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Ask a Scientist: All About the Arctic Climate

By January 3, 2024June 2nd, 2024No Comments

How cold does it get in the Arctic? Where are the Northern Lights found? How can we reduce global warming? As part of our Kitchen Table STEAM program, we had a chance to collect and answer questions about arctic climate from kids across the world with our Climate Detective, Matthew Ayre.

“Ask a Scientist… Anything!” Submissions for Amazing Arctic Climate Chats! 


Catch the replay here of our December Ask a Scientist event with Matthew Ayre, a Climate Detective, as he takes on your questions about the Arctic. And don’t forget to check out our climate change box, or view our Facebook page for upcoming events!


Tell us about the animals in the Arctic? Have you ever seen a polar wolf?

I have never seen a polar wolf, but I did see my first wolf in the Yukon this year, which is a little south of the Arctic circle. 

I get to see a lot of polar bears when I visit the Arctic. Polar bears are the apex predator in the Arctic and they can be very scary. They see you as food so if you are ever in the Arctic, steer clear of the polar bears!

The other animals that really define the Arctic are the whales that live there, the Bowhead Whales. The Bowhead Whale is the oldest living mammal on the planet, over 200 years old. These whales are really rare but since whale hunting has been halted, we have seen these population numbers rise. 

Narwhals are another whale species found in the Arctic but these guys are pretty elusive and rare to see. The Narwhal is the whale that has a large sword-like tusk coming out of its head and is nicknamed “the unicorn of the sea.”

Fun fact: The Narwhals tusk can be up to 10 feet long!

How cold does it get in the Arctic and have you ever gotten frostbite?

The coldest reported temperature in the Arctic is -89º Celsius (-128º Fahrenheit). 

I have never had frostbite but I did get hypothermia a few years ago when I was up there, and it was the middle of Summer!

How common are the Northern Lights and where are they found?

The Northern Lights are amazing and very beautiful to see, but they can only be seen at certain Latitudes. The best place to see them is between 58-63 degrees North. If you’re higher up in the Arctic you have to look South to see the lights. They occur in a circle all around that Latitude and can only be seen at night. 

In order for the Northern Lights to appear, you need a solar storm to occur. A solar storm is an explosion of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun’s corona, called a coronal mass ejection. When those plasma particles react with the Earth’s atmosphere is when we get the super-cool colors of the Northern Lights. If it’s a mild solar storm, the Northern Lights tend to be more green in color, but if it’s a more intense storm the colors turn to a really deep red color. 

What is going on with the melting ice?

There are two main types of ice in the Arctic: Sea ice (frozen seawater) and glacial ice (freshwater ice). 

Glacial ice, or ice caps, is the ice that makes up icebergs and glaciers. Glaciers occur when snow doesn’t completely melt and instead, new snow and ice continue to build on top of old snow and it forms a glacier. 

Both of these types of ice (sea ice and glacial ice) are melting and it does have consequences on our climate. 

Sea ice acts like a giant mirror on top of the planet. It’s quite reflective and it reflects a lot of the solar energy we get from the sun, which regulates how hot the earth is. Because of climate change and the earth getting warmer, the sea ice is melting and therefore reflecting a little less heat. This has varied from year to year, some years it’s a little bit more and some years it’s a little bit less, but the general trend is that the sea ice is going down. It’s predicted that by the year 2050 there will be no sea ice left in the Arctic. This is concerning because not only does that mean our climate will continue to get warmer and warmer, it’s also an important ecosystem. The animals and the people who live in the Arctic depend on sea ice.

Climate change is also causing the glacial ice to melt which in turn raises the sea level. Some of the glacial ice caps are 3 miles thick in certain areas, so it will take a longer time for all of this ice to melt but we are already noticing a very small rise in sea levels from the change in the climate. What this means is that low-lying areas are more susceptible to storm surges.

How can we help reduce global warming?

The most important thing that you and I can do is to make sensible choices and be very conscious of our waste. Every time we use something we are using more energy, so try to choose reusable materials and products when you can. 

Another great choice is to consider walking, biking, or public transport instead of using the car whenever you can. 

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in the Arctic?

That’s a tough question because going to the Arctic is always cool! The coolest thing would probably be a shipwreck that I found in one of the remote areas of the Arctic that had been there for over 120 years. 

Why are there no penguins in the Arctic?

There’s a really easy distinction between the Arctic and the Antarctic. You won’t find penguins in the Arctic, just like you won’t find polar bears in the Antarctic. Penguins would make a great snack for polar bears, so it’s probably best that they stay in the Antarctic!

Photo of the ship (Nova Zembla) and a portion of the hull they discovered on the beach (along with many hundreds of pieces of wreckage).

Matthew Ayre is a Climate Detective at the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary in Canada. His work involves looking at the past arctic climate using 200-year-old documents (think of a diary) that used to go up to the Arctic to hunt whales. These diary entries give us insight into what the climate was like 200 years ago so we can compare it to what the current climate is now.

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