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The North Pole is probably most commonly associated with Santa Claus, his shop of elves, and his nine reindeer, but what will you really find if you visit? Here are seven things you might not know about this magical place.
There’s More Than One North Pole
When somebody refers to the North Pole, they could be talking about a number of things. Earth spins on an axis, and what we define as true north is the northern end of that axis. This is the Geographic North Pole. But there’s also the Geomagnetic North Pole. Surrounding Earth is a magnetic field, which protects us from the harmful effects of solar and galactic radiation. The North and South Poles anchor that magnetic field, which is tilted slightly off that axis. The northern tip of this is geomagnetic north.
Magnetic north is the direction in which your compass points, but this direction migrates over time. Every once in a while, Earth’s magnetic field reverses and the North Pole becomes the South Pole. Scientists don’t know why, but this phenomenon occurred 780,000 years ago and the Earth is due for another flip. To make things even more confusing, there’s also a town named North Pole in Alaska, close to the city of Fairbanks. It's roughly 1,700 miles from the Geographic North Pole.
It’s Not the Coldest Place on Earth
The North Pole may be cold, but it’s actually not the coldest place on Earth. It receives no direct sunlight during winter and weak sunlight in summer — even during 24 hours of daylight. Average temperatures in summer hover around a freezing 32° Fahrenheit, while winter averages plummeting temperatures of -40° Fahrenheit. But the South Pole is even colder, receiving averages of about -18° Fahrenheit in summer and a mind-blowing -76° Fahrenheit in winter.
So, why is there such a big difference? It has a lot to do with the ability of the land and the sea to absorb and retain heat. The ocean warms up more slowly than solid ground, but once it does, it loses its heat more slowly. Since there’s only water beneath the Arctic pack ice, the North Pole is warmer than Antarctica, where the ice rests on top of land. Altitude also plays a huge role in temperature, as the South Pole is located on top of a plateau at 9,301 feet above sea level, while the North Pole is located at sea level.
Polar Bears Don’t Really Live There
The Arctic teems with polar bears, caribou, arctic wolves, arctic foxes, arctic weasels, arctic hares, and lemmings. But those terrestrial mammals can’t migrate over the drifting ice, so the North Pole doesn’t experience the same kind of wildlife. Even polar bears, who are strong swimmers, tend to stick to more southerly migration routes and rarely venture to the North Pole.
However, it’s a different scene beneath the ice. Here, you’ll find arctic cod in addition to smaller fish and shrimp. A sea anemone was even once discovered clinging to the ice beneath the North Pole. Ringed seals and narwhals have also been spotted. Migratory birds such as the arctic tern, snow bunting, fulmar, and kittiwake sometimes make it to the North Pole as well, though it’s a long journey.
The Ice Is Shrinking
According to climate change specialists at NASA, sea ice in the Arctic is declining at a rate of 13.1% every 10 years. The ice shrinks significantly in the months leading up to September, when summer ends, and data shows a worrying trend. Satellites have tracked the extent of the ice for over four decades, and 2012 was the worst year for ice melt since those records began, with 2020 hot on its heels.
And the problem isn't just overall mass. According to the Washington Post, the ice in the Arctic, which is typically 6-10 feet thick, has also lost about half of its thickness. Scientists predict that the trend will continue, which is bad news for arctic wildlife such as polar bears, as they depend on the pack ice to hunt.
There’s No Time Zone
If you stand at the North Pole, you’ll always be facing south. From that spot, the lines of longitude diverge and meet again at the South Pole. As time largely varies by longitude, the North Pole is in all time zones simultaneously. Some argue that if you have to pick, you should default to Greenwich Mean Time, but in practice it can be any time you want.
Unlike in Antarctica, the ice at the North Pole doesn’t classify as a continent, though the Russians planted a flag on the seabed in 2007. Four countries in addition to Russia are close geographically — Canada, Norway, Denmark (which includes Greenland), and the United States have land rights extending 200 miles beyond their Arctic coastlines, which could be used for drilling oil.
The Ice Above the North Pole Is Constantly Shifting
There’s no land at the North Pole, which isn’t the case at the South Pole. Below the ice is the Arctic Ocean. The ice floats year-round, so if you stick a flag in it, it won’t always be over the exact spot where you originally placed it. Drifting ice presents a problem for those who wish to explore. How do you prove you were there if any marker you place won’t stay put?
Its Discovery Is Disputed
Heralded by the press as the first man to set foot on the North Pole, Robert E. Peary achieved his goal in September 1909. But another American explorer, Frederick A. Cook, had beaten him to it in just over a year. Both expeditions are controversial, since there’s no indisputable proof that either man was where he said he was. It wasn't until 1988 that the National Geographic Society, one of Peary’s sponsors, admitted they now believed he was a fake who lied about how far he’d gotten. Cook’s claim was also in question; on his return, he accurately described the landscape, but the only proof he had of his position were a few observations in his own notebook.
Meanwhile, Peary set about discrediting Cook. President Taft signed a bill honoring Peary’s claim, though the sub-committee who scrutinized it were split as to whether they believed Peary had reached the spot or not. There wasn't an unequivocal triumph until 1968, when a four-man team led by Minnesotan Ralph Plaisted reached the North Pole on snowmobiles and the U.S. Air Force confirmed they’d made it.