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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

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North Pole

North Pole

Scientists are very interested in the North Pole—the northernmost point on Earth

Grades

6 - 12+

Subjects

Biology, Earth Science, Ecology, Geography, Geology, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

The North Pole is the northernmost point on Earth. It is the precise point of the intersection of the Earth's axis and the Earth's surface.

From the North Pole, all directions are south. Its latitude is 90 degrees north, and all lines of longitude meet there (as well as at the South Pole, on the opposite end of the Earth). Polaris, the current North Star, sits almost motionless in the sky above the pole, making it an excellent fixed point to use in celestial navigation in the Northern Hemisphere.

The North Pole sits in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, on water that is almost always covered with ice. The ice is about 2-3 meters (6-10 feet) thick. The depth of the ocean at the North Pole is more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).

The Canadian territory of Nunavut lies closest to the North Pole. Greenland, the world's largest island and an independent country within the Kingdom of Denmark, is also close to the pole.

The North Pole is much warmer than the South Pole. This is because sits at a lower elevation (sea level) and is located in the middle of an ocean, which is warmer than the ice-covered continent of Antarctica. But it's not exactly beach weather. In the summer, the warmest time of year, the temperature is right at the freezing point: 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Because the Earth rotates on a tilted axis as it revolves around the sun, sunlight is experienced in extremes at the poles. In fact, the North Pole experiences only one sunrise (at the March equinox) and one sunset (at the September equinox) every year. From the North Pole, the sun is always above the horizon in the summer and below the horizon in the winter. This means the region experiences up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.

Drifting Research Stations

Since the North Pole sits on drifting ice, it's difficult and expensive for scientists and explorers to study. There isn’t land or a place for permanent facilities, making it difficult to set up equipment.

The most consistent research of the North Pole has come from manned drifting research stations. Russia sends out a drifting station almost every year, all named "NP" (for North Pole). Drifting stations monitor the ice pack, temperature, sea depth, currents, weather conditions, and marine biology of the North Pole.

As their name implies, drifting stations move with the drifting ice pack in the Arctic Ocean. They usually last two or three years before before the warmer climate of the Greenland Sea breaks up the ice floe.

North Pole drifting stations are responsible for many discoveries about the ecosystem at the North Pole. In 1948, for example, bathymetry studies revealed the massive Lomonosov Ridge. The Lomonosov Ridge is an underwater mountain chain stretching across the North Pole, from the Siberian region of Russia all the way to Ellesmere Island, Canada.

Drifting stations have recorded the development of cyclones in the Arctic, as well Arctic shrinkage. Arctic shrinkage is climate change in the Arctic, including warming temperatures, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (resulting in more freshwater in the marine environment), and a loss of sea ice.

Ecosystems at the North Pole

Polar bears, Arctic foxes, and other terrestrial animals rarely migrate to the North Pole. The drifting ice is an unpredictable habitat, and does not allow for regular migration routes or the establishment of dens in which to raise young. Still, polar bears sometimes wander into the area in search of food.

The undersea ecosystem of the North Pole is more varied than the ice above it. Shrimp, sea anemones, and tiny crustaceans inhabit in the area. A few ringed seals have been spotted. (Ringed seals are common prey of the polar bears that wander into the region.) Larger marine mammals, such as narwhal whales, are much more rare.

Several species of fish live at the North Pole. Arctic cod are the most abundant. Arctic cod are small fish usually found near the seafloor, close to their food sources—tiny shrimp and crustaceans.

Birds are frequent visitors to the North Pole. The Arctic tern, which has the longest annual migration of any species on the planet, spends its spring and summer in the Arctic, though rarely as far north as the North Pole. It then flies 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) south, to the Antarctic Circle. The Arctic tern makes an Arctic-Antarctic round-trip migration every year.

Like the Arctic tern, all other birds spotted near the North Pole are migratory. They include the small snow bunting and gull-like fulmars and kittiwakes.

Exploration

Major polar exploration began in the 19th century. The first expedition specifically to reach the North Pole was led by British Admiral William Edward Parry in 1827. Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen attempted a land-based expedition in 1895. A Swedish expedition led by Salomon August Andree tried to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon two years later.

The first person to claim reaching the North Pole was American explorer Frederick Albert Cook, in 1908. Cook was unable to provide any navigational records of his achievement, however, and rest of his team later reported that they did not quite reach the pole. The claim remains controversial.

A year later, another American explorer, Robert Peary, claimed to reach the North Pole. Peary was supported and funded by the National Geographic Society, which verified his claim. It has been in dispute ever since.

Although Peary's North Pole team included four other people, none of them were trained in navigation. They were therefore unable to verify Peary's claims, and one of them, Matthew Henson, reported a conflicting route from Peary. Peary himself never made his navigational records available for review. Skeptics have noted the remarkable speed with which the expedition traveled once Capt. Bob Bartlett, the only other navigator, left the crew. Peary reported more than doubling the amount of territory covered daily as soon as Bartlett left the expedition.

Nonetheless, many explorers support Peary's claims. National Geographic conducted extensive studies of the photographs Peary took, and concluded they were taken within 8 kilometers (5 miles) of the pole. (The photographs themselves have never been made public.) Depth soundings taken by Peary and Henson also seem to support their claim to have reached the pole.

Perhaps the most important support for Peary's claim came from British explorer Tom Avery's polar expedition of 2005. Avery mimicked Peary's supposed route, using sled dog teams. The expedition successfully reached the North Pole.

The first verified expedition to the North Pole was conducted by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1926. Amundsen did not use a ship or dogsleds—he flew over the pole on the airship Norge. The Norge, lifted by hydrogen and powered by a diesel engine, flew over the North Pole on its route from the Norwegian Arctic to the U.S. state of Alaska.

The first people verified to have set foot at the North Pole were a research group of geologists and oceanographers from the Soviet Union in 1948. The scientists were flown in and out of the pole over a three-day period.

The first watercraft to reach the North Pole was a nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilis, in 1958. Another U.S. submarine, the USS Skate, broke through the sea ice to surface near the North Pole about a year later.

The first verified expeditions to reach the North Pole by foot didn't happen until the late 1960s. A team led by American explorer Ralph Plaisted used snowmobiles to reach the pole in 1968. A year later, an expedition led by British explorer Wally Herbert reached the pole on foot, with the aid of dog sleds and airlifted (flown-in) supplies. In 1986, 77 years after Robert Peary made his claim, a team led by National Geographic Explorer Emeritus Will Steger became the first verified expedition to reach the North Pole by dogsled without resupply.

Shipping through the North Pole

Today, large, powerful ships called icebreakers are often used to navigate the ocean around the North Pole. Icebreakers carve through the sea ice to make way for cargo and military ships.

Icebreakers have very strong steel bows that can break through ice at a rate of about 10-20 knots (19-37 kilometers per hour, or 12-23 miles per hour). Until the 1990s, all icebreakers that traversed the North Pole were nuclear-powered. Arctic shrinking and the reduction of sea ice have since allowed diesel-powered icebreakers to navigate the North Pole.

Fewer icebreakers may be needed in the future. Due to Arctic shrinkage, within 50 years the North Pole may be ice-free in the summer months.

Cargo ships traveling between Asia, North America, and Europe save money by navigating the so-called Northern Sea Route, a trade route which often includes the North Pole. Ships carrying cargo such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and grain regularly use the Northern Sea Route. This saves companies hundreds of thousands of dollars by avoiding the long trip to and through the Panama Canal.

Resources and Territorial Claims

No one actually lives at the North Pole. Inuit people, who live in the nearby Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Russia, have never made homes at the North Pole. The ice is constantly moving, making it nearly impossible to establish a permanent community.

The Arctic Council, composed of nations with territory in the Arctic Circle, addresses issues faced by nations and indigenous people of the Arctic, including the North Pole. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States are members of the Arctic Council.

The possibility of an ice-free trade route between Europe, North America, and Asia makes the North Pole an economically valuable territory. Oil and gas exploration have proved lucrative in other parts of the Arctic, and the possibility of extractive activity around the North Pole's seabed interests many businesses, scientists, and engineers.

However, taking advantage of sea routes or resources at the North Pole is politically delicate. The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, outside the territorial claims of any nation. However, international laws allowing nations to claim land extending along their continental shelf are currently being explored.

Russia, Canada, Denmark (via the independent country of Greenland), and Norway have all claimed areas extending from their continental shelves, with Canada and Russia voicing the strongest claims.

In 2007, a Russian research expedition using sophisticated submersibles became the first to descend to the actual seabed beneath the North Pole. The expedition, Arktika, planted a titanium Russian flag on the spot.

Other Arctic nations reacted strongly. The United States issued a statement dismissing any Russian claim to the region. Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs used a line from the Canadian national anthem in a rebuke: "This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything."

Russian leaders acknowledged Arktika was an expedition to prepare evidence supporting the North Pole as part of the Lomonosov Ridge—an extension of the continental shelf off Russia. However, expedition leaders questioned other Arctic nations' reaction.

"When pioneers reach a point hitherto unexplored by anybody," the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs said, "it is customary to leave flags there. Such was the case on the Moon, by the way."

Fast Fact

Flight Time
Airlines flying from North America and Europe to Asia can save time and costly fuel by flying over the North Pole instead of in a straight line around the widening globe. This only became possible after Russia allowed commercial airliners to fly over Siberia in the early 1990s.

Fast Fact

H0H 0H0
That's the Canadian postal code for the North Pole, a reference to the area's most famous mythical resident, Santa Claus.

Fast Fact

North Pole, Alaska
North Pole is a town in central Alaska. It is actually nowhere near the real North Pole, which is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

Fast Fact

No Time at the Poles
Time is calculated using longitude. For instance, when the sun seems directly overhead, the local time is about noon. However, all lines of longitude meet at the poles, and the sun is only overhead twice a year (at the equinoxes.) For this reason, scientists and explorers at the poles record time-related data using whatever time zone they want.

Fast Fact

Wobbly Definition
The Earth's axis wobbles slightly. This causes the exact location of the North Polethe intersection of the axis and the Earth's surfaceto wobble along with it. The precise location of the intersection at any given moment is called the "instantaneous pole."

Mathematicians have calculated the wobble, called polar motion, to about 9 meters (30 feet) over about 7 years. The phenomenon is called the Chandler wobble.

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Editor
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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