The North Pole may seem remote to us nowadays, but back before anyone had been there, it might as well have been on the moon. Travel to even the jumping-off points in far nothern Canada (a few miles above Sussex) or Siberia was a hard slog in itself. Explorers sought to get to the top of the world for hundreds of years but it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that two teams claimed to have made it: Robert Peary in 1909 and Frederick Cook in 1908. Peary’s claim has been called into question, decades after he was annointed the first man to reach the North Pole, but Cook’s journey isn’t conclusively proven either. In 1926 Roald Amundsen did it the easy way and floated on air in a dirigible to the Pole, becoming the first to indisputably stand there. But it’s all ice, so how do you know where you are? Well, a compass will tell you when you are there, although the compass will get a little wonky right at the top since the needle can’t point to north when that’s right under your feet.
But wait – that’s the magnetic north pole. You may or may not know this, but your compass doesn’t point to the actual top of the earth. It points to where the geomagnetic field is perpendicular to the Earth’s surface, called the North Dip Pole, and it’s not a fixed point. It wanders around, way up there in the frozen north, and as of 2010 was located at 84.97°N and 132.35°W. It moves around at a rate of about 55 km per year. There is a South Dip Pole at the other end of the earth, but not exactly opposite the North Dip Pole. It’s all rather fluid. There is also something called the geomagnetic north pole, which is derived by a quite complex-sounding formula. It has the distinction of being the point around which the aurora boralis, or the Northern Lights, put on their show.
So where were all those explorers trying to get to? They were after the geographic north pole—the imaginary extension of a line following the axis of the spinning Earth. Unfortunately, there isn’t any land at that point that isn’t covered by the Arctic Ocean, and the polar ice cap. The ice cap floats, and moves around due to pressures caused by wind and temperature, so the spot on the ice above the seafloor where the geographic north pole sits isn’t going to be the same today as it was yesterday. One has to use a sextant to determine latitude, and a chronometer for longitude, but given the error factor when so far north, calculations could easily be off by kilometers. And of course you’d have to do your measurements again tomorrow to stay with the pole. Whether either Peary or Cook could claim they had reached the actual geographic pole is open to question, but they were likely quite close. The U.S. Navy has been to the geographic north pole, in the nuclear sub Nautilus in 1958. The Russians went us one better and stuck a flag in the ocean floor there in 2007. They had deployed a submersible robot off of a heavy-duty icebreaker to plant the flag, dubiously claiming the Arctic for Russia.
Of course many nations are interested in staking a claim on the Arctic, given the value of natural resources said to be waiting in the region. As the ice cap continues to shrink, getting to the North Pole, at least by boat, may become easier and easier. But it’s going to be tougher times for polar bears, ringed seals and Santa Claus.