When is the best time to visit the Arctic?
One of the most untouched regions in the world, the Arctic is home to awe-inspiring sights – the dancing Northern lights, majestic glaciers, unique landscapes, and rich biodiversity. That’s not all – a trip to the Arctic allows you an in-depth understanding of the lives and culture of the Inuit and other indigenous people, vastly different from the rest of the world.
The region could well be on top of your list, but with extreme temperatures and distinct weather patterns, it is essential to learn the best time to visit the Arctic.
As with any other destination, the best time for an Arctic Cruise depends on which part of the Arctic Circle you want to visit and what activities and experiences you want to sign up for. Most North Pole cruises operate from May to September. The most popular months to visit the region are July and August although you can travel to Spitsbergen as early as May and Greenland as late as October.
This is the middle of winter, with average temperatures ranging from to 14°F to 19°F. Sailing passages are closed, and the skies are dark and clear.
- It’s one of the best months to view the Northern lights from Iceland, Norway or Russia
Temperatures are well below freezing point in the region and dark days continue throughout the month. The skies are clear, and it’s still a great time to view the Northern Lights.
- Lace-up for a snowshoeing adventure or ice fishing tour in Ilulissat, Greenland, or in Finland
It starts to get warmer in March, and the first signs of life begin to emerge. The sun makes a brief appearance during this month. The spring equinox falls around March 21.
- Set off on a snowmobiling tour – a great way to appreciate the region’s unique landscape
Temperatures start to rise above freezing in some parts, and the ice begins to thaw. Polar bears emerge from their dens, little ones in tow, just in time for seal birthing season.
- Hop on for an exhilarating husky-pulled sled ride through the snow-laden wildernesses
May marks the start of the cruise season. The midnight sun makes its appearance and stays until the end of August. Migratory birds begin to arrive as do whales. It’s an excellent month to visit Spitsbergen.
- Witness the ethereal beauty of glaciers and mountains at the Svalbard archipelago
- Experience the thrill of spotting the King of the Arctic – the polar bear
Icebreaker voyager ships start their journey to the North Pole in June.The month presents plenty of opportunities to view wildlife – bears, walruses, whales, birds, and more. Mercury readings are above freezing point throughout the region.
- It’s the best time to view the unicorns of the sea – narwhals
- Be witness to a walrus haul-out, when they haul-out onto land and ice to rest and reproduce
- Take an ice-breaker cruise to experience what it feels like to stand on the ‘Top of the World’ at the North Pole
This is one of the busiest months of the year. With temperatures ranging from 37°F to 55°F, July is also one of the warmest periods. The Canadian Arctic opens up to cruise ships. There are plenty of chances to view myriad wildlife.
- Keep your camera ready to capture the rich biodiversity of the Novaya Zemlya region – polar bears, reindeers and Arctic foxes, and an incredible variety of birds
- It’s beluga season at Hudson Bay in Canada
Sea ice is at its least during this month and ocean passageways to Greenland open up. August also sees the most amount of avifauna activity. Temperatures remain similar to that in July.
- Meet the Inuit people and experience the beauty of their lands as you sail the waters of the Northwest Passage
- Visit the iceberg capital of the world – the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ilulissat Icefjord
Daylight hours begin to reduce, temperatures drop to 34°F to 50°F, and ice begins to build up. The leaves change color and migratory birds head south.
- Suit up and go glacier hiking
- Head out on a Zodiac boat excursion and get up close to glaciers and wildlife
Cruise ships leave as temperatures drop to below freezing point. But the Arctic is far from quiet. . In Churchill, Canada, the polar bear capital of the world, the Kings of the Arctic arrive in hundreds for seal hunting season.
- Visit Churchill, Canada, during the month to improve your chances of spotting polar bears
Polar bear activity continues at a frenetic pace in Churchill. Temperatures are below freezing all over, ranging from 10°F to 26°F and ice starts to cover land and sea
- Polar bear activity continues in Churchill, Canada
The ice thickens and daylight hours continue to reduce. Temperatures drop further and are in the range of -8°F to 21°F.
- Celebrate a White Christmas at Santa’s hometown in Rovaniemi in Finland, situated right on the Arctic Circle
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Best Time to Visit the Arctic by Season
Spring: While the general perception of the Arctic is that of a land with a year-long winter, the region actually has distinct seasons and dramatically different landscapes during each of these periods. The first signs of life start to show up in early spring, i.e, March and April when polar bears emerge from their dens with their cubs. The ice is still thick, and it’s a great time to view enormous icebergs and the Northern Lights. Depending on where you go, temperatures range from -20°F to 5°F. Cruise ships start operations by May with abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. This period is known as floe edge season, where the open waters meet the ice that is still attached to the shoreline. This presents excellent opportunities to spot narwhals, bowhead, and beluga whales. Temperatures are warmer during May and June, around 26°F to 50°F, though it can feel a lot warmer due to extended daylight hours.
Summer: Summer runs from July to August and is the busiest time of the year. With temperatures ranging from 50°F to 70°F and the ice has melted, travelers can participate in a range of outdoor activities including kayaking, trekking, glacier hiking, and ice fishing.
Fall: The months of October and November are a period of transition – the landscape changes color to acknowledge the arrival of fall. Temperatures drop (4°F to 23°F), daylight hours decrease as the weeks go by, and the ice starts to build up. It’s the best time for polar bear viewing.
Winter: The region is covered with a thick blanket of snow during winter, from December to February, with temperatures well below freezing point. While most cruises stop plying by the end of October, those willing to brave the cold will be rewarded with surreal icescapes and the best chances to view the dancing Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.
What to Pack for the Arctic
Due to its extreme and often harsh weather conditions, what you pack for your Arctic trip or polar cruise becomes extremely important.
The most important aspect of packing clothing for the Arctic is getting ‘layers.’ With vast temperature differences, layers allow you to dress up or down.
- Clothing made from high wicking material such as merino wool.
- Warm base layers or thermal wear that is snug
- Lightweight, quick-dry, long sleeve T-shirts or shirts
- A warm fleece with a hood
- A waterproof jacket
- A thick, wind-resistant parka
- Wind, water-resistant, and quick-drying trousers with a fleece lining on the inside
- Kneehigh, waterproof rubber boots
- Several pairs of thermal socks
- Sturdy shoes with good grip for deck viewing activities
- Sandals for inside the cruise
- Fleece-lined beanies
- Headbands and balaclavas
- High-quality sunglasses that block out UVA, B, and C rays
- Liner gloves
- High quality, thick gloves
- Sunscreen with an SPF factor of greater than 30
- Hiking poles
- Camera, tripod and binoculars
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