3. Arctic Expedition

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Come Aboard for an Arctic Expedition

Grab your parka and snowshoes as we travel to the white desert – the Arctic Circle! Learn about our favorite arctic critters, including polar bears, walruses, belugas, narwhals, and even teeny tiny plankton, and how these species have adapted to life in the cold.

Gif Credit: Giphy



Welcome to the Arctic! ….Where is that exactly?

For starters, the word “Arctic” originates from the Greek work arktikos meaning “near the bear”. The reason being is that the Arctic is close to the Big Dipper constellation also known as the Great Bear constellation. If you want to get technical, the Arctic is the polar region in the north of the Arctic Circle. It has land that 8 countries call its territory: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, the U.S, Russia and Canada. The temperatures are about -40C in the winter and under 10C in the summer (really hope you did bring your parka). Above all, the Arctic Ocean is what makes up this permafrost region.  This treeless environment might be a change of scenery for you but take into account that you also won’t really get a sunrise and sunset at the North Pole. In fact, in the spring (around March) the sun stays out all day for 186 days until about September in which it won’t rise again until the following March. The shortest day of the year is December 22 in which the sun is up in the Arctic circle for 2 hours and 11 minutes.

Gif Credit: Quartz

Get ready as we have just scratched the top of the iceberg with the Arctic Expedition…


The Inuit Peoples of the Arctic

As the Arctic is vast area, I’m going to focus this section on the areas that are within the Canadian border. There are 4 main areas: the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Western Arctic, Nunavut in the central Arctic, Nunavik in Northern Quebec, and Nunatsiabut in Northern Labrador. Additionally, there are regions included in this population such as Gwich’in in the Yukon, the Cree around Hudson Bay and Metis people who make up roughly 2% of the total population.

Photo Credit: News Deeply

The Inuit peoples make up approx.. 85% of the Inuit Nunangat- the Inuit name for their homeland, water and ice. All but 3 Canadian Inuit communities are located along the shoreline. The livelihood of these peoples relies heavily on sea ice for travel and hunting. The sea ice is viewed to be a “highway” of sorts across their homeland. These highways lead to food sources such as seals, whales (or Muktuk as the Inuit call whale blubber) and walruses. For employment Inuit are engaged in opportunities associated with public and private services, transportation and resource extraction like mining.   

Photo Credit: arctic-guide.net 

A fascinating statistic I learned when discussing peoples in the Arctic with Eric Solomon (Director of Arctic Programs at Ocean Wise) is that the majority of the people living in the area are youth (aged 13-28yrs). So preserving the traditions and environmental integrity of their homeland is an immediate concern for this demographic.   

Photo Credit: SciencePoles


The Arctic Is Changing:

As the youth of the Arctic are getting directly involved in addressing the environmental issues they face it’s important to identify said issue: global warming. Yes, I’m sure you’re aware of this alarming problem I will nonetheless break down the impact it has upon the Arctic to better outline what one would witness on an Arctic Expedition.

Photo Credit: By photographer Ciril Jazbed found here.

In what may not be as obvious when discussing global warming, it’s causes the restructuring the Arctic food chain from the plankton upwards. Arctic plankton in this region are having to engage in a competition with their fellow subarctic plankton. Moving up the chain it is becoming noticeable the Atlantic Cod, Pollock, Haddock and Capelin are heading northward. Then there’s the seabirds who are then finding difficulty to not only feed themselves but to also feed their chicks. Skip to the top of the food chain; there are walruses having a hard time finding ice that they can pull themselves out rest in the summer. Similarly, the seal need the solid land to birth their pups in deep snow lairs. As humans use the sea ice as “highways” to access these animals they are being limited in their options of what they can hunt and it changes what “highways” they are able to utilize. 

The Arctic landscape is shifting to affect those big and small on the food chain to cause significant obstacles for those who call the Arctic home.


The Arctic Food Chain

As I’ve just loosely outlined a food chain found in the Arctic lets dive a little deeper! There are many Arctic critters that call these waters home and let’s introduce them to you along this Arctic Expedition.

*Phytoplankton: How these little guys survive in these frigid waters is that they bloom under sea ice and then they surface in the water when the sun returns in the spring time. They make up the foundation of the food chain, especially those that cultivate the seafloor ecosystem which includes phytoplankton, zooplankton, sponges, hard corals, soft corals and sea pens. Phytoplankton are particularly sensitive to the changing temperature and the runoff from land into the ocean that can cause major threat like ocean acidification.                                                                                                                                   

 Gif Credit: Wired

*Arctic Char: These fish are incredibly abundant in the Canadian Arctic. They like to live in shallow or deep water at a max depth of about 1,300m. As they are highly adapted to the ice-covered seas they are also keen on living at the bottom of sea ice. To munch on they enjoy crustaceans, smaller fish, fish eggs and plankton. Arctic Cod are a massive energy source as they transfer up 75% of energy within an ecosystem; namely between plankton and vertebrates.  

Check out the Inuit style to fish Inuit Char from  Steve MacInnis Youtube channel 

*Bowhead Whale: This whale is the longest-living mammal on the planet! They can live to over a century, in fact there is a Bowhead whale documented being an estimated 211 years old. These gentle giants can reach 15-18 metres long and weigh up to 100,00 kg. They can break through more than 20cm thick ice to make breathing hole and dive for 30min at a time. They remain in the Arctic year-round and are likely found at the edge of the ice. Typically found venturing on their own, however the have been found travelling in small pods.

Gif Credit: The Verge

*Beluga Whale: These “canaries of the sea” can be chirping at each other as they communicate as they dive to depths of 1,000m. They are looking for small fish and crustaceans like Arctic Cod, capelin or shrimp. They can weigh about 1,500kg and measure up to 5m. Belugas are either pink or brown when they’re born ad as they mature they become white. They can reach the ripe old age of 60-70 years old.

Gif Credit: WiffleGif

*Narwhal: These toothy wonders can reach a length of 5m when excluding their (roughly 10ft long) tusk. That tusk is a tooth that has held a mystery for researchers who are trying to understand the purpose for such an accessory. The main theory was thought that males had tusks to impress females and to fight off male competitors, however there have been the rare occasion in which females have a tusk. In 2017, drone footage revealed a narwhal using its tusk to stun a fish thereby making it an easier meal. Their tusk is full of nerve endings that can also aid with orienting themselves in their environment. that has They prefer the deep waters in summer and winter.

Gif Credit: gifs.com

*Walrus: They also have tusks that are their upper teeth that occur in both male and female walruses. They use their tusks to use as leverage to haul themselves on top of ice floes. When they’re not lounging on ice you can find them munching on clams or even some Arctic Cod or invertebrates. To find their food they dive to the shallower water at about 100m down under. The walruses that inhabit the Arctic areas in Canada are known to be a popular source of nutrition. A method to prepare walrus meat for a meal is to let it ferment in a permafrost burrow for up to 2 years.

Gif Credit: giphy.com

*Polar Bears: These bears are the largest carnivores in the world. They showcase how to be the ultimate animal of the Arctic with their dense, water-proof fur, their dinner plate sized feet to help disperse their weight on the ice as well as propelling themselves in the Arctic waters. They are major predators of the Arctic as they hunt mainly ringed seal, but also Bearded Seals, Walruses, Belugas and Narwhals. On land, polar bears have been documented feasting on fish, eggs, kelp, lemmings, carrion and berries.

Gif Credit:  IRunTheInternet.com

The Arctic is a vast ecosystem that houses many animals who support close knit communities that are making efforts to keep up with the rapidly changing conditions of the Arctic environment.  



Questions for your Junior Biologists:

  1. 1. How are the people and the animals of the Arctic connected?: I would argue that in a way they are co-dependent upon each other. It is obvious that the people of the Arctic rely about the health of the food chain for sufficient food and in return the animals rely on the people to ensure that the Arctic remains a viable habitat for their species to flourish.
  2. 2. Why are Arctic Char a major source of energy transfer?: As Arctic char is bountiful food source it is then the key connection between plankton and vertebrates within the Arctic ecosystem. In other words, as Artic char is a keystone species similarly to sea otters on the Pacific West Coast in which without them the ecosystem they inhabit would show noticeable decline in health.
  3. 3. How much bigger are Polar Bears from other bears?: I’ve provided this image to showcase the significant size difference:


    Do you have any questions for Club Volunteers or our Coordinator, Jordan ? Ask away on our Discussion Board!




Task

-Take on a citizens science project about the Arctic here

-Explore the Arctic via Google Maps here

-Get into the holiday spirit with these Arctic activities for kids here


Learning Objectives

-Understand the valuable relationship between the people and the animals of the Arctic.

-Learn how differing animals survive the intense environment of the Arctic.

-Acknowledge the profound impact of the Arctic food web.

- Observe the diversity in the Arctic animal kingdom. 


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