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Surviving the arctic

From chewing on pine cones to hair lice walking on eyeballs, Stephen Mortlock looks back over the medical history of the frozen north.

The north polar regions can be harsh, forbidding places – Arctic temperatures and strong storms blow across the ice, causing extreme wind chills, making it dangerous to venture outdoors and travel difficult without proper clothing. The Arctic has long, cold winters (January temperatures range from about −40 to 0°C and may drop to below −50°C), and short, cool summers (average July temperatures range from about −10 to 10°C). The Arctic icecap is a 6,000,000 mi2 frozen ocean. Despite everything, indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and have found ways to adapt, survive, and thrive in these regions, which are unlike any other.

Solidified sea

The Arctic Circle passes through the Arctic Ocean, the Scandinavian Peninsula, North Asia, Northern America, and Greenland. The land within the Arctic Circle is divided among eight countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the US (Alaska), Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland (where it passes through the small offshore island of Grímsey).

Around 325 BC, the Greek geographer, explorer and astronomer Pytheas of Massalia (350–285 BC) undertook a great voyage to northwestern Europe taking in modern-day Great Britain and Ireland but, more importantly, contemporary records seem to suggest that he was the first known scientific visitor to see and describe the Arctic and polar ice (pepēguia thalatta, “solidified sea”). The term “Arctic” comes from the Greek word arktos (ἄρκτος), or bear, so it is likely that this translates as the northern lands near Ursa Major.

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Image credit | Getty 

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