* coming 2015 - possibly.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Where is the North Pole?

I love maps. I'll pore over atlases like a cartophile at Christmas, and I could draw an accurate world map - with nearly all the countries correctly labelled - when I was in infant school. Give me a quiz on hardcore geography™ and I'm practically unbeatable.*

So, it came as quite a shock when I discovered that the North Pole is not where I thought it was. It's not even close to where I thought it was.

Take a world map. The one pictured below is the Winkel triple projection, a low-error method of showing the Earth on a flat surface. To turn this into a globe, you'd have to wrap it around a ball until all the edges met. It's impossible to do this perfectly. All maps, no matter how accurate, stretch and distort the true layout of our planet.

If you take Antarctica (that's the big long white thing at the bottom of the map above, in case any Americans are reading) and wrap it around a ball, it joins back on itself to form an enormous landmass around the South Pole.

Like so.

Enter Greenland. For nearly twenty years, I'd assumed that the same thing happened at the top of the map. I knew that the North Pole wasn't on land - the US Navy plonked a nuclear submarine under it in 1958 - but I'd always thought that Greenland, as shown on maps, depicted all of the land and permanent ice at the top of the world.  Granted, you can see Greenland in its entirety on most maps, unlike Antartica which only just creeps onto the bottom. This would suggest that Greenland isn't  at  the very 'top' of the Earth. However, I haven't looked at a globe in years and, when looking at maps, I've always just put this down to a northocentric bias 'tilting' the top of the map towards us, just as the Mercator projection makes Africa and South America look too small relative to the northern continents. Wrap the map around a ball and, just like Antarctica, I thought that Greenland would surround the North Pole. Therefore, the North Pole must be in Greenland, right?
An Azimuthal projection showing the North Pole. Nowhere near Greenland.
Incorrect! The map above shows the North Pole smack bang in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The dark blue waters surrounding it are almost permanently covered with constantly shifting sea ice (this explains the lack of a research station at the North Pole). But just look at Greenland skulking off to the bottom of the map - it's nowhere near the Pole! In fact, there's no land whatsoever within 400 miles of the North Pole. It's even predicted that the North Pole may become ice-free in future summers as the Arctic warms around it.

What may explain my confiusion somewhat is the crazy-but-cool projection pictured below: Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map. Right at the centre, you can see a large white mass of ice surrounding the North Pole. I'd always taken this to be Greenland 'joined up' around the top of a globe, but Greenland's distinctive shape is clearly visible below the Pole area, making me an idiot.

Icosahedral fun.

I finally learnt the true location of the North Pole last night and, needless to say, it BLEW MY MIND. And when the Legend learns, he shares with you. Breathe deeply as I waft the heady scents of knowledge in your general direction. 

* Hardcore geography™ encompasses maps and flags and capital cities: interesting stuff to quiz geeks and Asperger kids alike. Precipitation cycles and coastal erosion and all that crap are decidedly softcore.

The USS Skate surfacing near the North Pole in 1959.


  1. I remember first "discovering" this myself. Quite an impressive thing to learn as an adult.

  2. I'm quite an impressive guy.

  3. Agree on definition of "Hardcore Geography". I did GCSE geoggers and was disappointed when capital cities didn't come up (I did get to specialise in natural disasters though, rather than precipitation cycles bullshit).

  4. I would have enjoyed a comment on not-as-old-as-you'd-think British school atlases inflating the size of Britain.

  5. Under normal circumstances I fully support the ridicule of Americans' geographical knowledge (paragraph 4), but... have you forgotten the source of this entire post? ;-)

  6. I stopped reading after "I love maps."

  7. Just pointing out the irony, in view of the post's juxtaposition of your (admitted) ignorance with the enlightening knowledge and insight of your (unattributed) source... ;-)

  8. I stopped reading after 'zduk.co.uk'.

  9. I like it when the weekend comedians stop by.

  10. Almost as good as when the weekend bloggers show up...


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