The North Pole

Ho, ho, ho, my friends!

Last week we profiled Santa’s transportation critters – Reindeer – and today we’ll travel to the address of the big man’s home base: the North Pole. If you want to mail Santa a letter, send it to North 90 degrees latitude and every possible line of longitude. Don’t send it to North Pole, Alaska, a traditional repository for missives to Jolly St. Nick. It’s is a common misconception that Santa’s Workshop is there. The true geographer knows the magical location is much farther north!

Of course, we’re assuming Mr. Claus magically employs the Geographic North Pole. Technically, the North Pole can refer to multiple different points. One is the aforementioned geographic spot; the other you are probably familiar with is the Magnetic North Pole. But, just to make things confusing for you, we also have the Geomagnetic North Pole and the Instantaneous North Pole. And they are not in the same locations!

Yes, there will be a quiz at the end of the article.

Location of the North Magnetic Pole and the North Geomagnetic Pole in 2017

Theoretically, the Geographic North Pole is the spot on our planet where our rotational axis meets the surface. It’s where all longitude lines converge in the northern hemisphere. Standing on this point, every other spot on earth would be south of you. However, you, the astute reader, noted the “theoretically” in that sentence. Yes, the geographic pole is the spot on a globe where all the lines meet nicely. However, our blue orb does not spin perfectly. As we twirl through the cosmos, we wobble. This wobble causes the actual spot where the rotational axis hits the surface of the planet to change. In fact, these Instantaneous Poles form an irregular circle. Wherever the axis meets the surface in a moment is the instantaneous pole; the center of the circle our wobble creates is sometimes referred to as the North Pole of Balance.

Got it all so far? The magnetic poles are a bit more confusing. Fluid motion inside our planet gives it a magnetic field. The Magnetic North Pole is the spot where the field is vertical. What that means is if you stood on that spot with a compass, the dial would point downward. This location is the spot to which compasses point and is sometimes referred to as the dip pole (where your needle would dip). Strangely, the magnetic pole actually moves. It is currently shifting toward Siberia. The Geomagnetic North Pole seems almost completely theoretical and non-practical. The poles in this model are the spots where a theoretical dipole magnet (the type of rectangular magnet you imagine with a north and south side like those on our refrigerators) goes through the earth at an approximate 10-degree angle. 

Why is there an imaginary system with an imaginary dipole magnet? The answer lies in a model to approximate the earth’s entire magnetic field. The best match for the field as a whole is to essentially place a dipole through the planet at an angle. But the model is not perfect and the actual magnetic poles are in a slightly different spot than the geomagnetic poles. It might seem a minor quirk, but the geomagnetic poles are actually practical from a standpoint outside the planet. The farther you are from Earth, the more its magnetic field does act as a dipole magnet. As geophysicist Jeffrey Love put it, “A space physicist usually thinks in terms of this tilted dipole that the earth has, whereas a navigator would probably be more interested in the magnetic dip poles.”

So we have dipoles and dip poles and they are different but kind of the same and definitely related. OK!

Where is Santa's Workshop? - Getty Images

As you can see in the image above, the Geographic North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The closest land is 430 miles away in Greenland, the island of Kaffeklubben. The nearest permanently occupied location is a place called Alert on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada. Sitting over nearly 14,000 feet of ocean water makes a permanent base at the pole extremely impractical. The Russians have created several drifting stations close to the geographic north, however.

As with many other extremes on our planet, the North Pole was a hot topic when it comes to exploration. The quest to become the human who had reached the highest northern latitude was so coveted the term received capital-letter treatment: Farthest North. As early as the 16th century, explorers correctly believed the pole sat over water, but also knew it would likely freeze over during parts of the year, making a trip possible. Throughout the 1800s, various people attempted to visit the pole, often with disastrous and/or deadly results.

In 1908 Frederick Cook led an expedition that claimed to reach the pole, but they offered no evidence and the veracity of the claim is widely disputed. In 1909, Robert Peary helmed a group that again claimed victory. For many years, Peary was credited as the first to reach the North Pole, but their journey is highly controversial and the navigational proof is widely dismissed today. Both these attempts were via “land” AKA ice travel. In 1926, Richard Byrd claimed to fly an airplane over the pole. Like the previous two tries, this journey is also now believed not to have reached the correct destination.

Robert Peary's 1909 party, at the spot they claimed to be the North Pole

The first widely accepted, scientifically verified visit to the North Pole occurred on 12 May 1926, days after the attempt by Byrd. Norwegian Roald Amundsen led an airship, called Norge, to the great destination. Amundsen was already famous for having reached the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen died In 1928 during a rescue flight for another aircraft that had ventured to the North Pole.

During summer, the sun is constantly above the horizon at the North Pole and below it during the winter. Thus, at the North Pole, the sun only rises and sets once per year!  Because of this strange circumstance, twilight periods last weeks instead of hours like they do for the rest of the world. Time, as we measure it on Earth, fails at the Geographic North Pole. We use longitude lines to determine the time, but, on a spot that contains all longitude lines, that method is insufficient.

Though it is obviously frigid at the poles, the North Pole is actually much warmer than the South Pole thanks to its ocean setting. Winter temperatures usually range from -58 degrees Fahrenheit to 9 degrees Fahrenheit (at the closest weather station in Greenland). The summer average temperature is right around the freezing point. The highest temperature recorded in the region is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, the high at the South Pole is just shy of 10 degrees. 

Just in case anyone was concerned about the ability for Santa Claus to function at the North Pole if it’s on an ocean, the ice is typically 6 to 10 feet thick during the winter. Those measurements are more than enough to support the Workshop.

And just because I’m in a holiday mood, I’m canceling the quiz I promised above. You all get an A!

Further Reading and Exploration

The Earth Has More Than One North Pole – Scientific American

North Pole Webcam

North Pole – National Geographic

Official NORAD Santa Tracker

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