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The Beauty of Blubber

04/24/2014 19:25 ● Published by Sandy Kauten

Imagine stepping outside this morning and finding snow and ice everywhere. Springtime flowers are blooming here in Oregon and the cold days of winter seem like a distant memory, but in some parts of the world, spring is a very chilly time of year.

For example, in Longyearbyen – a town in Norway with just over 2,000 residents – May temperatures often hover around 25° Fahrenheit (–3.9° Celsius), and the soil remains frozen year round, even in the summer!

Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost city, and it’s located in Earth’s northernmost region – the area known as the Arctic. The Arctic is about 5.5 million square miles in size and includes the Arctic Ocean and the lands of several countries. The Arctic Ocean, which surrounds the North Pole, is so cold that vast sections are covered in thick layers of sea ice for most of the year. 

What would you need to survive in Arctic weather? Nearly four million people live in the Arctic region, and they use clothing to insulate them against cold temperatures. From the down anoraks worn by Longyearbyen’s residents to the reindeer-fur shoes worn by people in Native Alaskan communities, warm clothing helps protect people from the Arctic chill. 

But what about other mammals that live in the Arctic? How do they stay warm? For many mammals, the answer is blubber – a thick, firm layer of fat just beneath the skin. Marine mammals like whales, walruses, seals, and polar bears all rely on blubber to keep them warm in their icy Arctic habitats. They wouldn’t survive Arctic conditions without this insulation because, like humans, they are warm-blooded animals.

Try this experiment at home to see for yourself how blubber works! 

You’ll need:

  • Two large containers
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Two plastic bags
  • Cold water
  • Ice cubes

Directions:

Fill two containers with cold water and place a handful of ice cubes in each. Put a large scoop of vegetable shortening in one plastic bag – enough to surround your whole hand. Place one hand in the shortening-filled bag, completely covering the hand in shortening. Place your other hand in an empty plastic bag. Being careful to not let water seep into the bags, dip both hands into the ice water. What do you notice? Which hand is warmer? One of your hands is being insulated from the cold thanks to the shortening – a layer of fat that’s keeping you warm, much like blubber does for Arctic marine mammals.

Fun Arctic Facts!

  1. The word “Arctic” comes from the Greek word for bear, arktos
  2. Eight countries have land in the Arctic region: Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and the USA.
  3. Eight seas surround the Arctic Ocean: the East Siberian, Laptev, Kara, Barents, Norwegian, Greenland, Beaufort, and Chukchi.
  4. Polar bears only live in the Arctic. They depend on sea ice to hunt seals, and on snow to build snow caves to have their young.
  5. Polar bears are generally considered the largest bears on earth. However, depending on weight and length measurements, some brown bears, like the Alaskan Kodiak bear, are larger.
  6. Due to its position in relation to the sun, the North Pole stays in full sunlight all day long throughout the entire summer. For this reason, the Arctic is sometimes called the “Land of the Midnight Sun." During the month of December, on the other hand, it’s dark twenty-four hours a day!  
  7. The Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest and shallowest, with an average depth of roughly 3,450 feet.
  8. Reindeer, called caribou in North America, are the only deer relative whose females grow antlers as well as the males.
  9. There are three Arctic cultures that herd reindeer: the Sámi in Scandinavia, Russian Inuit people, and Mongolian people.
  10. Arctic foxes have brown fur in summer, but turn white in winter to blend in with the snow.

You can learn more about the Arctic at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s new exhibit, Highlights of the Jensen Arctic Collection, opening May 9. The exhibit takes visitors on a journey into the unique cultures and ecosystems of the Arctic. Recently adopted from Western Oregon University, the Jensen Collection represents one of the largest assemblages of Arctic material in the United States, and a valuable record of life in a rapidly changing region.

The museum is located at 1680 E. 15th Avenue, on the UO campus. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visit natural-history.uoregon.edu to learn more.  

In Print, Today, Today oregon family may 2014 polar bears blubber arctic freezing arktos museum of natural and cultural history
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