North Pole under threat: will Santa have to move south?

Place of magic and mystery melting away as new record low for Arctic ice recorded

Where will Santa’s workshop be if the Arctic ice cap melts? Getty Images/Vetta

Where will Santa’s workshop be if the Arctic ice cap melts? Getty Images/Vetta

 

It’s the most talked-about place in the world right now. No, not the White House, although white is the prevailing colour here. It’s the North Pole, residence of one Mr S Claus Esq, his wife Mrs Claus, Rudolph and a busy army of elves.

In just a few days, Santa will set off from the North Pole in his sleigh to deliver presents to children all over the world (How does he do it all in one night? Scientists reckon he uses quantum mechanics – which is why children must be fast asleep when he comes, because if he is observed, then his quantum state will be altered and Christmas would have to be cancelled).

We know a lot about Santa, but what do we know about the vast, icy region at the top of the Earth that he calls home? The North Pole is located 90 degrees north, at the intersection between the Earth’s axis and the earth’s surface.

There’s no land; the pole sits atop a giant floating block of ice in the middle of the Arctic Sea, so there’s no point sticking a flag down to mark it, because it will have moved several kilometres within hours. Because the ice is forever shifting, it’s only possible to build a temporary station, which means Santa’s workshop would be the only permanent dwelling on the North Pole.

Outside time

Time has no meaning on the North Pole. All the lines of longitude converge at the pole, making time zones nonexistent. So when you’re standing at the pole, it can be any time you want it to be. This is handy for Santa, because if he falls behind schedule on Christmas Eve, he can move the clock back and buy a little more time to finish filling his sack. And no matter which direction you walk in from the North Pole, you’re heading south, so even without Rudolph’s nose to guide them, the reindeer can’t really go wrong.

Not that you’re ever likely to spot a reindeer in the North Pole – Santa keeps his well-hidden – or any other signs of life. The sea beneath the ice is teeming with Arctic cod, shrimp and crustaceans, but the surface doesn’t support much wildlife. Polar bears sometimes wander into the area looking for food – better hope they don’t spot you.

So, what’s it like being on the North Pole? Since the early 19th century, intrepid explorers have trekked to the pole – and some haven’t made it back. But these days it’s like Everest: anyone can go if they have the inclination, and the money, to make the journey.

Several companies run expeditions and cruises to the pole, and every year elite athletes from all over the world compete in the North Pole Marathon, organised by Irish ultra-runner Richard Donovan. It’s not cheap: the entry fee for the 2017 marathon next April is €13,500.

Standing on the moon

Galway publican Paul Grealish has run five marathons on the polar ice cap, the most completed by one person, so he knows the place almost as well as Santa at this stage.

Grealish, who owns the King’s Head pub in Galway, describes the North Pole as “the most amazing place I’ve ever been in. You feel like the world is falling away: it’s the closest thing to standing on the moon.”

The runners fly from Svalbard in Norway to Camp Barneo, a Russian temporary “drifting station”, on a Russian Antonov jet. The 43km circular course is marked out by flags, and two people with rifles watch out for wandering polar bears. But that’s not the only danger facing runners, says Grealish. A “lead” can suddenly form in the ice, exposing open water. “The ice can separate and you can be looking at ocean.” Anyone falling into a lead could drown or freeze to death.

And there’s the ever-present feeling that you’re not standing on terra firma, but on a giant ice-floe on the ocean’s surface. “You really feel it when you’re lying down,” says Grealish. “It’s almost like you’re on a boat.”

And of course it’s very cold – in the winter, when polar night lies over the region, temperatures can reach as low as -41 degrees – but this year scientists have noted Arctic temperatures are about 20 degrees warmer than usual. According to the Danish Meteorological Institute, mean Arctic temperatures for November were about -5 degrees, when they should be at about -25 degrees. This means the ice has been slow to reform – an alarming deceleration that should freeze the blood of anyone who cares about climate change.

According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice has set a new record low for this time of year. In October the ice extended to a mere 6.4 million sq km, the smallest area on record, and about 2.55 million sq km below the October 1981-2010 long-term average.

“It is clear that the Arctic ice is melting at a much faster rate than any of the models predict,” says Dr Brian Ward of NUI Galway. “It could be that in a few years, there’ll be no permanent ice up there. In the summer it will have disappeared.”

This will be bad news for Santa – he’ll have to either build an undersea workshop or move operations to the South Pole.

Saving Santa’s home

We don’t know if Donald Trump believes in Santa Claus, but he certainly doesn’t believe in climate change. Indeed, he thinks it’s all a hoax by the Chinese. The science community is worried that Trump will row back on progress made by the Obama administration, particularly in relation to burning fossil fuels.

“It’s still difficult to convince people that climate change is an issue,” says Dr Brian Ward of NUI Galway. “There’s been the recent agreement in Paris, but with the new administration in the US, we don’t know whether they will honour it.”

With 2016 deemed the hottest year on record, it’s going to take some concerted global effort to save Santa’s home so he can keep making toys for our children’s children.

“If we stop emitting fumes now, then it would be decades before the ice would start coming back to what it was before. We may just be going through a period of warming. Climate changes, irrespective of whether we put CO2 into the atmosphere, but the only thing we’re doing is accelerating that change.”

“It will take long-term work in understanding, and long-term work in doing something about it. We need to think about what the climate is going to be like in 2050, what’s it going to be like in 2100.”