin Bay, Barents Sea, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, East Siberian Sea, Greenland Sea, Iceland Sea, Norwegian Sea, Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, White Sea and other tributary bodies of water. It is connected to the Pacific Ocean by the Bering Strait and to the Atlantic Ocean through the Greenland Sea and Labrador Sea. [1]

Countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are: Russia, Norway, Iceland, Greenland (territory of the Kingdom of Denmark), Canada and the United States.

Extent and major ports

There are several ports and harbours on the Arctic Ocean. [16]

United States

In Alaska, the main ports are Utqiaġvik (Barrow) ( 71°17′44″N156°45′59″W / 71.29556°N 156.76639°W / 71.29556; -156.76639 (Barrow) ) and Prudhoe Bay ( 70°19′32″N148°42′41″W / 70.32556°N 148.71139°W / 70.32556; -148.71139 (Prudhoe) ).


In Canada, ships may anchor at Churchill (Port of Churchill) ( 58°46′28″N094°11′37″W / 58.77444°N 94.19361°W / 58.77444; -94.19361 (Port of Churchill) ) in Manitoba, Nanisivik (Nanisivik Naval Facility) ( 73°04′08″N084°32′57″W / 73.06889°N 84.54917°W / 73.06889; -84.54917 (Nanisivik Naval Facility) ) in Nunavut, [17] and Tuktoyaktuk ( 69°26′34″N133°01′52″W / 69.44278°N 133.03111°W / 69.44278; -133.03111 (Tuktoyaktuk) ) and Inuvik ( 68°21′42″N133°43′50″W / 68.36167°N 133.73056°W / 68.36167; -133.73056 (Inuvik) ) in the Northwest Territories.


In Greenland, the main port is at Nuuk (Nuuk Port and Harbour) ( 64°10′15″N051°43′15″W / 64.17083°N 51.72083°W / 64.17083; -51.72083 (Nuuk Port and Harbour) ).


In Norway, Kirkenes ( 69°43′37″N030°02′44″E / 69.72694°N 30.04556°E / 69.72694; 30.04556 (Kirkenes) ) and Vardø ( 70°22′14″N031°06′27″E / 70.37056°N 31.10750°E / 70.37056; 31.10750 (Vardø) ) are ports on the mainland. Also, there is Longyearbyen ( 78°13′12″N15°39′00″E / 78.22000°N 15.65000°E / 78.22000; 15.65000 (Longyearbyen) ) on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, next to Fram Strait.


In Russia, major ports sorted by the different sea areas are:

Arctic shelves

The ocean's Arctic shelf comprises a number of continental shelves, including the Canadian Arctic shelf, underlying the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and the Russian continental shelf, which is sometimes simply called the "Arctic Shelf" because it is greater in extent. The Russian continental shelf consists of three separate, smaller shelves: the Barents Shelf, Chukchi Sea Shelf and Siberian Shelf. Of these three, the Siberian Shelf is the largest such shelf in the world; it holds large oil and gas reserves. The Chukchi shelf forms the border between Russian and the United States as stated in the USSR–USA Maritime Boundary Agreement. The whole area is subject to international territorial claims.

Underwater features

An underwater ridge, the Lomonosov Ridge, divides the deep sea North Polar Basin into two oceanic basins: the Eurasian Basin, which is 4,000–4,500 m (13,100–14,800 ft) deep, and the Amerasian Basin (sometimes called the North American or Hyperborean Basin), which is about 4,000 m (13,000 ft) deep. The bathymetry of the ocean bottom is marked by fault block ridges, abyssal plains, ocean deeps, and basins. The average depth of the Arctic Ocean is 1,038 m (3,406 ft). [18] The deepest point is Molloy Hole in the Fram Strait, at about 5,550 m (18,210 ft). [19]

The two major basins are further subdivided by ridges into the Canada Basin (between Beaufort Shelf of North America and the Alpha Ridge), Makarov Basin (between the Alpha and Lomonosov Ridges), Amundsen Basin (between Lomonosov and Gakkel ridges), and Nansen Basin (between the Gakkel Ridge and the continental shelf that includes the Franz Josef Land).

Exclusive economic zone

Exclusive economic zones in Arctic Ocean: [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31]

NumberCountryArea (km2)
1Flag of Russia.svg  Russia Laptev Sea to Chukchi Sea 2,088,075
2Flag of Russia.svg  Russia Kara Sea 1,058,129
3Flag of Russia.svg  Russia Barents Sea 1,199,008
4Flag of Norway.svg  Norway Mainland 935,397
5Flag of Norway.svg  Norway Svalbard Island 804,907
6Flag of Norway.svg  Norway Jan Mayen Island 292,189
7Flag of Iceland.svg  Iceland Mainland 756,112
8Flag of Greenland.svg  Greenland Mainland 2,278,113
9Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada East Coast 2,276,594
10Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada Arctic 3,021,355
11Flag of the United States.svg  United States Arctic 508,814
TotalArctic Ocean14,056,000

Note: Some parts of the areas listed in the table are located in the Atlantic Ocean. Other consists of Gulfs, Straits, Channels and other parts without specific names and excludes Exclusive Economic Zones.

Biggest seas in the Arctic Ocean

The largest seas in the Arctic Ocean: [32] [33] [34]

  1. Barents Sea—1.4 million km2
  2. Greenland Sea—1.205 million km2
  3. East Siberian Sea—987,000 km2
  4. Kara Sea—926,000 km2
  5. Laptev Sea—662,000 km2
  6. Chukchi Sea—620,000 km2
  7. Beaufort Sea—476,000 km2
  8. Amundsen Gulf
  9. White Sea—90,000 km2
  10. Pechora Sea—81,263 km2
  11. Lincoln Sea—64,000 km2
  12. Prince Gustaf Adolf Sea
  13. Queen Victoria Sea
  14. Wandel Sea


The crystalline basement rocks of mountains around the Arctic Ocean were recrystallized or formed during the Ellesmerian orogeny, the regional phase of the larger Caledonian orogeny in the Paleozoic Era. Regional subsidence in the Jurassic and Triassic periods led to significant sediment deposition, creating many of the reservoirs for current day oil and gas deposits. During the Cretaceous period, the Canadian Basin opened and tectonic activity due to the assembly of Alaska caused hydrocarbons to migrate toward what is now Prudhoe Bay. At the same time, sediments shed off the rising Canadian Rockies built out the large Mackenzie Delta.

The rifting apart of the supercontinent Pangea, beginning in the Triassic period, opened the early Atlantic Ocean. Rifting then extended northward, opening the Arctic Ocean as mafic oceanic crust material erupted out of a branch of Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Amerasia Basin may have opened first, with the Chukchi Borderland moved along to the northeast by transform faults. Additional spreading helped to create the "triple-junction" of the Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge in the Late Cretaceous epoch.

Throughout the Cenozoic Era, the subduction of the Pacific plate, the collision of India with Eurasia and the continued opening of the North Atlantic created new hydrocarbon traps. The seafloor began spreading from the Gakkel Ridge in the Paleocene Epoch and the Eocene Epoch, causing the Lomonosov Ridge to move farther from land and subside.

Because of sea ice and remote conditions, the geology of the Arctic Ocean is still poorly explored. The Arctic Coring Expedition drilling shed some light on the Lomonosov Ridge, which appears to be continental crust separated from the Barents-Kara Shelf in the Paleocene and then starved of sediment. It may contain up to 10 billion barrels of oil. The Gakkel Ridge rift is also poorly understand and may extend into the Laptev Sea. [35] [36]


Water flow

Distribution of the major water mass in the Arctic Ocean. The section sketches the different water masses along a vertical section from Bering Strait over the geographic North Pole to Fram Strait. As the stratification is stable, deeper water masses are more dense than the layers above. BrnBld BeringToFram.svg
Distribution of the major water mass in the Arctic Ocean. The section sketches the different water masses along a vertical section from Bering Strait over the geographic North Pole to Fram Strait. As the stratification is stable, deeper water masses are more dense than the layers above.
Density structure of the upper 1,200 m (3,900 ft) in the Arctic Ocean. Profiles of temperature and salinity for the Amundsen Basin, the Canadian Basin and the Greenland Sea are sketched. Temperature and salinity profiles in the Arctic Ocean.svg
Density structure of the upper 1,200 m (3,900 ft) in the Arctic Ocean. Profiles of temperature and salinity for the Amundsen Basin, the Canadian Basin and the Greenland Sea are sketched.

In large parts of the Arctic Ocean, the top layer (about 50 m [160 ft]) is of lower salinity and lower temperature than the rest. It remains relatively stable, because the salinity effect on density is bigger than the temperature effect. It is fed by the freshwater input of the big Siberian and Canadian rivers (Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Mackenzie), the water of which quasi floats on the saltier, denser, deeper ocean water. Between this lower salinity layer and the bulk of the ocean lies the so-called halocline, in which both salinity and temperature rise with increasing depth.

A copepod Copepodkils.jpg
A copepod

Because of its relative isolation from other oceans, the Arctic Ocean has a uniquely complex system of water flow. It resembles some hydrological features of the Mediterranean Sea, referring to its deep waters having only limited communication through the Fram Strait with the Atlantic Basin, "where the circulation is dominated by thermohaline forcing”. [37] The Arctic Ocean has a total volume of 18.07 × 106 km3, equal to about 1.3 % of the World Ocean. Mean surface circulation is predominately cyclonic on the Eurasian side and anticyclonic in the Canadian Basin. [38]

Water enters from both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and can be divided into three unique water masses. The deepest water mass is called Arctic Bottom Water and begins around 900 m (3,000 ft) depth. [37] It is composed of the densest water in the World Ocean and has two main sources: Arctic shelf water and Greenland Sea Deep Water. Water in the shelf region that begins as inflow from the Pacific passes through the narrow Bering Strait at an average rate of 0.8 Sverdrups and reaches the Chukchi Sea. [39] During the winter, cold Alaskan winds blow over the Chukchi Sea, freezing the surface water and pushing this newly formed ice out to the Pacific. The speed of the ice drift is roughly 1–4 cm/s. [38] This process leaves dense, salty waters in the sea that sink over the continental shelf into the western Arctic Ocean and create a halocline. [40]

The Kennedy Channel. Nares strait border (Kennedy channel).png
The Kennedy Channel.

This water is met by Greenland Sea Deep Water, which forms during the passage of winter storms. As temperatures cool dramatically in the winter, ice forms and intense vertical convection allows the water to become dense enough to sink below the warm saline water below. [37] Arctic Bottom Water is critically important because of its outflow, which contributes to the formation of Atlantic Deep Water. The overturning of this water plays a key role in global circulation and the moderation of climate.

In the depth range of 150–900 m (490–2,950 ft) is a water mass referred to as Atlantic Water. Inflow from the North Atlantic Current enters through the Fram Strait, cooling and sinking to form the deepest layer of the halocline, where it circles the Arctic Basin counter-clockwise. This is the highest volumetric inflow to the Arctic Ocean, equalling about 10 times that of the Pacific inflow, and it creates the Arctic Ocean Boundary Current. [39] It flows slowly, at about 0.02 m/s. [37] Atlantic Water has the same salinity as Arctic Bottom Water but is much warmer (up to 3 °C [37 °F]). In fact, this water mass is actually warmer than the surface water, and remains submerged only due to the role of salinity in density. [37] When water reaches the basin, it is pushed by strong winds into a large circular current called the Beaufort Gyre. Water in the Beaufort Gyre is far less saline than that of the Chukchi Sea due to inflow from large Canadian and Siberian rivers. [40]

The final defined water mass in the Arctic Ocean is called Arctic Surface Water and is found in the depth range of 150–200 m (490–660 ft). The most important feature of this water mass is a section referred to as the sub-surface layer. It is a product of Atlantic water that enters through canyons and is subjected to intense mixing on the Siberian Shelf. [37] As it is entrained, it cools and acts a heat shield for the surface layer. This insulation keeps the warm Atlantic Water from melting the surface ice. Additionally, this water forms the swiftest currents of the Arctic, with speed of around 0.3–0.6 m/s. [37] Complementing the water from the canyons, some Pacific water that does not sink to the shelf region after passing through the Bering Strait also contributes to this water mass.

Waters originating in the Pacific and Atlantic both exit through the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard Island, which is about 2,700 m (8,900 ft) deep and 350 km (220 mi) wide. This outflow is about 9 Sv. [39] The width of the Fram Strait is what allows for both inflow and outflow on the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean. Because of this, it is influenced by the Coriolis force, which concentrates outflow to the East Greenland Current on the western side and inflow to the Norwegian Current on the eastern side. [37] Pacific water also exits along the west coast of Greenland and the Hudson Strait (1–2 Sv), providing nutrients to the Canadian Archipelago. [39]

As noted, the process of ice formation and movement is a key driver in Arctic Ocean circulation and the formation of water masses. With this dependence, the Arctic Ocean experiences variations due to seasonal changes in sea ice cover. Sea ice movement is the result of wind forcing, which is related to a number of meteorological conditions that the Arctic experiences throughout the year. For example, the Beaufort High—an extension of the Siberian High system—is a pressure system that drives the anticyclonic motion of the Beaufort Gyre. [38] During the summer, this area of high pressure is pushed out closer to its Siberian and Canadian sides. In addition, there is a sea level pressure (SLP) ridge over Greenland that drives strong northerly winds through the Fram Strait, facilitating ice export. In the summer, the SLP contrast is smaller, producing weaker winds. A final example of seasonal pressure system movement is the low pressure system that exists over the Nordic and Barents Seas. It is an extension of the Icelandic Low, which creates cyclonic ocean circulation in this area. The low shifts to centre over the North Pole in the summer. These variations in the Arctic all contribute to ice drift reaching its weakest point during the summer months. There is also evidence that the drift is associated with the phase of the Arctic Oscillation and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. [38]

Sea ice

Sea cover in the Arctic Ocean, showing the median, 2005 and 2007 coverage 2007 Arctic Sea Ice.jpg
Sea cover in the Arctic Ocean, showing the median, 2005 and 2007 coverage

Much of the Arctic Ocean is covered by sea ice that varies in extent and thickness seasonally. The mean extent of the Arctic sea ice has been continuously decreasing in the last decades, declining at a rate of currently 12.85% per decade since 1980 from the average winter value of 15,600,000 km2 (6,023,200 sq mi). [42] The seasonal variations are about 7,000,000 km2 (2,702,700 sq mi), with the maximum in April and minimum in September. The sea ice is affected by wind and ocean currents, which can move and rotate very large areas of ice. Zones of compression also arise, where the ice piles up to form pack ice. [43] [44] [45]

Icebergs occasionally break away from northern Ellesmere Island, and icebergs are formed from glaciers in western Greenland and extreme northeastern Canada. Icebergs are not sea ice but may become embedded in the pack ice. Icebergs pose a hazard to ships, of which the Titanic is one of the most famous. The ocean is virtually icelocked from October to June, and the superstructure of ships are subject to icing from October to May. [16] Before the advent of modern icebreakers, ships sailing the Arctic Ocean risked being trapped or crushed by sea ice (although the Baychimo drifted through the Arctic Ocean untended for decades despite these hazards).


Changes in ice between 1990 and 1999

The Arctic Ocean is contained in a polar climate characterized by persistent cold and relatively narrow annual temperature ranges. Winters are characterized by the polar night, extreme cold, frequent low-level temperature inversions, and stable weather conditions. [46] Cyclones are only common on the Atlantic side. [47] Summers are characterized by continuous daylight (midnight sun), and air temperatures can rise slightly above 0 °C (32 °F). Cyclones are more frequent in summer and may bring rain or snow. [47] It is cloudy year-round, with mean cloud cover ranging from 60% in winter to over 80% in summer. [48]

The temperature of the surface water of the Arctic Ocean is fairly constant at approximately −1.8 °C (28.8 °F), near the freezing point of seawater.

The density of sea water, in contrast to fresh water, increases as it nears the freezing point and thus it tends to sink. It is generally necessary that the upper 100–150 m (330–490 ft) of ocean water cools to the freezing point for sea ice to form. [49] In the winter, the relatively warm ocean water exerts a moderating influence, even when covered by ice. This is one reason why the Arctic does not experience the extreme temperatures seen on the Antarctic continent.

There is considerable seasonal variation in how much pack ice of the Arctic ice pack covers the Arctic Ocean. Much of the Arctic ice pack is also covered in snow for about 10 months of the year. The maximum snow cover is in March or April—about 20–50 cm (7.9–19.7 in) over the frozen ocean.

The climate of the Arctic region has varied significantly during the Earth's history. During the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago, when the global climate underwent a warming of approximately 5–8 °C (9–14 °F), the region reached an average annual temperature of 10–20 °C (50–68 °F). [50] [51] [52] The surface waters of the northernmost [53] Arctic Ocean warmed, seasonally at least, enough to support tropical lifeforms (the dinoflagellates Apectodinium augustum) requiring surface temperatures of over 22 °C (72 °F). [54]

Currently, the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. [55] [56]


Three polar bears approach USS Honolulu near the North Pole. Polar bears near north pole.jpg
Three polar bears approach USS Honolulu near the North Pole.

Due to the pronounced seasonality of 2–6 months of midnight sun and polar night [57] in the Arctic Ocean, the primary production of photosynthesizing organisms such as ice algae and phytoplankton is limited to the spring and summer months (March/April to September). [58] Important consumers of primary producers in the central Arctic Ocean and the adjacent shelf seas include zooplankton, especially copepods ( Calanus finmarchicus , Calanus glacialis , and Calanus hyperboreus ) [59] and euphausiids, [60] as well as ice-associated fauna (e.g., amphipods). [59] These primary consumers form an important link between the primary producers and higher trophic levels. The composition of higher trophic levels in the Arctic Ocean varies with region (Atlantic side vs. Pacific side) and with the sea-ice cover. Secondary consumers in the Barents Sea, an Atlantic-influenced Arctic shelf sea, are mainly sub-Arctic species including herring, young cod, and capelin. [60] In ice-covered regions of the central Arctic Ocean, polar cod is a central predator of primary consumers. The apex predators in the Arctic Ocean—marine mammals such as seals, whales, and polar bears—prey upon fish.

Endangered marine species in the Arctic Ocean include walruses and whales. The area has a fragile ecosystem, and it is especially exposed to climate change, because it warms faster than the rest of the world. Lion's mane jellyfish are abundant in the waters of the Arctic, and the banded gunnel is the only species of gunnel that lives in the ocean.

Minke whale Minke Whale (NOAA).jpg
Minke whale
Walruses on Arctic ice floe Walruses on ice floes.jpg
Walruses on Arctic ice floe

Natural resources

Petroleum and natural gas fields, placer deposits, polymetallic nodules, sand and gravel aggregates, fish, seals and whales can all be found in abundance in the region. [16] [45]

The political dead zone near the centre of the sea is also the focus of a mounting dispute between the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark. [61] It is significant for the global energy market because it may hold 25 % or more of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources. [62]

Environmental concerns

Arctic ice melting

The Arctic ice pack is thinning, and a seasonal hole in the ozone layer frequently occurs. [63] Reduction of the area of Arctic sea ice reduces the planet's average albedo, possibly resulting in global warming in a positive feedback mechanism. [45] [64] Research shows that the Arctic may become ice-free in the summer for the first time in human history by 2040. [65] [66] Estimates vary for when the last time the Arctic was ice-free: 65 million years ago when fossils indicate that plants existed there to as recently as 5,500 years ago; ice and ocean cores going back 8,000 years to the last warm period or 125,000 during the last intraglacial period. [67]

Warming temperatures in the Arctic may cause large amounts of fresh melt-water to enter the north Atlantic, possibly disrupting global ocean current patterns. Potentially severe changes in the Earth's climate might then ensue. [64]

As the extent of sea ice diminishes and sea level rises, the effect of storms such as the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 on open water increases, as does possible salt-water damage to vegetation on shore at locations such as the Mackenzie Delta as stronger storm surges become more likely. [68]

Global warming has increased encounters between polar bears and humans. Reduced sea ice due to melting is causing polar bears to search for new sources of food. [69] Beginning in December 2018 and coming to an apex in February 2019, a mass invasion of polar bears into the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya caused local authorities to declare a state of emergency. Dozens of polar bears were seen entering homes, public buildings and inhabited areas. [70] [71]

Clathrate breakdown

Extinction intensity.svg
Marine extinction intensity during the Phanerozoic
Millions of years ago
Extinction intensity.svg
The Permian–Triassic extinction event (the Great Dying) may have been caused by release of methane from clathrates. An estimated 52% of marine genera became extinct, representing 96% of all marine species.

Sea ice, and the cold conditions it sustains, serves to stabilize methane deposits on and near the shoreline, [72] preventing the clathrate breaking down and outgassing methane into the atmosphere, causing further warming. Melting of this ice may release large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, causing further warming in a strong positive feedback cycle and marine genera and species to become extinct. [72] [73]

Other concerns

Other environmental concerns relate to the radioactive contamination of the Arctic Ocean from, for example, Russian radioactive waste dump sites in the Kara Sea, [74] Cold War nuclear test sites such as Novaya Zemlya, [75] Camp Century's contaminants in Greenland, [76] and radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. [77]

On 16 July 2015, five nations (United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark/Greenland) signed a declaration committing to keep their fishing vessels out of a 1.1 million square mile zone in the central Arctic Ocean near the North Pole. The agreement calls for those nations to refrain from fishing there until there is better scientific knowledge about the marine resources and until a regulatory system is in place to protect those resources. [78] [79]

See also

Related Research Articles

Norwegian Sea Marginal sea in the Arctic Ocean, northwest of Norway

The Norwegian Sea is a marginal sea in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Norway between the North Sea and the Greenland Sea, adjoining the Barents Sea to the northeast. In the southwest, it is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a submarine ridge running between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. To the north, the Jan Mayen Ridge separates it from the Greenland Sea.

North Atlantic Deep Water deep water mass formed in the North Atlantic Ocean

North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) is a deep water mass formed in the North Atlantic Ocean. Thermohaline circulation of the world's oceans involves the flow of warm surface waters from the southern hemisphere into the North Atlantic. Water flowing northward becomes modified through evaporation and mixing with other water masses, leading to increased salinity. When this water reaches the North Atlantic it cools and sinks through convection, due to its decreased temperature and increased salinity resulting in increased density. NADW is the outflow of this thick deep layer, which can be detected by its high salinity, high oxygen content, nutrient minima, high 14C/12C, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Arctic Polar region of the Earths northern hemisphere

The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Alaska, Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Land within the Arctic region has seasonally varying snow and ice cover, with predominantly treeless permafrost containing tundra. Arctic seas contain seasonal sea ice in many places.

Barents Sea marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean, off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia

The Barents Sea is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean, located off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia and divided between Norwegian and Russian territorial waters. Known among Russians in the Middle Ages as the Murman Sea, the current name of the sea is after the historical Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz.

Bering Sea Sea of the northern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Alaska

The Bering Sea is a marginal sea of the Northern Pacific Ocean. It forms, along with the Bering Strait, the divide between the two largest landmasses on Earth: Eurasia and The Americas. It comprises a deep water basin, which then rises through a narrow slope into the shallower water above the continental shelves. The Bering Sea is named for Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator in Russian service, who, in 1728, was the first European to systematically explore it, sailing from the Pacific Ocean northward to the Arctic Ocean.

Ocean current Directional mass flow of oceanic water generated by external or internal forces

An ocean current is a continuous, directed movement of sea water generated by a number of forces acting upon the water, including wind, the Coriolis effect, breaking waves, cabbeling, and temperature and salinity differences. Depth contours, shoreline configurations, and interactions with other currents influence a current's direction and strength. Ocean currents are primarily horizontal water movements.

East Siberian Sea Marginal sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia

The East Siberian Sea is a marginal sea in the Arctic Ocean. It is located between the Arctic Cape to the north, the coast of Siberia to the south, the New Siberian Islands to the west and Cape Billings, close to Chukotka, and Wrangel Island to the east. This sea borders on the Laptev Sea to the west and the Chukchi Sea to the east.

Chukchi Sea marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait

Chukchi Sea, sometimes referred to as the Chuuk Sea, Chukotsk Sea or the Sea of Chukotsk, is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean. It is bounded on the west by the Long Strait, off Wrangel Island, and in the east by Point Barrow, Alaska, beyond which lies the Beaufort Sea. The Bering Strait forms its southernmost limit and connects it to the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The principal port on the Chukchi Sea is Uelen in Russia. The International Date Line crosses the Chukchi Sea from northwest to southeast. It is displaced eastwards to avoid Wrangel Island as well as the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug on the Russian mainland.

East Greenland Current Current from Fram Strait to Cape Farewell off the eastern coat of Greenland

The East Greenland Current (EGC) is a cold, low salinity current that extends from Fram Strait (~80N) to Cape Farewell (~60N). The current is located off the eastern coast of Greenland along the Greenland continental margin. The current cuts through the Nordic Seas and through the Denmark Strait. The current is of major importance because it directly connects the Arctic to the Northern Atlantic, it is a major contributor to sea ice export out of the Arctic, and it is a major freshwater sink for the Arctic.

Greenland Sea body of water that borders Greenland to the west, the Svalbard archipelago to the east, south of the Fram Strait

The Greenland Sea is a body of water that borders Greenland to the west, the Svalbard archipelago to the east, Fram Strait and the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Norwegian Sea and Iceland to the south. The Greenland Sea is often defined as part of the Arctic Ocean, sometimes as part of the Atlantic Ocean. However, definitions of the Arctic Ocean and its seas tend to be imprecise or arbitrary. In general usage the term "Arctic Ocean" would exclude the Greenland Sea. In oceanographic studies the Greenland Sea is considered part of the Nordic Seas, along with the Norwegian Sea. The Nordic Seas are the main connection between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and, as such, could be of great significance in a possible shutdown of thermohaline circulation. In oceanography the Arctic Ocean and Nordic Seas are often referred to collectively as the "Arctic Mediterranean Sea", a marginal sea of the Atlantic.

Norwegian Current A current that flows northeasterly along the Atlantic coast of Norway into the Barents Sea

The Norwegian Current is one of two dominant arctic inflows of water. It can be traced from near Shetland, north of Scotland, otherwise from the eastern North Sea at depths of up to 100 metres. It finally passes the Opening into the Barents Sea, a large outcrop of the Arctic Ocean. Compared to its partial source the North Atlantic Current it is colder and less salty; the other sources are the less saline North and Baltic seas and the Norwegian fjords and rivers. It is considerably warmer and saltier than the Arctic Ocean, which is freshened by precipitation and ice in and around it. Winter temperatures in the flow are typically between 2 and 5 °C — the co-parent North Atlantic flow, a heat remnant of its Gulf Stream chief contributor, exceeds 6 °C.

Large marine ecosystem Regions of the worlds oceans characterized by distinct bathymetry, hydrography, productivity, and trophically dependent populations

Large marine ecosystems (LMEs) are regions of the world's oceans, encompassing coastal areas from river basins and estuaries to the seaward boundaries of continental shelves and the outer margins of the major ocean current systems. They are relatively large regions on the order of 200,000 km² or greater, characterized by distinct bathymetry, hydrography, productivity, and trophically dependent populations. Productivity in LME protected areas is generally higher than in the open ocean.

Territorial claims in the Arctic

The Arctic consists of land, internal waters, territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and international waters above the Arctic Circle. All land, internal waters, territorial seas and EEZs in the Arctic are under the jurisdiction of one of the eight Arctic coastal states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. International law regulates this area as with other portions of Earth.

Siberian Shelf

The Siberian Shelf, one of the Arctic Ocean coastal shelves, is the largest continental shelf of the Earth, a part of the continental shelf of Russia. It extends from the continent of Eurasia in the general area of North Siberia into the Arctic Ocean. It stretches to 1,500 kilometers (930 mi) offshore. It is relatively shallow, with average depth of 100 m. A number of islands are within the shelf, including the Wrangel Island, Novaya Zemlya, and the New Siberian Islands.

Climate of the Arctic Overview of the climate of the Arctic

The climate of the Arctic is characterized by long, cold winters and short, cool summers. There is a large amount of variability in climate across the Arctic, but all regions experience extremes of solar radiation in both summer and winter. Some parts of the Arctic are covered by ice year-round, and nearly all parts of the Arctic experience long periods with some form of ice on the surface.

Fram Strait passage between Greenland and Svalbard

The Fram Strait is the passage between Greenland and Svalbard, located roughly between 77°N and 81°N latitudes and centered on the prime meridian. The Greenland and Norwegian Seas lie south of Fram Strait, while the Nansen Basin of the Arctic Ocean lies to the north. Fram Strait is noted for being the only deep connection between the Arctic Ocean and the World Oceans. The dominant oceanographic features of the region are the West Spitsbergen Current on the east side of the strait and the East Greenland Current on the west.

Polar seas Collective term for the Arctic Ocean and the southern part of the Southern Ocean

Polar seas is a collective term for the Arctic Ocean and the southern part of the Southern Ocean. In the coldest years, sea ice can cover around 13 percent of the Earth's total surface at its maximum, but out of phase in the two hemispheres. The polar seas contain a huge biome with many organisms.

West Spitsbergen Current warm, salty current that runs poleward just west of Spitsbergen

The West Spitsbergen Current (WSC) is a warm, salty current that runs poleward just west of Spitsbergen,, in the Arctic Ocean. The WSC branches off the Norwegian Atlantic Current in the Norwegian Sea. The WSC is of importance because it drives warm and salty Atlantic Water into the interior Arctic. The warm and salty WSC flows north through the eastern side of Fram Strait, while the East Greenland Current (EGC) flows south through the western side of Fram Strait. The EGC is characterized by being very cold and low in salinity, but above all else it is a major exporter of Arctic sea ice. Thus, the EGC combined with the warm WSC makes the Fram Strait the northernmost ocean area having ice-free conditions throughout the year in all of the global ocean.

Nordic Seas

The Nordic Seas are located north of Iceland and south of Svalbard. They have also been defined as the region located north of the Greenland-Scotland Ridge and south of the Fram Strait-Spitsbergen-Norway intersection. Known to connect the North Pacific and the North Atlantic waters, this region is also known as having some of the densest waters, creating the densest region found in the North Atlantic Deep Water. The deepest waters of the Arctic Ocean are connected to the worlds other oceans through Nordic Seas and Fram Strait. There are three seas within the Nordic Sea: Greenland Sea, Norwegian Sea, and Iceland Sea. The Nordic Seas only make up about 0.75% of the World's Oceans. This region is known as having diverse features in such a small topographic area, such as the mid oceanic ridge systems. Some locations have shallow shelves, while others have deep slopes and basins. This region, because of the atmosphere-ocean transfer of energy and gases, has varying seasonal climate. During the winter, sea ice is formed in the western and northern regions of the Nordic Seas, whereas during the summer months, the majority of the region remains free of ice.

Atlantification of the Arctic

Atlantification is the increasing influence of Atlantic water in the Arctic. Warm and salty Atlantic water is extending its reach Northward in the Arctic Ocean and is mixed with the cold Arctic water. Therefore the Arctic Ocean is becoming warmer and saltier and sea-ice is disappearing as a result. The process can be seen on the figure on the far right, where the sea surface temperature change in the past 50 years is shown, which is up to 5 degrees in some places. This change in the Arctic climate is most prominent in the Barents Sea, a shallow shelf sea North of Scandinavia where Atlantic water and Arctic water meet. The location of the Barents Sea is shown in the figure on the right. This is also the spot where sea-ice is dissapearing the quickest of the entire Arctic region, a change that influences all organisms living there and indirectly alters the climate of the entire planet.


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