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polar bear balancing on sea ice in the arctic

A polar bear, Ursus maritimus, cautiously picks its way across thin ice.

Photograph by Chris Linder Photography

Hunting Camp

Innu hunting camp. September 2000, Kamestastin, Labrador.
Photograph by Stephen Loring, Smithsonian Institution

Earlier spring thaws! Later fall freeze-ups! Greater storm impacts! Reduced sea ice! Unfamiliar species of plants and animals! What do these changes mean for the Arctic, its wildlife, its people—and for the rest of the planet?

The Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely exhibit is part of the Forces of Change Program at the National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit explores changes that have been observed in the Arctic, the Earth’s northernmost region, and how they are monitored by scientists and polar residents. Native peoples of the Arctic have always lived with year-to-year fluctuations in weather and ice conditions. In recent decades, they have witnessed that the climate has become unpredictable, the land and sea unfamiliar. An elder in Arctic Canada recently described the weather as uggianaqtuq—an Inuit word that can suggest strange, unexpected behavior, sometimes described as that of “a friend acting strangely.” During the past 20 years temperatures have risen rapidly; permafrost has begun to melt; and sea ice cover and ice caps have been shrinking. In response, plant and animal distributions have begun to shift. Arctic waters are warming; and animals are changing their migration routes. Some of these changes have beneficial effects while others bring hardship or have costly implications. Our exhibit addresses four major questions:

  • How has Arctic change been documented?
  • Has Arctic climate change affected Arctic environments and people in the past?
  • How much is the Arctic projected to warm in the future?
  • What impacts will these changes have on the Arctic's ecology and peoples—and the world at large?

The exhibit’s story of the changing Arctic is illustrated by a rich array of objects from the Smithsonian’s collections, supplemented by photographs, video footage, satellite animations, graphic illustrations, and computer interactive exploration stations.

The Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely exhibit was made possible by a generous grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Arctic Research Office. Additional support and funding were provided by the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Large caribou in Arctic summer landscape

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, are superbly adapted to the Arctic where they are the most common large grazing animal.
Photograph by Stephen Loring

arctic sea ice extent satellite image

This image is based on data from NASA's AQUA satellite and shows the annual minimum sea ice concentration in the Arctic from Sep. 21, 2005
Courtesy of NASA


Ringed seal, Pusa hispida, are tied to sea ice for everything they do—rest, hunt, give birth, and nurse their young. They rarely come on land.
Photograph by Brendan P. Kelly

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