Poles of Inaccessibility: The Most Obscure Places on Earth?

Everyone is familiar with the concept of geographic poles: the two points on the planet where the axis of rotation meets the surface (i.e., the north and south poles).  Many are also familiar with the magnetic poles – the points on the planet’s surface where a planet’s magnetic field lines are vertical and as such are the locations compasses point toward.  These locations shift constantly due to changes in the magnetic field.  The geographic poles in particular hold a special mystique: their extreme locations and harsh climates kept explorers at bay for centuries until they were finally reached in the early 20th century.

While the geographic poles might be the place furthest removed from the Equator, they are not necessarily the locations most challenging to reach.  In both the Arctic Ocean and on the Antarctic continent, there are locations further removed from the nearest access point known as the poles of inaccessibility: the place in the Arctic farthest removed from land or, conversely, the place in Antarctica farthest removed from the ocean.  Reaching these two locations may be the pinnacle of extreme travel on Earth.

NPole

The North Pole may be the northernmost point on Earth, but it lies ‘only’ 700 km (430 mi) from the coast of northern Greenland, with most of the island-free open area (it would be imprudent to refer to it as ‘open water’ this far north) in the Arctic Ocean lying in the direction of the Beaufort and East Siberian seas.  The most isolated point from land in the Arctic Ocean lies 611 km (411 mi) away at 84°03N 174°51W, not quite due north from Wainwright, Alaska.  The closest land masses, Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Russia’s Franz Josef Land, each 1,094 km (680 mi) away.  The location is so remote and so far removed from land that it has never truly been reached by foot (the Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins flew over it by airplane in 1928 on a flight from Barrow, Alaska to Svalbard, and the English explorer Wally Herbert narrowly missed the precise location of the pole travelling by dogsled as part of the 1968-69 British Trans-Arctic Expedition.  More recently, another British explorer, Jim McNeill, has made various attempts to reach the pole by foot over the past decade.  McNeill’s efforts thus far have been thwarted by a number of different events, including a bout of necrotising fasciitis less than 24 hours before his 2003 attempt, encountering disintegrating sea ice a short distance into his 2006 expedition that attempted to reach the geographic, magnetic, geomagnetic, and inaccessibility poles in the same journey, and unstable sea conditions in 2010.  With McNeill and his team seemingly the only ones making active attempts on the northern pole of inaccessibility, it remains to be seen just how long goal this may actually take for someone to reach.

SPole

Defining the southern, or Antarctic, pole of inaccessibility depends upon your definition of the bounds of Antarctica.  Should one include just the Antarctic land mass proper or the permanently attached ice sheets as well?  By convention, the southern pole of inaccessibility is placed at the abandoned Soviet research station of the same name, located 878 km (546 mi) from the South Pole at 82°06S 54°58E and considered to have the coldest year-round average temperature on Earth at -58.2°C (-72°F).  Other locations for are also posited by different sources.  The University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute places the pole at 85°50S 65°47E, and the British Antarctic Survey gives two locations: a land surface proper location of 82°5314S 55°430E and an ice sheet-inclusive location of 83°5037S 65°4330E.  The Soviet station was established in a location determined to be the pole in December 1958; all edifices and supplies were hauled overland by tractor.  Operating for only 12 days (14-26 December 1958), it was quickly abandoned due to the belief that it was an unsuitable location for permanent occupation.  Left behind were a radio transmitter and a four-person hut topped with a statue of Lenin.  A US expedition visited the station in late 1964-early 1965, but otherwise the base remained untouched until a British-Canadian expedition reached the site via kite-powered sleds on 19 January 2007, finding the old hut buried in snow with only Lenin’s bust visible above ground.  As for the pole locations marked by the Survey, which in all likelihood are the most accurate, these locations were first visited by three members of the Spanish Transantarctic Expedition in one fell swoop, being reached on 11 and 14 December 2005, respectively, also using kite power.  Due to the constant changes in Antarctic ice sheet conditions, it is likely that further change in the pole’s location will occur and thus the old Soviet station will continued to be used as the de jure southern pole.

640px-Southern_Pol_of_Inaccessibility_Henry_Cookson_team_n2i

Lenin’s bust, pointed in the direction of Moscow, at the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility in January 2007.  Source: H. Cookson, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Southern_Pol_of_Inaccessibility_Henry_Cookson_team_n2i.JPG.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Beyond the Arctic and Antarctic, the concept is also extended to other continents and oceans, most famously with the point of ocean on Earth as a whole farthest removed from land and, conversely, the point land on Earth farthest removed from the ocean.  Unsurprisingly, the oceanic pole of inaccessibility lies in the Pacific Ocean, but nowhere near the middle of the ocean itself, which is populated by the various islands of Oceania.  Instead, the oceanic pole lies at 48°52.6S 123°23.6W, 2 688 kilometres (1 670 mi) southeast of the Pitcairn Islands and southwest of Easter Island (or, about sixty percent of the way between New Zealand and mainland Chile).  The pole has been nicknamed Point Nemo, after the captain of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

480px-Oceanic_pole_of_inaccessibility

Point Nemo, in the southeastern Pacific just north of the Southern Ocean.

This Easter egg in Google Maps greets those who are searching for Point Nemo.

As with the southern pole of inaccessibility, the continental pole of inaccessibility has multiple definitions.  The pole has been long held to be located at 46°17N 86°40E, a location in Xinjiang, China near the Kazakhstani border north of the regional capital of Ürümqi 2 645 km (1 644 mi) from the sea.  A 2007 study by Daniel Garcia-Castellanos and Umberto Lombardo  challenged this, however, as the conventional calculation ignores the Gulf of Ob in northern Siberia which pierces approximately 1 000 km (600 mi) into the Eurasian landmass.  When the Gulf was taken into account, and because of the ambiguity of the deltaic islands and shoals of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta to the south on the Indian Ocean coast, the study put forward two potential continental poles of inaccessibility (a.k.a. Eurasia Poles of Inaccessibility) located to the southwest and southeast of the traditional pole still north of Ürümqi but now located approximately 2 510 km (1 560 mi) from the nearest coasts.  The westernmost of these poles, known as EPIA1, is closest to the Gulf of Ob, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea; the easternmost, EPIA2, swaps out the Arabian Sea for the East China Sea.

CPole

640px-Distancia_a_la_costa

Various poles of inaccessibility as described in Garcia-Castellanos and Lombardo (2007).  Source: Galanauta, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Distancia_a_la_costa.png.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The Garcia-Castellanos/Lombardo paper also calculated poles of inaccessibilityfor Africa, North America, South America, Australia, Great Britain, the Iberian Peninsula, Madagascar, and Greenland. Unfortunately, it appears that no one has endeavoured to denote the precise location of the Atlantic and Indian poles of inaccessibility.  From the map shown above adapted from the Garcia-Castellanos/Lombardo paper, we can see that the Atlantic pole is located approximately midway between Bermuda and Cape Verde while the Indian pole is located a little less than halfway between Kerguelen and Western Australia (note: these map links are approximate and are not meant to denote the precise location).  Those wondering how the Indian pole of inaccessibility could be located so far to the southeast of the centre of the ocean need only look at the numerous island groups that dot the breadth of the water body.

Further Reading

Barrabes (2005).  Alcanzado el Polo Sur de la Inaccesibilidad.  13 December 2005.  Available at http://www.barrabes.com/revista/articulo_ant.asp?idArticulo=4549.  Accessed 9 February 2012.

Becker, K. (2010).  North Pole 2010: Expedition To The Pole of Inaccessibility is Postponed.  The Adventure Blog, 10 February 2010.  Available at http://theadventureblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/north-pole-2010-expedition-to-pole-of.html.  Accessed 8 February 2012.

Daily Mail (2007).  British three reach pole of inaccessibility.  20 January 2007.  Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-430167/British-reach-pole-inaccessibility.html.  Accessed 8 February 2012.

Garcia-Castellanos, D. (2011).  Poles of Inaccessibility.  25 March 2011. Available at https://sites.google.com/site/polesofinaccessibility/home.  Accessed 9 February 2012.

Garcia-Castellanos, D. and U. Lombardo (2007).  Poles of Inaccessibility: A Calculation Algorithm for the Remotest Places on Earth.  Scottish Geographical Journal 123(3): 227-233.  Available at http://cuba.ija.csic.es/~danielgc/papers/Garcia-Castellanos,%20Lombardo,%202007,%20SGJ.pdf.  Accessed 9 February 2012.

Kaun, E. (2010).  Ice Warriors of the Arctic.  WideWorld, 4 January 2010.  Available at http://www.wideworldmag.com/features/ice-warriors-of-the-arctic.  Accessed 8 February 2012.

Lukatela, H. (2004).  Point Nemo (or, One Thousand and Four Hundred Miles from Anywhere).  26 March 2004.  Available at http://www.geocuriosa.com/pointnemo/index.html.  Accessed 9 February 2012.

McNeill, J. (2006).  Explorer set for historic Arctic adventure.  BBC News, 20 February 2006.  Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4731672.stm.  Accessed 8 February 2012.

WideWorld (2010).  Pole quest postponed.  10 February 2010.  Available at http://www.wideworldmag.com/news/pole-quest-postponed.  Accessed 8 February 2012.

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