The Quest for the North Pole, Episode 9: The North Pole Today

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It’s late morning on the polar ice when Eric Larsen unzips his tent to find white-out conditions obscuring everything from view. He’s had just a few hours of sleep, and he still overslept. Today he and his expedition partner, Ryan Waters, are making their final push to the North Pole, less than four miles away. But the whipping wind is pushing the big ice floe where they set up camp southward, and every moment counts.

At this point, the two veteran adventurers have spent 53 days inching across the Arctic sea ice, and today will be another slog through slushy leads and over hummocks. When they began planning this expedition, they expected it to be treacherous. That was the point. They wanted to show the world how climate change was already wreaking havoc on the North Pole—in fact, they’re calling this the Last North Expedition. They predict that their method of reaching the Pole on foot will soon be impossible.

Now it’s May 2014. The ice groans beneath them. They have to fight to gain ground in a landscape that wants to undermine their every step. The roaring wind pushes ice floes apart, revealing open water. If they’re going to make it to the North Pole, they’ll need to don their dry suits, jump in, and start swimming.

After eight hours, they’re almost there. Larsen whips out his camera. Waters begins to count down the meters. At last, the GPS shows the coordinates the two men have been longing to see: 90° North. There is no flag waiting to greet them, no plaque denoting what is, to some explorers, the most sought-after spot on the map. Just wind and ice—and the knowledge that they may be the last two people to ever reach the North Pole this way.

Once secure in their tent, they tuck into a tube of Pringles before indulging in a celebratory meal and sleeping for a solid 36 hours. By the time they wake up, the ice has already drifted 9 miles south. The North Pole, the place at the top of the world they and so many before them have battled to see, is once again out of reach.

One hundred and twelve years after Peary and Henson allegedly laid claim to the Pole, and 53 years after Ralph Plaisted drove a snowmobile to 90° North, where does the legacy of North Pole exploration fit into our world? And would the explorers of the past even recognize the Arctic today? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this is our final episode: The North Pole Today.

There is a real irony about our knowledge of the North Pole. People spent more than four centuries attempting to get to the Pole to observe what was there. They faced incredibly difficult journeys through ice-choked seas and over lands carved by massive glaciers. By the time they got close, in the 20th century, it was already changing dramatically because of human activity. Our idea of the North Pole, as observed by the most daring explorers in history, became obsolete in fewer than 100 years. And today, global warming is changing the Arctic in every way. The impacts of climate change are evident in its geography, oceans, lands, animals, and people.

In our first episode, we said that an important goal of early Arctic exploration was to locate the magnetic North Pole. We always knew that the geographic North Pole was at 90° North latitude—that’s just the spot on the map where all the meridians of longitude converge. But the magnetic North Pole is a different beast. Its location affects navigational instruments, and when explorers didn’t know where the magnetic pole was, their navigational readings could be way off.

During British explorer John Ross’s four-year odyssey in the Northwest Passage, from 1829 to 1833 in the ship Victory, his nephew and crewmember James Clark Ross walked all over the Boothia Peninsula looking for the magnetic north pole. He carried a compass with a dipping needle—an instrument that responded to the proximity of magnetic north by pointing downward. Near Cape Adelaide on the western edge of the peninsula, Ross saw the needle point straight down to the Earth—magnetic ground zero. The coordinates were approximately 70° 05’ N, 96° 46' W, more than a thousand nautical miles south of the geographic North Pole.

But the coordinates for the magnetic North Pole aren’t set in stone, or in ice. As of 2020, its coordinates were 86.50°N and 164.04°E, hundreds of nautical miles north of where it was when James Clark Ross discovered it.

This change isn’t unusual, because as we mentioned in episode 1, the location of magnetic North has always fluctuated. In the mid-20th century, the magnetic North Pole shifted by around 9 miles per year. But in recent years, it’s changed much more rapidly: As of the early aughts, magnetic north was galloping about 34 miles per year.

The Arctic is changing rapidly in more noticeable ways. On June 20, 2020, the temperature in the Siberian village of Verkhoyansk hit 100.4°F, about 30 degrees above normal. This was reportedly the hottest temperature ever recorded inside the Arctic Circle, and it was part of a larger trend. The Arctic is the warmest it’s been in 3 million years. The region has warmed around two times faster than the rest of Earth. In the 2010s, the temperature was at least 1.8°F above average in nine out of 10 years.

Ice forms a ridged landscape on the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also called the Jakobshavn glacier, near Ilulissat, Greenland, where climate change is having a profound effect.
Ice forms a ridged landscape on the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also called the Jakobshavn glacier, near Ilulissat, Greenland, where climate change is having a profound effect. / Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This may seem like a small amount, but it has massive consequences. It’s forcing the region into a positive feedback loop—which, despite how it sounds, is actually a negative thing. Usually, sea ice reflects up to 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it. But as the Arctic warms, ice is replaced by dark open water, which absorbs light and heat. And as that open water sucks in more heat from the sun, more ice melts, and the scary cycle continues. 

Kristin Laidre: Over the course of hundreds of years or the hundreds of years that this podcast covers, the Arctic has definitely undergone fluctuations. There's been cold periods and warm periods. There's variability in the system, meaning some years are colder and some are warmer.

That’s Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the University of Washington. She’s been studying Arctic marine mammals around Greenland for about 20 years, looking at how mammal populations are adapting to climate change.

Laidre: But what we really started seeing in the 1900s and at the start of industry and kind of human activity, basically releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is a distinct warming trend and a unidirectional warming trend that is caused by humans. So basically anthropogenic climate warming. And we've seen that really manifests itself very strongly in the Arctic. The warming trends are amplified. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. And a big part of that is because the Arctic is covered in sea ice. And that sea ice is melting and breaking up early, and really just changing the whole system for animals and for people that live there.

Record-high temps have also led to record-low snow cover, and that increases the risk for wildfires. Wildfire season also kicked off earlier than usual. The blazes might have been triggered by so-called “zombie fires,” which are fires that smolder in the dense layer of peat underneath the snow and ice. Peatlands happen to be the world’s most important terrestrial ecosystem for carbon storage. And when they burn, tons of greenhouse gases are released into our atmosphere. 

Higher temps are melting permafrost, too. While this sometimes reveals cool fossils like mammoth bones, it also releases ridiculous amounts of carbon and methane, not to mention super-bad stuff like anthrax, infectious viruses, and other dangerous microbes. And when permafrost becomes unstable, the ground doesn’t hold together as well. Along Alaska’s coast, the equivalent of 30 football fields of land disappear each year due to erosion.

Though past explorers would definitely have appreciated less ice in their way, climate scientists cite the decrease in sea ice as one of the most worrying changes in the Arctic today. In 2007, after a century of steadily warming temperatures, the Northwest Passage was completely ice-free in summer for the first time in recorded history. The years since then have also seen ice-free summers. And just this past February, a commercial ship successfully made a mid-winter voyage across the Northeast Passage that winds around Russia and China—the same route that defeated William Barents in the 16th century.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, author of Icebound: Shipwrecked At the Edge of the World, which tells the story of Barents’s three voyages. In 2019, she retraced Barents’s steps to his hut on Nova Zembla, where he and his men were forced to spend the winter in 1596. 

Andrea Pitzer: When I sailed this in August, I faced no ice at all. We would get to some glaciers, but there were not icebergs floating out in the water, but within a week of when I was there is when they were frozen in more than 400 years ago. So, that tells you that the entire terrain was ice, and now there was literally no ice in that region in August. Now, there will still be ice in the winter, and there will be a lot of ice, and it'll still be really difficult to navigate a lot of places but there is an expectation that we will actually see an ice free North Pole at part of the year, which is really just staggering to think about. I think that, I say in the book, that this Open Polar Sea that Barents imagined came to exist. He just sailed 400 years too soon.

In the best-case scenarios, ice made navigation difficult for explorers of the past. In the worst cases, sea ice would bash into their ships, squeeze them until they sank, or surround them in a solid mass. 

This might be less of an issue today, because the sea ice extent—which the United States Environmental Protection Agency defines as “the area of ocean where at least 15 percent of the surface is frozen”—is dwindling. Though satellites have been tracking the conditions only since 1979, century-old ship’s logbooks reveal that sea ice used to be much more extensive. 

Satellites have captured drastic changes in the sea ice minimum. That is the point, usually at the end of the summer, when sea ice covers the smallest area for the whole year. Since 1979, its minimum has decreased by roughly 32,000 square miles every decade. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, that’s an area roughly four times the size of Maine. The lowest sea ice minimum ever recorded happened in September 2012, and 2020 was the second-lowest.

No ice escapes this cycle. Take the gigantic slabs of paleocrystic ice that George Strong Nares observed on his attempt at the North Pole in 1875. These huge masses are important for seals, which make their burrows in the ice, and polar bears, which hunt the seals for food. A current called the Beaufort Gyre sends the oldest, thickest ice churning toward Canada and Greenland’s northern shore. It forms a protective dam across the Nares Strait, blocking older ice from drifting south to warmer waters—it’s what Nares thought would forever block explorer’s progress to the North. Its Inuktut name is Tuvaijuittuq, which translates to “the place where the ice never melts.”

An iceberg reveals its compressed layers of old ice.
An iceberg reveals its compressed layers of old ice. / Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But warmer temps make the barrier weaker, and more of the paleocrystic ice—which we once took for granted would be permanently frozen—is escaping from the Nares Strait and melting away. As a result, the sea route to the Pole that Nares, in the Alert and Discovery, found completely blocked is more open today. And the ice that remains throughout the year is thinner and more vulnerable than in the past. 

The well-trodden “American route” blazed by Charles Francis Hall, Elisha Kent Kane, and Robert Peary in the 19th century, now looks completely different. Here’s Susan Kaplan, a professor of anthropology and director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College.

Susan Kaplan: We had been working on the centennial of Peary's North Pole expeditions, and had read so many of the journals. So we secured National Science Foundation funding and went to the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island, a place called Cape Sheridan, where Peary in 1905-06 and 1908-09 had taken the SS Roosevelt, which was his expedition vessel, and frozen it into the ice off of Cape Sheridan. That part of Ellesmere Island is really a polar desert. It's very, very little plant life, very few animals.  When we got there, the coast was just choked full of ice that was not moving. We saw one fox. We saw a few geese. We saw a number of seals, although it occurred to us that it was just one seal we saw repeatedly. We saw some polar bear tracks, and one musk ox. Kat Long: Do you get the sense that the amount of ice and the temperature and that kind of thing was similar to what Peary might have experienced, or do you have a sense that perhaps there's less ice now than what he might've seen? Kaplan: There's definitely less ice than what he would have experienced.  We flew from Resolute to Cape Sheridan, and this amazing pilot landed us on a beach ridge. But as we flew over that part of the Arctic, you could just see water pouring away off of glaciers. There was almost no sea ice. The amount of sea ice in that part of the Arctic is greatly diminished, and the temperatures are higher. We know this, because Peary had some of his crew taking temperature readings two and three times a day. So you can compare them to the contemporary readings, and it's a transformed Arctic.

A consequence of less ice is that more ships have an easier time getting around the Arctic. Between 2016 and 2019, shipping along the Northeast Passage increased 58 percent. Not only does this mean more noise, pollution, and traffic, but also invasive species that hitch a ride on the ships, more efforts to extract Arctic natural resources, and even commercial cruises. In 2016, a cruise traversed the Northwest Passage, allowing rich tourists to browse the same places that explorers had fought tooth and nail to reach in previous centuries. 

And some tour operators really know how to sell the romance of it all.

P.J. Capelotti: Tourists come ashore expecting a certain experience.

That’s P.J. Capelotti, author of The Greatest Show in the Arctic: The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898–1905, which recounts expeditions to these islands in the Russian Arctic. When he visited Nansen and Johansen’s dugout shelter on Franz Josef Land, he started photographing some walrus bones next to the hut, thinking they had been left behind by the explorers in 1896.

Capelotti: And one of the Russian guides took me aside and said, "Oh yeah, we put those there a couple of years ago because the tourists were really disappointed that there were no walrus bones on the site." It wasn't enough that you were seeing one of the most sacred sites in the history of Arctic exploration. They had them dress it up.

Before that famous expedition, Nansen and his hardy band of Norwegian comrades crossed the Greenland ice sheet, the largest in the Northern Hemisphere, from its east to west coast in 1888. Robert Peary and Matthew Henson traversed the ice sheet from west to east in 1892 and in 1895. In Peary’s case, they barely made it back alive.

That ice sheet is melting faster than it has in the last 12,000 years. Today, it’s losing ice seven times faster than it did in the 1990s. And this trend goes way beyond the Arctic lands. Between 1994 and 2017, Earth lost 28 trillion tons of ice. It is really difficult to imagine how much 28 trillion tons actually is, but here’s an attempt at a comparison. In 2017, one of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke off from Antarctica. It weighed about 1 trillion tons, and it was the size of Delaware. 

In the last decade, Earth has lost a Delaware-sized mass of ice each year. 

All that melting ice gets dumped into the ocean, raising sea levels around the world. Meltwater pouring off Greenland’s ice sheet is one of the largest contributors to rising sea levels. All that fresh, cold water is altering ocean currents—the type of thing that Nansen’s second expedition, in the Fram, was meant to study.

We’ll be right back.

Climate change is having a major impact on Arctic flora and fauna. And what would Arctic literature be without encounters with potentially lethal wildlife? From the polar bears that stalked William Barents and the castaways on Nova Zembla, to the walruses and narwhals hunted for their tusks, to the musk ox that saved Peary and Henson from starvation, Arctic animals provided sustenance, clothing, shelter, and fuel for every generation of polar explorer—and the Inuit, whose entire cultures depend on them. But climate change is challenging the animals’ survival.

Polar bears, those ferocious carnivores that menaced explorers, are more often portrayed as victims of climate change today. The image of an emaciated bear swimming great distances between chunks of sea ice, shaggy white fur draping from too-prominent ribs, is a staple of environmental activism. Some scientists estimate that almost all of the 19 polar bear subpopulations across the Arctic could disappear by the end of this century.

Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting seals, their main source of food. The bears need the energy they store from the fat seals to be able to survive during times when food is scarce. As more and more ice disappears, the bears are forced to retreat onto land, where the meals are few and far between. Fewer food sources means the animals must go longer without it, and that hurts their ability to reproduce and raise cubs.

Walruses gather in huge groups called "haul outs" to rest and sunbathe.
Walruses gather in huge groups called "haul outs" to rest and sunbathe. / avstraliavasin/iStock via Getty Images

Walruses also need sea ice. It’s important for their mating, and when they’re not hunting food, these one-ton mammals lounge on it in huge groups, soaking up the Arctic sun. But, if there aren’t enough floes to go around, walruses have to swim farther to gather in these groups, known as “haul outs,” on land. Hundreds of walruses pile onto one spot, which is not ideal when most of the walruses have a pair of up to three-foot tusks sticking out of their mouths. As anyone who’s ever found themselves stuck in a mosh pit knows, this type of situation can get very dangerous, very fast. Sometimes, these land-based haul outs become so large and unwieldy, the walruses trample each other

All of these marine mammals are closely tied to the sea ice for all the functions of their lives, as Kristin Laidre explains.

Laidre: For example, the ice-dependent species like the polar bear, all of the ice seals, which includes the walrus, all of those species need ice to live. And so when we see this climate warming in the Arctic happening and increasingly basically making that ice platform go away or making it break up early, we see negative effects on all of those species that require that platform for their life. Long: So they don't have the kind of foundation for bearing young, for example? Laidre: Exactly. In the case of the ice seal, they need sea ice to make their dens, which are called lairs where they give birth. They need ice to basically sit on top and nurse their young, they rest on the ice. A walrus will actually passively use ice to be kind of transported around over shallow areas where they can dive for food. Polar bears do everything on the ice, including find their primary prey, which are these ice seals. So they, they need ice to walk around and hunt. It's just basically a really important platform of life for animals that are uniquely adapted to that system. Long: It's an interesting thing to think about in terms of animal adaptation. They're completely dependent on the ice that a lot of European explorers or American explorers really just didn't want to have in their way. And yet, it's so critical to the ecosystem there. Laidre: I mean, sea ice is extremely harsh and very dynamic kind of structure. And it is really animals that live in the Arctic and use the ice, they're really special. They've really evolved to basically exploit that ice for everything it can give them. But there's no doubt that that ice is for humans, definitely a challenge. And of course the indigenous communities that have lived there for thousands of years have figured out how to use that ice for transportation and for hunting platforms and things like that. So it's really kind of many, many thousands of years of kind of learning how to use the ice best.

Probably no animal is more associated with the North Pole than Santa’s reindeer, but even these herbivores are in trouble. In recent years, reindeer populations have dropped by over 50 percent, and the likely reasons are not pretty. For instance, longer summers give parasitic flies, like botflies, more opportunities to lay their eggs in the caribou’s skin or its nose. As you might imagine, this forces the caribou to spend more time fending off flies and less time eating, which has a terrible effect on their populations. Losing caribou would be devastating for the Indigenous people who have a deep cultural connection to them for food and skins, which are used to make clothing, tents, and other necessities. Arctic explorers of the past may not have relied on reindeer to travel Santa-style across the ice, but like the peoples of the far north, they also relied on them for sustenance.

Like the intrepid humans before them, some animals are extending their ranges northward as the planet warms. Red foxes, those wily canids found across vast regions of the world, have begun their own Arctic expeditions. Their northern expansion is displacing the native Arctic fox. The opportunistic red foxes compete for den sites and food sources, and, at times, kill the native foxes. This trend is happening in marine environments, too. Here’s Kristin Laidre. 

Laidre: The ice structure is the whole ecosystem. It structures the plants that bloom in the water column and the zooplankton or small fish that basically kind of form the base of the food chain. And so as we see the Arctic changing, it's looking less and less like the Arctic and more and more like the subarctic or in some cases kind of temperate areas. And so what happens is as the ice breaks up early, it enables some of these subarctic species to move into the Arctic sooner, the ice is extending further and further north so those animals can extend their range northward, and occupy areas that they otherwise would have been excluded when there was sea ice present. And they can basically stay for longer periods in the Arctic. And so what that means is we're seeing subarctic species kind of move in and expand their ranges, possibly compete for resources with some of the Arctic species. In some cases, they are kind of directly a problem like for example, killer whales that are moving further into the Arctic and they predate on small whales like belugas and narwhals. So there's really a shift happening where what we used to think of as the Arctic and a system that only had Arctic species is really transforming into something different. We're on a trajectory towards sea ice-free Arctic in the summer, and that's going to have huge implications for all of these animals that depend on that ice.

Inuit and other Arctic peoples have the most to lose from all of these dramatic shifts. Inuit assisted explorers, and saved their lives, over the course of four centuries. Now, they’re on the front lines of climate change. All of the threats we’ve mentioned so far—to animals, ice, sea levels, and more—have a direct impact on polar communities’ survival.

Laidre: Part of the work that I do is working really closely with communities in Greenland because all of the animals I study are natural resources and food for them.  The animals that live in the Arctic, the marine and the terrestrial animals are just inherently linked to the people for many thousands of years. Those species have been the source of life for people and a biological resource and provide food and clothing and tools, and even vitamin C. So there really is a kind of very, very close link between people and animals in the Arctic. And so I've made it a point in my career to talk to people in the community to document what they're seeing to basically collect knowledge from people who are out on the ice and hunting animals. And there's no doubt that all of the changes in the system that are affecting the animals are also affecting the people. And they affect people in different ways. Routes that hunters would take on their dogs sleds to get to kind of key hunting grounds are no longer available because they've broken up early or are unsafe. People have had to change some of their strategies for hunting. So for example, instead of hunting out on the sea ice with a team of dogs, they might need to use small boats because the ice is not present and they can more easily sail around in a boat than run dogs on the ice. In some cases, hunting seasons are truncated or lost. Storms come in and blow out the ice and reduce the hunting possibilities for people. All of these changes shift the distribution of animals so sometimes animals are coming in conflict with people. Polar bears are coming on land more often and coming into communities. The changes we document for the animals affects the people. And we really try to talk to people in communities in Greenland and understand those changes.

Indigenous peoples have also left behind evidence of their thousands of years in the Arctic. More than 180,000 archaeological sites are scattered across the Arctic. Because the region is so cold, items like bones, fabrics, and skins were once remarkably well-preserved in permafrost. But the warming ground exposes these treasures to decay. Coastal erosion is also wiping out ancient settlements and burial sites, some of which contain traces of the earliest known migrations to North America. One of them was Nuvugaq, a smattering of sod houses and a communal building used by Inuvialuit whale hunters, that the explorer John Franklin observed in 1826. Less than 200 years later, that site has been claimed by the sea.

Rising seas and thawing permafrost are wiping away Arctic explorers’ own marks on the region. Here’s P.J. Capelotti.

Capelotti: There's still half a dozen sites in Franz Josef Land, some I've never seen that I'd love to see. And of course, some of them will be long gone within the next couple of years because of global climate change.

On Franz Josef Land, evidence of Walter Wellman’s ill-fated North Pole expedition has escaped erosion thus far. The American journalist-turned-explorer led an expedition across Franz Josef Land in 1898. As part of that, they constructed a hut at Cape Heller, located at the 81st parallel. 

Capelotti: What you can experience in Franz Josef Land is a function of what's still left. And typically that involves sites that were built on hard ground using stones like Wellman's Fort McKinley from 1898, 1899, where a Norwegian who was on the Fram expedition, Bernt Bentsen died. He froze to death, basically starved and froze to death during Wellman's expedition in 1899.

After Bentsen died, his sole companion that winter spent weeks living alone in the fort, sleeping beside the corpse of his dead comrade.

Capelotti: Those huts were built out of stone. They were built up on higher ground like the Nansen hut on Cape Norwegia. Those sites will survive for a bit. Other sites that are close to the shoreline like the Baldwin huts, those are gone or will be soon.

We’ll be right back.

Explorers from as recently as the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries found it impossible to sail to the North Pole. Ice completely blocked their way—and put the age-old theory of an Open Polar Sea to rest. William Edward Parry, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, and others tried to walk, ski, or dogsled to the Pole over solid sea ice. As late as 1968, Ralph Plaisted and his buddies were able to drive snowmobiles to the North Pole. But today, those modes would be virtually impossible.

An icebreaker cruises through a sea of ice fragments near Franz Josef Land.
An icebreaker cruises through a sea of ice fragments near Franz Josef Land. / Josef Friedhuber/iStock via Getty Images

One of the last human-powered expeditions to the Pole took place in 2014. On their expedition dubbed Last North, American adventurers Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters departed from the coast of Ellesmere Island, just like Peary had done in 1909, over 400 nautical miles from the Pole. But that was about all they had in common with the explorers of a century before.

Larsen and Waters traded the traditional sled dogs for skis and snowshoes. They dragged their 317-pound sleds behind them across the ice. They were alone and entirely unsupported. There was no team of explorers helping them break ground; no strategically planned food drops to replenish their supplies. They worked like the human versions of a dog sledding team, hitching themselves to one sled at a time to lug them up and over the 20-foot-tall ice ridges that fragmented their route.

Instead of donning handmade fur suits like Peary and Henson, Larsen and Waters looked as though they’d just stepped out of REI. They wore layers and layers of merino wool and down garments and heavy-duty boots to stave off the freezing temperatures. Rather than ration pemmican and ship’s biscuit, their food provisions included state-of-the-art dehydrated meals—plus some things anyone could pick up at a local grocery store to ensure they could scarf down over 7000 calories per day. They packed energy bars, salami, cheese, nuts, Pringles, and three bags of cheese puffs, which were designated as a celebratory treat. Perhaps most surprisingly, the two men also packed 25 servings of freeze-dried ice cream—because nothing creates a craving for ice cream like spending weeks on ice.

But even with high-tech gear and abundance of high-calorie food, Larsen and Waters battled for survival on their journey to the Pole. Like Robert Peary, they didn’t take kayaks or rafts with them. To cross open water, they had drysuits—and they swam.

Those waterproof suits were crucial to their success. Cracks in the ice revealed great ribbons of open water all the way to the horizon. Where these gaps blocked their progress, the two men swam, pulling their buoyant sledges while paddling and kicking with their limbs. They had to act as their own icebreakers to shatter ice that was too thin to walk across, but too thick to easily swim through. Air trapped in their drysuits kept them afloat, but smashing a path forward, then pulling themselves back atop solid ice like seals flopping on shore, was exhausting.

Even the miles they trekked across solid ice were perilous. It’s hard to keep a steady pace when the ground beneath your feet is always changing. Ice that in some places was thick and solid was in other areas so deceivingly thin; one wrong step could send an explorer plunging into freezing water. It cracked around them as they slept and threatened to shatter beneath them as they inched forward. Relentless wind sent the ice floes careening southward as the men fought to continue north: In the time it took them to pause and don their drysuits before swimming across a lead, the ice floes would drift south and set them back by as much as a quarter-mile. Polar bear prints in the snow were unnerving reminders that in the Arctic, it’s not just the ice and cold that can leave a man fighting for his life.

On day five of the expedition, a mother polar bear and her cub came within 15 feet of Larsen and Waters as they slogged forward. Their noses twitched as the mens’ scents wafted through the crisp air. Waters fired his flare, but the bears remained unfazed. The yearling cub, which weighed several hundred pounds, started forward, investigating what must have seemed like strange-looking seals lumbering upright across the frozen ground. Larsen, realizing their gun was nearby, shot into the air, was finally able to scare the bears away.

Their muscles ached and sores speckled their skin. Stress and exhaustion frayed their nerves. Even worse, they were low on food. The thin, erratic ice slowed their forward progression to a crawl. By day 40, the two realized they’d need to drastically increase their pace if they had any hope of setting foot at the top of the world. But since they couldn’t ski any faster, they’d have to go harder. They slept for just four hours at a time, and spent up to 15 hours a day attempting to gain miles across the dicey landscape. Each step was like playing Russian roulette with the ice.

On day 53, Larsen and Waters finally reached the North Pole. A mere 42 hours later, a small plane dropped from the sky to scoop them up and ferry them back to civilization. Within moments of liftoff, the limitless patchwork of ice and water they had traversed vanished beneath the clouds.

The dangerous conditions they encountered reinforced the assumption that the Last North expedition would be one of the final human-powered treks to the Pole. Adventurers of the future who want to follow in Peary’s, Plaisted’s, or even Larson’s footsteps are likely out of luck. The sea ice that forms at the Pole each year rarely touches land.

But, that doesn’t mean the North Pole is out of reach. Today’s adventurers, scientists, and even tourists regularly visit the top of the world, but their modes of travel are thoroughly modern. Most arrive near the Pole by research ship or cruise vessel. After a few hours, they return to their ship. The price for this momentary contact runs about $30,000 a pop.

Colorful buildings make up the small settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit on Greenland's east coast.
Colorful buildings make up the small settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit on Greenland's east coast. / Adrian Wojcik/iStock via Getty Images

The recent MOSAiC Expedition sought to recreate Fridtjof Nansen’s famous voyage in the Fram, which we talked about in our third episode. To study polar ocean currents, Nansen purposefully got his small ship stuck into polar sea ice and let the currents take it where they may. The international team of scientists on the MOSAiC expedition did the same with their modern icebreaker, Polarstern. The vessel remained icebound while the researchers made scientific observations of climate change and compared their data to Nansen’s from the 1890s.

Nansen eventually realized the currents wouldn’t take the Fram to the Pole, so he attempted to get there by dogsled. In contrast, in August 2020, the Polarstern sailed easily to the North Pole amid slushy floes, not the solid ice fields of yesteryear. A series of aerial photographs taken on the day the ship reached 90° North shows the surface of the Arctic Ocean as, well, a mosaic of thin patchy ice, streams of slush, and blue water.

Climate scientists are fond of saying “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” It’s easy to think of the Arctic or the North Pole as a place that’s not only geographically distant, but some place far away from modern civilization. That’s how Europeans in the early 19th century were able to romanticize the Arctic. They projected their hopes and dreams upon what they considered a blank slate—those empty spaces on the map. The polar regions appeared pure, sublime, and tantalizing; something to be celebrated in poetry and tamed by technology.

But today, we know that isn’t the whole picture. Explorers went ever farther into uncharted territory. They observed the people, the animals, the climate. They mapped coastlines, islands, and waterways. And as they studied and learned more about the Arctic, they realized it was not as remote as they had thought.

I believe that we’re still learning this lesson. The actions that we take today have a direct effect on the Arctic, and those effects will reverberate back to us. Here’s Kristin Laidre.

Laidre: What happens in the Arctic influences the whole world, the freshwater that melts off of, for example, the Greenland ice cap plays a big role in ocean circulation. And that ocean circulation is linked to major currents that basically control our climate system throughout the globe. Something like the Greenland ice cap is kind of an important reservoir of frozen freshwater. And as that melts, a lot of things you hear about are sea level rise. And so increasing warming in the Arctic accelerates melt of that ice cap and will affect coastlines around the world.

Those are just two simplified examples of how connected we are to the Arctic, no matter where we live, or whether we’ll ever go there.

I became interested in Arctic history because of my familial connection to it. Reading about explorers and their expeditions was how I came to understand some of the perils that region is facing now. My hope is that, by listening to the daring adventures and complex personalities of the past, we all learn to care more about the present and future Arctic. Caring about something is the first step toward protecting it.

And we need to include everyone in that story. An inescapable fact of polar exploration is that it was conducted mainly by Westerners, who were mainly white and mainly men. Many explorers left a harmful legacy among the Native communities they encountered and places they went. Because of that, people who aren’t in this privileged group might feel like the story of exploration isn’t theirs, or has no relevance to their lives. But climate change in the Arctic affects everyone, and only collectively can we try to stop it. We must tell stories that are more inclusive and about why the Arctic’s past, present, and future is important, so everyone is engaged in protecting the natural heritage of our planet.

The quest for the North Pole is more than the people who tried to reach it or succeeded in conquering it. It’s a doorway through which we can examine our own history and human nature. It’s a symbol for the human desire for knowledge and the struggle to understand ourselves. It reveals our shortcomings and urges us toward action. Whether we learn from the past, and take action now, is the choice we face.

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched by me and Kerry Wolfe and written by Kerry Wolfe, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan. Thanks to our experts Andrea Pitzer, P.J. Capelotti, Susan Kaplan, and Kristin Laidre.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit

The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.