Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
The Surreal World of Ice
The stinging cold is the everyday reality of the Arctic people. Imagine ice falling in all possible ways and means, into all types of crevices on earth, filling them up, covering everything in a lonely white- from avalanches to foggy snow to freezing winds and roaring storms. There is quite a philosophical aura to the existence of life over the surreal world of snow. The state of Alaska in the US, the northern part of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia belong to the Arctic region. Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and Alutiiq are some tribes that inhabit this region. One might wonder how the Arctic people survive in a climate where the maximum temperature never rises much above the freezing point and one can never dream of getting out of one’s multilayered clothing when outdoors.
Tundra and Taiga
The two distinct types of Arctic ecosystems are the Tundra and the Taiga. The Tundra soil is only about 10 cm in thickness and hence can grow only grass and shrubs. Rodents, a few herbivores such as caribou, foxes and wolves inhabit this region. The winter in the Tundra hardens the snow and this is the time when the human population travels long distances in their snowshoes in search of game and new pastures.
Taiga on the other hand has trees growing in it, birch, willow, alder, spruce, and a few shrubs, thereby permitting more biodiversity to thrive. Those who have read the all-time classic Russian folk tale, Chuk and Gek, by Arkady Gaider might remember the Siberian Taiga where the father of the children, Chuk and Gek, lived and worked. This story is about the journey that these children make along with their mother to the Siberian Taiga. By some miscommunication, the father after asking his family to visit him by way of a telegram is absent when they arrive. The family is forced to live and adapt all alone in the Taiga, in a hut, and learn how to survive. They have with them only a meagre supply of food that they brought along. However, they learn to fetch water from the stream nearby, boil ice and make drinking water and gather firewood from the wilderness. The adventure of Chuk and Get ends when their father comes back after his expedition and they celebrate the New Year together. This story gives an idea about life in the Taiga.
Chuk and Gek: An Illustration from the Original Story Book
The Inuit Life
The Inuit people, the early inhabitants of the Arctic region, have gone about their lives for thousands of centuries almost as if unaware of the unbearable cold and the lack of resources for food and other needs. The Inuits live in extended families; sometimes in modern days, the factor that glues them together is the collective ownership of a Peterhead boat. Formerly, the collective life would have been for hunting big game and community bonding in those expanses of loneliness.
The daily chores of the remotely located tribal people in the Arctic include repairing their tools, fishing, hunting seals, walruses, polar bears, and caribou, collecting ice blocks from the river for drinking water purposes, and collecting firewood, and tending to the reindeer flocks that they have. In the morning, the first thing they do will be heat up the house by burning wood at the fireplace. This fire has to be kept on throughout the day and night. Every gap on the wall of a house is filled with either snow or oakum to prevent the cold from entering the house. One of the livelihood options is fishing. People dig a hole in the ice for this as the entire water surface is often covered in ice. Fish is eaten either frozen or boiled or fried. As fruits and vegetables are sparse in these climate zones, dairy products and meat fulfil most of the nutritional needs. Crafts-making is another vocation that people practice.
The surface of the sea ice is very bright in the early summer as 80% of the sunlight that falls gets reflected on it. When summer is at its peak, the sea ice melts and the water absorbs almost 90% of the sunlight at this stage. The result is that the ocean heats up. Due to global warming, the Arctic Ocean is declining in terms of ice and size. One would wonder why there is no life in the Antarctic as in the Arctic region. The answer is, that the sea ice melts completely in the Antarctic in summer, thereby making it an impossible place for human habitation. In the Arctic region, a large extent of sea ice stays on even in the summer. Another difference is that the Antarctic is a continent where water surrounds the land whereas, in the Arctic, it is the land that surrounds the water.
The Arctic Food and Clothing
There are thick-skinned and hairy horse and dog breeds that the people of the Arctic region depend on for food, transport, and clothing. The skin and fur of dogs, seals, polar bears, caribou, and even birds are used to make clothing. The mittens made of sealskin and their edges covered by fox fur are made at home and worn by all when outside. The gut of the sea mammal sewn with grass or threads is another way to make clothes in Inuit culture. In the winter, the people mostly eat polar bear or seal meat and in summer, muskox, walrus and narwhale meat are more abundantly available. Eggs of different migratory birds add to the menu an array of tastes. The walruses caught during the winter season are cut into small pieces and kept buried under the ice to be dug out and eaten in the summer. There would be huge rocks placed above these natural storage places so that the polar bears do not steal the meat. The living world includes polar bears, some sea mammals, foxes, migratory birds, dogs, horses, caribou, ravens, wolves, and so on depending on the intensity of the climate and the availability of food. Dog sledges are a commonly used mode of transport. Many types of meat are eaten frozen and raw such as Caribou meat. There are no ants in the Arctic but there are spiders, bees, and flies.
Icebergs are one great source of drinking water. When in the summer the ice melts, they often float in and sometimes get stuck and frozen around. People when they see them floating near their villages, wish and pray that they stay. Because they are great sources of freshwater for their morning tea and boiled meat and fish. In summer, the snow on the land melts first and soil is seen. It’s the same time that the snow that has settled on the thick block of sea ice melts. However, the mild summer sun is incapable of melting the sea ice that is many meters thick. This is also the time when some grass and shrubs stick their heads out of the earth.
Seasons in the Arctic and How Life Changes With It
There is an ice cycle that determines life in the Arctic in a significant way. People always live by the sea. As the mood of the sea changes, so does the life of the humans there. Inherent to the lives of the Arctic people is an intrinsic tradition of prediction based on the seasons, predictions which become their lifeline, as it helps them find game or fish, and make futuristic plans for a safe and secure life. The temperature of the arctic ranges from minus 50 degrees in winter to a temperature that melts ice in summer. Many consecutive days have no sun at all. There are regions where there is perennial ice, the permafrost, and there are other places where ice melts into the water in summer. The sun never sets in many regions for many consecutive days. There are also long nights that stretch over many days. Life in the Arctic changes based on all these seasonal shifts. Alexandra Anaviapik, an Inuit inhabitant of Mittimatalik, a northern Inuit community in Canada, has an explainer video about her life in the Arctic on Youtube and she describes how elated she felt when she saw the sun for the first time in over three months. She says that in 2021, the sunset was on November 11 and the next sunrise was on February 2. A long long night indeed! People have to consume vitamin D tablets during those long nights to compensate for the deficiency caused by having no sunlight fall on their skin. Once the sun rises, it goes up and up for days and then after a few months only does it begin to come down. A strange way to live one’s life if you are in the Arctic but for the local people, it’s just normal life.
Modern Life in the Arctic
Modernity has entered people’s lives in a big way. There is electricity, heating, schools, hospitals, and even jails, though often left unused. There are helipads where helicopters arrive with supplies and take away the commercial products that the people as well as factories, mines, and oil fields produce and sell. There are also general stores that sell consumer goods from the outside world. Life in the Arctic is amazing and still evolving.
Tour of the Arctic (1/2) – from Svalbard to Siberia | DW Documentary
Arctic Clothing, khanacademy.org
Experiencing Nenet Life on the Frozen Tundra, Tribe with Bruce Parry, BBC.
Arctic Life of Birds and Mammals Including Man, L. Irving, 1972.
Quick Facts on Arctic Sea Ice, nsidc.org
Modern Life in the Arctic, Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, Youtube.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Deepa