Arctic People

Man driving a sled dog team

For transportation, people in the arctic often travel by sled pulled by a pack of huskies.
Credit: Andy Mahoney

The extreme Arctic climate makes the region a forbidding place to travel and a challenging place to live. Even so, people have found ways to explore and live in the Arctic. Indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Explorers, adventurers, and researchers have also ventured into the Arctic to explore its unique environment and geography.

In the winter, cold Arctic temperatures and extreme wind chills make it dangerous to venture outdoors without proper clothing and gear. Strong storms can make travel difficult. And heating a home can be challenging and expensive without trees to cut for firewood. However, people have found ways to adapt, survive, and thrive in the Arctic.

Indigenous People

Inuit hunters spear fishing for salmon

Inuit hunters spear fish for salmon in a river in the early 1900's. —Credit: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection/Library of Congress.

Residents of the Arctic include a number of indigenous groups as well as more recent arrivals from more southern latitudes. In total, only about 4 million people live in the Arctic worldwide, and in most countries indigenous people make up a minority of the Arctic population.

Archaeologists and anthropologists now believe that people have lived in the Arctic for as much as twenty thousand years. The Inuit in Canada and Greenland, and the Yu'pik, Iñupiat, and Athabascan in Alaska, are just a few of the groups that are native to the Arctic. Traditionally, Arctic native peoples lived primarily from hunting, fishing, herding, and gathering wild plants for food, although some people also practice farming, particularly in Greenland. Northern people found many different ways to adapt to the harsh Arctic climate, developing warm dwellings and clothing to protect them from frigid weather. They also learned how to predict the weather and navigate in boats and on sea ice. Many Arctic people now live much like their neighbors to the south, with modern homes and appliances. Nonetheless, there is an active movement among indigenous people in the Arctic to pass on traditional knowledge and skills, such as hunting, fishing, herding, and native languages, to the younger generation.

Arctic Exploration

Dogs chasing a polar bear away from camp.

Dogs provided companionship and entertainment for people exploring the Arctic. They also alerted the camp when polar bears were present. Here, dogs are approaching a polar bear as it emerges from a lead (crack) in the ice. Dogs chase the polar bear, ensuring that it does not approach the camp.
Credit: EWG

Compared to indigenous people who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, European explorers are relative newcomers. Europeans started venturing north into Arctic regions of Scandinavia and Russia only around a thousand years ago, with much exploration taking place in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Vikings from Scandinavia traveled to Greenland around A.D. 930, during an unusually mild period throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere. They settled for a time along the south and southwest coasts, the only habitable part of Greenland. For nearly five centuries the Norse settlements persevered, depending on their cattle, sheep and goats, as well as on seal and caribou hunts.

Contacts between the Norse settlements and the outside world ceased in the late 1400s. We now know that as the weather got steadily colder and the pasture and farming lands shrank under the advancing ice and snow, the inhabitants suffered a painful annihilation. The rapid cooling that signaled the beginning of the Little Ice Age in the early 1300s caused sea ice to expand over the North Atlantic, which made it impossible to navigate between Greenland and Iceland, trapping people in their settlements and halting trade.

Russians began exploring the northern regions of their country in the 11th and 12th centuries, and by the 17th century they had explored many Arctic islands. During the 1800's, many explorers searched for a Northwest Passage. Irish explorer, Sir Robert McClure, is credited with finding it in 1851. The first reported person to reach the North Pole is American explorer, Robert Edwin Peary. He accomplished this in 1909, however there are some doubts as to whether he actually made it or not.

People in the Modern Arctic

Many people in the Arctic today live in modern towns and cities, much like their neighbors to the south. People also work in the Arctic, extracting oil and gas from rich deposits beneath the permafrost, working in tourism, or conducting research. Other people in the arctic still live in small villages much the way their ancestors did.

Arctic people today face many changes to their homes and environment. Climate change is causing sea ice to melt and permafrost to thaw, threatening coastal villages with bigger storms and erosion. And the declining sea ice means that the Arctic Ocean could open up for commercial shipping or tourist cruises.

Anchorage skyline

Skyline of Alaska's largest city, Anchorage.
Credit: Flickr/robotbrainz

Siorapaluk, Greenland

Sled dogs sun themselves outside the small village of Siorapaluk, Greenland, one of the world's northernmost inhabited settlements. —Credit: Andy Mahoney.

Last updated: 4 May 2020