The pole of in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - By Amy Craw­ford

ALEK­SANDR KOLCHAK is best known as the man who led the White Rus­sian gov­ern­ment that op­posed the Com­mu­nists in the rev­o­lu­tion and who was ex­e­cuted by the Bol­she­viks in 1920. But ex­plor­ers and ge­og­ra­phy nerds re­mem­ber Kolchak as the young Rus­sian Navy of­fi­cer who, just 11 years ear­lier, cal­cu­lated the where­abouts of the most re­mote place in all of the vast Arc­tic—a spot some 400 miles from the ge­o­graphic North Pole that he said was “per­ma­nently cov­ered with the ice fields of the Arc­tic Pack and in­ac­ces­si­ble to nav­i­ga­tion.” Be­cause noth­ing is more al­lur­ing than a place that sup­pos­edly can’t be reached, the “pole of in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity” would be­come an ir­re­sistible chal­lenge for gen­er­a­tions of adventurers. And it still is.

Nu­mer­ous ex­pe­di­tions have tried to cross the churn­ing sea ice to reach the the­o­ret­i­cal pole—the lo­ca­tion in the Arc­tic Ocean far­thest from any land. They failed in part be­cause the ex­act lo­ca­tion has shifted over the years with the dis­cov­ery of pre­vi­ously un­de­tected is­lands. In 2013, re­searchers us­ing high-res­o­lu­tion satel­lite im­agery and map­ping soft­ware placed the pole of in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity at 86 de­grees north lat­i­tude and 176 de­grees east lon­gi­tude, or about 125 miles from Kolchak’s orig­i­nal. Gareth Rees, a physi­cist with the Scott Po­lar Re­search In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, who col­lab­o­rated on the new find­ing, is con­fi­dent they have it right—for now. Cli­mate change and ris­ing sea lev­els may even­tu­ally re­shape coast­lines, and thus move the pole.

The vet­eran Arc­tic ex­plorer Jim McNeill, of Eng­land, has launched two ex­pe­di­tions to prove that the pole is ac­ces­si­ble af­ter all, but he was thwarted by ill­ness in 2003 and dis­in­te­grat­ing ice in 2006. This Fe­bru­ary, in the most am­bi­tious at­tempt yet, McNeill and 28 vol­un­teers will set out again, from north­ern Canada; they’ll travel on cross-coun­try skis and pull sledges that dou­ble as kayaks in case they en­counter open wa­ter. As the world gets smaller, the pole of in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity beck­ons as one of the few re­main­ing firsts in ex­plo­ration, McNeill says: “I’m amazed that there could still be a place no one has ever reached.”

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