Arctic Ocean

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Arctic Ocean

Arctic Ocean, the smallest ocean, c.5,400,000 sq mi (13,986,000 sq km), located entirely within the Arctic Circle and occupying the region around the North Pole.

Oceanography and Environment

Nearly landlocked, the Arctic Ocean is bordered by Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Norway. The Bering Strait connects it with the Pacific Ocean and the Greenland Sea is the chief link with the Atlantic Ocean. The principal arms of the Arctic Ocean are the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, Laptev, Kara, Barents, and Greenland seas. The floor of the Arctic Ocean is divided by three submarine ridges—Alpha Ridge, Lomonosov Ridge, and the Arctic Mid-Oceanic Ridge; other submarine ridges, such as the Faeroe-Icelandic Ridge, act to separate the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic.

The Arctic Ocean has the widest continental shelf of all the oceans; it extends c.750 mi (1,210 km) seaward from Siberia. From the shelf rise numerous islands, including the Arctic Archipelago, Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Wrangel Island. The continental shelf encloses a deep oval basin (average depth 12,000 ft/3,658 m) that stretches between Svalbard and Alaska; E of Greenland the ring of the continental shelf is broken by the Greenland Sea. The greatest depth (17,850 ft/5,441 m) in the Arctic Ocean is found just N of the Chukchi Sea. Since the Arctic's connection with the Pacific Ocean is narrow and very shallow, its principal exchange of water is with the Atlantic Ocean through the Greenland Sea. Even there, though surface waters communicate freely and a strong subsurface current brings warm water from the Atlantic into the Arctic basin, exchange of deeper waters is barred by submarine ridges. Thus a near stagnant pool of very cold water is found at the bottom of the Arctic basin.

Because several major rivers in Siberia (Lena, Yenisei, Ob) and Canada (Mackenzie) bring in much water, and because evaporation is only slight, the outflow through the Greenland Sea is important. It creates the cold East Greenland Current, which flows south along the coast of E Greenland. A weaker current goes through Smith Sound and Baffin Bay and is known as the Labrador Current. Another weak current flows out of Bering Strait. The water that does not flow out by the Greenland Sea seems to be deflected by N Greenland and forms the current that gives rise to a circular current in the Arctic basin itself. This circular current causes the relatively light ice of the Siberian seas, which contrasts with the heavy-pressure ice phenomenon off Greenland and Ellesmere Island (in the Arctic Archipelago). The drift of ice southward and westward has been noted and utilized by explorers.

Once called the Frozen Ocean, the Arctic Ocean is covered with ice (2–14 ft/.6–4 m thick) throughout the year in most of its central and western portions, though since the 1980s the extent of the summer ice has been significantly reduced. Some of the ice pack remains in the Arctic basin, and some, carried out by the East Greenland Current, melts before going far enough south to reach the regular Atlantic shipping lanes; the icebergs that harass ships are generally brought from the fjords of W Greenland by the Labrador Current. It was long thought that no non-oceanic life could exist in the Arctic; however, despite drifting ice, ice packs, vast ice floes, and winter temperatures to -60°F (-51°C), hares, polar bears, seals, gulls, and guillemots have been found as far north as 88°.

The cold Arctic currents give the shores of NE North America and NE Asia a much colder climate than the northwest shores of Europe and North America, which are warmed by the North Atlantic Drift and the Japan Current. The Arctic currents are also less saline and lighter than these warmer currents, and therefore the Arctic water is at the surface and the Atlantic current beneath, where they are exchanged in the Greenland Sea.

Exploration and Scientific Research

The Arctic basin was almost wholly unexplored until the Amundsen-Ellsworth flight over it in 1926. Arctic research was stimulated when it was recognized that the shortest air routes between the great cities of the Northern Hemisphere cross the Arctic Ocean. Improved technology has also facilitated research, with the development of aerial and satellite photography and photogrammetry for precise mapping, the sonic echo sounder for measuring ocean depths, and radio to maintain contact with the rest of the world. Detailed knowledge of drifts and ice floes, water depths, and the ocean floor has vastly increased. Soviet polar scientists investigated (1948–49) the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range that influences the pattern of ice drift and the circulation and exchange of water in the Arctic Ocean. American scientists in 1959 discovered the existence of a submarine plateau rising 8,100 ft (2,469 m) from the ocean floor. In 1995 the U.S. navy agreed to lend its force of nuclear attack submarines for a series of civilian expeditions to the Arctic.

One fact of great potential importance is now being studied—the Arctic Ocean is warming. Recorded temperatures, glacial regressions, and the appearance of observed species of fish in larger numbers, at higher latitudes, at earlier seasons, and for long periods prove that over the decades a "climatic improvement" has taken place. Similar changes have been reported in sub-Arctic latitudes. Whether this warming is a phase in a cycle or a permanent development has long been a question, but most scientists now believe that it is due to global warming. The warming may be affecting wind patterns above the region, amplifying the depletion of the ozone layer and possibly increasing precipitation. The area of the Arctic Ocean covered by year-round ice has decreased considerably since the late 1970s, and an increased amount of fresh water is entering the ocean from bordering rivers. Most researchers expect that, due to global warming, the ocean will become ice-free during the summer sometime between 2030 and 2070.

For an account of exploration and for bibliography, see Arctic, the.

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