Earth’s poles are the most inhospitable and least explored places on Earth—the first official Arctic expedition wasn’t until 1926, but then it is difficult even today to fully explore the North Pole, which is nothing more than a mass of ice floating in a frigid ocean. It’s covered with about ten feet of ice year-round, making research sometimes impossible. Exploration of the Arctic Circle tapers off the closer you get to the North Pole, and the environment is so hostile that scientists can’t set up permanent research stations there.
The North Pole, as the point where the Earth’s axis reaches its surface, is home to a lot of electromagnetic activity. The almost mythical location is an epicentre for myths and conspiracy theories about the magnetic pull of the earth and sun—leading ships and planes to their frozen graves and interfering with satellites (or even human behaviour). Though the location of the magnetic pole differs slightly from the geographic pole, weird things still happen in the vicinity of both. There hasn’t been any conclusive research done to prove it’s the magnetism of the pole that does this, but we can speculate.
Regardless, strange phenomena, both natural and historical, happen around the North Pole, so break the ice with the Arctic and read this list.
Everyone is at least somewhat familiar with whiteout conditions— to us, it occurs when the snowfall and wind is so heavy that you’re surrounded in near-total whiteness. If you’ve ever had to drive in whiteout conditions, you know your knuckles on the steering wheel will even turn white with tension.
In the Arctic, whiteout conditions can be devastating. Piloting an aircraft is especially dangerous, especially when you consider how many commercial passenger planes fly over the North Pole daily. The NSIDC reports that whiteouts are most common in spring and autumn, because the sun hangs low on the horizon and therefore reflects more light.
The sun, when visible, often appears with a ring, or multiple, around it in the Arctic. Like other Arctic sky phenomena, the sun is frequently subjected to illusion. Sun halos occur when light rays travel through microscopic ice crystals in the air and reflect onto the Earth, producing halos, coloured rings, and light patches.
Sun dog halos, like the one pictured, are some of the most spectacular halos, where a ring appears around the sun along with bright spots on the sides of the actual sun. There are also fog bows, which are similar to rainbows although they lack colour.
When on a long-haul flight, you might not think of flying over the North Pole, but doing so can cut flight time down to a fraction of what it might take to fly directly in an east-west direction.
If you fly from New York City to Beijing, chances are your route will take you over Canada, through the North Pole, into Siberia, and then China.
Likewise, you might notice that when flying from North America to Europe, flights tend to veer north off-course. This is simply due to the curvature of the Earth and though on a flat map looks like a detour, actually saves time and fuel.
Along with the visual mysteries of the North, the way we hear is also affected by the atmosphere. The unimaginably low temperatures of the Arctic bend sound waves lower to the Earth, keeping them within earshot of a human longer than in other places around the world.
The NSIDC claims that in the Arctic, conversations can be heard up to three kilometres away, given the right weather and atmospheric conditions. A good, cold air temperature means a denser atmosphere, and sound waves that cling closer to the Earth. Make sure the snow is hard and icy rather than plush and insulating and you might be able to chat with the next research station over.
Coronas are like halos, although they can appear around the sun or moon and are visible very close to the actual object. The NSIDC describes them as rings of light that happen due to light diffracted by water vapor, or put in layman’s terms, when the sun or moon shines through a thin layer of cloud. Coronas happen all over the world but are very common in the Arctic due to its near-constant cloud cover.
Similarly, an anticorona can project shadows of objects onto clouds, surrounded by a coloured halo of red or rainbow-hued rings.
The most famous (and beautiful) polar phenomena is undoubtedly the Aurora lights, called Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. The Aurora sway like curtains in the breeze near the poles, and dance in a playful light show of green, red, and purple colours.
Nothing more than a consequence of solar wind according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the lights result from electrons and protons from the sun and interact with oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere and produce the spectacular display.
A new and mysterious phenomenon plaguing Arctic habitats is an event that makes it possible for heavy rains to occur in below freezing temperatures. Now, you may have experienced situations of freezing rain, but Arctic rain-on-snow has only happened in recent years, and exclusively in the arctic regions.
When rain-on-snow happens, rainwater penetrates layers of snow and freezes the ground, making it impossible for arctic animals to graze, leading to mass starvation of animals living in the Arctic Circle. The phenomenon is too recent to know exactly what it’s caused by, but can be linked to climate change and the warming of the Earth’s frozen places.
There's no shortage of lake monster myths, the most obvious being the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, but they’re popular all over the globe, captivating children and amateur explorers alike. Needless to say, the Arctic has its own such legend, of a monster residing in Alaska’s Lake Iliamna.
The tale began in 1942, of a large unknown fish in the lake, and later reports consistently talk of an uncommonly large fish-like creature. Based on reports, there probably is some truth behind the legend, and the monster could be a sturgeon or even a seal.
If you know that there’s no land at the North Pole, and that all the Arctic really is is a floating mass of ice and glaciers, then it should come as no surprise that people can’t live there. Scientists studying the region can’t even stay permanently, and must go on short trips in turns.
The northern tribes of the Arctic, the Inuit, have settled in the far north of Canada, Greenland, and Russia, but since there is no land, no agriculture, or resources in the far north, nobody can truly colonise the Arctic.
The atmosphere of the poles makes the perfect backdrop for optical illusions, and the next time you find yourself north of the Arctic Circle, just remember that your eyes are tricking you and it’s not your sanity slipping away in the icy wind.
Many illusions are the result of the white sky and the white sea, and are nothing more than distorted reflections of each. Water sky is the first illusion that occurs above the horizon, and is the result of the reflection of the open ocean on the sky, producing a dark grey colour on the underside of the cloud.
The ice blink illusion is in some regards the opposite of a water sky, and the underside of the cloud glows with a reflective white glare. In the cases of these illusions, the clouds can look dynamic and changing, when in reality they’re fairly constant.
Sometimes an ice blink is an indicator of ice far off in the distance and pilots and ship captains in the Arctic Sea can use the water sky and ice blink illusions as an indicator of conditions they can’t currently judge, as stated by the NSIDC.
Have you ever gazed at the night sky when the aurora were active and thought the lights gave off a sonic crack? An Inuit legend tells of the souls of the passed travelling to the afterlife and communicating with those they left behind through aurora noises.
Aalto University in Finland recently released a statement backing up the legend, saying that although the sound would be too high to reach human ears, the aurora borealis likely creates a popping sound when the solar gases meet with those in the Earth’s atmosphere, disproving former science that claimed the aurora were a silent phenomenon.
While we follow the paths of early humans as they crossed the Bering Straits east into the Americas, we rarely consider how humans migrated north. The first Arctic peoples made their homes within the circle in remote parts of Canada and Greenland as early as 800 BCE, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica page on the tribe, though some claim they have been in the region much longer.
Current knowledge of the tribe comes from Canada’s Baffin Island excavations, and these early Arctic peoples were the geographic ancestors of modern Inuit tribes, though biologically they’re unrelated.
The Inventio Fortunata is a 14th century book detailing the journey of a Franciscan monk to the unexplored Arctic, complete with primitive map. The expedition was initiated by none other than the legendary King Arthur. The early travel guide detailed a foreign land of a race of small humans and a polar land that doesn’t even freeze.
While the travelogue sounds like a bizarre fabrication of events, Pennsylvania State University’s records suggest that there may be some truth to the journey based on contemporary records kept in Norway, despite the full Inventio Fortunata being lost.
Time zones are based on the Earth’s vertical longitude lines, therefore vary in the east-west directions. The closer you get to the extreme north and south, the harder it gets to tell time with clocks as we’re used to in the more intermediate zones of the world.
For example, when the sun is at its highest, we know it’s noon. But at the poles, the sun only reaches directly overhead twice a year, so we can’t accurately measure time based on the construct we’re familiar with. When scientists venture to the North Pole, they can use any time zone they like when recording data, according to National Geographic.
Since there is no real land mass within the Arctic, and even less so directly at the North Pole, it’s not exactly the first choice for territorial claims among countries bordering it, though it’s a tricky situation to solve when environmental concerns and resources become involved.
A number of countries with land within the Arctic have formed the Arctic Council, which governs certain issues relating to the Arctic. The North Pole is particularly valuable within the oil and natural gas industry, despite restrictions protecting the fragile ecosystem. The Arctic is an especially delicate region, and we may never have a single owner of the region.
The first cargo-passenger aircraft to fly over the North Pole was intended to travel from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska. Soviet pilot Sigizmund Levanevsky attempted the feat in 1937, and as you’ve guessed, didn’t quite make it.
There were problems with the right-side engine before the plane even took off, and though it was expected to stop, something went severely wrong mid-flight. The plane was never found and only speculations have been made as to its final resting place. Crews from Russia, Canada and America searched to no avail, finally settling on the probability that the plane crashed into water.
The Arctic is the perfect place for archaeological dig sites, and often preserves artefacts better than other climates. The sub-zero temperatures freeze organic material, like clothing, leather products and tools, and even human remains. In essence, the colder the temperature and drier the atmosphere, the better climate for natural preservation.
The 13th century burial site of Zeleny Yar in Siberia is a prime example of arctic preservation, and the remains and artefacts were probably not intentionally mummified. They were in an excellent condition for biological research, one man still sporting bright red hair.
Apart from speculative Arctic explorers, like the Vikings or the monk in the Inventio Fortunata, North Pole exploration wasn’t a priority until the 19th century. The first person claiming to reach the North Pole was Frederick Albert Cook in 1908, though he brought back no concrete evidence to support his claim.
Robert Peary, backed by the National Geographic Society, attempted the feat the next year, and though he the crew likely made it close, it’s still considered with much controversy. The first explorer to reach the North Pole successfully was Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1926, and managed it by flying over the pole rather than accessing it via land.
If humans couldn’t survive in the far north, neither can most land animals. Animals we typically associate with the North Pole, like polar bears and arctic foxes, almost never fully leave the safety of solid ground, and if they do, they tend not to travel far.
However, the marine life is very diverse, with many species of fish, crustaceans, and shrimp making their homes in the icy waters. Seals sometimes wander further north than land animals, as they spend a large amount of their lives in the water, and narwhal whales also inhabit the Arctic. Don’t expect to be finding any reindeer, though.
We've all the probability that Viking sailors landed in Newfoundland, Canada centuries before the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. It makes for a convincing argument since we have artefacts found unrelated to the surroundings, yet common in Scandinavian smithing. But there may be another Viking settlement in North America north of the Arctic Circle, on Canada’s Baffin Island.
In reality, it’s not too farfetched a theory, since Greenland and Iceland were populated by Norse peoples. The Vikings were successful traders of their day, and had intricate trade routes by sea all over Europe. It’s entirely plausible that they would have expanded northwest.
When polar exploration became highly desirable in the 1800s, blueprints were drawn up and inventions were dreamed of to make access to the North Pole a reality. One young engineer from Sweden, called Salomon Andree, thought a hot-air balloon would be the best way to reach the pole.
He had the finest balloon of the century made, and all precautions were taken, but on its voyage the balloon went missing and was lost for years. The explorers’ camp was found three decades later on an island called Kvitoya, with the possessions they’d left with, a camera, and Andree’s detailed diary.
The Chukchi Sea is a long, cold, stretch of the Arctic Ocean between Siberia and Alaska, and isn’t known for much outside its small communities of fishermen. But in 2009, it caught the attention of the world when major publications like Time Magazine wrote of a mysterious, unidentifiable mass that appeared in the sea.
The best way to describe it was as a hairy, slick, black, blob. It was thought that the thing could be an oil spill, but testing found that it was an algae bloom. Many were uneasy about the massive bloom, but testing later revealed the algae to be non-toxic.
Arthurian legend permeates the North Pole for some reason, and the fata morgana optical illusion common in the Arctic is named after the fierce Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay.
When a fata morgana illusion is visible, the distant horizon might seem to have columns and pillars, or even floating objects (unfortunately, it’s not Santa’s sleigh). The illusion can be caused by temperature inversions, says the NSIDC.
Illusions thoroughly confused early explorers, and forced many teams to abandon their journeys. It wasn’t until the 20th century when explorer Donald MacMillan realised that the landscapes described by his predecessors were mirages.
Like the fata morgana, the superior mirage distorts the horizon, bending shapes out of a usually flat line. In the case of a superior mirage, an object in the distance appears above the actual object.
Unlike the fata morgana, which warps the object entirely, superior mirages generally just elongate shapes on the horizon. Curiously enough, it can also make objects below the horizon look like they’re floating above it. They’re caused by temperature inversion, which occurs when denser, cold air lies underneath warmer air, warping light and shape to those looking on from the distance.
References: National Geographic, National Snow and Ice Data Center, Encyclopedia Britannica, space.com, Time Magazine, Penn State University