The "North Pole" has multiple meanings; it can refer to the geographically northernmost point on Earth or the spot where compasses point. And, it can refer to Santa Claus' headquarters.
This post is about the northernmost point on Earth where the Earth's axis intersects with its surface. Its latitude is 90 degrees north, and all longitudinal lines meet there. From there, every direction one turns is south. Because all longitudinal lines begin from it, the North Pole has no time zone.
The pole is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean, where the water is 13,400 feet deep and usually covered with drifting ice 6-to-10 feet thick. About 434 light-years above the pole lies Polaris, the "North Star." During the course of the night, Polaris does not rise or set, but remains in very nearly the same spot above the northern axis year-round while the other stars circle around it. The star has been an important marker for navigation for centuries.
|USS Pargo at North Pole in 1993|
Interesting fact: Over time, the location of the North Pole changes slightly because the Earth's axis has a slight wobble, and since the pole intersects with the axis, it wobbles along with it. Scientists have calculated that the pole wobbles about 30 feet over seven years. The precise point of the pole at any given moment is known as the instantaneous pole.
Since the year 2000, the pole has been moving steadily eastward by about 75 degrees, heading toward the Prime Meridian that runs through Greenwich, England, according to a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The axis has shifted about 4 inches per year.
Scientists suspect that rapidly melting ice sheets have caused a redistribution of mass. Melting ice moves mass around by adding water to the oceans and lightening the load on ice-covered crust, according to a 2005 Live Science article.
Because of Earth's tilted axis, the North Pole experiences only one sunrise and one sunset every year, at the March and September equinoxes. During the summer, there is sunlight all day; during the winter, it is always dark.
During the winter, the Geographic North Pole's annual mean temperature is minus 40 Fahrenheit and in the summer it's 32 F. Though not warm, it is considerably warmer than in the land-based South Pole in Antarctica, because the North Pole is over water.
Research stations have reported cyclones at the North Pole and in recent years ice melt and cracks which some say is due to Global Warming and has caused some scientists to predict that ships will be able to sail directly over the North Pole by the year 2050. It's also claimed that the Arctic ice sheet will be thin enough for ice breakers to carve a straight path between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Yet another study predicts that by the end of the 21st century, the Northern Sea Route could be navigable for more than half the year. We'll see.
The Arctic has experienced major ice decline within the last decade. Typically, the ice follows a seasonal cycle when in the spring and summer months warmer temperatures cause the ice floating on top of the Arctic Ocean to shrink. Then as the temperatures drop in the fall and winter months, the ice cover grows again until it reaches its yearly maximum extent, typically in March.
In 2017, a combination of warmer-than-average temperatures, winds unfavorable to ice expansion, and a series of storms halted sea ice growth in the Arctic. On March 7, 2017, Arctic sea ice reached a new record low for wintertime. Overall, the ice reached just 5.57 million square miles which is 37,000 sq miles smaller than the previous record low set in 2015. This is equivalent to losing a chunk of sea ice bigger than Mexico. Hence, all the panic.
The most frequent inhabitants of the Arctic are migratory birds, such as the the Arctic tern, which has the longest migration of any bird, traveling 43,000 miles round trip from the North to South Pole every year! Caribou and Arctic foxes do not venture to the North Pole and polar bears rarely go there. Under the ice there are small crustaceans, shrimp, sea anemones and several species of fish, the most common being the Arctic cod. Marine mammals such as narwhals and other whales rarely venture so far north, though ring seals have been spotted occasionally.
In the early 20th century, two explorers each claimed to have reached the North Pole first. An American physician, Frederick Cook, announced in September 1909 that he and two Inuit companions had reached the pole on April 21, 1908. A week later, American explorer Robert E. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, accompanied by Matthew Henson, the first African-American Arctic explorer, and four Inuit men.
Peary had powerful sponsors, including The New York Times and the National Geographic Society, which had funded the expedition. Peary, who had made two previous attempts to reach the pole, called Cook a fraud. To make their case, the men published accounts of their journeys in a booklet titled At the Pole With Cook and Peary, which became a bestseller and helped sway public opinion.
Over the years, the controversy simmered. New research in 1988 revealed that Peary's claim might have been suspect due to the lack of navigational experience on his team; the fact that after the one person who had navigational experience left the team, they reported traveling at twice the speed; that one member's route description differed from Peary's; and that Peary never made his records available for review.
In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery mimicked Peary's route using dog sleds, and reached the pole, suggesting that Peary's records might have been accurate. The Peary vs. Cook debate remains controversial to this day.
Since their time many expeditions to the North Pole have taken place by plane, by foot and by dog sled. In 1926, American explorer and retired Navy admiral Richard Byrd claimed that he and his pilot, Floyd Bennett, had flown over the North Pole. The National Geographic Society, one of his sponsors, confirmed the accomplishment. Byrd was hailed as a hero, given the Medal of Honor and went on to fly over the South Pole, as well as achieving many other polar expedition milestones.
However, Byrd's story came into question almost immediately. Many did not think his airplane could have covered the distance in just 15 hours and 44 minutes. New research, published in 2013 suggests that Byrd missed the North Pole goal by as much as 80 miles.
The first verifiable expedition to the pole is credited to Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer. In 1903, Amundsen led the first expedition to cross the Northwest Passage. And in May 1926 (just a few days after Byrd's flight), Amundsen floated over the pole in a dirigible with 15 other men. Other important firsts:
* April 23, 1948: Three Soviet crews land the first planes at the pole.
* August 3, 1958: The submarine USS Nautilus is the first naval vessel to reach the pole.
* April 19, 1968: Ralph Plaisted of Minnesota reaches the pole by snowmobile.
* 1968-1969: Wally Herbert reached the pole by dogsled (the first person to reach it on foot).
* August 17, 1977: The Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika was the first surface ship to reach the pole.
* May 1, 1986: The first expedition to reach the pole on foot without resupply includes Ann Bancroft, the first woman to travel to the pole.
* 2007: British lawyer and endurance swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh swam 18 minutes for one kilometer in the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole. His feat, accomplished wearing only a swim brief, was done to draw public attention to the melting ice caps.
No country owns the North Pole as it is in international waters. The closest land is Canadian territory Nunavut, followed by Greenland. That hasn't stopped Russia, Denmark and Canada from staking claims to the mountainous Lomonosov Ridge that runs under the pole. In 2007, Russia sent the first submersible to reach the seabed under the North Pole and dropped a titanium flag there. In 2013, Canada announced plans to submit a proposal to the United Nations claiming the North Pole as part of Canadian territory.
The Magnetic North Pole is several hundreds of miles south of the Geographic North Pole. Earth's iron core and movement within its outer part generates a magnetic field, and the magnetic North and South poles are where the field is vertical. Compasses point to the magnetic North Pole.
Interestingly, magnetic field sources are dipolar, having a north and south magnetic pole. Because Earth's Magnetic North Pole attracts the "north" ends of other magnets, it is technically the "south pole" of the planet's magnetic field.
The difference between the “real” North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole is called declination. Declination itself is a fascinating topic. Refer to the excellent Wikipedia article on it HERE.
Since its discovery in 1831, the Magnetic North Pole has been around Canada's Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles from the Geographic North Pole. But the magnetic field drifts, causing the angle of declination to change over time. Currently the Magnetic North Pole is moving about 25 miles a year in a northwest direction which is a faster rate than it has moved since tracking began in the 1830s. The change could cause problems for migrating birds and human navigation.
Eventually, the magnetic North and South poles will move to the point that they "flip" and compasses would point south. This change will happen slowly; the last "flip" occurred 730,000 years ago.
As for Santa living at the true North Pole along with his flying reindeer and toy-making elves and Canada's postal service giving the postal code HOH OHO to letters addressed to Santa, that claim has been disputed, most notably by Finland. The Fins claim Santa lives in Lapland. The truth is, Santa, flying reindeer and elves don't exist.
How To Visit The North Pole (including pricing)
Curious Circles in Arctic Sea Ice