How North Pole Expeditions Work


Image Gallery: Winter Sports Man on skis pulling sledge across pack ice near the North Pole. See more pictures of winter sports.
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If Santa Claus really does reside at the North Pole, he must live a lonely life -- and have a weird sleep schedule.

The North Pole isn't what most of us would consider a hospitable place. The average winter temperature there is 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-40 Celsius), and the mercury rises to a balmy high of 32 degrees above zero (zero C) in July, the warmest month. And while Santa's reindeer are considered Arctic animals, not much life actually calls the North Pole its permanent home.

Santa lives with 24 hours of daylight for six months of the year and dark for most of the other six, so it's no wonder he feels the need to escape, even if it's just to deliver toys once a year.

But even if you could figure out where Santa was, buying a house in the same neighborhood would be difficult because, technically, there isn't any real estate at the North Pole. Beneath the 6 to 12 feet (1.8 to 3.6 meters) of ice and snow is the 13,000-foot-deep (3,900-meter) Arctic Ocean.

But this is all assuming that Santa lives at the geographic North Pole, as opposed to the magnetic North Pole.

For adventurers not interested in finding Kris Kringle, the North Pole is comparable to outer space: an unknown frontier that's ripe for exploration -- and exploitation. The region doesn't belong to any one country, so there are always disputes about who can lay claim to the untapped natural resources there. And although the prospect of melting ice around the North Pole isn't pleasant from a global warming standpoint, it could make those resources easier to reach.

So what do you need to know before you plan that trip to the North Pole? Who's been there already, and why is it so alluring to the current generation of explorers? Beyond the weather, there is much to learn about the North Pole. All that, and Santa, too.

North Pole Location

The NOAA North Pole webcam shows the sun low in the sky just before the fall equinox.
The NOAA North Pole webcam shows the sun low in the sky just before the fall equinox.
Photo courtesy NOAA

There are two North Poles. The one most people think of is the geographic North Pole, which is located approximately 450 miles (724 kilometers) north of Greenland, at 90 degrees north latitude.

The magnetic North Pole is based on the Earth's magnetic field and is slowly drifting across the Canadian Arctic (see Why does the North Pole move?).

Because all lines of longitude converge at the North Pole, it's not technically in any time zone (or, it's in every time zone, depending on your perspective). As a result, we generally use Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) at the North Pole. Coordinated Universal Time is used mostly in astronomy and navigation: It's similar to Greenwich Mean Time (the time kept on the Greenwich meridian, longitude zero) but scientifically more precise.

The sun sets at the North Pole in early October. The next sunrise is in early March. In between, there's a continuous twilight as the Earth moves on its axis. See What causes the seasons? for more on why the North Pole has continuous sunlight during the Northern Hemisphere's summer and continuous darkness during the winter.

As a result of all this, the North Pole is obviously cold. In the winter, when the North Pole is farthest from the sun on the Earth's axis, the average temperature is -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 Celsius) during December and January, but can dip into the negative 50s [sources: Smith, Goddard Space Flight Center]. The seawater beneath the ice of the North Pole is a relatively mild -28 degrees F (-33 C). In the summer, the Pole averages 32 F (0 C). But the North Pole isn't as cold as it used to be. To learn more about the melting ice, read Why is Arctic ice melting 50 years too fast?

What kind of wildlife can survive at such temperatures? Read on to find out.

Life at the North Pole

North Pole explorers are more likely to run into a polar bear than any other animal.
North Pole explorers are more likely to run into a polar bear than any other animal.
Sue Flood/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Does anything live at the North Pole? The geographic North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, under ice that's about 10 feet (3 meters) thick [source: Goddard Space Flight Center], so anything that lives there is typically more aquatic. No known amphibians or reptiles live in the Arctic tundra and polar region, but approximately 20 species of mammals and 100 bird species live there. Among the few land animals that migrate to the region are caribou (reindeer) and the arctic fox.

Polar bears also hang out around the North Pole, but they spend much of their time in the water, hunting the fish that live under the ice. Arctic trekkers are most likely to encounter polar bears on their journeys because the bears are naturally curious -- and attracted by human food. Polar bears are increasingly seeking out humans, especially the Inuits who live in the area, because the melting polar ice is shortening the bears' hunting season. So, the bears have to forage for food in new areas that are often occupied by humans. As the North Pole gets warmer, polar bears and other animals are facing extinction.

Beluga and killer whales, sea otters, ringed seals and walrus also call the Arctic home. Arctic birds usually spend their winters farther south in the tundra region, but the puffin, albatross, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, ptarmigan, jaeger and snowy owl can all be found in the Arctic.

There are 400 known fish species swimming in the Arctic Sea, with the most common fish near the North Pole being the arctic cod.

History of North Pole Expeditions

American explorer Robert Peary with sled dogs, probably on Arctic expedition in which he discovered the North Pole.
American explorer Robert Peary with sled dogs, probably on Arctic expedition in which he discovered the North Pole.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

People have always had the desire to explore new places. Explorers throughout history have been motivated -- at least in part -- by the promise of fame and fortune, and North Pole exploration is no exception. The first North Pole explorers were in search of the Northwest Passage, a route through the Arctic that would create easier trade -- and great wealth -- for the country that discovered it. When these explorers came back with tales of diamonds and coal near the Pole, the world started seeing the Arctic as a frozen treasure chest. In fact, a U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nearly 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas are buried in the Arctic, which is a big reason for the disputes among the countries that are vying to claim the region for themselves [source: Leapman].

There were occasional North Pole expeditions in the 18th century (in 1755, the British Parliament offered a reward to the first ship to come within a degree of the Pole), but it wasn't until the early 1900s that things really got going. In 1908, American Frederick Albert Cook was the first person to claim to have reached the North Pole. But his countryman Robert Edwin Peary, with support from Cook's traveling companions, disputed the claim, and Cook was widely discredited.

Peary (with a team of 24 men, 19 sledges and 133 sled dogs) ended up making the first undisputed visit to the North Pole, on April 6, 1909. But there's still some controversy attached to the claim, mostly because of Peary's improbable 37-day time frame. Most expeditions of the era took months -- at least -- to come close to the goal. However, in April 2005, explorer Tom Avery recreated Peary's sled expedition with the same materials and supplies; he beat Peary's time by five hours. Some still doubt that Peary actually made it to the exact geographic North Pole, but he usually gets the credit for being first.

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North Pole Firsts

Members of an expedition to the North Pole in May 1971, led by Italian millionaire Guido Monzino
Members of an expedition to the North Pole in May 1971, led by Italian millionaire Guido Monzino
Peter Pagh/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There continue to be many North Pole "firsts" -- it's a wonder that people aren't bumping into each other on their journeys. Here are just a few of the history-makers:

  • First black man: Matthew Henson reached the North Pole in 1909 as part of the Robert Peary expedition.
  • First confirmed flight over the North Pole: Norwegian Roald Amundsen (with Umberto Nobile, Lincoln Ellsworth and 11 others) on May 12, 1926, at 1:30 a.m. in an airship.
  • First submarine: the USS Nautilus was the first to navigate under the Pole on Aug. 3, 1958.
  • First solo journey by dogsled: Naomi Uemura of Japan, reached the North Pole on April 29, 1978, after covering 450 miles in 57 days.
  • First woman: Ann Bancroft, the only female member of the Steger International Polar Expedition, in 1986
  • First motorcycle trip: Fukashi Kazami (Shinji Kazama) on April 20, 1987
  • First solo, unsupported trip: Norwegian Borge Ousland, on April 23, 1994
  • First unsupported journey to the North Pole and back: Richard Weber (of Canada) and Mikhail Malakhov (of Russia) took a 121-day journey, ending on May 12, 1995.
  • First all-female expedition to reach the North Pole: McVitie's Penguin Polar Relay Team, May 26, 1997
  • First successful hot-air balloon trip: Debbie Harding became the first person to lead a hot-air balloon flight over the Pole in 1998.
  • First long-distance swim at the North Pole: Lewis Gordon Pugh made it .6 miles (1 kilometer) in 29 F (-2 C) saltwater in July 2007. According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, Pugh had no permanent damage after the plunge, but the fingers on one hand stayed numb for several days [source: Lamb].
  • First black woman: Barbara Hillary was 75 years old when she reached the North Pole in April 2007.

Trekking to the North Pole

A North Pole expedition team on skis pulling sledges through the snow
A North Pole expedition team on skis pulling sledges through the snow
Daisy Gilardini/The Image Bank/Getty Images

So, have we inspired you to brave the elements and make your own trek to the North Pole?

You're definitely going to want a heavy-duty coat and the best gear, but the most important part of your preparation may be making a warm fat layer on your own body. So start eating. The members of the McVitie's Penguin Relay (the first all-female group to reach the Pole, in 1997) consumed about 5,000 calories a day during their trek [source: McVitie's Penguin Polar Relay]. Whatever your method of travel -- skiing, hiking, road biking, dog sledding -- you can expect to consume a couple thousand calories a day more than that during training. The fat layer you build up will also help maintain your internal temperature -- your body has to work extra hard to do this in subzero temperatures.

While you're making a few extra trips to the buffet, you can start planning your trek. We'll begin with the gear. You'll need several layers of clothing for the same reason you need the extra fat: Hypothermia sets in at approximately 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius), and cardiac arrest occurs when your body temperature dips below 86 F (30 C) [source: Natural Resources Canada]. The problem with such a strenuous trek is that if your layers are too heavy, you could overheat, and sweat would immediately freeze to your skin. So, thinner, loose-fitting base layers made of sweat-wicking material are your best bet. For your feet, you'll probably want to invest in some snowshoes, because the snow and ice can get pretty deep. And so you don't get lost, you'll definitely want to bring a GPS system. Natural Resources Canada has a useful prep list for participants in its Polar Continental Shelf Project [source: Natural Resources Canada].

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Planning a North Pole Expedition

A Russian nuclear icebreaker carries tourists to the North Pole.
A Russian nuclear icebreaker carries tourists to the North Pole.
Per Breiehagen/Stone/Getty Images

You also need to know when to go. The two-month window between March and May is your best bet. If you make the trip before March, don't expect a lot of sightseeing, because it will be dark the entire time -- not to mention a lot colder. But if you go much later than May, you'll encounter melting conditions. There isn't any actual land underneath the North Pole, so you probably shouldn't attempt that unless you feel like swimming in the Arctic Ocean.

Now that you have the time, you'll need a place to begin your journey. If you're coming from the Canadian side, Resolute Bay is where you'll start. From there, you'll take a four-hour ride in a small plane, after which you'll refuel and fly the rest of the way to your jumping-off place, Ward Hunt Island. (If you're starting from Russia, you'll leave from Severnaya Zemlya, Siberia.)

National Geographic describes a land-based journey from Ward Hunt Island:

"From there, it's just 450 frozen miles to the Pole. To complicate matters, some of the ice is in the form of pressure ridges -- small mountains formed by shifting ice plates. As the season progresses and the ice continues to break up, travelers also encounter 'leads' (pronounced LEEDS) -- open stretches of seawater that either must be bridged or traveled around [source: Smith]."

Time frames for North Pole trips vary, depending on your mode of transportation. If you take a dog-sledding or skiing trip to the North Pole with Polar Adventures, for example, expect a weeklong training camp and a two- to three-week trek. (There are also three-day excursions, which basically deliver you to the Pole for skiing or sledding.) The cost for a dogsled trek can top $50,000 [source: Polar Adventures].

And don't forget, when you finally reach the Pole, you'll probably want a ride home instead of turning around to make the trek back. Many packages include a ride back to your jumping-off point.

For more information about expeditions to the North Pole, take a look at the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

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  • Arctic Studies Center. http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/html/walrus.html
  • Black America Web. http://www.blackamericaweb.com/site.aspx/headlines/hillary507
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  • Connors, Martha Schindler. Runner's World April 2004 "Snow Blind: Mark Pollock can't see, but that won't stop him from running 26.2 at the North Pole." http://www.martha-connors.com/s_f.html
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  • Polar Cruises. http://www.polarcruises.com
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  • Poseidon Arctic Voyages: North Pole Expedition Prices for 2008. http://northpolevoyages.com/north_pole/prices/2008.php
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