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The North Pole, also known as the Geographic North Pole or Terrestrial North Pole, is, subject to the caveats explained below, defined as the point in the Northern Hemisphere where the Earth's axis of rotation meets its surface. It should not be confused with the North Magnetic Pole.
The North Pole is the northernmost point on the Earth, lying diametrically opposite the South Pole. It defines geodetic latitude 90° North, as well as the direction of true north. At the North Pole all directions point south; all lines of longitude converge there, so its longitude can be defined as any degree value.
While the South Pole lies on a continental land mass, the North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean amid waters that are almost permanently covered with constantly shifting sea ice. This makes it impractical to construct a permanent station at the North Pole (unlike the South Pole). However, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, have constructed a number of manned drifting stations on a generally annual basis since 1937, some of which have passed over or very close to the Pole. Since 2002, the Russians have also annually established a base, Barneo, close to the Pole. This operates for a few weeks during early spring. Recent studies have predicted that the North Pole may become seasonally ice-free due to Arctic ice shrinkage, with timescales varying from next year to fifty years or more.
The sea depth at the North Pole has been measured at 4,261 m (13,980 ft) by the Russian Mir submersible in 2007 and at 4,087 m (13,410 ft) by USS Nautilus in 1958. The nearest land is usually said to be Kaffeklubben Island, off the northern coast of Greenland about 700 km (430 mi) away, though some perhaps non-permanent gravel banks lie slightly closer. The nearest permanently inhabited place is Alert in the Qikiqtaaluk Region, Nunavut, Canada, which is located 817 km (508 mi) from the Pole.
The Earth's axis of rotation – and hence the position of the North Pole – was commonly believed to be fixed (relative to the surface of the Earth) until, in the 18th century, the mathematician Leonhard Euler predicted that the axis might "wobble" slightly. Around the beginning of the 20th century astronomers noticed a small apparent "variation of latitude," as determined for a fixed point on Earth from the observation of stars. Part of this variation could be attributed to a wandering of the Pole across the Earth's surface, by a range of a few meters. The wandering has several periodic components and an irregular component. The component with a period of about 435 days is identified with the 8 month wandering predicted by Euler and is now called the Chandler wobble after its discoverer. The exact point of intersection of the Earth's axis and the Earth's surface, at any given moment, is called the "instantaneous pole", but because of the "wobble" this cannot be used as a definition of a fixed North Pole (or South Pole) when metre-scale precision is required.
It is desirable to tie the system of Earth coordinates (latitude, longitude, and elevations or orography) to fixed landforms. Of course, given plate tectonics and isostasy, there is no system in which all geographic features are fixed. Yet the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service and the International Astronomical Union have defined a framework called the International Terrestrial Reference System.
As early as the 16th century, many eminent people correctly believed that the North Pole was in a sea, which in the 19th century was called the Polynya or Open Polar Sea. It was therefore hoped that passage could be found through ice floes at favorable times of the year. Several expeditions set out to find the way, generally with whaling ships, already commonly used in the cold northern latitudes.
One of the earliest expeditions to set out with the explicit intention of reaching the North Pole was that of British naval officer William Edward Parry, who in 1827 reached latitude 82°45′ North. In 1871 the Polaris expedition, a US attempt on the Pole led by Charles Francis Hall, ended in disaster. Another British Royal Navy attempt on the pole, part of the British Arctic Expedition, by Commander Albert H. Markham reached a then-record 83°20'26" North in May 1876 before turning back. An 1879–1881 expedition commanded by US naval officer George W. DeLong ended tragically when their ship the USS Jeanette, was crushed by ice. Over half the crew, including DeLong, were lost.
In April 1895 the Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen struck out for the Pole on skis after leaving Nansen's icebound ship Fram. The pair reached latitude 86°14′ North before they abandoned the attempt and turned southwards, eventually reaching Franz Josef Land.
In 1897 Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée and two companions tried to reach the North Pole in the hydrogen balloon Örnen ("Eagle"), but were stranded 300 km (190 mi) north of Kvitøya, the northeasternmost part of the Svalbard archipelago, and perished on this lonely island. In 1930 the remains of this expedition were found by the Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition.
The Italian explorer Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi and Captain Umberto Cagni of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) sailed the converted whaler Stella Polare ("Pole Star") from Norway in 1899. On March 11, 1900 Cagni led a party over the ice and reached latitude 86° 34’ on April 25, setting a new record by beating Nansen's result of 1895 by 35 to 40 km (22 to 25 mi). Cagni barely managed to return to the camp, remaining there until June 23. On August 16 the Stella Polare left Rudolf Island heading south and the expedition returned to Norway.
The US explorer Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole on 21 April 1908 with two Inuit men, Ahwelah and Etukishook, but he was unable to produce convincing proof and his claim is not widely accepted.
The conquest of the North Pole was for many years credited to US Navy engineer Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the Pole on 6 April 1909, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Inuit men, Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ooqueah. However, Peary's claim remains controversial. Those who accompanied Peary on the final stage of the journey were not trained in navigation, and thus could not independently confirm his navigational work, which some claim to have been particularly sloppy as he approached the Pole.
The distances and speeds that Peary claimed to have achieved once the last support party turned back seem incredible to many people, almost three times that which he had accomplished up to that point. Peary's account of a journey to the Pole and back while traveling along the direct line – the only strategy that is consistent with the time constraints that he was facing – is contradicted by Henson's account of tortuous detours to avoid pressure ridges and open leads.
The British explorer Wally Herbert, initially a supporter of Peary, researched Peary's records in 1989 and concluded that they must have been falsified and that Peary had not reached the Pole. Support for Peary came again in 2005, however, when British explorer Tom Avery and four companions recreated the outward portion of Peary's journey with replica wooden sleds and Canadian Eskimo Dog teams, reaching the North Pole in 36 days, 22 hours – nearly five hours faster than Peary. However, Avery's fastest 5-day march was 90 nautical miles, significantly short of the 135 claimed by Peary. Avery writes on his web site that "The admiration and respect which I hold for Robert Peary, Matthew Henson and the four Inuit men who ventured North in 1909, has grown enormously since we set out from Cape Columbia. Having now seen for myself how he travelled across the pack ice, I am more convinced than ever that Peary did indeed discover the North Pole."
Another rejection of Peary's claim arrived in 2009, when E. Myles Standish of the California Institute of Technology, an experienced referee of scientific claims, reported numerous alleged lacunae and inconsistencies.
The first claimed flight over the Pole was made on 9 May 1926 by US naval officer Richard E. Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett in a Fokker tri-motor aircraft. Although verified at the time by a committee of the National Geographic Society, this claim has since been undermined by the 1996 revelation that Byrd's long-hidden diary's solar sextant data (which the NGS never checked) consistently contradict his June 1926 report's parallel data by over 100 mi (160 km). The secret report's alleged en-route solar sextant data were inadvertently so impossibly overprecise that he excised all these alleged raw solar observations out of the version of the report finally sent to geographical societies five months later (while the original version was hidden for 70 years), a realization first published in 2000 by the University of Cambridge after scrupulous refereeing.
According to Standish, "Anyone who is acquainted with the facts and has any amount of logical reasoning can not avoid the conclusion that neither Cook, nor Peary, nor Byrd reached the North Pole; and they all knew it."
According to some, the first consistent, verified, and scientifically convincing attainment of the Pole was on 12 May 1926, by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his US sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth from the airship Norge. Norge, though Norwegian-owned, was designed and piloted by the Italian Umberto Nobile. The flight started from Svalbard in Norway, and crossed the Arctic Ocean to Alaska. Nobile, with several scientists and crew from the Norge, overflew the Pole a second time on 24 May 1928, in the airship Italia. The Italia crashed on its return from the Pole, with the loss of half the crew.
In May 1937 the world's first North Pole ice station, North Pole-1, was established by Soviet scientists 20 kilometres (13 mi) from the North Pole. The expedition members: oceanographer Pyotr Shirshov, meteorologist Yevgeny Fyodorov, radio operator Ernst Krenkel, and the leader Ivan Papanin conducted scientific research at the station for the next nine months. By 19 February 1938, when the group was picked up by the ice breakers Taimyr and Murman, their station had drifted 2850 km to the eastern coast of Greenland.
In May 1945 an RAF Lancaster of the Aries expedition became the first Commonwealth aircraft to overfly the North Geographic and North Magnetic Poles. The plane was piloted by David Cecil McKinley of the Royal Air Force. It carried an 11-man crew, with Kenneth C. Maclure of the Royal Canadian Air Force in charge of all scientific observations. In 2006, Maclure was honoured with a spot in Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame.
Discounting Peary's disputed claim, the first men to set foot at the North Pole were a Soviet party including geophysicists Mikhail Ostrekin and Pavel Senko, oceanographers Mikhail Somov and Pavel Gordienko, and other scientists and flight crew (24 people in total) of Aleksandr Kuznetsov's Sever-2 expedition (March–May 1948). It was organized by the Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route. The party flew on three planes (pilots Ivan Cherevichnyy, Vitaly Maslennikov and Ilya Kotov) from Kotelny Island to the North Pole and landed there at 4:44pm (Moscow Time, UTC+04:00) on April 23, 1948. They established a temporary camp and for the next two days conducted scientific observations. On April 26 the expedition flew back to the continent.
Next year, on May 9, 1949, two other Soviet scientists (Vitali Volovich and Andrei Medvedev) became the first people to parachute onto the North Pole. They jumped from Douglas C-47 Skytrain, registered CCCP H-369.
On May 3, 1952, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher and Lieutenant William Pershing Benedict, along with scientist Albert P. Crary, landed a modified Douglas C-47 Skytrain at the North Pole. Some Western sources considered this to be the first landing at the Pole until the Soviet landings became widely known.
The United States Navy submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) crossed the North Pole on August 3, 1958. On March 17, 1959, the USS Skate (SSN-578) surfaced at the Pole, becoming the first naval vessel to do so.
Setting aside Peary's claim, the first confirmed surface conquest of the North Pole was that of Ralph Plaisted, Walt Pederson, Gerry Pitzl and Jean Luc Bombardier, who traveled over the ice by snowmobile and arrived on April 19, 1968. The United States Air Force independently confirmed their position.
On April 6, 1969, Wally Herbert and companions Allan Gill, Roy Koerner and Kenneth Hedges of the British Trans-Arctic Expedition became the first men to reach the North Pole on foot (albeit with the aid of dog teams and airdrops). They continued on to complete the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean – and by its longest axis, Barrow, Alaska to Svalbard – a feat that has never been repeated. Because of suggestions (later proven false) of Plaisted's use of air transport, some sources classify Herbert's expedition as the first confirmed to reach the North Pole over the ice surface by any means. In the 1980s, Plaisted's pilots Weldy Phipps and Ken Lee signed affidavits asserting that no such airlift was provided. It is also said that Herbert was the first person to reach the pole of inaccessibility.
In 1982 Ranulph Fiennes and Charles R. Burton became the first people to cross the Arctic Ocean in a single season. They departed from Cape Crozier, Ellesmere Island, on February 17, 1982 and arrived at the geographic North Pole on April 10, 1982. They travelled on foot and snowmobile. From the Pole, they travelled towards Svalbard but, due to the unstable nature of the ice, ended their crossing at the ice edge after drifting south on an ice floe for 99 days. They were eventually able to walk to their expedition ship MV Benjamin Bowring and boarded it on August 4, 1982 at position 80:31N 00:59W. As a result of this journey, which formed a section of the three-year Transglobe Expedition 1979–1982, Fiennes and Burton became the first people to complete a circumnavigation of the world via both North and South Poles, by surface travel alone. This achievement remains unchallenged to this day.
In 1985, Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to stand on the summit of Mount Everest) and Neil Armstrong (the first man to stand on the moon) landed at the North Pole in a small twin-engined ski plane. Hillary thus became the first man to stand at both poles and on the summit of Everest.
In 1986, Will Steger, with seven teammates, became the first to be confirmed as reaching the Pole by dogsled and without resupply.
In 1988, a 13 man strong team (9 Soviets, 4 Canadians) skied across the arctic from Siberia to northern Canada. One of the Canadians, Richard Weber became the first person to reach the Pole from both sides of the Arctic Ocean.
On May 4, 1990, Børge Ousland and Erling Kagge became the first explorers ever to reach the North Pole unsupported, after a 58 day ski trek from Ellesmere Island in Canada, a distance of 800 km.
On September 7, 1991, the German research vessel Polarstern and the Swedish icebreaker Oden reached the North Pole as the first conventional powered vessels. Both scientific parties and crew took oceanographic and geological samples and had a common tug of war and a football game on an ice floe. Polarstern again reached the pole exactly 10 years later with the Healy.
In recent years, journeys to the North Pole by air (landing by helicopter or on a runway prepared on the ice) or by icebreaker have become relatively routine, and are even available to small groups of tourists through adventure holiday companies. Parachute jumps have frequently been made onto the North Pole in recent years.
The first attempt at underwater exploration of the North Pole was made by a Russian firefighter and diver Andrei Rozhkov with a support of Diving Club of Moscow State University on April 22, 1998 but ended in fatality. The next attempted dive at the North Pole was organized by the same club next year, on April 24, 1999, and was successful. The divers were Michael Wolff (Austria), Brett Cormick (UK) and Bob Wass (USA).
In July 2007, British endurance swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh completed a 1 km (0.62 mi) swim at the North Pole. His feat, undertaken to highlight the effects of climate change, took place in clear water that had opened up between the ice floes. His later attempt to paddle a kayak to the North Pole in late 2008, following the erroneous prediction of clear water to the Pole, was stymied when his expedition found itself stuck in thick ice after only three days. The expedition was then abandoned.
By September 2007 the North Pole had been visited 66 times by different surface ships: 54 times by Soviet and Russian icebreakers, 4 times by Swedish Oden, 3 times by German Polarstern, 3 times by USCGC Healy and USCGC Polar Sea, and once by CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and by Swedish Vidar Viking.
On August 2, 2007, a Russian scientific expedition Arktika 2007 made the first ever manned descent to the ocean bottom at the North Pole, to a depth of 4.3 km (2.7 mi), as part of a research programme in support of Russia's 2001 extended continental shelf claim to a large swathe of the Arctic Ocean bottom. The descent took place in two MIR submersibles and was led by Soviet and Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov. In a symbolic act of visitation, the Russian flag was placed on the seabed at the exact position of the Pole.
The expedition is the latest in a decades-long series of moves by Russia intended to show that it is the dominant influence in the Arctic. The warming Arctic climate and summer retreat of sea ice there has suddenly turned the attention of countries from China to the United States toward the top of the world, where resources and shipping routes may soon be exploitable.
In 2009 Russian expedition MLAE-2009 reached the North Pole in two custom built amphibious "Yemelya" vehicles designed by the prominent Russian explorer, adventurer and engineer Vasily Elagin. The expedition has been organized by the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Book of Records recorded the journey as the first expedition in the history of Arctic exploration to reach the Geographic North Pole using wheeled land auto vehicles. MLAE-2009 expedition crew reached the North Pole on April 26, 2009 at 1730 (Moscow time). A subsequent expedition, MLAE-2011, followed two years later in 2011.
The sun at the North Pole is continuously above the horizon during the summer and continuously below the horizon during the winter. Sunrise is just before the March equinox (around March 19); the sun then takes three months to reach its highest point of near 23½° elevation at the summer solstice (around June 21), after which time it begins to sink, reaching sunset just after the September equinox (around September 24). When the sun is visible in the polar sky, it appears to move in a horizontal circle above the horizon. This circle gradually rises from near the horizon just after the vernal equinox to its maximum elevation (in degrees) above the horizon at summer solstice and then sinks back toward the horizon before sinking below it at the autumnal equinox.
A civil twilight period of about two weeks occurs before sunrise and after sunset, a nautical twilight period of about five weeks occurs before sunrise and after sunset and an astronomical twilight period of about seven weeks occurs before sunrise and after sunset.
These effects are caused by a combination of the Earth's axial tilt and its revolution around the sun. The direction of the Earth's axial tilt, as well as its angle relative to the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun, remains very nearly constant over the course of a year (both change very slowly over long time periods). At northern midsummer the North Pole is facing towards the sun to its maximum extent. As the year progresses and the Earth moves around the sun, the North Pole gradually turns away from the sun until at midwinter it is facing away from the Sun to its maximum extent. A similar sequence is observed at the South Pole, with a six-month time difference.
In most places on Earth, local time is determined by longitude, such that the time of day is more-or-less synchronised to the position of the sun in the sky (for example, at midday the sun is roughly at its highest). This line of reasoning fails at the North Pole, where the sun rises and sets only once per year, and all lines of longitude, and hence all time zones, converge. There is no permanent human presence at the North Pole and no particular time zone has been assigned. Polar expeditions may use any time zone that is convenient, such as Greenwich Mean Time, or the time zone of the country from which they departed.
The North Pole is significantly warmer than the South Pole because it lies at sea level in the middle of an ocean (which acts as a reservoir of heat), rather than at altitude in a continental land mass.
Winter (January) temperatures at the North Pole can range from about −43 °C (−45 °F) to −26 °C (−15 °F), perhaps averaging around −34 °C (−29 °F). Summer temperatures (June, July and August) average around the freezing point (0 °C (32 °F)). The highest temperature yet recorded is 5 °C (41 °F), much warmer than the South Pole's record high of only −13.5 °C (7.7 °F).
The sea ice at the North Pole is typically around 2 to 3 m (6 ft 7 in to 9 ft 10 in) thick, although ice thickness, its spatial extent, and the fraction of open water within the ice pack can vary rapidly and profoundly in response to weather and climate. Studies have shown that the average ice thickness has decreased in recent years. It is likely that global warming has contributed to this, but it is not possible to attribute the recent abrupt decrease in thickness entirely to the observed warming in the Arctic. Reports have also predicted that within a few decades the Arctic Ocean will be entirely free of ice in the summer. This may have significant commercial implications; see "Territorial Claims," below.
The retreat of the Arctic sea ice will accelerate global warming, as less ice cover reflects less solar radiation, and may have serious climate implications by contributing to Arctic cyclone generation.
Polar bears are believed rarely to travel beyond about 82° North owing to the scarcity of food, though tracks have been seen in the vicinity of the North Pole, and a 2006 expedition reported sighting a polar bear just 1 mi (1.6 km) from the Pole. The ringed seal has also been seen at the Pole, and Arctic foxes have been observed less than 60 km (37 mi) away at 89°40′ N.
Birds seen at or very near the Pole include the Snow Bunting, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwake, though some bird sightings may be distorted by the tendency of birds to follow ships and expeditions.
Fish have been seen in the waters at the North Pole, but these are probably few in number. A member of the Russian team that descended to the North Pole seabed in August 2007 reported seeing no sea creatures living there. However, it was later reported that a sea anemone had been scooped up from the seabed mud by the Russian team and that video footage from the dive showed unidentified shrimps and amphipods.
Under international law, no country currently owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The five surrounding Arctic countries, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), and the United States (via Alaska), are limited to a 200-nautical-mile (370 km; 230 mi) exclusive economic zone around their coasts, and the area beyond that is administered by the International Seabed Authority.
Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has a ten-year period to make claims to an extended continental shelf beyond its 200 mile exclusive economic zone. If validated, such a claim gives the claimant state rights to what may be on or beneath the sea bottom within the claimed zone. Norway (ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (ratified in 1997), Canada (ratified in 2003) and Denmark (ratified in 2004) have all launched projects to base claims that certain areas of Arctic continental shelves should be subject to their sole sovereign exploitation.
In 1907 Canada invoked a "sector principle" to claim sovereignty over a sector stretching from its coasts to the North Pole. Although this claim has not been relinquished, neither has it been consistently pressed.
In some Western cultures, the geographic North Pole is described as being the location of the workshop and residence of Santa Claus, although the depictions have been inconsistent between the geographic and magnetic North Pole. Canada Post has assigned postal code H0H 0H0 to the North Pole (referring to Santa's traditional exclamation of "Ho ho ho!").
This association reflects an age-old esoteric mythology of Hyperborea that posits the North Pole, the otherworldly world-axis, as the abode of God and superhuman beings (see Joscelyn Godwin, Arktos: The Polar Myth). The popular figure of the pole-dwelling Santa Claus thus functions as an archetype of spiritual purity and transcendence. As Henry Corbin has documented, the North Pole plays a key part in the cultural worldview of Sufism and Iranian mysticism. "The Orient sought by the mystic, the Orient that cannot be located on our maps, is in the direction of the north, beyond the north."
Owing to its remoteness, the Pole is sometimes identified with a mysterious mountain of ancient Islamic tradition called Mount Qaf (Jabal Qaf), the "farthest point of the earth". According to certain authors, the Jabal Qaf of Muslim cosmology is a version of Rupes Nigra, a mountain whose ascent, like Dante's climbing of the Mountain of Purgatory, represents the pilgrim's progress through spiritual states. In Iranian theosophy, the heavenly Pole, the focal point of the spiritual ascent, acts as a magnet to draw beings to its "palaces ablaze with immaterial matter." 
Fantasy flights often refer to a flight to the North Pole for these same reasons.
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