Arctic Circle

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

The Arctic Circle is a circle of latitude encompassing the northernmost pole of the Earth and is located at approximately 66°33′45.6″ north of the Equator.

Line of Latitude

The Arctic Circle is a line of latitude that separates the Arctic zone in the north from the Northern Temperate Zone in the south. The Arctic Circle is the most northerly of the five major lines of latitude.

Where is the Arctic?

The Arctic is defined as everything north of the Arctic Circle. The area of the Arctic is about 5.5 million square miles (14.5 million square kilometers).

Summer and Winter Solstice at the Arctic Circle

What makes the Arctic Circle in the north (and its counterpart in the south, the Antarctic Circle) unique from other regions on Earth is that the sun is below or above the horizon for a full 24 hours during the solstices, in June and December.


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In June the sun stays out constantly for an entire day and it is completely dark for 24 hours in December. Parts of the Arctic Circle might still see a reflection of the sun during a solstice because of atmospheric refraction and the angle of the Earth.

Every year the actual location of the Arctic Circle (and therefore the Antarctic Circle as well) changes slightly due to Earth’s axial tilt, which is influenced by the orbit of the Moon and resulting changes in the tides of Earth’s bodies of water. There is an average shift of about 49 feet per year to the north.

Weather in the Arctic Circle

The weather in the Arctic Circle is harsh, as are the long days and nights that categorize this particular region of the world.

The average monthly temperature, even during the summers, is below 10°  C (50°  F).

Population of the Arctic

Although relatively few people reside in the Arctic Circle full time there are major communities including in Russia, Norway, and Sweden that have between 20,000-295,000 people living in them all throughout the year.

These major communities are: Murmansk (population 295,374), Norilsk (178,018), Tromsø (75,638), Vorkuta (58,133), Bodø (52,357), Harstad (24,703) and Kiruna (22,841).

In the United States, Utqiaġvik, Alaska is the largest community north of the Arctic Circle with about 4,000 residents. In Canada, the community of Inuvik has about 3,200 people

In Alaska, there are three major indigenous groups that live north of the Arctic Circle: Inuit, Aleut, and Indian. In Russia, there are sixteen recognized indigenous minorities based north of the Arctic Circle. The indigenous populations of Alaska is about 50,000 and 70,000 people in Russia.

Around 50,000 indigenous people (Indian, Inuit, and Métis) live in the Canadian Arctic, accounting for 50% of the total population.

In total, about four million people live north of the Arctic Circle and about 10% of that population is indigenous.

How Many Countries Does the Arctic Circle Cross?

The Arctic Circle intersects eight nations and territories including Norway, Sweden, Greenland (Denmark), Finland, Russia, the US, Canada, and Iceland.

The water portions of the Arctic Circle cross the Arctic Ocean.

Map showing which countries are crossed by the Arctic Circle.
The Arctic Circle cross through several countries. Map: Arctic Boundaries as defined by the Arctic Research & Policy Act-ARPA, Circumpolar Map, USGS, public domain.

National Park North of the Arctic Circle

The Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the only U.S. National Park entirely north of the Arctic Circle. The park was created in 1980 to persevere  8.4 million acres of Arctic environment including significant portions of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd range and habitat.

A female caribou swimming in a lake in Alaska.
A swimming cow caribou of the Western Arctic Herd in Kobuk Valley National Park. Photo: NPS/Matt Cameron, public domain.

The National Park Service oversees roughly 18 percent of the United States’ property above the Arctic Circle, protecting 20.25 million acres in five parks.

Most Northern Amphibian in North America

The wood frog (Rana sylvatica) is not only one of the most widespread frogs in North America, it is also found above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, making it the most norther amphibian in the continent.

The wood frog freezes for about seven to eight months a year in Alaska, thawing out in the spring. This strategy allows the wood frog to become active earlier in the spring than if it had hibernated deep under water like most frogs in the winter. The land thaws earlier in the spring than bodies of water, allow the frog to emerge from hibernation sooner.

Most Northern Flowering Plant

The Glacier Buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis) is the world’s most northern blooming plant.

References

Arctic FAQ – Frequently asked questions about the Arctic. (n.d.). NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL). https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/arctic-zone/faq.html

Arctic people | National snow and ice data center. (2020, May 4). National Snow and Ice Data Center. https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/arctic-meteorology/arctic-people.html

This article was originally published on April 13, 2015 and contains contributions from Elizabeth Borneman. The article has since been updated with additional information.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.