What's the best time to visit the Arctic?
Understanding ‘what’s on offer and when’ is a fundamental part of planning any trip to the North. There are three distinct seasons: Spring, Summer & Autumn, and within those, each month has its own nuances, weather and wildlife opportunities.
Arctic Weather Guide
The beginning of the arctic coming back to life after the long, dark winter. Temperatures are still cold, but the sun edges above the horizon for the first time in months, understandably to much fanfare and celebration.
On Svalbard, the onset of spring ushers in the best period of the year for exploring by dog sled or snowmobile, making good use of the snow ahead of the summer melt.
Canadian Arctic is still largely inaccessible for all but the hardest or most determined, with average temperatures of -40°C to -20°C (-40°F to -4°F). In Wapusk National Park, newborn polar bears cubs are emerging from their dens.
The ice which has incarcerated the land all winter is beginning to thaw. Warmth is starting to creep back into the north.
Svalbard’s summer visitors start to return, signalled by the arrival of walrus from their more southerly wintering grounds. The emergence of mother polar bears from their dens with last season’s cubs coincides with the birth of ringed seals pups - favourite food of hungry bears!
If you want to fly to the North Pole by helicopter, this is your month, as flights only operate in April.
May hails the arrival of the Midnight Sun, which will bathe the High Arctic in 24/7 hours of daylight through to the end of August. The ice is breaking up in coastal areas, providing access for Svalbard’s first ships of the season and returning whales.
The arctic's summer birds are beginning to arrive in their millions to breed, as part of their annual migration north. Nesting begins as soon as the cliff ledges become snow-free.
For polar bears it's the time of male courtship battles, while it's peak weaning season for two-year-old cubs who have now got to find their own way.
The Arctic’s ice and weather patterns may be less predictable now than in the past, but the ebb and flow of the seasons remains distinct. Each season brings a different set of adventure activities, wildlife and travel opportunities.
High summer is in full swing and is marked by a general hive of activity as everyone - man and beast - makes the most of the narrow window of opportunity. Expedition ships will be at their busiest for the next few months and the first icebreaker voyages to the North Pole depart.
Some of the most outstanding wildlife encounters are at the ice floe edge, also known as the ‘line of life’. Possible sightings in northern Baffin Island include polar bears, harp/ bearded/ ringed seals, bowhead and beluga whales. Throughout the region, birds in vast numbers crowd every cliff and ledge.
The western side of Svalbard is now largely ice-free, and by mid-July the Hinlopen Strait is passable enough to allow a full circumnavigation of Spitsbergen. The Canadian High Arctic at last begins to open up for visitors too with the arrival of the first expedition ships.
On the wildlife side, polar bear mating season peaks, walrus aggregate for safety in ‘haul outs’ and egg-laying season attracts the unwanted attentions of opportunist scavengers like gyr falcons, skuas, gulls and arctic fox.
It's peak hatching season and the bird cliffs are in a general frenzy providing bountiful pickings for scavengers and a brief time of plenty for arctic foxes, skuas and gulls. August is also when the narrow channels of Canada’s Arctic archipelago are sufficiently ice-free to allow transits of the fabled Northwest Passage.
As August draws to a close, expedition ships leave Svalbard to head southwards down Greenland's east coast, taking advantage of the brief access before the pack ice closes back in. Walking the autumnal tundra, stalking musk ox and glimpsing the Northern Lights are highlights.
Dog sledding in spring, standing at the North Pole in summer or encountering polar bear in Churchill in autumn, it's the inexhaustible variety of Arctic experiences which keeps me returning again and again.
Alex Mudd Polar Specialist
The chilly tentacles of autumn start to be felt throughout the Arctic, and as the month progresses, temperatures start to noticeably drop and ice begins to reform.
A benefit of the nights drawing in again is the chance to experience the Northern Lights on one of the last expedition voyages of the season. The summer wildlife is preparing to head back south for warmer overwintering grounds. Female polar bears who mated begin searching for a suitable denning area and preparing for winter.
The expedition ship fleet has now departed Arctic waters, sailing south for Antarctica. Temperatures are plummeting and hover below zero. Female polar bears are denning, few seals remain and apart from rock ptarmigan all other birdlife has flown south. Winter is setting in.
For the Canadian town of Churchill - the Polar Bear capital of the World - it's the busiest time of year. Migrating polar bears awaiting the re-freezing of Hudson Bay provide guarantee sightings of the King of the Arctic through October & November each year.
Winter has returned to the ‘Northlands’ and the Arctic is once again incarcerated in its icy girdle. The hours of daylight throughout the region are diminishing. For the people of the Arctic, the onset of winter’s darkness ushers in a time for socialising after the busy summer.
November is a frenetic month in Churchill with ever more polar bears arriving in the area with each passing day. Hunger and close proximity to one another tries their patience as they wait, balanced out by the need to conserve energy.
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