The Arctic is a region of extremes: extreme cold, extreme seasonal changes in daylight, and extreme winds. It sits at the top of world, covered in sea ice--a seemingly unwelcome place for life.

Polar bear at dusk

Yet the Arctic is actually teeming with wildlife--from large mammals like walruses and polar bears to birds, fish, small plants, and even tiny ocean organisms called plankton.

Where is the Arctic?

The Arctic region covers much of Earth's northern pole. The outer edge of the Arctic--which includes areas of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia--is made up of glaciers and tundra (treeless plains with frozen ground called permafrost). The central part of the Arctic (around the North Pole) is surrounded with large areas of sea ice.

Because of its polar location and the tilt of the earth, the Arctic does not have the normal seasons that we are used to in the continental United States. An Arctic winter has days without sunlight and the summer has days where the sun never sets (which is why it is called the land of the "Midnight Sun").

Throughout the year, the temperature can widely range. A short growing season, permafrost and long, dark winters of extreme cold and strong winds mean that the Arctic is nearly treeless and only small plants can grow.

Wildlife in the Arctic

Humpback Whale Spyhopping

The Arctic is a unique ecosystem with a complex food web made up of organisms adapted to its extreme conditions. It is one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, supporting many large fisheries and huge populations of migratory birds that come to the Arctic for the summer to breed.

Arctic wildlife have special adaptations that enable them to survive in their icy and changeable environment.

  • Arctic foxes, polar bears and caribou have hollow hair that traps air, providing them with insulation.
  • Polar bears have black skin to soak up as much of the sun's rays as possible. Their fur is almost transparent and appears white due to the reflection of sunlight.
  • Arctic foxes and ptarmigans change color with the season to blend in with the changing tundra ground cover (brown in summer, white in winter).
  • Some fishes that live in or under the ice have antifreeze compounds in their blood.
  • Seals, whales and walruses have a thick layer of fat called blubber that helps to insulate them from the cold.
  • Migratory birds use the Arctic to feed, nest, and raise their young. Many of these birds migrate to and from all fifty states and six continents.

People and the Arctic

Although the Arctic is gaining in popularity worldwide as a tourism and wildlife watching destination, the region has always been vital to the identity, culture, and survival of its indigenous people. Tribes, such as the Gwich'in people of northeast Alaska and the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada, depend on the migratory caribou herds and the Arctic fisheries for food.

Threats to Arctic Wildlife

Oil and Gas Development

Flock of Snow Geese

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

America's Arctic includes the 19.6 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Located in the northeast corner of Alaska, this protected area is home to more than 200 bird species, which migrate to the refuge to breed in the summers. As many as 300,000 snow geese visit the coastal plain each fall to feed on the tundra.

Other wildlife travelers on the Arctic Refuge include the 130,000 member Porcupine caribou herd. Each spring, the herd migrates more than 1,400 miles across Canada and Alaska to calve in the Refuge's coastal plain. It is estimated that an individual caribou may travel more than 3,000 miles over the course of a single year. The indigenous Gwich'in people rely on the resources of the coastal plain, especially the Porcupine caribou. Protecting the coastal plain is necessary to preserving the culture and lifestyle of the Gwich'in Nation. The coastal plain also provides critical habitat for the polar bear.

The stated mission of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to, "preserve unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values; to conserve caribou herds, polar bears, grizzly bears, muskox, Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, snow geese, peregrine falcons, other migratory birds, Dolly Varden, and grayling; to provide opportunities for subsistence uses; and to ensure necessary water quantity and quality."

However, oil and gas companies consistently pressure politicians to open the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to drilling--which would put the wildlife who live in this largest refuge in the United States at risk. The Obama administration has the opportunity to recommend wilderness protection for the coastal plain as part of the latest Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Refuge, which is expected to be finalized soon. Only Congress can designate an area as wilderness, however, so it is up to our elected officials in the House and Senate to pass a bill to permanently protect this sensitive landscape for future generations.

Western Arctic Reserve:

Most of northwestern Alaska consists of the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), the largest single tract of public land in the country. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management for both the protection of high fish and wildlife values and development of oil and gas, the Indiana-sized Reserve provides critical habitat for an incredible array of migratory waterfowl that use the four major U.S. flyways to reach all 50 states in addition to many other countries. Canada geese, tundra swans, white-fronted geese, pintail ducks and brant are among the hundreds of species of migratory birds that nest, feed, and molt in the NPRA each year.

The Reserve is also home to spectacular terrestrial and marine mammals, including grizzly and polar bears, caribou, wolves, and wolverine as well as beluga and bowhead whales, walrus, and several species of seals. The 490,000 animal Western Arctic Caribou Herd is the state's largest, and the Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd, numbering about 67,000 animals, is a primary source of subsistence for thousands of Alaska Native residents.

National Wildlife Federation is working to protect the key habitats that support the remarkable fish and wildlife that flourish in the Reserve. Thanks to this work, the Bureau of Land Management finalized a management plan that takes a balanced approach to identify the most important wildlife habitat while providing for oil and gas development where it can be done responsibly.

FACT SHEET: Conserving Wildlife Habitat in the Western Arctic

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean

A large portion of the Arctic region includes the Arctic Ocean. This body of water is home to an amazing array of wildlife, including endangered bowhead whales, endangered polar bears, beluga whales, endangered ringed seals and the Pacific walrus.

The Arctic Ocean ecosystem is not only changing dramatically due to the rapid melting of sea ice, but the Obama administration is pushing forward plans to open this frontier area to drilling. More drilling will only exacerbate the challenges brought on by climate change in this region. The harshness and uncertainty of the Arctic coupled with the lack of science about our Arctic Ocean make this sensitive ecosystem no place to drill.

Climate Change and the Loss of Sea Ice

Average temperatures in the Arctic are rising almost twice as fast as the rest of the world and are changing the Arctic ecosystem in profound ways--especially the amount of sea ice that exists in the region.

The majority of the Arctic near the North Pole is covered in sea ice. The ice pack is in constant motion, drifting with ocean currents and prevailing winds. Ice is present year-round in the Arctic, expanding during the winter and retreating during the summer.


Sea ice is a special feature of the Arctic, and most wildlife there depend on it in some way. Polar bears use the ice as platforms from which to feed on seals. Walruses use the ice as a place to rest. There is even a kind of algae that actually lives in the ice!

Coming Soon: Ice-Free Summers?

Sea ice is melting much faster than previously predicted. The region is on track to become essentially ice-free environment in the summer, with a much-reduced ice freeze-up occurring in winter. Already, much of the "fast ice," or ice shelves attached to land, have broken up, including the 300-mile Ellesmere Ice Shelf along Ellesmere Island in northern Canada.

There is concern that melting Arctic glaciers and sea ice may raise sea levels around the globe and that, if enough freshwater is introduced to the North Atlantic, there could be a shift in ocean currents.

Arctic permafrost is also melting, changing tundra to wetlands and shrub lands. All of these changes have profound effects on wildlife, and the human communities that depend on wildlife for their survival.

The National Wildlife Federation is working hard to fight global warming and stop the loss of tundra and sea ice in the Arctic.  

National Wildlife Magazine Articles
  • A Ticking Time Bomb in the Arctic? - Climate scientists fear that massive levels of a greenhouse gas with 20 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide could be released into the atmosphere from the thawing Arctic Ocean
  • As the Arctic Melts, An Ancient Culture Faces Ruin - A writer visiting Iñupiaq hunters along Alaska's north coast finds that these remote people are among the first to feel the devastating effects of rising temperature
  • Grizzly Bears on Ice - At the northern edge of the species' range, a growing number of grizzlies are eking out a living in territory traditionally dominated by polar bears
  • Paradox of the Arctic Fox - This cunning animal's appetites are a powerful force in Far North ecosystems, and once human beings get into the act, the fragility of those ecosystems becomes all too clear

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