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At the distant ends of the Earth, life perseveres despite extreme conditions. In the Arctic and Southern Oceans, the icy edges dividing land and sea seem to breathe with the dual seasons. Winter’s everlasting darkness ushers in fresh expanses of ivory snow caps and intricate ice crystals, which summer’s midnight sun later dissolve. Raw blizzard winds whip freely across the vast polar landscapes year round, while temperatures regularly sink deep into the negatives. The polar seas are home to the darkest months, the coldest nights, the densest waters, the driest air, and a diverse community of creatures that have evolved to not only survive, but thrive in the extremity.
Every spring, millions of birds migrate to nest on the poles’ frozen tundra. Along the rocky Arctic and Antarctic shores, thousands of seals and walruses congregate in rowdy clusters of infants and mates. Beneath the ocean waves, a rich community of tiny plankton, luminescent fish, and singing whales feed and breed. Amazingly, more than 235 marine species live in both the Arctic and Southern Ocean, somehow managing to traverse the 12,000 km (7,456 mile) divide. Still, the significant global separation did enable the two polar regions to evolve independently, with unique habitats and wildlife. Up north, iconic polar bears, the world’s largest land carnivores, spend their lives roaming the seasonal Arctic ice packs and swimming hundreds of miles across freezing ocean for a bite to eat. While throughout Antarctica’s mountainous tundra, tuxedo-clad penguins huddle together for warmth and protection as expectant parents await the hatching of their beloved egg.
The polar seas and the mythic weight they yield have not managed to elude our toxic reach and influence. For thousands of years, indigenous tribes were able to survive and prosper amidst abominable Arctic conditions, subsisting on the Arctic flora and fauna, and without upsetting the natural balance. But tales from early Arctic and Antarctic explorers about the abundance of life on both poles led to exploitation. Now both ancient ecosystems are poised to melt out of existence as we pump ever increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and ocean.
Cold, remote, yet teeming with life, the Arctic and Southern Oceans elude all attempts to put their beauty or worth into words. Perhaps it’s because so little is understood about these delicately balanced ecosystems, or perhaps it’s because human language developed before anyone had ever seen Antarctica.