Cryosphere FAQ

Click on the Frequently Asked Questions for more information.

What is the cryosphere?

The term cryosphere comes from the Greek word "kryos" which means frozen or frost. It is defined as the portion of the climate system consisting of the world's ice masses and snow deposits, including ice sheets, ice caps and glaciers, sea ice, snow cover, lake and river ice, and seasonally frozen ground and permafrost. 1

  Airplane wing and engine over a snow covered valley


Why is the cryosphere important?

The cryosphere is an integral part of the global climate system with important linkages and feedbacks operating through its influence on energy, moisture and gas fluxes. Large areas of the cryosphere exist at temperatures close to melting and, as a result, are very sensitive to changes in temperature. This is a significant fact since much of the global cryosphere is located in high latitudes where enhanced warming is projected by climate models.2

Within Canada, the cryosphere is among the most important features of the physical and biological environment with most of the country experiencing several months of snow cover each winter, more than half being covered by the permafrost zone, and many of our navigable waters affected by ice.3 Furthermore, our terrestrial ice masses constitute the most extensive permanent ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere outside of Greenland, and in the western cordillera, glaciers are a significant component of the mountain hydrological system. 4

Monitoring and understanding the cryosphere is required to address key science questions such as the contribution of glacier and ice sheet melt to sea level rise, and for improved representation of cryospheric processes and feedbacks in climate and hydrological models. There are also ongoing domestic requirements for monitoring the cryosphere in Canada for operational decision making, and for understanding its response to warming and the impacts on our ecosystems and economy. The latter is particularly pertinent since a wide range of Canadian activities are sensitive to variations in cryospheric elements (e.g. agriculture, transportation, construction, mining, offshore oil exploration, recreation).5


Snow cover has decreased rapidly over many parts of Canada in recent decades. Should I trade in my skis for golf clubs?

Since the 1970s, there has been a marked trend toward reduced snow cover in many regions of Canada due to warmer temperatures and less snowfall. The impact of this change on the ski industry has been mitigated to a considerable extent by more efficient snow-making. In addition, higher elevation ski centres are less sensitive to the effects of recent warming. Another consideration is that snow cover exhibits strong interannual variability linked to atmospheric circulation patterns such as the 10-20 year oscillation in Pacific sea surface temperature that affects precipitation and mountain snow accumulation over western Canada. Thus changes in circulation patterns can bring about substantial changes in regional snow cover conditions, in light of these considerations and further improvements in snow-making, it may be premature to trade in those skis!

Snapshot of skier skiing down a small hill

Recommended reading: Scott, Daniel & McBoyle, Geoff: Climate change adaptation in the ski industry. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. October 2007, Volume 12, Issue 8, pp 1411-1431.


Where is the Arctic?

The Arctic is located around the North Pole with boundaries known as the Arctic circle. The Arctic circle is located at 66° 33'N. The boundary is also often described as the point where trees no longer grow or where the warmest month does not exceed 10°C.6

Map of the Northern-hemisphere focusing on the Arctic region of the world


Where is the North Pole?

The Earth rotates west to east every 24 hours around an axis located in the Arctic. The point on the Earth’s surface that intersects this axis is the North Pole, located in the Arctic Ocean. On the opposite pole, in Antarctica, the same phenomenon is called the South Pole. Interestingly, the Earth’s axis “wobbles” position regularly within a few meters of its position on the Earth’s surface. This means that the true North Pole changes locations, because of the combined forces of the sun, moon, stars and interior geological processes (eg. Earthquakes). Although the North Pole changes position, the North Star. 7,8 View recent webcam videos of the North Pole here!

Sign of a road marker with polar bear on top and signs written in different languages for the North Pole


What is the weather like in the Arctic?

The Arctic weather is highly various between the summer and winter seasons and is generally dependent on the influence of sunlight and the ocean.

Arctic winter is very long, and receives very little sunlight, sometimes none at all. This makes the Arctic very cold and dim for many months of the year. The temperature is highly various across the Arctic but can average close to -40°C! Since the winter is so long and cold, many parts of the Arctic are completely covered by frozen ground. Arctic summer is very short (6-10 weeks) and sometimes the sun stays in the sky for 24 hours. The highly influential sunlight during this season allows some plants to flourish, even on the frozen ground. Average summer temperatures generally do not exceed 10°C, however temperatures above 30°C have been reported.9

In regions close to the ocean, these temperatures are moderated throughout the year. Summer temperatures may be cooler and winter temperatures warmer. These coastal areas often have more precipitation and cloudy conditions.9

Arctic during the summer
Arctic summer
Arctic during the winter
Arctic winter


Why is it important to research the Arctic?

The Arctic is a very important region, whose physical systems have the ability to influence global climate. Specifically, the Arctic sea ice and land ice currently exist in an equilibrium balance, which maintains the global ocean circulation processes. Many of these features are expected to experience extensive melting as a consequence of climate change. This loss in ice volume, and melt into the ocean has the potential to highly influence ocean processes and leading to sea level rise. Decreasing ice extent and warming in the Arctic is expected to also negatively affect many biota, including polar bears who rely on sea ice for their livelihood. Research is important in the Arctic to help understand and possibly mitigate these changes.5

Polar bear standing on top of snow


Who lives in the Canadian Arctic?

People of many nationalities currently live in the Canadian Arctic, however historically a group known as the Inuit inhabited the region. The Inuit (indigenous) people make up the majority of the Canadian Arctic population, especially across the NWT, Nunavut and Nunavik (Map 1).10,11

The Inuits arrived in North America and settled in the Arctic to avoid other natives who had already inhabited southern regions. Currently, there are approximately 50,000 Inuit people living across Canada. Many different dialects of the Inuktitut language exist across the Canadian Arctic including Siglitun in NWT and Kivallirmiutut in Nunavut (Map 2).10,11

Map 1: Population across the Canadian Arctic. Number of inhabitants represented by circle size. Proportion of indigenous (yellow) and non-indigenous (blue) represented in pie graph form.

Map 2: Map of different Inuktitut dialets across the Canadian Arctic, Alaska and Greenland.

Click maps for larger image.


How do people live in such cold conditions?

The Inuits have spent many centuries living across the cold Arctic regions. They are able to survive by adapting their diet, homes, clothing and transportation technologies. A major part of the Inuit diet is seals, which are rich in nutrients and fat deposits. This diet provides Inuit people with the required sustenance to live in the cold conditions. In the winter, Inuits traditionally wear parkas made of warm fur (especially caribou) and waterproof sealskin boots. Lighter clothing made up other hides and feathers are made for the warmer months. Travelling across the Arctic landscape was made possible by using snowshoes and dogsleds, while kayaks are often used to hunt in the Arctic Ocean. Modern-day technologies are currently implemented across the Arctic, including wooden houses (replacing igloos), motorboats (replacing kayaks), snowmobiles, hunting rifles (replacing harpoons), telephones and Internet connection. 12,13

Black and white photograph of traditional inuit sitting on a log


How do people travel in the Arctic?

There are many modes of transportation utilized to travel across the Arctic landscape, sea and sky. On land, many traditional and modern technologies include dogsleds, snowshoes, snowmobiles and ATVs. When travelling in the ocean, kayaks, motorboats and other ships are used. Air travel is common, with many airports across the Arctic.13

Inuit kayaking on water


Have the conditions in the Arctic always been the same?

The conditions in the Arctic have not always been the same. Within the last century or two, the climate has been changing across the globe, with change being more rapid and acute in the Arctic.5

The Arctic is covered in white snow and ice, which help regulate the local climate by reflecting incoming solar radiation. With a warming climate, much of this highly reflective snow and ice melts seasonally, reducing the reflection of solar radiation, which leads to even more melting. This building effect is known as a positive feedback loop. Even a small change in average temperatures across the Arctic can change the landscape from snow covered to grass covered. This change would negatively affect plants and animals in the region since they depend on cold, snowy conditions to survive. Many changes predicted to occur across the Arctic within this century include degradation of permafrost, northern migration of the treeline and ice-free Arctic waters.5,14


Is the Arctic land or ocean?

The Arctic is made up of both land and ocean. Landmasses from many countries including Canada, USA, Russia, Greenland, Norway and Denmark surround a vast Arctic ocean (Map 1). In Canada, the Arctic is made up of the continental area of Quebec, NWT, Yukon and Nunavut as well as a series of islands known as the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (Map 2).

Map of the Arctic circle and Arctic nations

Map 1: The Arctic circle and Arctic nations

Map of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago highlighted in red

Map 2: Canadian Arctic Archipelago highlighted in red

Click maps for larger images


Do boats pass through the Arctic?

Boats have passed through the Arctic in the past, but often run into issues since the Arctic Ocean is covered by vast quantities of sea ice. Passage across the Arctic is easier during the summer when some of the seasonal sea ice melts. Multiple ships have successfully crossed the Canadian Arctic passages, but they are not considered reliable routes for transportation. In the future, this may change. As sea ice retreats to the center of the Arctic ocean, many transportation routes have been suggested across the circumpolar Arctic (Map 1) including the North Sea Route (across Russian coastline), the Northwest Passage (through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago), the Arctic Bridge (from Finland, between Greenland and Iceland to Hudson’s Bay) and the Transpolar Sea Route (through the central Arctic ocean connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans).15,16

Map 1: Predicted future trading routes across the circumpolar Arctic.


Who does the Arctic and Antarctic belong to?

The Arctic is made up of landmasses from Canada, USA (Alaska), Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia (Map 1). Although there is no permanent residences on Antarctica, many countries have claimed territory (Map 2) including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile and Argentina. A large portion west of South America, Marie Byrd Land remains unclaimed. Countries are claiming Antarctica for the purpose of scientific investigation. A treaty was signed (Antarctic Treaty System) allowing claimed areas to be used as a scientific preserve, banning any military activity. 17

Map of Antarctica and claimed land

Map 2: Map of Antarctica and claimed land

Click maps for larger images


Can land animals survive in the Arctic?

Many land animals can survive in the Arctic including muskox, caribou, lemmings, polar bears, arctic fox, arctic air and snowy owl species. These animals have all adapted in multiple ways to survive in the harsh conditions. Muskoxen have very thick coats of hair to keep them warm, arctic foxes have small features to reduce exposure to the hold and snow hares have long legs and thick claws to dig through snow cover.18

Arctic wolf in white fur standing on top of snow


Can ocean animals survive in the Arctic?

Many ocean animals can survive in the Arctic Ocean including walrus, seals, belugas, polar bears and bowhead whales. The adaptations these animals have allow them to swim and survive in the cold Arctic and surrounding oceans. Walrus’ have thick fat reserves to keep them warm and long tusks to assist in their movement across sea ice. Polar bears and beluga whales have white exteriors so they can blend into their surroundings.18

Two polar bears looking at camera from afar on top of an iceberg


What kind of plants grow in the Arctic?

Many types of plants grow in the Arctic, adapting to the low light levels, cold temperatures and short growing season. A few Arctic plants (including the Arctic poppy) have the ability to move their flowers to follow the sun across the sky, gaining as much solar radiation as possible. Other plants, such as the Arctic Blueberry change the colour of their leaves to help exploit lower levels of solar radiation. In order to exist in very cold temperatures plants grow shorter and closer to the ground (Arctic willow), grow in groups to prevent heat loss (moss cushions) and capture warm air in pockets (Bog rosemany). Many plants change their processes during the cold winter to survive. For example, primrose species do not flower until spring and store energy in specialized root growths. Other plants (evergreens) are able to remain productive year round.19

Yellow flower growing on a snow covered barren soil


How do we know the Arctic sea ice is melting?

Satellite imagery has been monitoring sea ice since 1979. Scientists use an average between 1980-2010 to compare trends to see if the sea ice extent and thickness is higher or lower than the average. They have discovered that sea ice has been melting rapidly in the past few decades, with rates increasing.5. See current sea ice webpage for more information.

Aerial photograph of melting sea ice


Why aren't there many trees in the Arctic?

Trees require a specific balance of climate and biological factors to grow that the Arctic cannot provide. From southern regions of thick forest growth, trees go through a transition to boreal woodlands, tundra and Arctic, with less trees existing at higher latitudes. The treeline closely follows the 10°C isotherm, with trees growing below where temperatures reach above 10°C in summer.19

Map of the circumpolar Arctic vegetation distribution.

Map of the circumpolar Arctic vegetation distribution.


Why was the winter of 2014 so cold across Canada?

For many residents across Canada the winter of 2013-2014 was perceived to be the coldest winter in many years – and they were correct. Toronto (Ontario) and St. Johns (Newfoundland) experienced the coldest winter in two decades, Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) the coldest in 18 years, Windsor (Ontario) the coldest in 35 years and Winnipeg (Manitoba) the second coldest in 75 years. Snowfall was also higher than average across many of these regions. As shown in Map 1, most of Canada was under negative land surface temperature anomalies up to -8°C colder than average. However, globally the average land temperature was 0.87°C above this century’s average (Map 2). Much of the anomalously cold weather across North America was attributed to the Polar Vortex, a large low pressure system of cold air that moved and remained south of it’s usual Arctic latitude. The reasons for the irregular movement of the Polar Vortex are unknown. 20, 21

North America land surface temperature anomalies. Blue regions indicate colder than average temperatures, red regions indicate warmer than average temperatures.

Map 1: North America land surface temperature anomalies. Blue regions indicate colder than average temperatures, red regions indicate warmer than average temperatures.


Global land surface temperature anomalies. Blue regions indicate colder than average temperatures, red regions indicate warmer than average temperatures.

Map 2: Global land surface temperature anomalies. Blue regions indicate colder than average temperatures, red regions indicate warmer than average temperatures.

Click on maps for larger images


Is the Arctic snow melting?

A recent study by Dr. Chris Derksen and Ross Brown has shown that Arctic snow is melting faster than climate models predicted. This study analyzed snow cover data over the past few decades and have found a decrease of -17.8% per decade. This decrease is faster than sea ice loss of 10.6% per decade. Moreover, in the past 5 years snow cover loss has continuously been record breaking. This reduction in snow cover reduces reflectivity of the Arctic land surface and permits degradation of permafrost.22,23


What is the difference between thinning and receding sea ice?

Arctic sea ice thinning refers to the decreasing thickness and receding sea ice refers to the decreased spatial extent. The extent of sea ice is a function of both temperature trends and weather events. Within the last few decades the sea ice has been retreating, intense Arctic storms and cycles enhance this retreat by breaking up sea ice edges. Satellite monitoring results reveal that Arctic sea ice was at its lowest extent in 2012, reaching 40% below the 30 year average. The thicker the sea ice, the longer it has been growing. First year ice is produced each winter and melts the subsequent summer. Multiyear ice lasts through at least two summer melting seasons. In recent decades first year ice is building up in thinner layers and during melt season multi year ice has started to degrade. A recent study has determined that sea ice thickness within the Arctic has reduced by approximately 1.75 meters since 1980. 24


Won't a longer open water season benefit Canada?

There are definitely benefits to a warmer climate for Canada, one of which would be a longer ice-free open water season. However, a longer open water season also means a shorter ice-covered season, so ice roads and transportation over ice-covered rivers and lakes would not be as reliable and as safe. Northern economic activity relies heavily on winter transportation of goods over ice roads, as do migrating caribou herds and other animal species. Increased "open ocean" would also increase waves and coastal erosion, especially in sensitive areas such as the low-lying Beaufort Sea coast in northern Canada. Adjustment and adaptation to changing environments is costly.5

Whales underwater in the foreground while snow covered peaks on land in the background


Is Canada contributing to global sea level rise?

The major sources of sea level rise are thermal expansion of warming ocean water and melting of glaciers and ice sheets. Mountain glaciers and small ice caps contain enough water to rise global sea level by about 0.5m, while the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets contain enough water to raise sea level by about 70m. Canada's Arctic ice caps may contain between 10 and 20 percent of all the water stored in mountain glaciers and ice caps. Floating ice, such as sea ice and ice shelves, already displaces its own mass of water and does not raise global sea level when it melts. 5

For the Canadian Arctic, recent estimates based on observed changes in glacier and ice cap area between 1960 and 2000 suggest a volume loss of around 650 km3 over that period, equivalent to a contribution of around 1.45 mm to sea level rise. This represents around 2.4% of the total sea level rise since 1960 and 8-16% of the contribution from mountain glaciers and ice caps.5,25


What is permafrost? Is there permafrost in Canada?

Permafrost is ground that remains frozen (below 0°C) for at least two consecutive years and covers 20-25% of the Earth’s surface. In Canada, almost half of the land surface is underlain by permafrost.26 See Permafrost webpages for more information.

Permafrost distribution map across the circumpolar Arctic

Permafrost distribution map across the circumpolar Arctic


What is the differnce between an ice pack and an ice cap?
An ice pack is another word for sea ice. Ice cap describes land ice. 5
Ice pack (sea ice)

Ice pack (sea ice)

Ice cap (ice sheet)

Ice cap (ice sheet)


General circulation models show increased precipitation in response to a doubling of CO2; does this mean that snow accumulation will increase at high latitudes to contribute to the expansion of polar ice caps and ice sheets?

Yes, snow accumulation is an important factor in the growth of ice caps and ice sheets. However, the role of temperature is also very important. Mass balance results for the Canadian Arctic show no trend in snow accumulation over their 25-42 year record. However, paleoclimate work has shown convincingly that all the glaciers over a long period of time shrink is response to warmer climates. That being said, a warmer climate can hold more water vapour, meaning more clouds and more snowfall. However, the warmer atmosphere also means more melting on these glaciers. Which effect predominates? It depends on the temperature. What is the worldwide sum of the effects of increased temperature and snowfall? Nobody knows.


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  2. Scott, Daniel & McBoyle, Geoff: Climate change adaptation in the ski industry. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. October 2007, Volume 12, Issue 8, pp 1411-1431.
  3. International Permafrost Association. "What is Permafrost: Permafrost Distribution". IPA, 2014.
  4. Cogley, J.G., R. Hock, L.A. Rasmussen, A.A. Arendt, A. Bauder, R.J. Braithwaite, P. Jansson, G. Kaser, M. Möller, L. Nicholson and M. Zemp, 2011, Glossary of Glacier Mass Balance and Related Terms, IHP-VII Technical Documents in Hydrology No. 86, IACS Contribution No. 2, UNESCO-IHP, Paris.
  5. Anisimov, O.A., D.G. Vaughan, T.V. Callaghan, C. Furgal, H. Marchant, T.D. Prowse, H. Vilhjálmsson and J.E. Walsh, 2007: Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic). Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 653-685.
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  15. Hofstra University. "Polar Shipping Routes". The Geography of Transport Systems. 2014
  16. "Northwest Passage." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. .
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  19. University of Guelph. "Plants in the Arctic: Adaptations". nd.
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  21. "Some Perspective on Winter 2014 : Image of the Day." Some Perspective on Winter 2014 : Image of the Day. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
  22. "Snow Cover Extent Declines in the Arctic : Image of the Day." Snow Cover Extent Declines in the Arctic : Image of the Day. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. .
  23. Derksen, C., and R. Brown (2012), Spring snow cover extent reductions in the 2008–2012 period exceeding climate model projections, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L19504, doi:10.1029/2012GL053387.
  24. National Snow & Ice Data Center. "Sea Ice." NSIDC, 2013, Web. 23 Mar. 2014. .
  25. Sharp, M., G. Wolken, M.L. Geai, and D. Burgess. "Mountain Glaciers and Ice Caps (Outside Greenland)." Arctic Report Card. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
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Last updated on 30/11/2017