Text and artwork By Dr. Diane Howard Langlois
I’m a polar painter, so I travel to the Arctic or Antarctica once a year. Both have five months of darkness, five months of lightness with a twilight season on either end, obviously at opposite times of the year. I suppose that is the most reasonable place to start in describing the differences between the North and South Polar Regions. They are similar in that they are cold frozen deserts. However, both are more dissimilar than similar, mainly because of their geographical differences.
The Arctic is a vast body of water surrounded by continents whereas Antarctica is a continent surrounded by a large body of water. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the world’s five major oceans and, ironically, is about the same size as Antarctica. The Antarctic Ocean is usually called the Southern Ocean. It acts like a huge conveyor belt cleansing the Earth’s oceans as water flows around the continent pushed by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.
Countless ships have been lost in the Arctic but not as many in the Antarctic. In modern times, two ships have sunk by hitting an iceberg: the well known Titanic tragedy with 1,500 souls lost and the lesser known MS Explorer in the Southern Ocean with all souls aboard saved.
Both can reach freezing temperatures. However, the northern Polar Regions are warmer due to higher temperatures of the surrounding seas while the Southern Polar Regions are noticeably colder due to the large continental ice mass. Katabatic winds blow over the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica and the ice melts and builds in both regions. Climate change has caused the northern polar ice cap to melt at a far greater rate than the southern ice cap. Why? Well the North Pole is just about two metres above sea level while the South Pole is almost 3,000 metres above sea level, and less ice means more absorption of solar heat and therefore more ice melt. Theoretically you can have altitude sickness at the South Pole and I know from experience you can have sea sickness in both Polar Regions.
A very big difference of course is the history of the people of each region. The Arctic regions have been inhabited by human beings for about four thousand years: The Thule, Norse, Inuit, Sami, Chukchi and many other indigenous people. However, people who live in the circumpolar regions have close similarities. All northern indigenous people are undergoing substantial changes due to modernization, westernization and globalization. Meanwhile, Antarctica has never had a permanent population. About four million people live in the Arctic year-round but only 4,000 scientists and support staff work at the 60 degree-plus research stations in Antarctica. This drops down to under 1,000 staff during the winter months and, unlike the Arctic, once the southern winter sets in, no one usually leaves.
No one set foot on Antarctica until 1820 and to this day no one owns it. The Arctic is surrounded by seven countries all vying for the mineral and oil deposits stretching out from coastlines onto continental shelves. In the years to come tension is bound to increase between Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway (Svalbard), Denmark (Greenland), and Finland.
Plant life is also more plentiful in the North and less so in the South. A trip to the Dry Valleys can explain part of that but mainly plants are sparse and irregularly spaced, unlike the tundra which is a mass of tangled plant material that glows red, yellow and orange during the autumn months.
People always ask me if I see any penguins in the Arctic or any polar bears in Antarctica. No, that’s never going to happen unless we place them there. Polar bears are thought to have evolved from brown bears moving over the Bering Strait when it was above sea level and the flightless penguin hitched a ride from New Zealand when the Earth’s tectonic plates began to shift.
Whether the landscape, the flora or fauna, or the people, my paintings capture the differences in the North and South Polar Regions.
Dr. Diane Howard Langlois taught at the University of Calgary, Florida State University and Mount Royal College before she became a full-time polar artist and videographer. For more of her work, contact Masters Gallery in Calgary, Alberta; Just Imajan Gallery in Cochrane, Ontario, or visit her website at www.dianelanglois.com.