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Everyone who has ever watched a Christmas special knows where the North Pole is. They can even point to it on a map. However where is the North Pole really? The fact is that there are two poles that claim that name. The first that everyone is familiar with is the geographic North Pole. It is defined as the point that is the north part of the axis of rotation that runs through the Earth. The other North Pole is the Magnetic North runs true to vertical through the Earth. So why is there an obsession with the location of the North Pole and reaching it?
The answer is that it has been the dream of explorers since the discovery of the Americas to find a Northwest Passage, a legendary all water route that would allow sailor to reach the East in record time without rounding the southern tip of South America. The one thing that all explorers got right was that the North Pole is centered in the Arctic Ocean instead of a continent like the South Pole. Different explorers tried to reach this location but failed due to the harsh cold and the shifting ice. Some famous explorers came close while others claimed to reach only to have doubts cast on their claim.
Army Navy engineer Robert Peary was one of these explorers. He made his fateful expedition in 1909 with the aid of Inuit guides. However, the accounts of the astounding speed with reached the North Pole casted doubts on their claims. However later recreations of Peary’s expedition proved that many of his claims were likely true. However, with no official geographer or other forms of confirmation his claim as the first was set aside.
It would not be until 1969 that a confirmed successful expedition on foot to the North Pole would be mounted. This was led by Wally Herbert of the British Trans-Artic Expedition. He was accompanied by Allan Gill, Roy Koerner and Kenneth Hedges. The group made their successful journey using air drops and snow mobiles. Just like Everest the first set the precedent for the rest and now numerous tourists make their own trek to the North Pole whether by air, on foot, or by submarine.
The North Pole still has the aura of mystery that it had for explorers long ago. Now instead of dreaming of a Northwest Passage environmentalists are trying to understand its role as the center of Artic Ice Cap and what information it can give on important subjects such as climate change and the effects of greenhouse gases.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.