If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the Arctic, what would you see? White expanses of driven snow? Grey rock and pale blue ice? Yellow green ribbons of light dancing in the night sky? It’s true that our Northern territories are iconic for their vast, beautifully bleak scenes, but you don’t have to walk very far across the tundra (or through our Arctic Voices exhibition), to discover that the Arctic is anything but grey-scale.

Collage: Flowering plants arranged to form a rainbow of colour.
The flora of the Canadian Arctic spans the rainbow – Arctic summers are an explosion of colour across the tundra. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

March 21 marks International Color Day in nearly 30 countries worldwide—a day set aside to raise awareness and to celebrate the perception of colour. Given the frigid snowy winter that we’ve been having here in Ottawa (and across much of eastern Canada), it’s hard to look out the window and imagine (as one might about the Arctic) anything but a grey and frigid world. But both here and in the Arctic, that chilly white milieu will spring forth with unexpected colours as winter gives way to spring’s thaw.

Ground-level view of flowers with tents in the background.
Blue and orange are complementary to each other— if you keep that in mind you’ll notice that they’re used together everywhere from print advertising to movies. Naturally I couldn’t resist snapping shots of these sea-blue Arctic lupines (Lupinus arcticus) juxtaposed against our high-visibility orange tents. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

True, the Arctic summer is brief, but the hardy plants that live there tend to get straight to the point. Flowers are reproductive organs after all, and if you have only a few short months to get in on, you’d better strut your stuff.

A flowery foreground overlooks a river.
Colourful purple swathes of alpine milkvetch (Hedysarum alpinum) carpet the hillsides along the banks of the Coppermine River, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Bright mauve patches of purple mountain saxifrage herald the arrival of spring across much of the Arctic, oftentimes beginning to bloom while there’s plenty of snow left on the ground. These ephemeral blossoms don’t stick around long, and soon the Arctic will transition to the green lushness of full summer.

Many white flowers seen from the side.
The flowers of the white arctic mountain heather (Cassiope tetragona) protrude from north-facing snow beds like delicate white bells. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Yellow poppies blowing in the breeze, orange lichens plastered over boulders, the delicate pink bells of bog rosemary and curvy purple petals of louseworts. Come autumn, this rainbow will be replaced by fields upon fields of orange red bearberry leaves, just as trees down south change colour before winter’s inevitable return.

A beached boat rests in front of several small white buildings.
The red boat in front of the old Hudson’s Bay trading post is an iconic Iqaluit scene; the White Stripes even filmed a music video here. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of course, plants aren’t the only colour to be found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Walk through any community and you’ll be struck the by multi-coloured houses the beautiful arts and handicrafts. Northern animals, vegetables, minerals—all are a visual treat worthy of celebrating.

A man squats to look at blue stones on the ground.
Museum botanist Jeff Saarela, Ph.D., inspects blue-speckled lapis lazuli along the Soper River, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

So if you’re feeling inspired to seek out the colours of the North, our Arctic Voices exhibition runs until May 3.

In the meantime, Happy International Colour Day!

A flowering plant nestles among rocks.
Even in the bleakest Arctic deserts, pops of colour, like this purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) can be found peeking through the grey. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature