Where Is the North Pole?
Robert E. Peary had wanted one thing in life—fame. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1856. Since childhood, he had dreamed about reaching the North Pole. In the late 1890s, most of the world had already been explored by Europeans and Americans. But no one had ever reached the North Pole—not on foot or by boat. Not even the Indigenous people who lived in the Arctic had ever dared to go that far north.
No one knew what the North Pole would be like if they ever reached it. Was it land? Was it ice? Was it water? Many people thought there was a so-called Open Polar Sea, with nothing but water at the top of the globe. Other people thought Greenland—a huge island country in the Arctic—might reach all the way to the North Pole. Maybe they could find it by just walking north.
Robert Peary knew that finding the North Pole would make him famous. But he had no idea how hard it would be.
He would have to travel to the northwestern shores of Greenland by ship and be dropped there to camp for a long, dark winter. With no way to get home for a whole year, he would have to learn how to survive in the Arctic cold. He would have to hunt and kill seals, polar bears, and musk oxen—or starve if he couldn’t find any. He would have to learn how to drive a pack of nearly wild dogs pulling long sleds loaded with supplies. He would have to walk for hundreds of miles across the ice, in blinding snowstorms.
Sometimes the temperatures would drop to fifty degrees below zero. It would get so cold that Peary’s dogs’ feet and tails would freeze into the snow. The ice would have to be chopped away to free the dogs. In the brutal cold, Peary’s own toes would become so frostbitten, they would snap and break off ! From then on, he could only shuffle as he walked. When food was gone, he would get so hungry that he’d eat his own dogs to survive!
Peary didn’t know any of this when he first set sail to find the North Pole in 1891. He also didn’t know that one man who came along on the trip would become his biggest rival—seeking to reach the North Pole on his own.
Would either man ever reach the pole and return alive?
And what terrible things would one of them do to achieve the fame he had craved? Chapter 1: The Arctic Circle
The North Pole is a single point at the “top” of the earth. It is the point farthest north on the globe. (The South Pole is the single point at the “bottom” of the earth.) The North Pole is also at the exact center of what is called the Arctic Circle—a huge area of ice and water.
Look at a world map or a globe and you will see horizontal lines drawn on it. The line that goes around the very middle of the earth, like a belt, is called the equator. The Arctic Circle is marked by the line near the top of the globe and includes the whole frozen area around the North Pole. The distance from the most southern points of the Arctic Circle to the North Pole is about 1,600 miles.
The Arctic Circle is huge—over five and a half million square miles in area. That’s much bigger than the United States. It’s even bigger than China and Mexico put together!
The Arctic Circle is one of the coldest places on the earth. In summer, the average temperature is only fifty degrees Fahrenheit. In winter, it can reach ninety degrees below zero in some parts of the Arctic Circle.
Almost the entire Arctic Circle is water, which is frozen much of the year. Frozen seawater is called sea ice. It’s about nine feet thick, but can be as thick as fifteen feet. Throughout the year, the sea ice melts and then freezes again. Huge chunks of sea ice break apart, letting rivers and lakes of seawater flow between them. The ice floes drift apart. It can be impossible to walk straight to the North Pole without crossing water at some point—or waiting for the ice to form again.
Some parts of the Arctic Circle do include solid land. The three largest land areas belong to Greenland, Russia, and Canada. Which country has the smallest area in the Arctic Circle? Iceland!
In the Arctic, even solid land is mostly covered in ice or snow. Most of Greenland is covered in an ice sheet, much thicker than sea ice. In the center of Greenland, the sheet is almost two miles thick! When it snows in Greenland, the snow packs down and becomes ice, so the sheet gets thicker. Chunks of the ice sheet break off near the coast. They become dangerous icebergs that float out to sea.
The Arctic Circle is sometimes called the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” Why? Because, depending on how far north in the Arctic Circle you are, the sun stays up for days, weeks, or months at a time. At the North Pole, smack in the middle of the Arctic Circle, the sun rises and sets only once a year! It comes up in March and stays up for six full months. Then the sun sets, and the North Pole is completely dark for six months of “polar nights.” When explorers like Robert Peary searched for the pole, they had to travel in summer and get back to their base camp by fall, or else they would be marching across the ice in the dark.
Why does the sun set only once a year at the North Pole?
To understand the answer, you first have to think about why we see the sun “rise” and “set.” The answer is that the earth is always spinning or turning. It makes one complete turn every twenty-four hours. The parts of the earth facing the sun have day. The parts facing away from the sun have night.
The earth spins around what we call its axis. This axis is like an imaginary “stick” going straight through it from the North Pole to the South Pole. But the stick does not stand up straight. It’s tilted so that our planet spins at an angle.
At the same time the earth is spinning on its axis, it is also following a path (orbiting) around the sun. When the northern half of the earth is tilted toward the sun, it has summer—and there are six months of daylight at the North Pole. Later in the year, when the northern half of the earth is tilted away from the sun, the north has winter. Then there are six months of darkness at the North Pole.
When it’s dark in the Arctic Circle, people sometimes see a brilliant light show called the “northern lights” or aurora borealis. The northern lights are flashes and streaks of colored light in the night sky. Mostly green, but sometimes purple, red, and blue, they spread across the dark sky in swirling patterns that are visible for miles. The auroras happen when particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere near the poles. They can be seen from almost anywhere in the Arctic, including Alaska. Amazingly, when the northern lights flash in the Arctic, the same thing happens at the South Pole—at the exact same time! It’s as if there are two identical light shows going on at the top and bottom of the earth.
The Arctic Circle—and especially the North Pole—was unknown to the Western world until the late 1890s. Americans and Europeans knew that a “north pole” existed. But they had no idea what it would be like if they ever got there.
They did know one thing, though—Indigenous peoples lived in the Arctic and knew how to survive in that frozen land. Without their help, no one from the outside world would ever reach the North Pole. Chapter 2: People of the Arctic
For thousands of years, people have lived in the Arctic. In Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia, there have long been Indigenous people called the Sami. They fish, hunt, and keep reindeer herds. In Alaska, there are the Aleut people. They live on a string of islands off the western coast of Alaska that swoop across the Pacific Ocean to Russia.
However, the largest number of people native to the Arctic region are an ethnic group called the Inuit. The Inuit live in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Originally, they came from an ancient Alaskan people called the Thule. There are more than 150,000 Inuit living in those Arctic areas today.
In the past—long before any other people ever explored the Arctic—the Inuit lived together in small family groups that wandered from place to place, searching for food.
In summer, they lived in tents made out of sealskins. In winter, they built large igloos near their coastal villages.
An igloo is a dome-shaped house made out of blocks of packed snow. With thick walls, the cold and wind stay outside so people can sleep inside and stay warm. Each igloo has only one opening or entrance. A block of snow is pushed into the opening to close it up from the inside. There must be a small hole to let air in, so people can breathe.
All the Inuit villages were near the coastline. Why? Because if people traveled too far inland, they wouldn’t find much food.
Staying warm and finding food were the two most important tasks for an Inuit family. Warm clothing, boots, and sleeping bags could be made from bearskins and sealskins. The Inuit ate a diet of mostly seals, whales, and fish. They hunted seals from the water’s edge, or from kayaks, and hunted whales from larger, wider boats called umiaks. From whales they got food, and also whale oil, which they burned in small stone lamps inside their igloos and tents. They also hunted polar bears, walruses, musk oxen, Arctic foxes, and reindeer.
Dog sleds were an important part of Inuit life. The Inuit raised beautiful Arctic dogs. Some were bred from wolves. The dogs were used to pull sleds and haul large chunks of meat in winter. They also protected the family groups from bears by barking when one was nearby.
Meat was eaten raw because it was hard to make a fire for cooking in a land of snow, ice, and not many trees. (Also the Inuit did not know about matches, which made it even harder to start a fire.)
There were almost no plants or vegetables for the Inuit to eat. But their diet of raw meat made up for it. How? Some raw meats contain quite a bit of vitamin C. So the Inuit diet kept them healthy.
Inuit people were relatively short. The men were only a little over five feet tall. The women were usually about five inches shorter. They also had small hands, feet, noses, and ears. Their physical makeup helped the Inuit to withstand the bitter cold. Smaller features made them less likely to suffer from frostbite. All Inuit people had long, dark hair. They let it fall over their faces in the cold, to keep them warmer.
Inuit men and women had excellent eyesight. They were used to living in darkness for long periods and could see well enough to sew or hunt in the dark.
The Inuit tribes spoke a number of different languages. In Canada, the most common Inuit language was Inuktitut. In Greenland, the Inuit spoke Kalaallisut. Today, most of these Indigenous people also speak English, Danish, or French.
Traditionally, the Inuit people divided the work. Men were the hunters and fishers. When someone killed a seal, everyone got to share it—even if they hadn’t helped with the hunt. Women cleaned the animal skins and made clothes. To make clothing, Inuit women chewed the hairless side of the skins with their teeth! That softened up the skin so it would make a comfortable pair of pants, boots, or stockings.
The Inuit had different customs and rules about marriage. For one thing, some men had more than one wife. Husbands and wives sometimes switched partners, too.
Much of their time was spent finding food to stay alive. For good luck they carved small animal figures out of whalebone, antlers, or stone. When outsiders began to arrive in the Arctic, the Inuit began to carve larger sculptures to sell or trade with visitors.
In modern times, the Inuit have held on to many of their same customs. To hunt whales, the Inuit use harpoons. (There are laws restricting the number of whales that can be killed per year.) But many Inuit also use modern tools and weapons—rifles to hunt seals and polar bears. They buy clothing and kayaks from stores—they don’t have to make them from animal skins. And they use snowmobiles instead of dogsleds.
Still, some Inuit, especially in the far north, stick to the old ways. They can be seen on the ice, driving dogsleds to hunt for seals and walruses. They are happy to take tourists for a dogsled ride, too. With luck, visitors might even catch a glimpse of the beautiful animals that share the frozen landscape with them. Chapter 3: Where Polar Bears Rule the World
There are almost no animals living at the very top of the world—because there is almost nothing for them to eat. Once in a while, a polar bear will end up at the North Pole because it’s been traveling on sea ice. A few seabirds have been spotted that far north. But most Arctic animals, birds, and fish live farther south. They live within the Arctic Circle, but closer to water and land where food is more plentiful.
At the top of the food chain is the beautiful, white furry polar bear. Standing up to ten feet tall on their hind legs, polar bears are among the largest bears in the world. Their skin underneath the fur is black. Their tongues are blue. Polar bear fur looks white—but it’s actually colorless! It just looks white because it reflects light, the way snow and ice look white, even though they’re made of clear water.
Polar bears’ two layers of fur keep them warm on land, and that’s where they spend most of their time. But fur alone is not thick enough to keep them warm in the freezing cold water. For that, they need a four-inch-thick layer of fat under their skin. The fat keeps them warm for the few minutes when they’re swimming. Still, they usually stay in the water only a short time. To swim, polar bears use their front paws to paddle, and keep their back feet flat to steer. Each paw is about twelve inches across—the size of a dinner plate!
To stay fat, polar bears eat mostly seals. Some Arctic seals, called ribbon seals, have beautiful black and white markings. Harp seals have white fur as babies, so they look a little bit like polar bear cubs. Harp seals can grow to four hundred pounds—almost half the average size of an adult male polar bear. Imagine a cheeseburger that weighs half as much as you do!
Polar bears hunt for seals from the edge of the ice. Seals live both on the ice and in the water. When a seal swims up to an opening in the ice—a breathing hole—the polar bear gets a chance to pounce.
Eating is a messy affair for polar bears. Their prey is wet and bloody, so bears like to clean off after a meal. They take a swim to wash their fur and keep it from getting matted. Otherwise, their fur wouldn’t keep them as warm. After a bath, it’s naptime. Polar bears sleep for about eight hours a day, just like humans do.
Most polar bears wander for hundreds of miles to find food. In spring, they mate. But female bears can only have babies if they are fat enough. In the fall, a pregnant polar bear builds a den where she’ll give birth and live for the winter. She stays in the den for four to six months, taking care of her cubs. The babies survive on their mother’s milk. But the mother bear has nothing to eat or drink the whole time she’s in the den!
Another furry white animal found in the Arctic is the Arctic fox. With thick white fur, they blend into the landscape, making it easy for them to sneak up on their prey. Arctic foxes will eat anything—berries, birds’ eggs, small animals, fish, or leftovers from a dead animal that a polar bear killed. Arctic foxes are small—about the size of a miniature poodle.
One of the largest animals in the Arctic is the walrus. Walrus babies weigh more than a hundred pounds when they’re born, and males grow up to weigh as much as two tons! That’s as much as a minivan weighs! Adults can be more than ten feet long. Walruses have two enormous teeth, called tusks. They use them to break holes in the ice. Walruses swim underwater, looking for clams and sea creatures to eat, then come up to the surface to breathe. They also use their tusks to fight off predators and to pull themselves up onto the ice.
The very biggest animals living in the Arctic are whales. The Antarctic blue whale, which can travel to the Arctic in the summer, weighs some two hundred tons—as much as thirty-three elephants! Bowhead whales can break through sea ice with their powerful heads and bodies, even when the ice is seven inches thick. They are so strong, they can leap entirely out of the water. Bowheads grow to sixty feet long—about the length of two midsize school buses. They weigh up to two hundred thousand pounds. Some bowhead whales have lived to be two hundred years old.
Birds can be seen in the Arctic, mostly in the summer. Bald eagles, snow geese, peregrine falcons, and hundreds of other birds are regular visitors. In winter, the Arctic is too cold for most birds. Only a few are seen year-round, including snowy owls. They change colors to blend in with the landscape, turning from brown and gray in the summer to pure white in the winter.
Many of these beautiful Arctic animals would be among the dazzling surprises that Robert Peary found when he began to search for the North Pole.
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