The Two North Poles: Background information when reading In the Kingdom of Ice

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In the Kingdom of Ice

The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides X
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 480 pages

    May 2015, 496 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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The Two North Poles

This article relates to In the Kingdom of Ice

Print Review

In the Kingdom of Ice concerns an ill-fated 19th century expedition to the North Pole.

There are actually two North Poles — a geographic North Pole and a magnetic one. The geographic North Pole is recognized as the northernmost point on the earth's surface, and is the axis point around which the earth spins. It's 450 miles north of Greenland in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

The magnetic North Pole is approximately 100 miles south of the geographic pole and due north of Canada's Sverdrup Island. It is not fixed and moves on a daily basis; it was first recorded in 1831 hundreds of miles from its current location (82.7° North & 114.4° West in 2005). Because of this, compasses must be regularly adjusted to take into account this drift, a measurement called "declination." This adjustment helps to compensate for any discrepancies between compasses, which point to magnetic North, and maps, which work with true North. The Geographical Survey of Canada monitors the magnetic North Pole and has determined it drifts about 25 miles a year.

North Pole Tundra The geographic North Pole — referred to as "True North" — is the one generally meant when referring to the North Pole as a location. It's a strange place, where many common measures used across the planet do not apply. For example, there is no east or west at the North Pole; every direction is south. The speed of the earth's rotation is almost zero there, compared to 1038 mph at the equator. Because the earth is not a perfect sphere, the exact location of the North Pole changes by about 30 feet over a period of 433 days (a phenomenon called The Chandler Wobble, named after the American astronomer who discovered it in 1891). Since time zones are determined by longitudinal line and they all meet at the North Pole, the pole itself has no time zone (although when time is necessary UTC — "Coordinated Universal Time" — is used). There is only one true sunrise and one true sunset each year, which occur at the March and September equinoxes, respectively. By international agreement the area is not owned by any country, although several are now vying for rights to the rich oil reserves the area contains (it's estimated that 30% or more of the earth's untapped oil reserves are under the Arctic Ocean).

The North Pole is covered by a permanent ice sheet that runs 6–10 feet deep over most of its area, with ridges formed by colliding ice floes as thick as 60 feet. The polar ice cap covers an area that ranges from 5.6 to 7.5 million square miles, shrinking and growing with seasonal temperature changes. The warmest month is July, when the daily high hovers around 32° F; in the winter it can get as cold as 31° below zero. Surprisingly, the North Pole is warmer than the South Pole, which has an annual mean temperature of -59°. The two are so different because, first, the North Pole is over water which insulates better than the rock below the South Pole; and second it's just a few feet above sea level while the South Pole's elevation reaches 9300.'

The North Pole doesn't support much wildlife, partially because the drifting ice makes it an unpredictable habitat. Polar bears, seals and walruses do visit from time to time, however, as do birds such as the Artic tern and the snow bunting. Ocean life is more varied, with the waters beneath the pole supporting shrimp, sea anemones, crustaceans, and Arctic cod.

The first expedition to set out specifically for the pole was led by British Admiral William Edward Parry in 1827, and many other adventurers followed. The first person to claim to successfully reach the North Pole was the American explorer Frederic Albert Cook in 1908, but he was unable to document his journey and his crew didn't back up his story. Many believe that Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Henson along with their four Inuit guides were the first to set foot on the North Pole on April 9, 1909 in an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, although this claim, too, wasn't substantiated and has been disputed. The first uncontested claim about reach the North Pole was from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1926, flying over the pole in the airship Norge, and the first people to certifiably set foot on the pole were geologists and oceanographers from the Soviet Union in 1948. The U.S. nuclear sub Nautilus was the first to cross the North Pole underwater in 1958.

North Pole Marathon Participant With the advent of modern travel methods the North Pole is no longer as inaccessible as it once was, and has actually become a tourist destination for some. In fact, every April since 2002, the area has been home to the North Pole Marathon, billed as "The World's Coolest Marathon." Participants pay an entry fee of 11,900 euros (over $16,000) to be transported to an international North Pole camp on the polar ice shelf, and the race features the opportunity to stand at the pole itself. It's the only marathon run entirely on water, and participants face an average wind chill of -22° F. As of the completion of the 2014 race, 350 people from 40 nations have successfully completed the event.

The National Geographic website has some great videos about the North Pole and the Arctic.

Picture of North Pole tundra from NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
Picture of North Pole marathon participant from North Pole Marathon

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to In the Kingdom of Ice. It originally ran in August 2014 and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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