Arctic survival

This article covers the basic principles of survival in arctic conditions and although much of it relates to flora and fauna found only in arctic regions some of the principles and skills will be applicable to conditions of extreme cold any where in the world. For example at extreme altitude, very low temperatures are encountered such as in the Andes where the snow line is at around 5,000 meters (16,400 ft).  Excluding altitude generally the further away from the equator the colder the conditions will be although various warm air currents such as the Gulf Stream can affect this. Arctic conditions extend into Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland and much of northern Scandinavia and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Arctic pole has no land mass but is a floating sheet of permanently frozen ice with the countries mentioned above bordering the region. The Antarctic has a large landmass which is covered by a permanently frozen ice layer which could be 1,000ft thick in places. In both regions there are only 2 seasons, a long winter which has 24 hours of darkness in mid winter and a short summer which can have 24 hours of day light.

In the Arctic summer temperature can rise to 18C (65F) except on glaciers and frozen seas, but fall in winter to as low as -56C (-81F) & are NEVER above freezing point. In the northern forests summer temperatures can reach 37C (100F) but altitude pushes winter temperatures even lower than in the areas further north, as it is worth remembering that the Arctic itself is not mountainous. In Eastern Siberia -69C (-94F) has been recorded at Verkhotansk.

Temperatures in the Antarctic are even lower than in the Arctic as the combination of extremely cold air temperature, high altitude and high winds produces the most hostile environment known to man. Antarctic winds of 177km (110mph) have been recorded and in the autumn, winter winds reach hurricane force and can whip snow 30m (100ft) into the air giving the impression of a blizzard even when it is not snowing. The average altitude in Antarctica is 2300 meters (7540ft) with the highest point at around 4,000 meters (13,100ft)
Flora and Fauna

The actual pole regions are devoid of any large Flora species and areas of permanent ice are devoid of any plant life. Aquatic animals that have adapted to such low temperatures such as Walrus and seal thrive as well as various whale species and birds such as the penguin (Antarctic).  The northern Pole is home to the world largest land carnivore the Polar bear which is one of the few animals that will actively hunt humans. Tremendously strong and fast and an excellent swimmer the polar bear is top of the food chain and extremely dangerous.

Further away, south of the northern polar cap are large areas of Tundra. Here the plant life is limited as the ground is subject to permafrost and the roots of plants can’t penetrate the frozen ground. Reindeer Moss is low, bushy, coral-like lichen that grows on the ground. It is common throughout northern Canada. Lichens must be thoroughly boiled or soaked in water for several hour s before being eaten.

Further south still between the Tundra and the temperate zone is normally an area of coniferous forest. In some areas like Russia and Canada this can be very extensive and cover a vast area. In Russia it is known as Taiga and can extend along the Siberian Rivers northwards into the Arctic Circle. These coniferous forests contain a great deal of unique wildlife including bears, elk, reindeer, lynx, wolf, sable, wolverine, and lemmings. Local tribes people such as the Inuit, and Sami of northern Finland have developed good hunting techniques and the art of making sure that nothing goes to waste from an animal. The Sami even milk reindeer but the yield of milk is low for the effort involved although the milk is very nutritious. All parts of a killed reindeer are eaten and the meat has rich venison like taste. Reindeer when mature will eat lemmings so become omnivores when they become meat eaters the flavour of the reindeer meat deteriorates.  It is vital to eat as much fat as possible and as Reindeer is a fairly lean meat they aren’t ideal. Musk ox has a strong flavour but is very high in fat whereas arctic hare is very low in fat and a diet consisting mostly of hares will not be sustaining. Various parts of caribou can be eaten especially the head, brisket, ribs, backbone and pelvis.  In the unlikely event that you kill a polar bear the meat as with most carnivores is tough and stringy although some have claimed that it is more tender raw. Polar bear livers are poisonous but considering the likelihood that you might be in a position to eat one this is hardly a major threat.

Some Arctic birds have a high fat content such as ducks, geese, and swans. During the summer many of these water birds, moult and are unable to fly for two to three weeks and can make easy prey. As well as ptarmigan sometimes called a snow partridge, Gull and Tern colonies can supply a good amount of eggs but are likely to be hard to get to, on cliffs or small islands.

Environmental hazards

The Arctic areas are without doubt some of the most inhospitable areas on the planet. In the Tundra areas going can be slow due to deep snow and dense forests, in such areas the local people often use the frozen rivers as highways as these are often wide and free of obstructions such as waterfalls. Of course in spring such river can rapidly thaw and become extremely dangerous. It is rare for the big rivers to freeze completely and it can be a little alarming walking along on top of a river on what could be a foot of ice and still hear the river running beneath you! If lost it is generally best to follow rivers down stream as this will often lead to some form of civilisation, the exception to this is in the Siberia areas where many rivers actually flow North away from any inhabited areas

Wind-chill/ breathing

As well as extremely low temperatures exposed arctic areas especially upland areas can be subject to strong and chilling winds. Wind chill can have a tremendous effect on the body (click here to find out how to work out the wind chill factor). If you inhale very cold air it can burn the lungs, causing haemorrhaging (bleeding) and chill the core body temperature, in effect the icy air bypasses all the protective clothing you are wearing. The reduce the risk of this it maybe necessary to control your breathing, exhale completely but inhale slowly and at first shallowly so that your lungs build up some resistance. Controlling your breathing can also help you focus and remain calm in a normal breathing pattern we don’t inhale much more than half way, under stress people can take much deeper breaths as the body prepares for any emergency by increasing oxygen intake. A rapid intake of sub zero air can do considerable damage as mentioned above.

Another risk is Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Once people reach a shelter they tend to focus on getting warm and frequently neglect any problems of ventilation. Despite the temptation to use stoves and fires for extra warmth once they have been used to cook this can be very dangerous as temporary shelters such as snow shelters are often poorly ventilated. Carbon monoxide can quickly build up and is odourless. A tired or sleeping person can quickly fall prey to the gas. Signs to be aware of are sudden or progressive drowsiness in a poorly ventilated area. If caught in time extinguish the source of the carbon monoxide and go out of the shelter to get clean air, do this slowly so that your body uses little oxygen until outside. When moving from a warm shelter to the outside for airs making sure that you take extra clothing to keep warm.
Snow blindness
Snow blindness made famous by countless films is the result of the glare of sunlight upon the surface of snow.  It can be caused rapidly and reoccur once experienced, even a brief exposure can result in it and a relatively overcast day can produce it. Symptoms start with the eyes loosing the ability to detect variations in ground level which can be dangerous in its self.  As the condition worsens the eye becomes inflamed and sensitive and then painful even when exposed to weak light. Prevention is better than cure and it is vital that snow goggles are worn at all times. If you are without snow goggles they can be improvised by taking a piece of wood wide enough to cover both eyes (makes sure it is plenty wide enough and long enough so glare doesn’t seep around the edges) and cutting narrow slits in the wood, if the slits are too wide they will offer little protection, wood or a very dense material or layers can be used but plastic tends to shatter and metal will of course freeze to your skin. As the Armed forces have learnt blackening your cheeks and nose with dirt, charcoal or even engine oil cuts down glare and reduces the risk of snow blindness. Treating snow blindness involves long periods (normal several days) of complete darkness often using some form of bandage. As long as it provides no risk then a cold compress can reduce the pain and swelling

Also know as local freezing is a constant danger to anyone exposed to sub-zero temperatures. Frostbite is one of the most feared hazards facing people in areas of extreme cold, and is a favourite of many films due to its graphic nature, mainly to the associated risk of gangrene Frostbite is not painful and in many ways this is the problem as it is easy to go unnoticed. In fact there is an absence of sensation and numbness so frostbite can often occur without a person knowing it. It is therefore necessary to examine your face, hands, and feet frequently. The symptoms are stiffness and a grayish or whitish colour of the part affected, parts affected will also be very cold to the touch as the body is shutting down circulation of warm blood to that area in an effort to conserve core body temperature.

One old remedy for frostbite was to rub ice or snow into the affected part but this will have little effect except lowering the temperature even more and risk removing the out layer of skin. As with most types of cold injuries the best solution is to warm the affected part gradually, don't rub the spot. Even the gentlest massage can do a great deal of harm as mentioned earlier. If frostbite appears on your face, warm it by pressing your warm fingers against it. If a wrist is frozen, warm it by grasping it with the other hand. Frozen hands and fingers can be thawed by holding them against your chest or under your armpits inside your cloths. Frozen feet are particularly serious as there is a high risk of loosing toes. Keep your feet from freezing by use of warm, insulated footwear, it is vital to keep the feet dry as wet skin is more vulnerable to frostbite. If you suspect your feet are frostbitten, take care of them immediately. Change to a warm, dry footgear if you can, or wrap them in cloth or fur until they thaw. Warm them, but don't put them close to a heater or a fire. Warm them gradually. A burning sensation follows the warming and thawing of a frozen part, and can be extremely painful. After frostbite there may be blistering and peeling just as in sunburn which in many ways is what has happened as the extreme cold has ‘Burned’ your skin.

Drinking Water

On land drinking water provides little problem, even in winter it is safe to eat small quantities of snow or cracked ice but of course this does reduce body temperature even though it saves time.  If you decide to melt snow make sure you don’t over fill the pot as the snow on top will act like a sponge and soak up melted water beneath it leaving the bottom of the pan dry and prone to burning. Ice takes less time to melt than snow so is a more efficient source of fresh water. In springtime rivers are abundant in many arctic regions and contain fresh water but contamination with biting fly or gnat larvae can be a problem. Sea Ice gradually becomes less salty with time, salt ice is a milky grey colour while older ice that is safe to use has more rounded corners and is slightly blue in colour. After a year sea ice has a slightly salty taste and after two or three years is perfectly potable. Water which is found in hollows in the ice is often far saltier than the ice surrounding it.