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.

• Polar bears never, ever eat penguins. Why? Because they are found at opposite ends of the Earth! Polar bears roam within the Arctic Circle—including the North Pole. Penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly near Earth's South Pole, in Antarctica.

• The North Pole spends half the year in darkness and half in light. As the Earth orbits the sun, its axis stays constant. That means for half the orbit the Earth's axis is tilted toward the sun and for the other half the axis is tilted away from the sun.

Sunrise at the North Pole occurs on the spring equinox—around March 21. The sun then climbs higher each day until the summer solstice on about June 21. Sunlight is continuous throughout the summer, but after the solstice the sun slowly sinks to the horizon until it drops below on the autumn equinox (around September 21). Twilight then prevails until early October, and then full darkness endures until the spring sunrise.

• The famous northern lights appear as bands, clouds and rays of green, red, and blue lights in the night sky. The aurora borealis (Latin for "northern dawn") occurs in an oval around the north magnetic pole.

The aurora is caused when charged electrons and protons from the sun reach Earth and collide with atoms and molecules (like oxygen and nitrogen) in the upper atmosphere near the pole. Some of the energy released by these collisions becomes visual light—and treats onlookers to a spectacular sky show.

• What's Santa's proper mailing address? Some 100,000 letters addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole," wing their way each year to 99705. That's the zip code for North Pole, Alaska, and the subject of the ZipUSA feature in the December 2000 issue of National Geographic magazine.

About 1,750 miles (2,820 kilometers) south of its polar namesake, North Pole in Alaska is a lot more festive than the arctic Pole. The town, which bills itself as a place "where the spirit of Christmas lives year-round," has street names like Snowman Lane and Saint Nicholas Drive and dresses its lampposts like candy canes.

In Canada the address for Santa is North Pole H0H 0H0. This official Canadian postal code lets 15,000 volunteer postal employees help Santa personally answer over one million annual Christmas letters—many from outside Canada.

• Polar flights allow airlines to trim hours off flight times from North America and Europe to Asia and the Pacific Region. By crossing over the polar region, planes are able to fly shorter distances and burn less fuel. The routes help keep ticket prices down and reduce harmful emissions. The flights became possible only after the ending of the Cold War, when Russia allowed commercial airliners to fly over Siberia.

• No one lives at the North Pole, but plenty of people survive in its Arctic neighborhood. Oil, minerals, and diamonds have lured waves of new immigrants to the often-challenging environment north of the Arctic Circle. In Russia, Alaska, and Canada some 170,000 Aleuts, Indians, Eskimos, Métis and other indigenous people adapt their ancient ways to a quickly shifting economic and environmental landscape.

• The long dreamed-of Northwest Passage, an Arctic shipping shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, could be ice free and open for summer travel sometime this century. The route passes below Iceland and Greenland, through Arctic Canada and along Alaska's north coast.

Scientists disagree on just when the shrinking ice cap could make the route feasible, but if it happens, ships traveling from Europe to Asia could shave some 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) from their current route through the Panama Canal.

Brian Handwerk is a freelance journalist based in Amherst, New Hampshire.

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