Beyond "Polar Express": Fast Facts on the Real North Pole

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 8, 2004

With The Polar Express chugging into movie theaters and a fictional North Pole, we're finding out that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Uncover the real story of the Arctic with our North Pole fast facts:

• There's only one Santa, but there are two North Poles. The north terrestrial pole is the fixed point that, along with the South Terrestrial Pole, forms the axis on which the Earth spins. All meridians of longitude—imaginary lines that stretch from the North Pole to the South Pole—begin at this pole. See photos from the North Pole.

The north magnetic pole, to which compass needles point from all over the Earth, moves day by day. The magnetic pole shifts, on average, some 6 to 25 miles (10 to 40 kilometers) each year as Earth's magnetic field is affected by underground molten metals and charged particles from the sun. The magnetic pole is currently about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the terrestrial pole.

Some scientists believe the Earth's magnetic field is reversing, and that some day compasses may point south instead of north.

• There is no land beneath the ice of the North Pole. The Arctic ice cap is a shifting pack of sea ice some 6.5 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) thick—floating above the 13,000-foot-deep (4,000-meter-deep) Arctic Ocean. 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 dynamic—increasing during winter and shrinking during summer—during recent decades the ice cap has been shrinking in both area and thickness.

In the 1950s the minimum area of summer ice started getting smaller. By the mid-1970s the winter maximum area also began to decline. Ice thickness has also been on the wane. The ongoing process may be a consequence of global warming. If the polar ice continues to melt, it could eventually cause rising sea levels and spur further global climate change.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment—a four-year study by hundreds of scientists which was released on November 8, 2004—determined 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. The results could be catastrophic for polar people and animals, while low-lying lands as far away as Florida could be inundated by rising sea levels. (Read the news story about this.)

• The tiny Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) undertakes the world's longest migration—traveling nearly from pole to pole. The bird breeds in the Arctic Circle, but migrates during the Northern Hemisphere winter to the edges of the Antarctic ice pack. The annual journey is some 21,750 miles (35,000 kilometers) —nearly equal to flying all the way around the world.

• Robert E. Peary is generally recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909. Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos achieved the feat via a grueling over-ice dogsled journey. On May 9, 1926, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett became the first people to reach the pole by airplane. Approaching from beneath the ice, the U.S. atomic submarine Nautilus became the first vessel to cruise under the North Pole, in 1958.

• Santa can be difficult to spot, but the legend of the unicorn is alive and well in the Arctic. The narwhal (Monodon monocerus) is a smaller whale that lives most of its life north of the Arctic Circle. One of the male narwhal's two teeth grows into a distinctive tusk, which can reach 10 feet (3 meters) in length—earning the animal the moniker "unicorn of the sea." Legend has it that finding a narwhal tusk is lucky, but killing an animal for its tooth is bad luck.

• July is the North Pole's warmest month, when the mean temperature rises to a freezing 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). In frigid February the average plummets to -31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius). Wind chills make these temperatures even worse and create one of the planet's most inhospitable environments.

Continued on Next Page >>


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