Of all the places on the surface of the earth, few are harder to reach than the appropriately named north pole of inaccessibility—the point on the Arctic Ocean that is farthest from land. From that place, a step in any direction across the shifting Arctic ice is one step closer to the relative safety of solid ground. The pole of inaccessibility has long been a tantalizing target for explorers. The late British adventurer Wally Herbert was said to have reached it by dogsled in 1968 while en route to the geographical North Pole, where all lines of longitude meet.
Recently polar explorer Jim McNeill was planning his own expedition when he noticed that old documents offered conflicting locations for the pole of inaccessibility. McNeill sought out a group of polar researchers, who decided to investigate for themselves. Drawing on nasa satellite imagery of the Arctic, they found that the spot long assumed to be farthest from land was off by 214 kilometers. Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., and his colleagues published the finding online in August in the journal Polar Record.
The scientists defined the pole as the center of the biggest circle that fits entirely within the Arctic Ocean. That circle meets shore at three points, each of them 1,008 kilometers from the newly determined pole. All three points happen to be on the shoreline of remote islands: on Canada's Ellesmere Island and Russia's Komsomolets Island and Genriyetta Island. “It's not like you're saved if you're stranded and manage to get to the closest landmass,” Scambos says. “You'll be in trouble anywhere in that area.”
What mistakes led to the erroneous location in the first place? Scambos and the others were unable to find an answer in the documents. Most likely some of the Arctic islands that are now well mapped were either unknown or ignored in the past. “But at least now the pole is defined,” he says.
Given the change, Herbert's claim now appears to be invalid. “It really looks as though nobody has set foot on the pole,” Scambos says. “Or if they did, they didn't know they were there.” Thus, the race is back on to be the first person to reach the loneliest place in the Arctic. And the changing climate means that those who would attempt it on foot will have to contend with treacherous melting ice. “The area is a lot less safe than it was in the heroic time of exploration,” he adds. “Of course, now an icebreaker could probably make it there a lot more easily.”