All About The North Pole

Our Pal, the Pole. by rlz
Our Pal, the Pole. by rlz

Perhaps you think of the North Pole (especially as the holidays near) as simply Santa's place of residence. Or maybe, on deeper reflection, you also consider it the true magnetic pole of the Earth. Follow along and learn what's really real and true about this little-known spot. (Or, if you're a contrarian, you can go to rickzworld and find out about all sorts of other neat stuff.)

Yes, the North Pole is the Arctic pivot-point of our planet — the northernmost end of an imagined axis that extends completely through the center of the Earth, and about which we all rotate each 24 hours of each day. But it is not in fact the true magnetic pole of the globe; due to fine perturbations in Earth's magnetic field, true magnetic north does not actually coincide with the North Pole, but is a minor distance away, and may even occasionally fluctuate slightly to other locations.

As recently as the 1860s, respected and seemingly knowing explorers and writers imagined a vast array of unusual North Pole landscapes: rocky islands capped by glaciers, a central island ringed by navigable waters, even an immense black cone hundreds of feet high surrounded by concentric rings of open water and impassable ice. Then, beginning just after the turn of the Century, a number of intrepid explorers claimed to have actually 'discovered', or passed over, the North Pole: Brit Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton in 1901; Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903, American Dr. Frederick Albert Cook in 1908, American Robert Edwin Peary in 1909, and Brit Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. Though controversy surrounded a number of the claims, and proof was virtually impossible to obtain, the U.S. Congress by 1911 recognized Peary's claim of primacy. We now know that the North Pole is a barren Arctic terrain atop a thickness of about 14 feet of permanent pack ice. Scientists today drill narrow cylindrical cores, and, by examining gas bubbles trapped within the ice through time, reconstruct the likely composition of Earth's atmosphere over the millenia.

Despite the fact that the terrain immediately beneath the North Pole, as well as the remainder of the frozen 'cap' of the world for miles around, consists entirely of pack ice, it is anything but immobile. The storms, snows and winds, the heaving, thawing, and re-freezing of the ice, and the currents of Arctic oceans beneath insure that the pack ice is in constant motion. Many of the ships of early Arctic adventurers that became trapped by ice would in fact move with the ice, at times up to 2 miles per day, until eventually freed (or not). Today, researchers often make use of 'drift stations' that are planted into, then move with, the ice, measuring weather or currents or wildlife along whatever roaming, erratic path fate and circumstance might dictate.

Though made up of ice, the North Pole and its environs might well be considered a desert. Arctic air is far too cold to hold moisture for more than the briefest instance; all moisture quickly condenses out of the air as snow or ice, leaving behind only superdry air. Likewise, any moisture carried along by weather quickly condenses out of oncoming air masses upon encountering the Arctic zone, leaving little opportunity for any precipitation. Global climate change has over the years eaten away at the Arctic pack ice, and some speculate that we may within the coming decades see a new 'Northwest Passage' from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans around North America through what is now pack ice.

The nearest land mass to the North Pole, at about 450 miles distance, is Peary Land in northern Greenland. But the most widely used launch points for Arctic expeditions are the more distant, but more heavily populated and more readily accessible ports of Point Barrow, Alaska and Spitzbergen, Norway.

Despite an area of almost 5.5 million square miles, the Arctic Ocean within which the North Pole resides is the smallest of all of Earth's oceans, at about only 8% of the size of the Pacific Ocean. Polar pack ice, glaciers and permanent snow cover the surface of about 70% of all of Earth's supply of fresh water. All of humankind must therefore rely on the remaining 30% of Earth's freshwater stockpile, scattered about the planet's many rivers, streams, ponds, reservoirs, etc. for all its freshwater needs. Conservation, judicious use, proper recycling and treatment, and control of water pollution are therefore paramount if we are to have sufficient fresh water in years to come to survive as a species.

The largest 'land' mammal of the Arctic is the polar bear, a predator that hunts alone and only from pack ice. Since each polar bear may, in a single year's hunting forays, roam over more than 35,000 square miles (roughly the area of the State of Indiana), the amount of pack ice remaining at the end of the warmer months in a given year can have a direct and severe impact on the viable population of polar bears.

Ozone depletion in Earth's upper atmosphere caused by humans' use of such chemicals as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in aerosols and refrigerants has led to successive holes developing in the planet's protective ozone layer (varying in size, location and extent from year to year). Due to planetary rotation and weather patterns, that ozone hole is typically seen above the Arctic. In years past, it has grown as large as the size of the European landmass. As that hole develops, greater solar radiation strikes the Arctic, leading to greater ice pack and snow melt.

Climate change also contributes to the settling of slowly thawing permafrost in other areas throughout the Arctic regions. Roads in Alaska may sink 15 feet or more in a single season as permafrost thaws; whole Inuit villages have had to be relocated out of the path of rising waters as pack ice melts. A single Alaskan glacier is now sending approximately 2 cubic miles of meltwater into Earth's oceans each year. That annual volume of water would be enough to provide each of the planet's 6+ billion inhabitants more than 350 gallons of fresh water, if we could but capture and transport it. Instead, it merely (and only slightly) dilutes the salinity of the waters of the receiving oceans.

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