A few years ago at a petrol station, I saw a nice big picture across the entire wall with the caption ‘Arctic Alley’. Below the sign was a row of refrigerators, which would have made sense. That is, if it wasn’t for the fact that the lovely picture presented a flock of penguins. I heaved a sigh.
I have a confession to make here. I am generally a very calm person, but every time somebody confuses the Arctic with the Antarctic and puts a penguin next to a polar bear, well, it just makes my blood boil. Granted, I’m not being totally objective here. I’ve been working in the Antarctic for over 15 years and I’ve spent two winters there. I started as a biologist studying elephant seals, while for 10 years now, I’ve been regularly showing people both polar regions as a tour guide. I work on a ship, where I tell stories of the wild inhabitants and explain the history of the places visited. That’s why I think that it’s time to clear the fog of confusion cloaking the poles of our imagination. Because while it’s very cold both in the Arctic and in the Antarctic, in many ways they are two different worlds.
Trees beneath mushrooms
As we know, the Earth is a ball flying in the cosmos, therefore the concepts of ‘up’ and ‘down’ make no sense on a global scale. The rules of logic notwithstanding, it has become widely accepted that at the top of the globe we have the North Pole and all that white stuff surrounding it is called the Arctic. It’s basically a frozen ocean (the Arctic Ocean, the smallest and shallowest in the world) surrounded by the northern extremities of Asia, Europe and North America. This is where polar bears, walruses, reindeer, white wolves, Arctic foxes (or polar foxes), Arctic hares and lemmings live. It’s also home to the last remaining representatives of the Pleistocene megafauna, the muskoxen, which are probably wondering where their buddies from their evolutionary childhood – namely the woolly rhinoceros and the mammoth – disappeared to.
Swimming in the surrounding seas are narwhals, beluga whales and bowhead whales. Generally, there are a lot of species living there – both marine and terrestrial animals – and although many of them do not occur anywhere else, they very often have similar-looking relatives further south in the temperate zone. This is because the Arctic also encompasses continents that stretch out in warmer directions. All that animals or plants from our realm needed to do was simply move further up north and adapt to the polar conditions. Not everybody manages to do so, because it gets really cold and dark up there. That’s why one of the typical characteristics of polar ecosystems is the relatively low number of species but high abundance in each of the species, as there is plenty of food available (at least in summer), when the competition for it is low.
While it’s easy to show the Arctic on a globe, it’s difficult to map its borders. The Arctic Circle is often recognized as its southern extremity; this is the line beyond which there is at least one day a year when the sun does not set and at least one night when the sun does not rise, thereby giving us the polar day and polar night. What meaning does this have for the organisms there? Precisely none. From the point of view of biology and geography, the tree line creates a more meaningful border at which the northern coniferous forest (referred to as the ‘taiga’) ends, and the treeless plains covered in tundra start. However, this line is not too distinct, because the trees do not just suddenly disappear, but rather – as you move further north – they become smaller and less frequent, gradually ceasing to dominate the natural landscape. Thanks to the Gulf Stream that warms our continent, this border is further to the north in Europe and Asia than in America. So, on the same latitude, you’ve got the proper Arctic across the Atlantic, while here in Europe we still have what is referred to as the northern temperate zone. But wherever that border would be, you still find representatives of the same species of plants and animals once you cross it. You even have trees, like dwarf birches and Arctic willows, which spread along the ground, and the ‘trunks’ of these trees may need as many as 100 years to increase their circumference by one centimetre. As my close friend and experienced polar explorer Tomasz Janecki once said: “You have trees and mushrooms in the Arctic just like you do in Poland, with one difference: here mushrooms grow beneath trees, while there trees grow beneath mushrooms.” I really regret that I didn’t come up with the aphorism; the only consolation I have is that Tomasz ended up in the Arctic a few years earlier, so he had a head start.
But it wasn’t even Tomasz who made it to the Arctic first. Archaeological finds in Siberia prove that the first representatives of our species, or the Homo, rather optimistically referred to as sapiens, certainly appeared beyond the polar circle as early as 30,000 years ago. Yet people could have made it there even earlier; some remains seem to indicate that this happened 150,000 years ago, though this information cannot be confirmed beyond any doubt. What we do know for sure is that people have been constantly living in the Siberian Arctic for about 10,000 years, and for 5000 years in North America and Greenland.
Anyway, our so-called civilization found out about the existence of the Arctic with a certain delay. The first European discoverer of the north was Pytheas of Massalia (modern-day Marseille). We know that between 325 and 300 BC, he set off on a research expedition lasting several years and reached the northern edges of Europe, or maybe even further than that. At any rate, when he returned, he spoke not only of the Ultima Thule (or furthermost land) and about the sun that never sets, but also about a place “where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, as if this something was a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.” According to Fridtjof Nansen, this is the description of grease ice that forms on the freezing sea and of a fog shrouding the world, characteristic for these regions. After Pytheas, Irish hermits set off to the North, as did the Normans, who even settled in Greenland around a thousand years ago and founded a democracy lasting nearly 500 years, the strongest recorded to date in history.
To see a blue whale and die
Ptolemy II, ruler of Egypt from 308 BC to 246 BC, had a polar bear in his menagerie. Just like Seiwa, the emperor of Japan who ruled in the 9th century AD. Archaeological findings even show that countries of the Far East maintained trade relations with the Inuits for hundreds of years. Therefore, our nature as well as culture have had strong ties with the Arctic for a long time.
That’s why even today if we go to the Arctic we encounter great diversity, both natural and cultural. I would meet Inuits in Canada and Greenland that are not present in Spitsbergen, but actually, there I mostly see polar bears and blue whales. An encounter with the latter is an incredible experience. I’ve seen many whales before, but nothing can prepare you for a giant like that. When I see its enormous blue-greyish back as it slowly sweeps across the surface before its next dive, I always think I could easily go back to my cabin, make myself a coffee, go back out and it will still be sweeping across the water. After my first such encounter, I figured that I could die now.
Matters are much more different in the far south (for those resistant to geography, a small reminder: at the bottom of the conventional globe), otherwise known as the Antarctic. In fact, everything is the other way around here, including the seasons, although this actually applies to the entire Southern Hemisphere. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, while Antarctica, as may be expected of the opposite, is a continent surrounded by an ocean. Before I continue, let’s get the naming convention out of the way. The southern continent is called Antarctica, while the region that it belongs to is called the Antarctic. Therefore, the Antarctic is a wider term and includes the sea and many islands. The Antarctic is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that although the border is on the ocean, it is clear and unambiguous, at least from the point of view of nature.
This border is the Antarctic Convergence (also referred to as the Polar Front), or a belt surrounding the planet where the cold Antarctic water comes into contact with water flowing from the Equator, which is a few degrees warmer. The belt is only a few hundred metres wide and shifts a bit from month to month and year to year, but everything that happens there is so extraordinary and significant that this belt constitutes the border of a geographic region.
Those few degrees of fluctuation make all the difference. The thing with water is that as it gets cooler, it becomes more dense and heavier (until it reaches a temperature of around 4°C, when it becomes a bit thinner as the temperature comes closer to zero degrees). That’s why dense and heavy Antarctic waters do not easily mix with warmer waters, but rather sink below them. Yet another interesting characteristic of water is that it is also viscous, so the cold water that plunges into the abyss takes the warmer water along. It’s a bit as if two waterfalls were to meet face-to-face. Yet the warmer water is still thinner and lighter, so after experiencing a brief moment of shock when something was pulling it down, it starts to flow back to the surface. This means that in the Convergence zone, water is constantly circulating down and back. As this happens, all the nutrients near the bottom are carried up to the surface.
At the same time, summer days in polar regions last nearly 24 hours; as a result, with minerals from the depths providing continuous fertilization and in the light of the long days, algae multiply like crazy. This in turn provides abundant sustenance for slightly larger creatures, such as the Antarctic krill. Now that’s a real superhero. Krill in itself is rather small, with individual specimens growing to a mere seven centimetres in length, but there are so many of them that observed from a plane, shoals appear as giant pink spots in the sea. It is this enormous food base that creates the foundation of an exceptionally productive ecosystem of the marine Antarctic. Nearly everyone eats krill here, and even if someone doesn’t, they certainly eat someone that indeed does. Here we can see yet another Antarctic paradox: although we are dealing with a large continent, the ecosystem is definitely marine.
A frosty land of gentleness
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the islands and continent of the Antarctic are empty, yet given that it’s so far to any other stretch of land, everything that lives there had to either swim or fly there. So there are no terrestrial animals. Well, almost none. Living there is a flightless midge called the Belgica antarctica, which grows up to six millimetres in length and is the largest terrestrial animal in the land. Yet its ancestors did not fly over to the Antarctic, but had been living there since the time that the continents were still integrated into a supercontinent – Gondwana. The poor flies are probably still wondering why it got so cold all of a sudden during the past millions of years.
On the other hand, there are no terrestrial vertebrates in the Antarctic at all. So proper predators, such as bears, wolves or foxes are also lacking. There are also no indigenous peoples either. And this means that on the land, nothing is preying on the local mammals or birds (maybe with the exception of omnivorous birds, such as skuas, albatrosses and different species of petrels). That’s why when people appear in these places, be it tourists or scientists, they suddenly feel they’ve made it to the Biblical paradise, where no-one is afraid of anyone. Young fur seals, elephant seals and penguins walk up to say hello, intrigued by the appearance of a nice new mammal. The older ones remain indifferent with varying degrees of friendliness.
It is really amazing when a wild animal expresses such friendly interest in us. Small fur seals cuddle up and romp around like little puppies, while penguins are indeed just as fuzzy and warm as they look. Yet I think that my greatest affection goes to the elephant seals. As close relatives of dogs, when they are two months old their heads are filled with pretty much the same, meaning not a lot. But they have enormous and loving hearts and they weigh more than I do. These nearly 200 kilograms of puppy love is what I would call a tender heavyweight. Add to that their big black eyes sparkling with delight and the lovely folds on their plump bodies.
There are quite a few animals there. The population of Antarctic fur seals (these are animals similar to seals, though they belong to a different family, have thick fur and protruding ears) on the beaches of South Georgia alone – a narrow mountainous island stretching over just about 170 kilometres – is estimated at around three million. There are more Chinstrap penguins in the Antarctic; one of their colonies has over a million specimens. To that we need to add the hundreds of thousands of representatives of other penguin species (of which there are 17), as well as over 10 million crabeater seals, nearly a million elephant seals, and hundreds of thousands of specimens of the remaining three seal species, namely the leopard seals, Weddell seals and Ross seals. Not to mention flying sea birds, such as the albatross and various species of petrels.
Although the existence of Antarctica was confirmed a mere 200 years ago, it had been present in the human consciousness long before that. In addition to all his other ideas, the thought had already occurred to Aristotle, who stated back in 340 BC that there must be some kind of land in the south to keep our round Earth in balance. In the 1st century BC, Cicero called this hypothetical land Terra Australis (or the South Land), while two centuries later, Marinus of Tyre coined the term Antarctica, as an anti-Arctic. However, the name didn’t catch on right away and over the next few centuries, geographers would mark the land as Terra Australis Incognita, or the unknown south land. A few of them who had a more optimistic approach to life would additionally specify it as nondum cognita, or ‘not yet known.’ And things stayed that way until 1820, when the Russian Admiral Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen first saw the continent. We could therefore conclude that although we have been unsuccessful at finding Eldorado, the Fountain of Youth, Hy-Brasil or Atlantis, Antarctica is the first mythical land we discovered. I like that thought.
The humpback that changed hemispheres
The 19th century brought about reckless exploitation of the Antarctic, initially because of seal hunters who nearly led to the extinction of fur seals (killed for their fur) and elephant seals (killed for their blubber). Although the degree of persecution was very drastic, it didn’t last long enough on an evolutionary scale to make the current inhabitants of the southern edge of the globe fearful of us.
From the end of the 19th century until the 1960s, whales were the victims of reckless exploitation. In the 20th century alone, over a million of these animals were killed, and today, only about 0.1% of the once total population of the blue whale remains. Fortunately, no-one today (with the exception of the Japanese) kills whales in the Antarctic anymore, so these populations are slowly being rebuilt.
You can find killer whales, humpback whales, fin whales and other species in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, although they are probably not the same specimens. However, we cannot confidently assert that, because, for example, we don’t know much about blue whale migration, and then there is at least one known case of a humpback whale who, instead of returning home after its winter migration from the south towards the Equator, waited for its kin from the North and joined them instead.
For most of the multitude of inhabitants of polar regions, the Equator is an uncrossable barrier, because the water there is simply too hot and not productive enough. This certainly applies to penguins. Scientists often consider penguins to be an example of the largest evolutionary success among birds, because their biomass is second to none in the Southern Hemisphere. If they would by some twist of fate happen to end up in the North, they would come into contact with predators that they would not be able to flee from.
None of the Antarctic seals or fur seals migrate to the Northern Hemisphere. In the same manner, Arctic seals or walruses never make it to the Southern Hemisphere. A walrus, narwhal or polar bear has never seen a penguin.
There are only two species of vertebrates that travel the world and regularly visit both poles. One of them is the Arctic tern. This unassuming though lovely little bird reproduces in the Arctic when summer, abound with food, is in full swing. When the warm days come to an end, it undertakes the longest migration of all birds and flies to the coast of the Antarctic; it arrives at its destination as the southern summer begins. During its lifetime, the Arctic tern travels a million kilometres, at the same time earning the title of the most sunbathed bird in the world, because it’s always wherever summer is. Therefore, it’s the Arctic tern that is considered to be a totemic species for us humans, who also spend time on both ends of the planet. Being a polar guide, they have a special place in my heart, because much like the tern, my professional colleagues and I chase summer at the edges of the Earth. Only that we try not to reproduce so intensely while we’re at it.
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon
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