In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arctic Environments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Texts
  • Arctic Council Reports
  • Atmosphere
  • Cryosphere
  • Marine
  • Terrestrial
  • Social and Human
  • Environmental Pollution

Environmental Science Arctic Environments
Warwick F. Vincent
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0138


In his map of the Arctic published in 1569, Gerardus Mercator imagined the North Pole as a mountain of iron encircled by swirling water, and in the centuries that followed, many Arctic explorers perished in the harsh weather, frigid seas, and shifting pack ice in their quest to find new lands, resources, and potential trade routes. Eventually the North Polar Region came to be understood as a semienclosed, ice-capped ocean surrounded by continental landmasses, where snow, glacial ice, ice-covered lakes and rivers, wetlands, and permanently frozen ground (permafrost) are major features of the terrestrial environment. In contrast to many of the early expeditions from Europe, Indigenous communities have lived in harmony with the Arctic environment, and have evolved cultures over millennia that are highly adapted to the rigorous northern climate, and to the hunting and gathering of food from northern ecosystems. Today there is a strong focus of attention on the Arctic because of its wide-ranging implications for the rest of the world. Global climate change is greatly amplified at these high northern latitudes by feedback processes (“Arctic amplification”). This is resulting in degradation of the Arctic cryosphere (the ensemble of ice-containing environments) that in turn threatens to destabilize the entire planetary system via loss of sea ice, melting of glaciers and ice caps, atmospheric changes, and mobilization of the large stocks of organic carbon that have been locked in permafrost soils. Specialized animals such as polar bears and narwhals that depend on sea ice integrity for their existence have become global icons of the dire consequences of planetary change, while the opening up of Arctic sea routes has attracted growing interest for commercial shipping and new opportunities for resource exploitation. The Arctic is also under pressure from other environmental threats including contaminant pollution, increased UV radiation exposure, and ocean acidification, all amplified by the unique characteristics of this region. The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) coordinates research in the Arctic via five interconnected theme-based working groups, and sections of this bibliography separate the environmental literature accordingly: atmosphere, cryosphere, marine, terrestrial (including lakes and rivers), and social and human. The latter include environmental conservation issues, and the impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples of the Arctic. An additional cross-cutting theme of importance throughout the Arctic is environmental pollution, from global as well as new local sources.

General Overviews

An up-to-date, general overview of the Arctic and its diverse environments, peoples, history, and contemporary issues is provided in Dodds and Nuttall 2019. A general introduction to the plant and animal ecology of northern tundra lands is given in Quinn 2008, while more detailed information on terrestrial as well as marine ecosystems is provided by the many Arctic researchers who contributed chapters to Thomas 2021. Another important set of perspectives on the Arctic environment is through the eyes and words of Indigenous peoples who have lived in the North for millennia. Lincoln, et al. 2020 provides an excellent introduction to the diversity and anthropology of these Arctic cultures, from prehistoric times to the present, and describes how Indigenous northern peoples have adapted to the polar environment. Dorais 2020 introduces the language of the Inuit and the words that describe their deep connections to Arctic lands, seas, and climate. Watt-Cloutier 2015 compellingly describes the severe impacts of global climate change for the Inuit, and for their traditional foods, culture, and general well-being, which depends on snow, ice, and stable cold environments.

  • Dodds, K., and M. Nuttall. 2019. The Arctic: What everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/wentk/9780190649814.001.0001

    This highly readable introduction to the Arctic draws attention to the multifaceted nature of this region, even in terms of how it is defined geographically, politically, and in modern culture. The authors are well known for their scholarship in Arctic studies, and the book centers around five key drivers of change: climate warming, globalization, resource exploitation, technology development, and Indigenous self-determination.

  • Dorais, L. J. 2020. Words of the Inuit: A semantic stroll through a northern culture. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

    Much of the language of the Inuit, Inuktitut, relates to the unique environmental features of the Arctic. The volume begins with a chapter describing Inuit words and concepts about the land and sea, followed by chapters that relate to animals and hunting, humans and spirits, human health, and social relationships, often in the context of the Arctic environment.

  • Lincoln, A., J. Cooper, and J. P. Laurens Loovers, eds. 2020. Arctic: Culture and climate. New York: Thames & Hudson.

    This book was originally produced to accompany an exhibition at the British Museum, and is richly illustrated with artwork, photographs, and maps. The text describes climate change in the Arctic; the diversity, history, and adaptation of northern peoples; and their resilience in the face of environmental change in the past and present.

  • Quinn, J. A. 2008. Arctic and alpine biomes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

    This volume provides a general introduction to plants and animals of the cold regions, including their biological adaptation to high altitudes and animals. Around one quarter of the book is devoted to Arctic and Antarctic tundra.

  • Thomas, D. N., ed. 2021. Arctic ecology. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

    This multiauthored volume has contributions by Arctic specialists reviewing all facets of Arctic ecology, including climate change, permafrost and tundra systems, freshwater and glacial ecosystems, the marine pelagic zone, the sea ice ecosystem, marine benthos, mammal and bird ecology, and environmental governance issues for Indigenous peoples.

  • Watt-Cloutier, S. 2015. The right to be cold: One woman’s story of protecting her culture, the Arctic, and the whole planet. Toronto, ON: CNIB.

    Sheila Watt-Cloutier is former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing international attention to the severe impacts of climate warming on Inuit culture. As an Indigenous person growing up in the North, she describes her experiences of the Arctic environment and the challenges that she later experienced in translating knowledge about Arctic contaminants and climate change into effective global policies.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.