Polar ecology

Polar ecology

Polar ecology is the relationship between plants and animals in a polar environment. Polar environments are in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Arctic regions are in the northern hemisphere, and it contains land and the islands that surround it. Antarctic is in the southern hemisphere and it also contains the land mass, surrounding islands and the ocean. Polar regions also contain the subantarctic and subarctic zone which separate the polar regions from the temperate regions. Antarctica and the Arctic lie in the polar circle. The polar circle is not visible on the earth but it is shown on maps to be the area that receives less sunlight due to less radiation. These areas either receive sunlight or shade 24 hours a day because of the earths tilt. Plants and animals in the polar regions are able to withhold living in harsh weather conditions but are facing environmental threats that limit their survival.


Polar climates are cold, windy and dry. Much of the radiation from the sun that is received is reflected off the snow making the polar region’s cold (Stonehouse, 23). When the radiation is reflected, the heat is also reflected. The polar regions reflect 89-90 % of the sun radiation that the earth receives (Stonehouse, 24). And because Antarctica is closer to the sun, it receives 7% more radiation than the Antarctic. Also in the polar region, the atmosphere is thin. Because of this the UV radiation that gets to the atmosphere can cause fast sun tanning and can cause snow blindness (Stonehouse, 29).Polar regions are dry areas; there is very little precipitation due to the cold air. There are some times when the humidity may be high but the water vapor present in the air may be low. Wind is also strong in the polar region. Wind carries snow creating blizzard like conditions. Winds may also move small organisms or vegetation if it is present (Stonehouse, 44). The wind blows the snow making snow dunes which may exist even in the spring when the snow is thawing out (Stonehouse, 44). It is hard for Meteorologists to measure the amount of precipitation. This is because it is expensive to take care of the stations that collect weather data and it hard for them to measure snow fall amounts because the wind blows the snow too much to calculate exact amounts.

The temperatures are similar between the Arctic and Antarctica. The temperatures in the Arctic are different depending on the location. Temperatures in the Arctic have a higher range than in the Antarctic. Temperatures can range as much as 100°C. Along the coast in the Arctic temperatures average -30° Celsius in December, January and February (Stonehouse, 48). The ice melts along the coast during the summer months which are around June, July and August and the temperature may rise a few degrees above freezing causing there to be some vegetation. During these same months in the northern regions there will be 24 hours of daylight. Arctic regions also receive a lot of snowfall. The Arctic Basin has snow 320 days out of the year while the Arctic Seas have snow cover 260 days a year (Melnikov, 14). The thickness of the snow averages 30-40 cm (Melnikov, 14). In Greenland, temperatures have an average temperature of -40°C in the winter and in the summer the temperatures reach -12°C. Iceland on the other hand is in a subarctic region meaning it is near the temperate zone. Because of this the temperatures are above the freezing point throughout much of the year. In the USSR temperatures are extremely cold. In Verkhoyansk, Siberia it has reached the coldest temp of -68.8°C in the northern Hemisphere (Stonehouse, 51). The temperatures in the summer in Siberia can get to 36°C.

In the Antarctic there is less temperature variations. Temperatures only range by around 30°C. The winter months are May till September while the summer months will be October till April. The sun reappears in September which then starts the 24 hours of daylight. The temperatures are different between the plateaus in Antarctica and between the coasts. The plateaus are the coldest regions of Antarctica (Stonehouse, 52). In the summer months there is low precipitation with light winds. Vostok has received the lowest temperature worldwide getting as low as -88.3°C in 1960. The West Antarctica plateau reaches snow levels of around 30cm. This area is also warmer but it receives the heaviest snow and receives more wind. Because of the cold desert like conditions on the plateaus there are very little plants and animals. Some species of birds though have been seen.On the coasts in the summer there is more wind, and it is cloudier. Coasts with higher latitudes have a temperature of -24°C in the winter months whereas lower latitude coasts get down to -20°C. Coastal areas may receive 40cm or more of snow.


Water is an important part of human survival. Because of its cold temperature much of the earths water comes from the polar regions. 90% of the world’s water comes from the Antarctic ice cap although a lot of this water is not used (Stonehouse, 106). Water environments are important for many species around the world. Many bacteria thrive there as well as algae and flora. Many of the ponds or lakes in polar regions are frozen over or snow covered for most of the year. Larger lakes thaw out around the edges during the warmer months while the smaller lakes thaw entirely. There are few rivers in the polar regions. The Arctic has more rivers compared to Antarctica. The regions also have ponds. The ponds that attract birds tend to be rich in nutrients. This is because the bird droppings or bird feathers (Stonehouse, 109). There are two different types of lakes in polar regions including Arctic lakes and Antarctic lakes. Of the Arctic lakes they include glacial lakes and permafrost lakes.

The polar regions include the Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean. The Arctic ocean covers 14 million km squared (Stonehouse, 127). In the spring the ice covers an area of 5-8 million km squared and in the winter it is twice that. In this area it is never totally ice covered. This is due to the winds breaking up the ice. Because of these cracks in the ice there is more biological productivity in the ocean.

The Southern Ocean is 28 million km squared. This ocean contains the Weddell Sea and Ross Sea. The ocean contains large packs of ice that surround Antarctica. At minimum it may be 3-5 million km squared but in the winter months it spreads to 17-20 million km squared. The average thickness of the ice is 1-2 meters thick. The packs of ice are pushed away due to winds. This is the time that animals such as seabirds and seals start to bread in this area. Temperatures of the Southern Ocean range from -1 °C to 3°C.Land

Due to the cold weather it is hard for plants to grow. Frozen ground covers most of the polar regions for the majority of the year. Permafrost reaches a thickness of 600-1000m deep. Large amounts of permafrost can lead to poor water drainage. Due to the permafrost the water in the soil remains frozen for most of the year. In the summer the top of the permafrost may be covered with water due to melting in the area (Stonehouse, 69). Weathering is also common in polar regions. There is rubble from rocks that are scattered on the land due to movement of glaciers. Also due to quick temperature change causes weathering.

The main type of soil in the polar regions is Ahumic soils. This includes the cold desert soil. This soil consists of sand that is frozen. These soils tend to not have a lot of vegetation. In this soil there is bacteria that have been found.

The other type of soil is organic soil. This type of soil is found in areas that are warmer and have more moisture. Some vegetation that live here are algae, fungi and mosses. One type of organic soil is the brown soils. These soils have drainage.


Due to the harsh weather in the polar regions, there are not many animals. The animals that do exist in the polar region are similar between the Antarctic and Arctic. The animals do differ by the temperature. In the Arctic some invertebrates include spiders, mites, mosquitoes and flies. In warmer areas of the polar regions moths, butterflies and beetles can be found. Some of the larger animals that exist are foxes, wolves, rabbits, hares, reindeer and caribou. There are various bird species that have been spotted in the Arctic. Eight species of birds reside on the polar tundra year round while only 150 breed in the Arctic (Stonehouse, 96). The birds that do breed go to the Arctic between May and July. One of the known birds is the snowy owl. The owl has enough fat on it to be able to survive in the cold temperatures.

In the Antarctic some invertebrates that exist are mites, fleas and ticks. Antarctica is the only continent that does not have a land mammal population (Stonehouse, 105). There are also no birds that reside in Antarctica. Though, it has been known that various birds from South America have been spotted in Antarctica.

For animals to be able to live in the polar region they have to have adaptations which allow them to live in the cold and windy environments. These animals have originated with these adaptations, and animals that live in these regions are accumulating adaptations to be able to live in this type of environment. Some of these adaptations may be to be big and insolated, have a lot of fur, and to be darker. Also, many animals live in groups to be able to protect themselves from the cold. Animals also tend to be homeotherms which are animals that maintain a high temperature (177) Smaller invertebrates also tend to be smaller in polar regions which helps them conserve energy.

There are also many different animals that live in the sea water near polar regions. Squids are one animal that live in both Antarctica and the arctic. They are the food source for other large animals such as the male sperm whale (Fogg, 202). There is also a wide variety of fish in the polar regions. Arctic cod is a major species in the Arctic. Halibut, cod, herring, and walleye Pollock are some other types of fish. In Antarctica there is not a lot of diversity among the fish; there is a lot of the same kind. Silverfish and Myctophidae are some examples of fish that live in Antarctica (Fogg, 204).

Seals are also found in polar regions. The population of seals is around 2.5 million (Fogg, 206). They are known to breed on land in the polar regions. Whales are also in the polar regions and can be found near the surfaces of water where they prey.

There are also birds that breed in the polar regions. In the Arctic, 95% of the birds breeding here consist of only four different species. These include the northern fulmar, kittiwake, the little auk and the thick billed murre. These birds breed here when the ice starts to thaw and when there is cracks in the ice so the birds are able to feed. In the Antarctic there are two different birds that live there including the penguin and the procellariforms.


There is a wide variety of vegetation in the polar region but there are few species in common in the Southern and Northern polar region. The Arctic consists of desert and tundra vegetations. The desert vegetation consists of algae, lichens, and mosses. Lichens are the most dominant plants. The ground is bare with patchy cover of lichens and mosses (Stonehouse, 83). Flowering plants are also seen but not as common. There only contains 60 species of flowering plants. The Arctic tundra vegetation also consists of lichens and mosses, but it includes shrubs, grasses and forbs as well. The amount of vegetation in the tundra consists on how much sun, or snow cover is in the area. The vegetation in this area may grow vegetation as tall as 50 cm. In the southern part of the Arctic there tend to be more shrubs whereas the northern parts there is less plant cover. In wet areas of the tundra there is tussock grasses and cotton grasses. In moist areas there are short grasses, mosses, willows, and birches.

The Antarctic vegetation consists of algae or lichens, and some bacteria and fungi. Mosses and lichens dominate though. The algae and lichens grow where there is moisture, and they hid in cracks to be protected from the wind. The dominate grassland is the tussock. These grasses get to be 2 m high, so they provide habitat for many mammals (Fogg, 96). Of the 14 million km squared of land that makes up Antarctica, less than 2% of it does not have snow or ice (Bergstrom, 161).

One example of a type of vegetation is a crustose lichen. These linchens are found in moist areas that are hidden from wind. They hide on the surface of rocks in the cracks. They survive off the water that melts from above. These linchen occur in Canada and Alaska, as well as Greenland. These lichens can be red or orange colored and are known to defoliate rocks (72).


There exist many threats to the polar region. One threat is whaling. Whaling started in the 1500s. People hunted whale to sell the meat. By 1925 the number of whales being killed rose from fourteen thousand to forty thousand. The International Whaling Commission tried to stop whaling in the 20th century (Stonehouse, 192). That commission was unsuccessful.

Over-fishing is another threat to the polar regions. In the Bering Sea there is a lot of fishing due to the high populations of halibut and Alaskan Pollock. Around the 1970s krill began to become a popular fish to catch. The USSR started advertising food with krill in it so they started over-fishing krill. It has been estimated that 40 tonnes of krill per hour were caught during this time (Fogg, 221). In 1982, the Exclusive Economic Zone was established. This said that a certain country can fish 200 nautical miles off the shore. The country is now able to control who fishes in their EEZ area. The EEZ has been unsuccessful.

Another threat is pollution. There are many land and water areas within the polar regions that are contaminated. This can be due to the transport of oil by large ships. Siberia is one example of a place that has had major pollution in its rivers (Nuttall, 529).

Depletion on the Ozone layer is one threat. The ozone layer has been detected above Antarctica. The cause of the depletion of the ozone layer is due to chlorofluorocarbons. The other main reason is due to man made gases that are released into the atmosphere. There are many environmental effects due to this because the gases that are being released are being released five times faster than they are destroyed (Brown, 31).

Global Warming is also having effect on the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Global warming is causing the temperature on the earth to increase. In Plan B 2.0 Lester R. Brown talks about how the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world (Brown, 70). He goes on to say that the temperature in the Arctic region has increased by 3-4 degrees Celsius within the last half century. And with the increase in temperatures some worry that if the temperature increases this will create the sea level to rise. Scientists believe that if the Greenland ice sheet melts then the sea level could rise by 23 feet (Brown, 71). The melting of this ice sheet or others could have an effect on ocean currents. It could cause lower temperatures in northern North America. Rising of the sea level will also impact coastal areas. One example is in Bangladesh. If there was a 1 meter increase in sea level then millions of people would have to migrate from the coast. Global warming is also affecting Antarctica. Larsen A is an ice sheet on the Antarctic Peninsula. The sheet broke in 1995, and then in 2000 an iceberg that is 4,250 square miles broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica (Brown, 72). In 2002 Larsen B, which was 5,500 square kilometers, broke off.

Global warming affects plants and animals. For plants, the warmer temperatures induce stress on the plant (Marchand, ). For animals, there has been a decrease in the amount of polar bears in the Hudson Bay area (Stirling, 294). Since 1981, the polar bear population has been declining. This is because global warming causes the ice to break up faster so the polar bears are going to the coasts when there are poor conditions (Stirling, 294).

Conservation Efforts

Whoever owns the land is responsible or managing it. And the owners of the land differ between the Antarctic and Arctic and also within the polar regions. In the Arctic, there are six nations that own the land about 60°N. These nations include: Canada, USSR, Finland, USA, Denmark, Iceland and Norway (Stonehouse, 193). There have been international treaties set up so there are no disputes. These nations have also have set their government to manage the land properly. They have set up national parks, land for wilderness, and also land for research. In the polar regions there have been laws set up to manage the amount of visitors, There have been rules set up allowing only certain amount of mining done and other measures to protect the environment from damages.

In the Antarctic the owners of the land are less clear. Some areas of Antarctica are controlled by the French, while other areas are controlled by South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (Stonehouse, 194). Whoever owns Antarctic is still unclear therefore many other countries have put out scientific stations. The Antarctic Treaty of 1961 was established to make sure all the conflicts were resolved about who owned the land. This and other treaties have shown interest in helping to conserve the Antarctic region. All of these countries have conservation laws. These laws manage the amount of hunting in the area, monitor invasive species, and control burning and settlement.

till unexplored?

In a meta analysis of the published work in aquatic ecosystems since the term biodiversity appeared in the bibliography, the Arctic and Antarctic Polar regions were found to be still unexplored. In addition, the North Pacific Ocean (Pacific Northeast and Pacific Northwest), still has few citations in comparison to its large size. This limits our perception of the world’s aquatic biodiversity. Consequently we do not have sufficient information about biodiversity in most places on earth. Even though biodiversity declines from the equator to the poles in terrestrial ecosystems, this is still a hypothesis to be tested in aquatic and especially marine ecosystems where causes of this phenomenon are unclear. In addition, particularly in marine ecosystems, there are several well stated cases where diversity in higher latitudes actually increases (Moustakas et al. 2005). Therefore, the lack of information on biodiversity of Polar Regions prevents scientific conclusions on the distribution of the world’s aquatic biodiversity.


In conclusion, polar ecology is the relationship between plants and animals in a polar environment. The polar regions of Antarctica and the Arctic do differ but overall they are both cold environments and that have little vegetation and not a lot of animal life. Today there are threats, but there are conservation efforts that are being done in order to stop these threats.

Work cited

Arntz, W.E., Clarke., 2002. Ecological Studies in the Antarctic Sea Ice Zone. Springer, New York.

Bergstrom, D.M., Convey, P., Huiskes, A. H.L., 2006. Trends in Antarctic Terrestrial and Limnetic Ecosystems. Springer, The Netherlands.

Brown, L. R., 2006. Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Earth Policy Institute, New York.

Fog, G.E., 1998. The Biology of Polar Habitats. Oxford University Press, New York.

Marchand, F.L., Kockelbergh, F., Vijver, B. V.D., Beyens, L., and Jijs, I., 2005. Are heat and cold resistance of arctic species affected by successive extreme temperature events? New Phytologist. V. 170, pg 291-300.

Melnikov, I.A., 1997. The Arctic Sea Ice Ecosystem. P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Russia.

* [http://www.springerlink.com/content/p2q719335u606034/fulltext.pdf Moustakas, A. & I. Karakassis. How diverse is aquatic biodiversity research?, Aquatic Ecology, 39, 367-375]

Nuttall, M., Callaaghan, T.V., 2000. The Arctic: Environment, People, Policy. Harwood Academic, UK.

Stirling, I., Lunn, N.J., Iacozza, J., 1999. Long-term Trends in the Population Ecology of Polar Bears in Western Hudson Bay in Relation to Climate Change. The Arctic Institute of North America. V. 52 No. 3, p. 294-306.

Stonehouse, B., 1998. Polar Biology. Chapman and Hall, New York.

Wein, R.W., MacLean, D. A., The Role of Fire in Northern Circumpolar Ecosystems. Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, New York.

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