The Quest to Reach the Loneliest Place on Ice

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Since it was first theorized over a century ago, the Northern pole of inaccessibility has eluded adventurers seeking to be the first to claim it. (Photo: Newone/Wikimedia)

Ask people to describe their version of the "middle of nowhere" and you'll likely receive answers ranging from a wind-swept desert to an alpine lake far above the tree line. Ask geography nuts and they'll mention Earth's "poles of inaccessibility," plotted points on the globe that mark the farthest point from a coast. There's also one in the ocean, Point Nemo, so far removed from civilization that it's become a popular resting place for more than 250 spacecraft.

While nearly all the poles of inaccessibility — from the Eurasian pole in Russia's Gulf of Ob to the North American pole in a South Dakota gully — have been visited by people, there's one that has continued to elude adventurers for over a century. Called the Northern pole of inaccessibility, it lies upon the shifting ice pack of the Arctic Sea. This February, a team of 28 volunteers led by veteran polar explorer Jim McNeill will attempt to claim this geographic bullseye for the history books.

"I'm amazed that there could still be a place no one has ever reached," McNeill told Smithsonian Magazine.

A moving target

Unlike Earth's other poles of inaccessibility, the Northern version has gone through several revisions over the years. Every time a new island is discovered or some landmass emerges from the ice, the exact point shifts. In 2013, a study of NASA satellite imagery by McNeil and a team of Arctic researchers made a startling discovery: the spot originally thought to be the farthest from land was actually off by over 133 miles.

As it stands presently, the Northern pole of inaccessibility lies 626 miles equidistant from three extremely remote coastlines –– Komsomolets Island in Russia's Severanaya Zemlya archipelago, Henrietta Island in the East Siberian Sea and Ellesmere Island at the northern tip of Canada.

"It's not like you're saved if you're stranded and manage to get to the closest landmass," researcher Ted Scambos told Scientific American. "You'll be in trouble anywhere in that area."

Third time's a charm

The stages of the journey to be undertaken by The Last Pole expedition.
The stages of the journey to be undertaken by The Last Pole expedition. (Photo: The Last Pole)

February's expedition marks the third attempt McNeill has made to reach the Northern pole. In 2003, a flesh-eating virus kept him at basecamp. In 2006, he fell through thinning ice on Day 17 and was forced to turn back some 1,340 miles into the journey. More than a decade later, and with climate change increasingly transforming the region, conditions likely have not improved.

"The area is a lot less safe than it was in the heroic time of exploration," Scambos added. "Of course, now an icebreaker could probably make it there a lot more easily."

Citizen scientists tag along — and help fund the expedition

McNeill, who has more than 30 years of experience exploring polar regions, is not deterred. Joining him at various intervals during the 80-day, 800-mile "Last Pole" expedition will be 28 citizen scientists from around the globe. Each will pay more than $21,000, a pricey ticket that includes funding for the adventure, supplies, more than 30 days of polar and medical training, and a guaranteed spot on one of four 20-day legs of the journey.

"They will face fiercely low temperatures, disintegrating ice flows beneath their feet and the possibility of encountering hungry polar bears," McNeill writes on his Ice Warrior site. "And all to further our knowledge and benchmark the condition of the Arctic Ocean."

During the course of the expedition, the team will collect data on sea ice, weather and other info crucial to determining the present condition of the Arctic Ocean. For Nico Kaufmann, a 30-year-old Scot from Edinburgh, the adventure was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

"I'm very pleased to be taking part in something which will help save the planet. It is a real privilege to be involved in an expedition as important as this," he told the Edinburgh News. "To be in the environment there will be incredible. To go somewhere no one has been before is so exciting because we do not know what we will find. When I told my wife she thought I was a bit mental. But she is supporting me and now I’m excited to go on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure."

You can follow the adventure from the cozy comfort of home by visiting The Last Pole website.