The North Pole is the northernmost point on Earth, located at the center of the Arctic Ocean. For centuries, explorers have been fascinated by the possibility of reaching this remote and inhospitable region. However, there are several reasons why it remains incredibly difficult for humans to travel to the geographic North Pole.
Extreme Cold Temperatures
The North Pole region has an Arctic climate, which means extremely cold temperatures year-round. During the winter, temperatures can drop below -40 degrees Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit). Even during the summer months of June and July, average temperatures remain below freezing at around 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit). These frigid conditions make travel and survival very challenging. Exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes, and cold temperatures sap energy and can impair judgment.
Sea Ice Conditions
While the North Pole is located in the middle of the ocean, the surface is almost always covered by sea ice ranging in thickness from 3-4 meters. This ice is constantly shifting, cracking, and drifting due to ocean currents and winds. Massive chunks of ice collide and create dangerous pressure ridges. During the summer months, some of the ice may melt and break up, but large areas of thick multi-year ice still remain. Attempting to cross over shifting sea ice is treacherous for any type of transportation.
Extreme Weather Events
The North Pole region frequently experiences harsh weather conditions including massive storms. Blizzards can create whiteout conditions with wind gusts over 60 mph and temperatures feeling like -70F (-57C) with windchill. Powerful cyclonic storms rapidly form over the Arctic Ocean and can be almost 300 miles across. These storms bring high winds, heavy snow, and low visibility that make travel extremely dangerous.
Extended Periods of Darkness
During the winter, the North Pole will go months without sunlight. From mid-October until early March, the region experiences 24 hours of darkness each day. Navigating and traveling without any sunlight for months on end presents huge challenges. Traditional compasses cannot be fully trusted this close to the magnetic north pole. Modern GPS, satellite communications, and other navigation aids can help somewhat, but equipment failures would be catastrophic for travelers.
Remoteness and Isolation
The North Pole is over 700 miles away from the nearest landmass of northern Greenland. This remote location means there are no settlements or infrastructure to offer shelter or assistance. Rescue or medical evacuations would be almost impossible with the weather conditions and lack of transportation options. Travelers would be completely isolated and on their own if something goes wrong.
Unpredictable Magnetic Conditions
Near the geographic North Pole, the Earth’s magnetic field lines converge and sharply dip into the ground. This can cause issues with traditional navigation equipment like compasses. It also leads to disturbances that can disrupt radio communications and satellite signals. Solar flares and geomagnetic storms can further interfere with navigation systems. Without reliable communications or navigation tools, coming within 500 miles of the pole becomes very risky.
Reaching the North Pole requires extensive planning, resources, and logistical support. Vessels sturdy enough to push through the sea ice are required. Aircraft equipped for polar conditions need bases within range for refueling. Sledge teams need sufficient food, fuel, and spare equipment hauled on sleds. Delays due to weather or equipment issues can doom a North Pole expedition. There are no backup options at the top of the world. The extreme remoteness makes coordinating all the details incredibly complex.
The North Pole does not belong to any single country. Some nations including Russia and Canada have claimed territory in the far north, but boundaries are not universally agreed upon. Permits and permissions may be required for access to certain areas, overflight rights, or for sailing through disputed waters. Teams must navigate complex regulations, and political factors can hinder expeditions to the North Pole region.
The Arctic environment is delicate, so there are ecological impacts to consider when planning a trip to the North Pole. Travel can disrupt wildlife like seals, walruses, and polar bears. Fuel spills or waste have more severe effects in the pristine polar environment. Some forms of travel like snowmobiles or large sledge teams rely on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Environmental regulations, permits, and use of clean/renewable technology should be considered.
Costs and Dangers
A North Pole expedition requires significant funding and comes with major risks. Costs can easily exceed $100,000 per person when factoring in sturdy polar vessels, icebreaker support, aircraft chartering, sledging supplies, equipment, food, wages for experts/guides, and insurance. There are also the inherent dangers of traveling in such a hostile environment – frostbite, hypothermia, thin ice, moving ice chunks, polar bear encounters, crevasses, and extreme weather. The risk to human life and financial costs are quite high.
Historical Expeditions to the North Pole
There have been many attempts throughout history to reach the North Pole, starting in the early 1800s. Here are a few notable expeditions:
1827 – British Naval officer William Edward Parry leads an expedition by ship, gets blocked by ice at 82°45’N.
1876 – British Captain George Nares expedition by ship reaches 83°20’N but returns due to impassable ice.
1893 – Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen reaches farthest north latitude of 86°14’N by deliberately freezing his ship into ice and drifting with the currents.
1909 – American Robert Peary claims to have reached the North Pole with Matthew Henson and four Inuit men by dog sled, but this is disputed.
1926 – American Richard Byrd flies over the North Pole in an airplane, the first undisputed expedition to reach the North Pole.
1968 – American Ralph Plaisted reaches the North Pole via snowmobile, the first surface travel expedition proven to reach the North Pole.
How Close Can You Get to the North Pole?
While reaching the precise latitude and longitude of 90°N 0°W is extremely difficult, it is possible for ships, airplanes, helicopters and icebreaker escorted ships to reach quite close to the North Pole when conditions allow:
- Nuclear powered icebreakers like the Russian 50 Let Pobedy can plow through ice up to 2.5 meters thick and reach the North Pole.
- Icebreaker escorted ships like the Crystal Serenity cruise ship have brought tourists to within 600 miles of the pole.
- Specially equipped turboprop airplanes like the Twin Otter can land on a thick ice runway within a few hundred miles of the pole if weather permits visual flight.
- Helicopters equipped with skis have flown explorers the last 100 miles to the pole when supported by a icebreaker ship nearby.
So while it takes immense resources and effort to reach the exact geographic North Pole at 90°N, it is possible for ships, planes and people to get within a hundred miles or so when conditions cooperate. But significant challenges and hazards remain even when getting close.
Can Tourism Open Up the North Pole?
In recent years, the increase in Arctic tourism has led some expedition cruise companies to offer North Pole trips when ice conditions allow. This raises the question of whether tourism could make the remote top of the world more accessible.
There are a few ways tourism is opening up the North Pole region:
- Nuclear icebreakers like the 50 Years of Victory offer North Pole tourist cruises that can plow directly to 90°N when there is less ice cover in the summer.
- Some expedition cruises will charter helicopters to take tourists on “North Pole flightseeing” tours from the edge of the ice pack when they cannot reach the pole directly by ship.
- Arctic airlines like Quark Expeditions operate charter flights to the North Pole from bases like Longyearbyen, Svalbard depending on weather and runway ice conditions.
- Adventure tour companies offer “Last Degree” expeditions involving skiing 60-100 miles to the pole from base camps on the ice.
However, tourism activities come with environmental concerns, high carbon emissions, and heavy logistical support. Expedition cruises in particular require icebreaker escorts, limiting how many trips are feasible each year. And unpredictable ice conditions means there is no guarantee tourists will actually reach the pole even on icebreakers designed for polar navigation.
Weather and political factors also constrain Arctic tourism. Extreme cold snaps, storms, or cracks in the ice runway can force flightseeing tours or ski expeditions to turn back. And some nations impose tight restrictions on foreign ships entering disputed northern waters, which can hamper cruise itineraries.
So while tourism provides more opportunities to visit the North Pole region, it remains an extremely challenging destination accessible only to well-equipped and hardy travelers. Independent tourism to the actual pole is not feasible given the barriers of sea ice, weather, and lack of infrastructure in such a remote location. But tourism can offer a unique chance to reach the “Last Degree” and witness the stark beauty of the High Arctic.
Reaching the precise northernmost point on Earth at the North Pole comes with immense challenges and hazards. Frigid temperatures, shifting sea ice, extreme weather, darkness, remoteness from rescue or support, and the high costs and risks involved all contribute to making the North Pole one of the most difficult places for humans to access. While technology has opened up the possibility of getting closer, actually traveling to 90°N 0°W remains beyond the capability of most expeditions. Only nuclear icebreakers and specially equipped planes can directly reach the pole, and even then they often fail. The hostile environment and remoteness of the Arctic will likely keep the North Pole out of reach for most people well into the future. But there will always be adventurers drawn to this mysterious place at the top of the world.