Last modified on July 29, 2016, at 19:43

North Pole

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld during his exploration of arctic regions by Georg von Rosen, 1886.

The North Pole is the northernmost place on Earth. It is the northern end of the north-south axis of the Earth where every direction is south and is the northern point where all longitudinal meridians begin. Its latitude is 90 degrees north. It is the opposite of the South Pole.

It lies under the waters of the Arctic Ocean at a point more or less equidistant between the northern coasts of Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. The sea there is usually ice-bound but not always. (The ice was thin enough in August 1958 for the US submarine "Skate" to surface there.) It is, as one would think, cold, it is usually still and, depending on the season, has 24 hours a day sunlight (midsummer) or darkness (midwinter.) (The Arctic Circle, at about 66 degrees N is the latitude above which this occurs.)

The first attempts by Europeans to get there were by English navigator/traders sponsored by the Muscovy Company in 1607, 1610 and 1611. They were all frustrated by the ice but opened up the area for whaling. The British then left it to the Russians (who reached about 80 degrees north) until the Royal Navy became interested and mounted a series of expeditions during the late 1700s and into the nineteenth century. The Americans tried in 1860 and in the 1870s. All these later attempts were sparked by the myth of an area of “open water” around the Pole. Only in the 1870s was this myth exploded. Lives were lost in these attempts.

In the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth it was thought that a ship could drift passively in the ice to the pole. Various attempts failed, one of them led by Roald Amundsen, the conqueror of the South Pole. It was left to the Americans to reach the Pole – by submarines. On 3 August 1958, USS Nautilus passed over the Pole and, 8 days later, the aforementioned “Skate” surfaced. To date, at least 12 different surface vessels, all especially equipped, have reached the Pole.

Meanwhile, attempts were made over the ice, by foot, dog-team and finally by snowmobile. William Parry tried boats fitted with sleds in 1827, The Royal Navy, using man-hauled sleds, reached latitude 83N in 1875-6. Robert Peary reached 85N in his first attempt in 1902, however an Italian expedition had reached 86N in 1900. Perry then reached 87N in 1906. The first man to claim to have reached the Pole was Frederick Cook in 1908; he was followed by Peary (again) in 1909.

The claims by Frederick Cook and Robert Peary are now doubted - although Peary almost certainly got within a few miles of his goal - and recognition is given to Ralph Plaited, by snowmobile, in April 1968, his claim confirmed by navigation on board an aircraft. The first dog-team followed almost exactly a year later. The first solo success was in 1978. Now it is nearly a yearly occurrence.

By air - the successful attempt was by Roald Amundsen in a dirigible (balloon) in May, 1926 and, in 1948, the Soviets managed to land there, becoming the first men to stand at the Pole.


  • Hattendorf,John B, (editor in chief) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History Oxford University Press (2007) Volume 3. pp93–95

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