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What Is the Arctic?

The Arctic is the region around the Earth's North Pole, opposite the Antarctic region around the South Pole. The Arctic includes the Arctic Ocean (which overlies the North Pole) and parts of Canada, Greenland (a territory of Denmark), Russia, the United States (Alaska), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The word Arctic comes from the Greek αρκτικός (arktikos), "near the Bear, arctic, northern" and that from the word άρκτος (arktos), which means bear. The name refers either to the constellation Ursa Major, the "Great Bear", which is prominent in the northern portion of the celestial sphere, or to the constellation Ursa Minor, the "Little Bear", which contains Polaris, the Pole Star, also known as the North Star.

The Arctic region can be defined as the area north of the Arctic Circle (66 33N), which is the approximate limit of the midnight sun and the polar night. Alternatively, it can be defined as the region where the average temperature for the warmest month (July) is below 10 C (50 F); the northernmost tree line roughly follows the isotherm at the boundary of this region. Socially and politically, the Arctic region includes the northern territories of the eight Arctic states, although by natural science definitions much of this territory is considered subarctic.

The Arctic region consists of a vast, ice-covered ocean (which is sometimes considered to be a northern arm of the Atlantic Ocean) surrounded by treeless permafrost. In recent years the extent of the sea ice has declined. Life in the Arctic includes organisms living in the ice, zooplankton and phytoplankton, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants, and human societies.

The Arctic region is a unique area among Earth's ecosystems. The cultures in the region and the Arctic indigenous peoples have adapted to its cold and extreme conditions.

Due to the poleward migration of the planet's isotherms (about 35 miles per decade during the past 30 years as a consequence of global warming), the Arctic region (as defined by tree line and temperature) is currently shrinking. Perhaps the most spectacular result of Arctic shrinkage is sea ice loss. There is a large variance in predictions of Arctic sea ice loss, with models showing near-complete to complete loss in September from 2040 to some time well beyond 2100. About half of the analyzed models show near-complete to complete sea ice loss in September by the year 2100.

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