15 fun & interesting facts from the North!

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

1. The North Cape is not the North Cape!!

There are actually three points claiming to be the northernmost point on the European continent:

  • The touristic North Cape on Magerøya Island where the visitor’s centre stands and where travellers take selfies by the iconic globe landmark and buy 71°10’21” souvenirs.
  • The real northernmost point on the same island, at the tip of a narrow peninsula reached after an 18-kilometer round trip hike.
  • For the purists, the actual northernmost point on the European continent – and not on an island of that continent – that requires a demanding 50-kilometre round-trip trek to be reached: Cape Nordkinn.

Curious? Check out this exclusive article!

2. Save the arctic ocean: eat king crab!

In 1964, the Russians introduced the Red King Crab from its native waters of the Bering Sea by the Pacific Kamchatka Peninsula to grow stocks in Western Russia by the Murmansk coast. Ready for the Soviets, and listening in on them from the NATO Mountain in Honningsvåg, Norwegians did not expect “Stalin’s Red Army” to crawl along the coast! It took less than 20 years for the Red King Crabs to make it to the Norwegian waters about 100 kilometres (62 miles) West. The spooky-and-spiky-looking crabs were destroying nets and baits, and were rapidly seen as the last nail in the coffins of local fishermen already struggling from low cod stocks due to overfishing. However, since 2008, it has become the main product of many Norwegian fisheries and the most lucrative catch in the Barents Sea, actually saving these fishing villages!

Today, the Norwegian government struggles between supporting its fishing industry with this multi-million-dollar-catch, or saving the ecosystems from this invasive species. Crawling along the seafloor, king crabs eat fish eggs and larvae of native fishes. The oxygen levels in the water are also lowered by their presence as they feed on starfish, worms, sea cucumbers and molluscs as well, that dig up and stir sediments, and are also the staple food of local fishes. The Red King Crabs have adapted fast and have already reached the north coast of the Lofoten Archipelago with its precious cod fisheries… East of the North Cape, quotas are imposed to manage the valuable stock while west of the North Cape, no quotas are enforced to limit the expansion of the destructive invader.

Today, the kilogram of king crab sells for almost USD 150 to supply the finest restaurants in New York City, Seoul and Tokyo, and you can feel really good about ordering it!

3. The lichen food complement of the old times is coming back as superfood…

The brown lichen has a 1,000-year long history in Norway. At times of bad harvests, people used to pick brown lichen, grind it and add it to the flour to increase its nutritious content. Actually, lichens have been overlooked by the pharmaceutical industry, and more and more research has been carried out, as on top of its food complement properties, some lichens possess anti-oxidants, anti-microbial, anti-insecticidal, antipyretic, and anti-cancer agents.

4. Above the Polar Circle is where you can see the midnight sun.

What defines the Arctic Circle is that it marks the southernmost latitude where the sun can stay continuously below or above the horizon for 24 hours, leading to the Summer Midnight Sun or Winter Polar Nights. This circle runs at a latitude of about 66°6 north of the Equator, but it moves 15 meters more north every year as the planet has been tilting. One of the most emblematic and touristy places to cross this imaginary line is in Santa Claus’ village in Rovaniemi, Finland.

5. Why are the roads in the arctic climate so bumpy?

It is the fault of the permafrost!

The permafrost is a permanent frozen layer of soil, bonded together by ice. To be called permafrost, this layer has to remain frozen for a minimum of two years. In Norway, the conical permafrost can reach between 20 meters and 300 meters down below the surface. The top layer of the permafrost can be activated by stress or warmth. For instance, by jumping on the permafrost, the crystals that hold the soil together burst and the liquid comes out. The same phenomenon happens when cars drive on roads built on permafrost, leading to a very irregular asphalt. Permafrost covers a vast part of the northern hemisphere. However, below the arctic circle, the permafrost can be found only on high altitude roads.

6. Why can’t people be buried in the Norwegian arctic island of Svalbard?

It is again the fault of the permafrost!

To get formed, the permafrost requires water to collect and to freeze, hence expand. This phenomenon pushes surrounding rocks aside, creating islands of soil amongst rocks. The permafrost also pushes up everything that could have been buried.

In the 1950s, in the mining town of Longyearbyen in the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard, bodies started popping up out of the permafrost in a thaw.

The other issue is that the bodies that are buried in permafrost do not decompose as they get frozen. As such, they attract wild animals that dig them up to feed on them. Worse, half a dozen of the inhabitants who are buried in the cemetery died of the 1918 Spanish flue, and some active strains of the deadly virus have been preserved. This double-edged sword constitutes a huge risk as well as a massive research opportunity to unfold the secrets of the most lethal virus the world has ever known, to this day, killing 20 to 40 million people worldwide.

The Longyearbyen cemetery has not been used for over half a century, and there are simply no options to bury people in Svalbard. The city prefers its non-productive residents to vacate the island and sends away terminally ill residents to prepare for death elsewhere.

7. During the Viking Age, not every man was a Viking!

Viking is actually more like a job title. If your job description involved seafaring in order to loot, and also kill, rape and steal, then you could land the job. Otherwise, if you were a rather peaceful farmer from Scandinavia, you would be referred to as a Norseman.

The first Viking activity was recorded in 793, and either the battle of Stikelstad or the last major battle lost by the Vikings in the UK in 1066 marks the end of the Viking Age. Great seafarers, it is now well-admitted that Vikings discovered America 500 years before Columbus, sailed to the UK, France, Spain, Iceland, Greenland. In fact, that bloody reputation, if it is well-deserved, is valid abroad. When they were home, Vikings were rather peaceful and Scandinavia enjoyed a relative harmony (400-800). Better, their chieftain organization replaced the tribal structure in the 200s, instating rules and laws to oil the gears of society.

8. Without stockfish, the Vikings would have never made it to America.

A very important food for vitamins and proteins is stockfish. The Lofoten Archipelago is the hotspot for fishing cod and has been so since the 600s, and traded since the 800s. Without this precious commodity, the Vikings would not have made it that far, all the way to the Americas. Today, it remains an important part of the local economy, and every year, 16 million kilograms of cod is hung out to dry on fish racks in the Lofoten (try to imagine the smell!)!

9. Never ask a Sami person how many reindeers she/he owns.

Unless you want her/him to ask you how much you keep on your bank account…

If today, most Sami people have office jobs, reindeer herding is still actively practiced by a few of them, and has remained the symbol of their nomadic culture. Many tensions between herders and the government arise as the herding lands have been shrinking and dispersed due to infrastructures, housing, windmill parks, etc. Migrating between the summer and winter grazing lands has become more and more difficult, and if modern technologies are helpful (such as GPS tracking, helicopters, snowmobiles), it is becoming more and more challenging to make it a sustainable lifestyle, despite the expensive price of the lean and nutritious reindeer meat. The wealth of Sami reindeer herders is defined by the amounts of heads they own, and as such, it is a very rude and intrusive question to ask.

10. Don’t drink the melting water from the glacier!

Do not get fooled by the beautiful translucid colour of glacier water and do not drink the water melted from the ice when you are close to a glacier. Animals have died in it and the water can be full of bacteria, and even the lethal anthrax. It needs to be filtered by the rocks before it is proper for consumption. So, if you go on a glacier hike, or close enough, make sure to take a water filter with you (or to carry enough water!).

11. See the ice retracting thanks to map lichen!

Map lichen is easy to recognize by its flat patch of green growing on rocks. It is used to estimate when these rocks were covered in ice as it starts to grow only after 10 years of no ice coverage. The speed with which glaciers are retracting can be measures thanks to these lichen that grow only 0,2 millimetre per year. However, map lichen likes to dominate the rock and when it comes across another map lichen, they will start a territorial battle by spewing chemicals onto each other until one dies, and the other can keep growing and take over, greatly affecting the rate of growth. So, when you hike in the Arctic, looking closely at map lichen gives you an idea of how long ago the area was covered in ice. The absence of map lichen on the rocks around a glacier is called the 10-year belt, and it has been growing wider and wider in the arctic climate for the past few years.

12. World’s smallest tree grows on the tundra, which barren landscape is actually a forest!

The dwarf willow is officially the smallest tree in the world. The stem of the tree grows underground and connects with other dwarf willows below the surface. They can be hundreds of years old! Sheep and hares love feeding on its small and nutritious green leaves, and interestingly, high-altitude hares in the Jotunheimen National Park are much larger than lower altitude hares feeding on more common plants!

13. An elephant dressed for cold, soon back to save the Earth?

Mammoth is an umbrella term for several species that used to roam the Earth, and the most emblematic species in the North was the woolly mammoth. The last specimen died about 4,000 years ago. Actually, most woolly mammoths had disappeared about 10,000 years ago because of a combination of climate change and hunting, and a small population remained on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, disappearing after a genomic meltdown.

Adapted for the cold, the woolly mammoth has a 99.6% genetic match with its closest living relative, the Asian Elephant. It is a bit bigger in size, similar to today’s African Elephant. As today’s elephants’ large irrigated ears allow them to cool down efficiently in warm countries, the small ears of the woolly mammoth were adapted to the cold to reduce thermal losses. Its layer of up to 12 centimetres of fat covered by long hairs was insulating it from the freezing temperatures. An extra bump of fat on its back allowed it to go through the winter. Its upward ivory tusks could measure up to three meters and weigh about 100 kilograms (similar to the African Elephant big tuskers) to forage for food under the snow and ice cover: mosses, lichens, herbs, bushes…

With preserved frozen carcasses of woolly mammoths pushed up by thawing permafrost, and even stomach contents and intact liquid blood found, scientists know more about the woolly mammoth than any other prehistoric animal and are virtually on the verge of bringing it back to the Arctic: the Colossal company, co-funded by the Harvard University genetics professor Dr. George Church, is aiming at reviving the woolly mammoth to the Siberian tundra to fight against climate change by restoring the balance in the arctic ecosystem.

14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a female!

Reindeer are one of the most emblematic arctic animals, and the 10,000-year-old species is today’s oldest animal roaming Scandinavia. Unsurprisingly, they have become part of the crew of the Arctic’s most famous inhabitant: Santa Claus! The most famous of them all is the leader of the herd: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Despite the fact he is the ninth and youngest of Santa’s reindeer, thanks to his bright red nose, he leads Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Well, not quite… Rudolph, and all of Santa’s reindeer for that matter, cannot be a he, but only a she! Male reindeer shed their antlers after their mating season, in the late fall, during which they use them to fight each other. Female reindeer keep their antlers into the winter, past Christmas time. As Santa’s crew is always depicted with antlers, his sleigh is 100 percent girl powered!

15. And you think your salmon sushi is Japanese? Think again!

In Japan, before the 1990s, salmon was considered a cheap second-choice fish that had to be cooked or cured. Indeed, the Pacific salmon fished around the Japanese Archipelago has a tendency to be infected by parasites, and the Japanese used to consider it gross, and definitely never ate it raw!

In the 1980s, Norway was facing a market crisis: the Scandinavian country decided to push its excess of thousands of tons of frozen salmon in Japan. As raw fish could be sold for a ten-fold more than fish for grilling, the plan was to target the sushi market. The Norwegian aquaculture industry combined to modern refrigeration techniques made the Norwegian salmon edible raw, and the main bottleneck was Japanese habits… It was not an easy task and it took roughly a decade for Norway to market salmon sushi through the Project Japan campaign. Norwegians went to the point of changing the name from the traditional sake word in hiragana to the foreign sāmon word written in katakana to describe the sushi topping and differentiate the local Pacific salmon from the Norwegian Atlantic fish.

Today, salmon has become the most popular sushi topping in Japan, and Leroy, Norway’s largest salmon producer has even developed a specific salmon north of the Arctic Circle for the Japanese market: the very fatty fish is flown weekly all over Japan!

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