The Arctic region extends over an area of approximately 20 million square kilometres between the North Pole and 66° 33' North. The mainland and offshore islands cover about half of the area; the other half is taken up by the Arctic Ocean, which is encircled by the five Arctic littoral states: Norway (with Spitzbergen), the Russian Federation (with Siberia), the United States (with Alaska), Canada and Denmark (with Greenland and the Faroe Islands). Iceland is considered a sub-Arctic state. Around four million people live in the Arctic region, among them approximately 500,000 who belong to indigenous peoples.
In the Arctic, water, soil and air form unique ecosystems whose processes play a key role in regulating the earth's climate. Arctic flora and fauna are characterised by limited biodiversity, which decreases further as the latitude increases. Because of the difficult climatic conditions, there are mostly primitive species of animals (insects) and plants (lichens, mosses, fungi). Typical highly developed animal species include waterfowl and wading birds, as well as geese, whales, seals, reindeer and caribou. The polar bear, which is only found in the Arctic, is considered a symbol for its animal life.
The Arctic's atmosphere is an integral part of the circulation of air around the globe, by which it is heavily influenced. The climate and atmosphere of the Arctic affect the climate and atmosphere of regions to the south such as Europe. The influence of warm ocean currents and movements of cold air are the main cause of this.
The Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest ocean in the world. The entire Arctic system is governed mainly by the changes involved in the freezing and thawing of bodies of water. The geography of the Arctic is shaped by sea ice, permafrost, ice areas, frozen rivers and lakes. While the Arctic Ocean is almost completely covered in ice in the winter months, the ice retreats in the summer and has rapidly decreased in recent decades due to global warming.