The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest protected areas in the world. The constantly changing landscape supports a diverse cycle of life.

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Winter in the Arctic Refuge lasts almost nine months. Temperatures can drop as low as -60°F.

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Sea ice is an active landscape. It is constantly breaking, colliding, and changing the coastline.

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The Arctic Refuge is part of one of the last remaining intact ecosystems on the planet.


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located in the far northeastern corner of Alaska. It is 19.6 million acres, approximately the size of South Carolina. 1.5 million of these acres make up the coastal plain of the North Slope where rivers and lagoons meet the Arctic Ocean. Together with the Brooks Range, the Brooks foothills, and the Arctic coastal plain, the Arctic Refuge is part of one of the last complete ecosystems on earth. 

Many species live in that ecosystem, relying on it and each other for survival. In the spring, seal pups and bear cubs come out of their dens. Beluga and bowhead whales migrate through the melting ice to their calving grounds. Millions of birds arrive to nest on the coastal plain. The long hours of daylight in spring and summer provide energy for the growth of microscopic life at the edge of the ice. These tiny plants and animals are the base of the marine food chain. 

In the summer, the tundra comes alive. Grasses, shrubs, mosses, and lichens enter their brief growing season. Hundreds of species of flowers bloom. Caribou and muskoxen feast on this plant life and raise their young on the coastal plain.

“The Arctic is not a blank white nothingness. It is a vibrant world of color, sound, and life and a home to countless species.”


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gives us a view of how life on our planet has evolved. Only the best-adapted species like polar bears and muskoxen can exist on the coastal plain. Here, winters last nearly nine months, and temperatures can drop to 60 degrees below zero. Wind chills can be even colder, reaching 100 degrees below zero. In the shortest days of the year, the sun never rises above the horizon. 

It also shows a glimpse of what landscapes may have looked like before industrial development. However, this place that has been frozen in time is shifting. The Arctic climate is changing twice as quickly as anywhere else on earth. The thawing permafrost triggers a chain of events from collapsing trees to melting sea ice. Further climate change and energy development will only speed up this process. 


The land around the Arctic Ocean is covered with snow for most of the year. Even when it is not, however, only the top few feet of ground melt with the snow. Below this shallow surface, the ground is permanently frozen. This is called permafrost, and no roots or water can break into this layer of earth. As a result, melting water and rain stay on the surface. They create a landscape of wetlands and lakes where trees cannot grow. But, in the short summer growing season, smaller plants take advantage of the water and intense sunlight to grow rapidly. Together, this habitat is called the tundra. 

Life in the Arctic depends on the annual cycle of ice. In spring, as the days get longer, the ice begins to thin and crack. Moving channels of water called leads appear. In summer, the ice is broken up by large stretches of open water. As colder temperatures return in autumn, the ice begins to fill back in. By the beginning of winter it has become shorefast (attached to the land) again. 

Sea ice is constantly changing throughout this cycle. At different times it can be thin and flexible, fragile and cracking, or built up into high ridges. The species that survive on the ice are well adapted to these changing conditions. But, they all depend on the thin spring and summer ice for their long-term survival. The Arctic is not a blank white nothingness. It is a vibrant world of color, sound, and life and a home to countless species.

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America's Arctic is a climate-critical landscape and a global treasure for biodiversity. Join us to #ProtectTheArctic.
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