What good are the poles?
September 14, 2021 7:54 PM   Subscribe

What unique observations, experiences or other weirdness can I only encounter at the poles of the Earth? What can one see at the poles that can be seen nowhere else? Any science experiments only work at the poles?
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Nat Geo: "Because the Earth rotates on a tilted axis as it revolves around the sun, sunlight is experienced in extremes at the poles. In fact, the North Pole experiences only one sunrise (at the March equinox) and one sunset (at the September equinox) every year. From the North Pole, the sun is always above the horizon in the summer and below the horizon in the winter. This means the region experiences up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter."
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:59 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]

The North Pole is the only place on Earth where you can walk one mile south, then one mile east or west, and then one mile north, and wind up where you started.
posted by ejs at 8:14 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]

I don't think there's much where being at the axial poles is different from being even like any other hyperboreal (or I guess hypoaustraleal??) place, WRT week-to-month long days and super-long sunsets, and aurorae and extreme weather and all that stuff. As much as I love the Coriolis effect it's not really that noticeable anywhere in the world on a small scale. I guess it will be MOST extreme at the poles, since it's strength is cos(lat), but it's still not that much.

The magnetic poles, OTOH, you can watch your compass get weird.
posted by aubilenon at 8:15 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

Oh I guess you could enjoy all kinds of time zone fuckery if you are into that kind of thing
posted by aubilenon at 8:16 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

You would weigh more at the poles than anywhere else: about 0.5% more than at the Equator; 0.3 of that 0.5 because none of the force of gravity is supplying centripetal force needed to hold you down elsewhere, and 0.2 because the Earth is somewhat flattened at the poles and you are closer to the center of mass there.
posted by jamjam at 8:47 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]

Communication with certain (mainly Russian) satellites is easier.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:52 PM on September 14

See if a sunflower will twist its head off trying to follow the sun
posted by tinker at 8:59 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

A Foucault pendulum will have its shortest timing at the poles.

The star Polaris will be at zenith at the north pole, and nowhere else.

During the polar night, when the sun does not appear at all, the moon will not dip below the horizon for ten days at a time.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:39 PM on September 14 [7 favorites]

The South Pole telescope benefits from unique atmospheric conditions and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory (also at the south pole) takes advantage of all the ... uh ... ice.
posted by caek at 10:20 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]

Two of the major experiments at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - which is precisely at the South Pole - are the neutrino detectors and the cosmic background radiation telescopes.

It looks like neither of those are dependent on being precisely at the South Pole per se but the factors that help are increased the further south (or north) you go, in a general way. So in that sense being a mile or two from the pole wouldn't be very noticeably different but I'd bet that being 200 or 500 or 800 miles away would be.

Here is the reason the neutrino detector was built at the South Pole, and the reason it seems to be the best place for it:
In order to detect the light given off by the secondary particles produced by neutrino interactions, we needed a large volume of transparent material. That basically meant water or ice. Because these interactions are rare and produce light that can extend over a kilometer, IceCube requires a lot of ice atoms to capture one event. The South Pole is the one place on Earth that holds such large quantities of clear, pure, and stable ice and has the infrastructure to support scientific research.

Most ice contains air bubbles that would distort IceCube’s measurements, but the South Pole ice sheet is very thick and tightly compressed. As snow and ice piled up over time, the lower layers of ice were compressed. The immense pressure forced out air bubbles, making the deep ice ultra-transparent.

IceCube not only needs clear, pure, and stable ice to make its discoveries; it also needs to be shielded from radiation at the Earth’s surface. IceCube’s individual sensors, called digital optical modules, or DOMs, are buried in the ice beginning at a depth of about 1,500 meters (4,920 feet, almost a mile) below the surface. The 1,500 meters of ice above the detector help to shield it from natural radiation at the Earth’s surface.

The South Pole station, constructed on three kilometers of clear ice, presented an opportunity to satisfy all the requirements needed to build the detector.
The reason the South Pole is good for telescopic observations of the Cosmic Background Radiation is a little more mundane but still pretty unique to that location:
The South Pole Telescope (SPT) is .. investigating [Cosmic Background Radiation] from Antarctica. The 10-metre diameter telescope was built at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station between 2006 and 2007. The cold, dry, stable air makes the location a good one for observations. The SPT has already delivered new information about the CMB, sometimes in collaboration with observations from space.
The other thing I know goes on in the polar regions - though more specifically at the north & south magnetic poles, which are close to but distinct from the geographical poles - is that the field lines of earth's magnetic field are oriented vertically. This wreaks havoc with compasses within certain areas of course but also, cosmic rays are funneled towards these spots rather than - as in the non-polar regions - funneled away. The "magnetic shield" giving inhabitants in non-polar regions quite a bit of protection from cosmic rays, while people living in the polar regions get higher doses.

Here is some research into the cosmic ray effects and details in the polar regions, which looks pretty interesting.

And there has been a ton of fascinating research and exploration into the magnetic poles themselves, what the location, shape, and other details area, how all that changes over time, what about the periodical magnetic field reversals, etc. Summary of that research in the arctic here. The antarctic magnetic pole seems to have had a somewhat less exciting history.

You can also look at the list of historic and current research stations in the arctic and antarctic to see what types of research they have been used for.
posted by flug at 10:25 PM on September 14 [7 favorites]

The North Pole is the only place on Earth where you can walk one mile south, then one mile east or west, and then one mile north, and wind up where you started

apart from all the places almost* exactly 1 + 1/2πC miles away from the South Pole, where C is a natural number.

From any of those starting points, walking one mile south takes you to a circle 1/C miles in circumference centred on the South Pole, which you then walk all the way around C times before retracing your steps a mile north to your starting point.

*not exactly 1 + 1/2πC because the circle is on the Earth's surface rather than on a flat plane, but it's a very small circle compared to the radius of the Earth so it's going to be 1 + 1/2πC to well within the precision of a human footprint.
posted by flabdablet at 10:58 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

...based on the previous answer, uou would also be better prepared for your interview with Elon Musk.
posted by fairmettle at 3:01 AM on September 15

A Foucault pendulum will have its shortest timing at the poles.

Fun fact: some bored scientists built a Foucault pendulum at the South Pole in 2001.

Also, I'm tickled that the website somehow chose "huh", "they", and "for" as the tags to put in the page title for SEO purposes. That'll definitely boost the results.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:26 AM on September 15 [3 favorites]

There is some difficulty in knowing if you are EXACTLY at the North Pole because it isn't solid land. The magnetic compass is uselessly inaccurate. Using astronomic observations, as the "discoverers" of the pole did, is very difficult.

One would hope the GPS would be the solution, but I'm not sure. The GPS receiver uses a math model of the earth which is made very accurate in the places of intended use at the cost of considerable inaccuracy in far off places. There are three satellite-based navigation systems, one each from the US, Europe, and Russia, so the combination plus some custom software might do the trick.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:25 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

I had a couple, but they have come up already. All I have left in the bag is this: if you stand at the South Pole, every single human on Earth, living or dead, is situated directly north of you.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:10 AM on September 15

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