The North Poles
We all know that Santa lives at the North Pole, but which one?!
We often talk about the North Pole being at the top of the Earth. But do we know which North Pole we are talking about?
What is the difference between the geographic and geomagnetic North Poles, and the geomagnectic and magnetic North Poles? Just how many North Poles are there and who was the first person to discover the North pole?
Does any one live there? Are there any animals and what can it tell us about climate change?
Read on for all your questions to be answered!
The Geographic North Pole
The geographic North Pole is the top of the Earth – the northernmost point of the Earth’s axis of rotation. All lines of longitude (the vertical lines on a map that go up/down) meet there, and its latitude (the horizontal lines on a map that go from side to side) is 90 degrees north.
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 and the ocean at the North Pole is more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) deep.
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, which is a solid land mass. But it’s still not very warm. July is the North Pole’s warmest month, when the average temperature rises to a freezing 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). February is often the coldest month when the average temperature plummets to -31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius). Wind chills make these temperatures feel even colder and create one of the planet’s most inhospitable environments.
Because the Earth rotates on a tilted axis as it revolves around the sun, sunlight is experienced in extremes at the poles. The North Pole experiences only one sunrise and one sunset 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. (see more information about ‘the land of the midnight sun’).
The North Pole is not part of any nation although some countries have tried to ‘claim’ it as their own. (See below). The Canadian territory of Nunavut lies closest to the North Pole and Greenland, the world’s largest island and an independent country within the Kingdom of Denmark, is also close to the pole.
The true North Pole
The terrestrial North Pole
Wibble Wobble – the ‘instantaneous north pole’
The Earth’s axis wobbles a little bit, moving in a wonky circle as the planet rotates. This causes the exact location of the North Pole to wobble along with it. The precise location of where the lines of longitude meet at any given moment is called the “instantaneous pole”.
Seth Carlo Chandler discovered that our planet wobbles in 1891 and so this movement is often called “The Chandler wobble”.
The Magnetic North Pole
Alternative name: The North Dip Pole
The Earth is a gigantic magnet – when your compass points north, it’s pointing to the magnetic North Pole. This is the only point on the surface of the Earth in the northern hemisphere where the magnetic field points vertically (straight) down. The magnetic North Pole is near to, but separate from, the geographic North Pole and the geomagnetic north pole.
But did you know that the magnetic North pole moves each day??
It moves in a loop, on average ending up between 6 and 25 miles (10 to 40 kilometers) away from where it started each year. This movement is caused by magnetic changes in the Earth’s core (the center of the planet).
Confusingly, there is another, different, magnetically based North Pole: the geomagnetic North Pole…see right.
Did you know?
If you’re standing over the north magnetic pole with a compass, the needle would dip and try to point straight down. This gives it its other name – the magnetic dip pole.
Over the south magnetic pole, the compass needle would try to point straight up.
The Geomagnetic North Pole
Alternative name: The northern dipole
This North Pole is totally different. Its location calculated using mathematics based on an imaginary line running through the geomagnetic center of Earth.
Like the magnetic North Pole, the geomagnetic North Pole moves too. In 2005, it was off the northwest coast of Greenland but it is now drifting away from North America and toward Siberia. The magnetic North Pole currently lies in Northern Canada.
The most amazing show of the Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) happens inside an oval ring centered around the geomagnetic North Pole.
The celestial North Pole
If the Earth’s axis carried on and on up into the sky, the celestial North Pole would be the point where the axis spears the night sky.
All the stars seen from the Northern Hemisphere rotate around the celestial North Pole. The North Star, also called Polaris, is located almost exactly at this point in the sky. If you go out at night and find the North Star you will notice that it does not move during the course of the night, while all the other stars do move, they rotate from east to west around the North Star. Because of this, it is an excellent point used in celestial navigation – finding your way using the stars in the sky.
And finally… North Pole, Alaska.
North Pole, Fairbanks, Alaska is town that is hundreds of miles due south of the other North Poles! It was incorporated in 1953.
Fascinating North Pole facts!
There is no time at the Poles! Time is calculated using longitude (the vertical lines on maps and globes). As all lines of longitude meet at the poles, the sun is only overhead twice a year (at the equinoxes). Scientists and explorers at the poles therefore use whatever time zone they want!
Yes, the Canadians have a post code for the North Pole that pays tribute to it’s most famous resident, Santa Claus.
North Pole Explorers
The North Pole has been a place of fascination for explorers and adventurers for many, many years. Getting there is still a huge challenge and achievement.
People began to try and reach the North Pole in the 19th century (1800s). The first expedition was by boat, led by British Admiral William Edward Parry in 1827. Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen attempted a land-based expedition in 1895, and a Swedish expedition led by Salomon August Andree tried to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon in 1897.
Who got there first?
There has been a lot of controversy about who actually reached the North Pole first which continues to this day!
Two explorers claim to have been the first:
- The first person to claim reaching the North Pole was American explorerFrederick Albert Cook, in 1908. However, Cook was unable to provide any navigational records of his achievement and the rest of his team later reported that they did not quite reach the pole.
- Robert E. Peary and his team made what he claimed was the first recorded trip to the terrestrial North Pole in 1909 by dog sled. Although Peary’s North Pole team included four other people, none of them were trained innavigation and they were unable to verify Peary’s claims.
While there is doubt about both claims, Peary is generally thought to be the person who (probably!) got there first.
Frederick Albert Cook, c1911. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
Robert E. Peary on the main deck of steamship Roosevelt. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-8234; LC-USZC4-7507
How others got there first…
The North Pole has now been reached many times, but explorers have used different modes of transport to get there:
Airship: The first expedition that had proof (verified) it reached the North Pole was led 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.
Aeroplane: 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.
Submarine: 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.
On Foot: 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 Will Steger became the first verified expedition to reach the North Pole by dogsled without resupply.
A modern-day explorer – Sir David Hempleman-Adams.
WWW Founder, David, has been on a few Polar adventures of his own. He was the first person ever to reach the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles. He has made over thirty expeditions to the Arctic and reached the various Poles a record 14 times!
David completed the first solo expedition (on his own) to the Magnetic North Pole in 1984.
His first trip to the Geomagnetic North Pole was in 1992, when he led the first team to walk there completely unsupported. Watch this space as he attempts to reach the Geomagnetic North Pole again in summer this year –
1996 was a busy year for David – he trekked to the South Pole on his own in January, sailed to the Magnetic South Pole in February and skied to the Magnetic North Pole in May!
And David hasn’t just walked, skied and sailed to the Poles. In 2000, he became the first man to fly a balloon over the North Pole – following in the footsteps of Salomon August Andrée who failed to make the same journey over the North Pole in the 1800s.
His most recent Arctic adventure was the Polar Ocean Challenge in 2016, when he led an expedition to sail around the Arctic Ocean in one summer season, to highlight the impact of climate change in the region.
During his expeditions to the Arctic over the last 30 years. David has witnessed a dramatic change in the landscape caused by climate change. This was the inspiration to set up WWW to make young people aware of what is happening there and to hopefully encourage some new modern-day adventurers.
“We are privileged to be able to go to these places, and it’s part of our duties to tell the outside world what we’re doing to the planet. The Arctic is like a canary in the mine in that climate change has an adverse effect around the world, but in the Arctic and Antarctic those effects are far more dramatic.”
Unlike Antarctic which is a land mass covered in ice, there is no land beneath the ice of the North Pole. The Arctic Ocean is 13,000 feet (4,000m) deep and the ice cap is a shifting pack of sea ice some 6.5 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) thick. During the winter the Arctic ice pack grows to the size of the United States. In the summer half of the ice disappears.
Polar sea ice is melting. While Arctic ice is always changing —increasing during winter and shrinking during summer—during recent decades the ice cap has been shrinking in both area and thickness. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment—a four-year study by hundreds of scientists which was released on November 8, 2004—found that the ice in Greenland and the Arctic is melting so rapidly that half of it could be gone by the end of the century.
This is due to global warming and if the ice continues to melt as the same speed it could be catastrophic for polar people and animals, while low-lying lands as far away as Florida could be affected by rising sea levels.
The North Pole’s future is cloudy. In August, NASA launched ARISE, a program to measure how cloud cover may also be accelerating sea ice melt around the pole.
Ecosystems of the North Pole
The shifting ice of the North Pole is an unpredictable and inhospitable habitat. Animals cannot easily move across it or build dens to raise their young. No animals make it their home, although polar bears sometimes wander into the area in search of food (a few ringed seals, a favourite food of the polar bear have been spotted) and larger marine mammals such as narwhals are rare.
Life under the ice, deep in the ocean is more interesting. Shrimp, sea anemones, and tiny crustaceans live there along with several species of fish such as Arctic cod which are usually found near the seafloor, close to the shrimp and crustaceans that they eat.
Birds are regularly seen around the North Pole although like the land animals, none make their home there – they are all migratory. The small snow bunting, gull-like fulmars, kittiwakes and the Arctic tern have all been spotted near the North Pole.
The tiny Arctic tern has the longest annual migration (journey) of any species on the planet as it travels from pole to pole! It breeds within the Arctic Circle, but spends winter in the Antarctic. This means that each year it flies 35,000km (nearly 22,000 miles) – almost the distance of flying all the way around the world!
Claiming the North Pole?
No one actually lives at the North Pole. The ice is constantly moving, making it nearly impossible to establish a permanent community. Indigenous people live in the nearby Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Russia.
The North Pole is not part of any nation. The Arctic Council, made up of nations with territory (land) 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.
However, many nations want to ‘claim’ part of the North Pole as theirs as it is a very economically valuable territory. There are large amounts of oil and gas in the Arctic – between 20 and 25% of all remaining fossil fuels are found here – and there is a possibility of a new trade route between Europe, North America, and Asia if the Arctic Ocean becomes ‘ice-free’.
Russia, Canada, Denmark (via the independent country of Greenland), and Norway have all claimed areas extending from their continental shelves (where their land meets the sea), with Canada and Russia voicing the strongest claims.
In 2007, a Russian research expedition, Arktika, used a submersible (type of submarine) and became the first country to descend to the actual seabed beneath the North Pole. They planted a Russian flag on the spot – an action that was not welcomed by other nations.
However, the Russians were not the first country to get there – the USS Nautilius did a ‘polar drive-by’ – sailing over the North Pole – in 1958.