The North Pole: One of the last “unowned” lands on Earth | Tech US News

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The North Pole: One of the last “unowned” lands on Earth

(Image credit: By Breiehagen/Getty Images)

The North Pole: one of the last lands

The journey to reach this elusive destination helps travelers understand the power and fragility of our changing planet.

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The world is full of wonderful places, but there are still many remote corners of the globe that few people get to see. In his next book, Remote experiences: extraordinary journeys from north to south, photographer David De Vleeschauwer and travel journalist Debbie Pappyn traveled to 12 of the world’s most hidden, unknown and remote territories relatively untouched by tourism. By going where the crowds don’t, the duo hopes to encourage others to travel more slowly and with more purpose, and take better care of the planet we all share.

Owned by no one, claimed by many, the enigmatic North Pole is an ever-changing sheet of ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker, the 50 Let Pobedy, sails every summer to 90° North with 100 passengers on board, all eager to set foot on the top of the globe. For most of them, this moment is much more than checking off a list. It’s all about the journey.

When the ship cracks through a 3m thick layer of ice on its way there, it sounds raw and unreserved. The ship’s name means “50 years of victory” in Russian and refers to the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. To commemorate its launch, the ship carried the Olympic flame to the North Pole in 2013 during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Powered by a pair of 171 megawatt nuclear reactors and two 27.6 megawatt steam turbine generators, the almost 160m long icebreaker can reach 21.4 knots – almost 40 kilometers per hour – and cruise non-stop for almost six years without returning to land to refuel. With nuclear reactors on board, fuel stops become almost a thing of the past.

The 50 Let Pobedy boat can sail non-stop for almost six years without refueling (Credit: David De Vleeschauwer)

The 50 Let Pobedy boat can sail non-stop for almost six years without refueling (Credit: David De Vleeschauwer)

The behemoth’s main mission is to transport large cargo ships through the frozen Northeast Passage in winter. During the summer, the icebreaker transforms into an expedition ship for exploration and adventure, departing from its home port of Murmansk. From here the ship sails in the direction of the mythical Land of Franz Josef, where only Russian ships can anchor.

There is a throwback quality to those who travel this far north, an eccentricity reminiscent of early explorers who were not deterred by extremes or afraid of challenging situations. After leaving Murmansk, it takes two days to reach the ice pack. This is the realm of the polar bear, where human visitors face a new set of rules. From here, the frozen silence, the preternaturally white panoramas and the murky gloom of the cold ocean below seem endless. As 50 Years of Victory sweeps across the blank landscape, the thunderous moan of the ship’s steady progress reverberates through her red-painted reinforced hull. Passengers wrapped in thick layers of warm clothing stand at the bow, watching the ice break, break and crack, followed by the blue of the Arctic Ocean breaking through, as if breathing.

This is no ordinary sea voyage aboard a fancy cruise ship. The journey to the planet’s northernmost point, where the Earth’s axis of rotation meets its surface, takes 11 laborious days, moving not much faster than 20 km per hour as it breaks through the ice. The presence of polar bears gives this trip an extra dimension: in this frozen world, man is not the king. Travelers make this journey not only to set foot on the world but to immerse themselves in the raw beauty of the high Arctic.

There can be four seasons in one hour at the top of the world (Credit: David De Vleeschauwer)

There can be four seasons in one hour at the top of the world (Credit: David De Vleeschauwer)

Watching vast expanses of sea ice is addictive and even calming. The sun never sets in the arctic summer and yet the light is constantly transformed, reflecting off the pale white ice sheet. Sometimes the weather is cold, temperate and dull with thick fog. Other days there is a velvety glow in the light, flushed with pink or lavender tones. The frozen ocean is often delicately wrapped in a flowing palette of white tones. It doesn’t matter if you’re on deck or peering through a porthole in the warm belly of the ship at this ever-changing panorama. After a couple of days sailing, when the North Pole is finally reached, excitement ripples through the ship. Some passengers describe it as a sense of recalibration, a new beginning.

From the authors

“The North Pole is an exceptionally rare and raw place where there is no concept of time and where every direction the traveler faces is south. Within 30 years, the geographic North Pole is likely to be completely free of ice during the summer . months and this unique alien feeling could be lost forever.”

On top of the world, it’s time to toast with ice cold vodka. All the passengers gather in a circle around the geographic North Pole and raise their glasses with joy. The moment is almost triumphant. And then there’s the infamous Polar Plunge, perhaps the most iconic swim in the world. This dive, which is nothing more than a dip in the Arctic Ocean, is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. The daredevils warm up with mulled wine and more vodka, while the ship’s crew prepares a barbecue lunch on the ice. In the few hours spent at the Pole, the sun rises, the wind picks up, the clouds arrive and it snows. There are four seasons in an hour on top of the world.

The North Pole is elusive; this place does not want to be caught. This is a very short anchorage; staying at the exact 90°N latitude lasts about a minute. When the boat leaves, it has already drifted two nautical miles, almost 4 kilometers. The frozen ocean is in constant motion. On its way back south, the ship tries to retrace its tracks in the thick ice sheet.

By catching a glimpse of this rarely seen landscape, the authors hope more travelers will be willing to protect it (Credit: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images)

By catching a glimpse of this rarely seen landscape, the authors hope more travelers will be willing to protect it (Credit: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images)

On Hooker Island, Zodiac inflatable boats take passengers over the high glaciers near Rubini Rock to witness spectacular bird cliffs where more than 70,000 terns, ivory gulls, little auks and guillemots nest. Helicopter rides allow you to see a bird’s eye view of the sea ice and the remote territory of Franz Josef Land. Passengers are invited to join these air tours to understand the true vastness of this frozen desert. As the helicopter lifts off, the huge, floating steel colossus that is the ship is reduced to a tiny red speck in an ocean of sparkling white, its footprints in the ice still visible like an artery filled with dark, cold Arctic Ocean. The helicopter rolls over the ship, letting the passengers understand how endless and timeless – always bright or always dark – this landscape is.

Before this trip, no one could have realized that this panorama extends all the way to the elusive North Pole. Now, after setting foot on that pole at 90°N, these travelers finally understand the immensity and magnitude of this thick blanket of white ice that stretches across the extreme, surreal top of our world.

This article was adapted from the upcoming book Remote experiences: extraordinary journeys from north to south

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