Canada is an Arctic nation. The Arctic represents roughly 40% of Canada’s land mass.

But ask people (as we often do) what comes to mind when they hear the word “Arctic” and it quickly becomes clear that we’re out of touch with nearly half the country.

We recently asked about 200 visitors to the Aquarium to tell us the first 3 things that come to mind when we say the word “Arctic”. There were 5 words that came up most often.

The top four aren’t exactly incorrect descriptors of the Arctic, just far from the complete picture:
1. Cold
2. Polar bears
3. Ice
4. Snow

Coburg Island at the entrance to Lancaster Sound and the North-West Passage. Not the first image that comes to mind when thinking about the High Arctic.

Is it cold? Well, that’s all relative but even northerners would say winters get cold. Or, as Drew Arreak from Pond Inlet told me yesterday, “It’s not that it’s cold; it’s just not warm.” From our southern perspective, we would agree that -30 to -50 Celcius is not warm. But even in the High Arctic, temperatures in July and August can reach into the low teens.

Are there polar bears? Sure, but this one didn’t always make second on the list; the polar bear has become the Arctic spokescritter in recent years.

Ice? Sure, there’s ice, and it’s an important feature of the Arctic. But summer months can be completely ice-free in some regions of the Arctic. That’s certainly the case in the communities, where no time is spent on the ice until late fall/early winter when the ice is fully formed and safe for travel.

Does it snow in the Arctic? Sure. But the amount of snow varies widely and, relative to many other regions, the Arctic receives little precipitation. Bella Coola, British Columbia, for instance, receives an average snowfall of 160 cm; Cambridge Bay, Nunavut receives 82 cm.

The fifth most mentioned word is also the second most thought of animal (after polar bears) associated with the Arctic – and the most likely, it turns out, to be followed by an exclamation point.

5. Penguins

Yes, penguins. Now, if you’re wondering why that’s such a big deal, let me say without passing judgement, that there are no penguins in the Arctic. If you thought there were, don’t worry – you’re far from alone. To the best of our knowledge, though, polar bears and penguins have never met, let alone shared a Coke.

Honourable mentions include “white” – although Shelly Elverum, another long-time resident of Pond Inlet, pointed out recently that every color in a Canadian 5 dollar bill is represented in the Arctic night sky at some point throughout the year.

Of most interest for us was not what is on the list, but what’s missing

  • People – any people
  • Fish – any fish
  • Land animals – any land animals
  • Plants – any plants
  • Issues – any issues, like climate change, social issues, sovereignty, etc.

Another highly unscientific survey of the Internet and popular commentary on the Arctic reveals words and phrases commonly used to describe the Arctic. They include:

  • Harsh
  • Inhospitable
  • Desolate
  • New frontier

These words represent a common, mostly southern perspective of the Arctic. If, however, one happens to be a beluga, narwhal, polar bear or ringed seal, the conditions that we think of as harsh and inhospitable are absolutely necessary for survival. If one happens to be a person living in Kugluktuk and you want to visit relatives in Cambridge Bay, the cold is necessary as it allows the ice on which you travel to form. And the Arctic is hardly a new frontier for those whose ancestors have been living there for many generations.

When it comes to the Arctic, the public is beginning to get the message that It Matters. There’s no shortage of sound bites and headlines lately to prove it. But we still seem to have little knowledge of exactly what “It” is. And whether one’s goal is to protect It, develop It, fix It, manage It, claim It, live in It, or exploit It, the first and most important step is to understand It. To that end, there are many perspectives and sources of knowledge. Our goal with the Vancouver Aquarium’s Arctic Connections program is to connect both North and South with the perspectives, knowledge and the understanding required to engage in meaningful and effective conversation.

Arctic Willow in the High Arctic.

Summer in the High Arctic community of Grise Fjord.

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