Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Exactly Is The "Arctic"?

In some ways it is very easy to define where I live and in other ways it can be difficult. "So where exactly do you live again?" I get asked.
"Up in the Arctic."
"Up North."
"North of the Arctic Circle."
"The North coast of Baffin Island."

These are all typical responses depending on the questioner's level of familiarity with "The North".

Defining where I live, the place I call home, is a tricky thing. There are so many many ways of delineating Canada's northern region, usually based on average yearly temperature, permafrost, vegetation, geo-politics, the tree-line or the Arctic Circle. These factors don't always correspond with each other. For example if you define the Arctic as "those areas of Canada lying North of the Arctic Circle (66.33 degrees N), then Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories (68.36 degree N) is clearly in the Arctic; Iqaluit, Nunavut (63.44 degrees N) is not. HOWEVER, if you choose to define Arctic as "those areas lying above the treeline" THEN the situation is reversed. Inuvik sits just on the edge of the treeline (just like Churchill, Manitoba, I might add) while Iqaluit, on the barren rock of Baffin Island is not Arctic by this definition. Clearly, by pretty much every definition, you choose, Arctic Bay is in the Arctic. It gets a little trickier for a few other places.

The Arctic can also be defined as "those areas where the average July temperature is below 10C/50F." I'm no geographer, but as I understand it, this line, the July Isotherm, is not static, but constantly shifting. The Arctic region is also a region of permafrost, areas where the ground remains frozen the full length of the year. That is certainly the case here where I live. I would assume that the permafrost line, also difficult to define, would correspond roughly to that "July Isotherm". I have lived in places though (like northern Manitoba), where there are areas of "discontinuous permafrost", or small pockets of it, depending on the rock and water levels beneath the surface. And to put a further twist on things, Nunavut is not entirely devoid of trees. The tree-line cuts down through the extreme south-west part of the territory near Arviat. Baffin Island, even to my amazement, since I lived here for 3 years before seeing one, even has trees. A few scattered areas support the Arctic Willow, a very small vine-like tree, that closely hugs the ground, usually near rocky outcroppings where it can pick up reflected heat from the sun in order to survive. But Arctic Bay is still well above the tree-line, even though the exact distance escapes me at the moment. (The airport out at Nanisivik which services our town for the time being is 1233km north of Iqaluit as the crow flies.)

Of course, many people also use the term "North". For most Canadians, the North begins at the 60th parallel. This is pretty convenient definition and I've often used it myself even though it is not very accurate. As, an aside, I lived for a brief time in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, hugging the 60th parallel, which forms the northern border of Alberta. For the most part, the road leading out of town follows the border more or less. And while it was pretty neat to walk across the road several times and cross the imaginary threshold between what many see as "North" and "South", the novelty of it wore off after awhile. Crossing the road became just a way, the only way actually, to get to Wood Buffalo National Park. I never really felt as though I was crossing between between two worlds: North and South. It is a purely man-made construct in many ways. (And, not to get totally off topic here, but I remember as a child growing up in Southern Ontario, thinking the "North" began somewhere just outside of North Bay, Ontario. Clearly my definition has changed somewhat over the past 25-odd years.)

So what is my point with all this? I suppose one of the things that attracts me to the "North"/"Arctic" is how diverse the place is. It is hardly a monolith. In some ways I can describe or define this place and in other ways I cannot. Perhaps I can draw an analogy here to marriage (even though I am not married), in the sense that, part of the attraction is a familiarity but also a sense of wonder upon making new discoveries that continues to grow and enrich you over a lifetime.


Alex said...

excellent post!

I've thought about this topic several times myself. While I was living in Fort McPherson (67.4N) many people didn't consider it to really be "arctic", even though it was clearly above the Arctic Circle. It too was on the threshold of the tree line, if you went about an hour north you were into shrubs, but around McPherson itself there were some sizable trees.

I also have talked to many people who live in northern BC or Alberta who consider themselves to be "living in the north".

As for Simpson, I definitely do not consider it to be the arctic....I'd instead call it "sub-arctic". Of course that's the name of a bar here so maybe that's why I'm so keen on it.

dogsled_stacie said...

Interesting! I think it all depends on one's definition of "Arctic" - for most southern Canadians it's above the 60th parallel. Although spending time in Northern AB sure feels like the "north" to me.

Tina said...

That's so funny you should post this. When we lived in Fort Rae, NWT I considered that living "in the north". Maybe because that was the first place we lived. Here, in Ile a la Crosse, Sk people here refer to this as living "in the north" and I have to chuckle to myself. We have trees, grass, pavement, and are 5 hours from Saskatoon and 6 hours from Edmonton. This feels like I'm living back in Nova Scotia, except for the ice roads. :)