Cold is synonymous with the Arctic, particularly during the winter months. In some areas, temperatures can plummet to minus 60°C and winds roar across the ice and tundra at more than 300 kph. It’s almost unbelievable that people have adapted to these extreme conditions to call the Arctic home. This only became possible with a simple invention some 100,000 years ago – the needle. After that, instead of throwing animal skins over their body to keep warm, people could make fitted, wind-proof, and well-insulated clothing. Arctic animals like seals, polar bear, caribou and fox are perfectly equipped to withstand intense cold, so hunters used their fur to make the garments they needed to survive.

From the 16th century when European explorers began venturing into the Arctic, the expeditions that fared best, like those of Knud Rasmussen and Robert Peary, often relied on local Inuit guides, and adopted their fur clothing and means of transport. One explorer, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, famously commented:

"The English have loudly and openly told the world that skis and dogs are unusable in these regions and that fur clothes are rubbish. We will see – we will see."

For the people who live there, cold and wind may be the most severe features of an Arctic winter but, particularly at higher latitudes, darkness is also significant. In the Thule district of northwest Greenland, the most northerly native community, the Sun sets in late October and doesn’t appear again until the following February. Once, visiting an Inuit friend called Ituko, I asked how he felt during the darkness; I wanted to know if he got depressed, or had difficulty sleeping – the kind of symptoms Europeans experience in winter. Ituko laughed and told me he was much too busy hunting in the winter to feel depressed.

Since I first started photographing the Arctic in 1971, much has changed. Some of the villages and many of the hunting camps I visited then have been abandoned. While hunting is still important culturally to native groups like the Inuit, it is less important economically. It’s hard to make a living as a hunter these days, and many young people prefer packaged supermarket food to meat from caribou and marine mammals. Traditional culture is disappearing as the modern world continues to encroach on the Arctic, but the change is not all bad – travel has improved with regular flights to isolated communities, and the Internet is now accessible in almost every Arctic village.

Still, it’s easy to assume that the photographs in this book depicting a more traditional life were taken a long time ago, but this isn’t the case – some showing Siberian reindeer-herding cultures were shot as recently as 2010 and 2011. Although it’s a small minority, some Arctic peoples still maintain their traditions of hunting and herding as a way of life, and I hope this book will draw attention to these unique cultures, and show that they’re special and worth preserving.

Over the past 40 years, I have fallen through ice at dangerously low temperatures, watched the northern lights on nights when they were so bright you could read a newspaper, and witnessed dramatic skies that seemed to herald the end of the world. The Arctic never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

Bryan Alexander