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Poles Apart

Poles Apart

Posted on 25 Jan 2024

"The land looks like a fairytale."   - Roald Amundsen

In this article, we will take a closer look at how weather impacts differing regions around the world. We will see how the weather shapes the lives of the populations, wildlife, industry and culture. We will also see how predicting the weather, as well as understanding its history can help at multiple levels.

In this story, we will examine the extremes of our planet, the Arctic and Antarctic. 

Some of the most spectacular and beautiful, yet dangerous and inhospitable regions of our planet lie at its extremes - the North and South Poles. The lowest temperature ever officially recorded on the Earth’s surface was −89.2°C at Vostok station, Antarctica on the 21st July 1983. To put this into perspective, it is 24C warmer than the average temperature of the surface of Mars. 

Polar Differences

The main difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic is a geological one. The Arctic is a sea of ice surrounded by land, located at the northernmost latitudes of the world. The region only has vaguely defined limits,  and extends over six countries that border the Arctic Ocean: Canada, the USA (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Russia, Norway and Iceland. The sheet of ice in the North Pole expands and shrinks every year during the changing of the seasons, but as global warming continues to take its toll, the ice sheet gets smaller and smaller each summer.

Antarctica, by contrast, is an entire continent to itself located in the southern hemisphere and 98 percent covered by an ice cap. There are mountains reaching a maximum of just over 16,000 feet in height to be found there. Although it is home to a multitude of scientific research stations, Antarctica does not belong to any specific country.

Life at the Poles

There is a stark difference between the human populations at the Artic and Antartic. The North is home to numerous native populations, including the Inuits of North America, the Sami of Northern Europe and the Yakuts at the edge of Siberia. These populations tend to avoid the true North Pole, due to the availability of drinking water. Early Arctic explorers experienced challenges keeping themselves sufficiently hydrated for such hard, physical expeditions. 

Conversely, inaccessible prior to the modern era, Antarctica remained untouched by human presence until 1821. Today still, this southern continent does not have any permanent inhabitants, just scientific teams that rotate on a regular basis.

Polar wildlife

The very word ‘Arctic’ comes from the Greek word ‘arktos’, meaning ‘bear’. The Artic region is home to the polar bear, one of the largest land predators on the planet. Arctic foxes, caribou (reindeer), snowy owls and musk ox also exist in this seemingly inhospitable environment. Due to the long established human population, many Arctic animals are shy, timid and fearful of humans.

The Arctic also has a wide range of native plants, with 1,700 species on the Arctic tundra, including flowering plants, dwarf shrubs, herbs, grasses, mosses, and lichens. The tundra consists of a thin layer of soil and partially decomposed organic matter that is frozen year-round, known as permafrost. The physical nature of the permafrost means that only plants with a shallow root system can survive. Trees need a much deeper soil base, plus average temperatures above 10 C to complete their growing cycle do not survive. 

In Antarctica waters, there are healthy populations of sea lions, whales, seals and elephant seals. There are also around forty species of birds that inhabit the southern polar region. With human contact being both recent and extremely limited, the animals of the South Pole are quite fearless, making them a wonderful spectacle for human visitors.

The Weather

The Antarctic experiences some of the most varied temperatures for any continent. Average temperatures range from a relatively balmy -10C at coastal areas, down to -60C at certain high points of the interior. 

As we examined with our previous article, atmospheric pressure variations can have a dramatic impact on the wind. Antarctica experiences a belt of low atmospheric pressure around its exterior, known as the ‘circumpolar trough’ and an area of high pressure in the center. This phenomenon helps create strong and consistent Katabatic winds.

Precipitation, as could be expected, is normally in the form of snow and ice crystals. Due to subsiding air in the interior, very little cloud forms. However the moisture dense air of coastal areas creates snow fall, especially on the Antarctic Peninsula. Loose snow that is picked up by the wind can gather against objects and other snow. Gathering of snow below eye level is known as drifting snow, normally when the wind speed is less than 30 kph, and above eye level is blowing snow when the wind exceeds 30 kph   

Blizzards occur when high winds blow snow for over an hour, with temperatures of less than 0C, and visibility of less than 100m. These conditions can be highly disruptive to almost all activities, and can sometimes last for days.

Whiteouts can also be extremely disruptive, but unlike blizzards, are an optical phenomenon rather than purely physical. These occur when there are large expanses of featureless snow, combined with an unbroken and overcast sky. These uniform light conditions can make it impossible to distinguish shadows, landmarks or the horizon.

Global influence

Although studies are continuing, there are theories that the loss of sea ice at the poles has an influence on weather patterns across the globe, including the tropics. 

  • The frequency of strong El Niño events could increase by 35% by the end of the century. High levels of warmer than average water in the eastern Pacific near Peru have often triggered droughts, floods and cyclones.

  • Loss of sea ice is causing a rapid acidification of the Arctic Ocean and more extreme precipitation in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

The Arctic is warming at a rate up to four times higher than the global average, and has lost a third of its sea ice volume in just 20 years. A study has estimated that from as soon as 2035, the summer Arctic sea ice would have completely melted.  

Understanding the weather

The polar regions, as well as almost any other location in the world can experience rapidly changing weather conditions. Predicting these changes, and having a set of accurate and nuanced weather data can help almost any human activity, from a family cycle ride through a Scottish glen, to a Polar expedition at a remote and inhospitable base camp. 

Our One Call API 3.0 provides nuanced yet easy to use access to essential global weather data, short-term and long-term forecasts and aggregated historical weather data. This includes the incredible daily aggregated weather for over 40 years historically, and up to 1.5 years forecast. 

The Artic and Antartic regions are experiencing rapid change, and have been shown to provide a valuable scientific insight into the future of our planet, and its weather.

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