Poles: Together and Apart — The Ecosystem and People of the North

Poles:  Together and Apart — The Ecosystem and People of the North

Yesterday I highlighted the work of two scientists who were a part of the early history of science research in Antarctica.  One of those scientists, Jim Halfpenny, just returned from his 23rd season of teaching polar bear and high Arctic classes.  Since I am in Antarctica, Jim wanted to share some experiences and notes from the Arctic region to give you another unique perspective.  We have truly been poles apart from each other!

First, let me give you more background on Jim as a scientist and explorer.  Much of this blog (and tomorrow’s) are in Jim’s words….I can say things no better than he does, and I’m going to consider him my distinguished guest blogger!  The photos are also courtesy of Jim.  He has a lot to teach us all.

“Dr. James (Jim) Halfpenny has been fascinated with cold all his life. He grew up in western Nebraska and Wyoming where he made many two-week cross-country ski trips across Yellowstone National Park. Jim is past Director of the Mountain Research Station. He was working on expeditions in Antarctica at the age of 21 and was a Research Fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. He is also a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club and a recipient of the Antarctic Service Medal. Jim led the 1975 and 1976 American Greenland expeditions.”


POLES: Together and Apart – The Ecosystem   (italic sections by Jim Halfpenny; printed sections by Betty))

The polar regions are very similar in being dominated by cold but are very different in many other aspects. First, and most important, the South Polar Region is a continental land mass averaging over 14,000 feet in altitude with the South Pole roughly in the center of the continent. The North Polar region is not covered by a land mass but a frozen ocean consisting of sea ice. Greenland, an island, is the largest and nearest land mass but still south from the North Pole.

Electric storms from the sun create atmospheric lights at both poles. In the north they are called northern lights or aurora borealis but in the south they are called aurora australis. During the summer, it is day light for 24 hours a day and aurora are not seen; aurora are a phenomena of the dark winter season.  During this year, our 23rd season of Polar Bear classes, we saw very impressive northern light. However during our Polar Bear class, it is winter in the north but where Betty is, it is summer and she could not see the aurora because it is daylight 24 hours per day.


Sea ice, also called pack ice, most of which melts each summer and refreezes in the late fall. In the past, non-melting sea ice prevented ships from traveling between the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. Frozen sea ice stopped ships from going to the North Pole.

Now the climate of the Arctic is dramatically warmer and much more sea ice is melting each year. For the first time in history, ships have been able to cross the Northwest Passage among Canadian island. The Northwest Passage shortens the trip between Asia and Europe by about 4,000 miles. A shorter trip means the merchants can ship goods to foreign markets for less money and sell for cheaper prices.


In 2011, the ocean was nearly frozen solid and the ice stopped our ship from going north between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland. In 2012, the sea ice had melted and when we stopped, due to a shortage of fuel, the ocean was still ice free as far north as we could see.  We were at 79* 10′.


Many islands, including Greenland, in the north have ice caps (deep frozen ice fields) on top of them. As in Antarctic, these ice caps flow slowly towards the ocean. At the ocean edge, large pieces of ice, called ice bergs break off (a process known as calving). Each season we travel among these ice bergs with our ship.  In the background of the photo (above) you can see the ice cap on top of Greenland.



The climate is warm dramatically in Polar Regions melting sea ice and causing glaciers to melt and calve more ice into the ocean. More ice and water from glaciers is increasing the level of the sea. Over time as sea level rises, land will be lost from the edge of ocean and flooding will occur.

POLES: Together and Apart – The People of the North

Inuit (better name for Eskimos), the native people, live in the north polar regions.  On the Antarctic continent, there are no native people.  The only people who stay there are research scientists and the people who help them.  When we are in northern Canada and Greenland we meet the Inuit.  They have brightly colored clothes.  I think they like bright clothes because for several months each winter there is no sun.  Bright clothes may remind them of beautiful summer days.



People have lived in the Arctic region for many centuries.  The abundance of wildlife on land, in lakes or rivers, or in the sea has sustained the people of the far north and provided resources for food, clothing, tools, and shelter.  They used animal hides, driftwood, and bones in their art, clothing, and tools.  In addition, forests in some regions of the far north have provided much needed resources for survival. Even driftwood has been a valuable resource.

Native hunters used small single-passenger boats which were covered in seal skin. These boats are still referred to by their Inuit name…kayak.  These boats are very steady, and can be righted (made upright again) by the person seated in them if completely overturned.  I like to kayak, but personally I have not tried that!  Kayaks were used to hunt sea animals.  Inuit people also used larger open boats that were made of wood frames and covered with animal skins.  During the winter months when travel by boat was not possible, they would wait patiently by the breathing hole in the ice and wait for seals to come up for air.  This same technique is used by the polar bear.

The use of sled dogs for transportation was also important.  Dogs would pull sleds made of wood, animal bones, baleen from a whale’s mouth, and even frozen fish.  Sleds and dogs were used both on land and on the sea ice, similar to how they were used in Antarctica for exploration and early science expeditions.  Dogs were also used during the summer months as small pack animals, carrying lots of baggage.  All of these modes of transportation are still in use today in the far northern regions of the world.

Inuit people used natural landmarks to navigate on land, and celestial (stars, moon, etc.) to navigate at sea.  They possessed excellent navigational skills.  The dogs could alert Inuits of the danger of strangers and bears by barking.

I’ve also traveled to the Arctic, but not in North America (close in Alaska, but not quite far enough north) or Greenland; I’ve been to the Arctic in Scandinavia, which is part of northern Europe.


Throughout my adventures in the Arctic with Swedish educational colleagues, I have learned more about the indigenous people of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia), the Laplanders (Sami). These semi-nomadic people built their way of life around reindeer herding.  Other means of livelihood have included coastal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding.  These people have relied on nature’s bounty and resources for sustainable living. 

Sweden June 2009 148

Sweden June 2009 151

Their clothing is colorful, like the Inuit people Jim has met.


And their flag is also representative of the same bright colors used in their clothing.


Much has changed in all Arctic cultures, but a strong tie to the land and sea is still important.  The people have more modern resources available to them, but many prefer to live in a more traditional way.  It is important to preserve these amazing cultures and to respect their history and traditions. Here is a photo from the Sami museum in Jokkmokk, which is in the Norrbotten region/county of Sweden.


This gap in the mountains near Abisko National Park in the Arctic part of Sweden is an important landmark for the Sami people.

Sweden June 2009 100

Whether Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, or parts of Siberia, its important to remember that the Arctic has a rich history of being inhabited, while Antarctic does not have native people.  While there are many similarities between the polar regions, there are also significant differences.

Here are some basic points I want you to remember:

ARCTIC:  at the North Pole there is ice/water, surrounded by land (the continents of North America, Europe, Asia); native people have lived in the Arctic for hundreds of years; there are many land mammals (more on that tomorrow); scientists take part in a lot of research in the Arctic region.

ANTARCTICA:  it is a continent; it is a large landmass surrounded by water (the Southern Ocean); no native peoples have inhabited Antarctica; no mammals live ON this continent (marine mammals live in the ocean surrounding it); scientists take part in a lot of research in Antarctica.

Stay tuned for information and photos in tomorrow’s blog about the animals of the Arctic region, provided by Jim Halfpenny and some comments and photos from me as well.


13 responses to “Poles: Together and Apart — The Ecosystem and People of the North

  1. Very, very interesting blog today. Steve and I watched a show on the Inuit people/tribes of Northern Finland and Russia. It was very interesting to see where and how they live throughout the entire year. The one person who was the center of the film talked about how he went away to college and was planning on ‘integrating’ into the big city with an electrical engineering job. Instead, after 1 year he moved back to his simple way of living/roots. His tradition was too strong and he felt he could better serve his people through his know how. Truly amazing.

    It is a beautiful day here in Heidelberg. Full sunshine (yeah) after many, many days of overcast and rain. I’m in the process of packing away all the Christmas decorations and ornaments. Tomorrow we will pull the tree outside. In Germany, most people do not take their tree down until after January 6 (Three Kings Day) and in fact the tree removal service does not come until that following weekend on Saturday, January 12. Usually about 2 days after Christmas I’m ready to take pack everything away since we start decorating the first weekend of December.

    Keep well and thanks for the very interesting blog. I’m looking forward to reading tomorrow’s blog.



    • Thanks Kathy! We don’t have much Christmas stuff to put away here… there wasn’t much in the first place! I had one ornament and it’s packed to sent home now. 🙂 Have a great day in Heidelberg and thanks for reading and commenting! Happy New Year!
      LIOB, Boop

  2. I found the Betty-Jim combined Pole-blogs amazing. And that’s sitting in my home in CO, thinking…gee, it’s only 9 degrees outside; maybe I’ll read a book today. Thank you for such excellent and interesting information. Linda H

    • Hi Linda,
      We sure do know some amazing friends, don’t we?! Think of all of the talented people we’ve met through Summits during all the years we have taken part in that program. I keep learning from them, even after nearly 30 years (it will be 30 years in summer 2013) of teaching through the Summit program. Happy New Year! Miss you!

  3. When I used the name Poles Together and Apart, it was a tribute to my late friends, the great photographers – Barbara and Galen Rowell. Galen’s book “Poles Apart” is a comparison of his travels in both polar regions. Some of his photos were shot when traveling with me to study polar bears. I was an editor of the book.

    • That is a wonderful connection, Jim! I’ve heard the words “poles apart” used for many things…books. a song, movie, expeditions, etc. There is someone on base who was part of the Poles Apart expedition with Ann Bancroft in 1992, and I’m hoping I can meet her and write a blog about that expedition. Thanks again for all of your expertise and willingness to help me teach others about both Antarctica and the Arctic. 🙂

  4. Very interesting blog!! I would never have thought that there were such vast differences between the poles. You pointed out that there were no native mammals to Antarctica, so am I to assume that the seals that beach themselves on the continent are not native, but come to visit only? Thanks again for the fascinating information!!


    • Cassie,

      There are no native LAND mammals in Antarctica. Seals are native but are marine mammals.. They do occasionally go ashore and will often wander great distances in land where they die. I have picked up 8-foot long seals that weigh only tens of pounds because their bodies freeze-dried over many many years. Where the winds blow sands across the flippers, the flippers would be cut off straight showing a cross-section of skin, muscle, and bone.

      • Thanks Jim….well done! 🙂 And I went back into that blog post and added capital letters for ON the continent and also put a bit about marine mammals in the water surrounding Antarctica….just to clarify! 🙂 Happy New Year!

    • Hi Cassie, I’m so glad you are reading and learning about this awesome place and actually both polar regions. 🙂 As Jim mentioned, no land mammals but many marine mammals in the ocean surrounding Antarctica. Happy New Year!!! Love you!

    • Hi Kim,
      Sorry I missed this comment and your questions the other day….sometimes I do not go back far enough in the blog posts. Actually, my friends who live just below the Arctic Circle do quite a bit of gardening. Ingrid and colleagues teach their students about gardening by having some wonderful raised beds of vegetables on the school grounds. They also keep bees. Gunnar had an amazing garden plot at Lulea University. They used some great compost containers/configurations, and they used windows over some beds to make mini-greenhouses to extend the growing season. Of course their growing season is much shorter, but they do have longer daylight hours in the summer months. Many of my friends there can have wonderful gardens. They grew just about every vegetable that I would grow in Illinois. I’m not sure about far above the Arctic Circle, but even in Tromso, Norway (way up along the coast) we saw many things growing in mid-summer to later in August.

      Since people have lived in the Arctic for a very long time, I know it has been quite sustainable to live there. A great book for you…”Collapse” by Jared Diamond. He describes how societies choose to succeed or fail, based on their interaction with their environment and other people. I think you’d enjoy reading that book. Go for it. 🙂

  5. Prior to 1957, basically only expeditions visited Antarctic. With the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and since, Antarctic has been continually occupied year-round by scientists and their support personnel. No non-exploratory, non-scientific people have ever lived year-round in Antarctica. It is a continent of Science. Jim Halfpenny

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