Texts, emails, Twitter notifications. Honking horns in traffic. The rumble of a train. Your neighbor’s blaring television. The roar of an airplane overhead. For most of us, our daily lives are defined by the constant din of other people. In fact, according the UN, 54 percent of the world’s population live in urban areas.
Cities and suburbs offer plenty of positives, but the constant buzz from these centers of hustle and bustle can take their toll on even the most hardened urban dweller. What, you may wonder, might it be like to be far, far away from these population centers, somewhere so distant on the globe that the closest human beings are orbiting the earth in a space station 250 miles above you?
The answer can be found by learning more about Earth’s poles of inaccessibility—a technical geographic term describing some of the most uniquely remote locations on the planet.
What is a pole of inaccessibility?
One of the great world explorers of the early 20th century was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian-American known for spending a year living among the Inuit people and as an advocate of the meat-only diet practiced by those dwelling in the Arctic.
Stefansson is regarded as one of the first to identify a pole of inaccessibility. In his writings in Geographical Review, Stefansson defined the Arctic Pole of Inaccessibility as “the point within the arctic regions most difficult of access for any explorer who goes as far as he can by ship and then pushes forward by the use of men and dogs hauling sledges.” He calculated the location of this spot by triangulating the locations of various ships on the Arctic ice shores and finding the area he described as “less accessible than the North Pole.”
While Stefansson’s interest was in the Arctic Pole of Inaccessibility, more recent geographic scholars have found ways to calculate poles of inaccessibility around the world by roughly this same metric. A study by Daniel Garcia-Castellanos and Umberto Lombardo in the Scottish Geographical Journal described a pole of inaccessibility as “the location furthest from a particular coastline” or as “the place on Earth that is furthest from any ocean.” These carefully determined places represent the absolute interior of Earth’s mighty continents.
The report from Garcia-Castellanos and Lombardo began by saying, “Distance from the sea is historically related to isolation and inaccessibility.” It is certainly true that some of the poles of inaccessibility are more remote than, say, sitting in the middle of Times Square, but it is up for debate if these location are truly inaccessible and isolated or if they, too, are connected to our busy world.
Why travel to isolated places?
When most people think of remote poles, the first spots that come to mind are the North and South Poles. But it is worth noting the difference between the North Pole and the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility: One is the geographic “top” of the world, and the other is the most distant spot from any land in the Arctic.
The Northern Pole of Inaccessibility is a spot in the Arctic Ocean that sits upon a constantly shifting mass of ice. British explorer Jim McNeill is planning an expedition to reach the spot in February 2019 in what will be his third attempt. The South Pole and Southern Pole of Inaccessibility are slightly more accessible because the Antarctic land mass allows airplanes to land for a limited window in the summer months.
“It’s a lot of different things that motivate people,” Lyons explains to Urbo about why people visit the far-flung shores of Antarctica or navigate the icy maze of the Northwest Passage. Nature and wildlife remain the most popular draw. “People want to see polar bears in the Arctic or penguins in the Antarctic,” Lyons explains, citing the potentially disastrous effects of climate change as a motivator for people to make it to these cold regions sooner rather than later.
He adds that individuals are drawn to the North and South Poles for reasons beyond basic comprehension: “People want to have deeper moments.” Lyons explains that whole families, including grandparents, go together on expeditions he’s led to experience some of the most picturesque and untouched land left on Earth.
Lyons says the jaw-dropping ice formations often fill visitors with a sense of awe. “There are so many different types and textures of ice, and they’re all captivatingly beautiful. …There are icebergs that are several miles long or ice floes that the ship slowly pushes through.”
All have a profound effect on visitors, according to Lyons. “It’s seeing something that is totally different and totally alien,” he says. “Nobody ever goes to Antarctica and says, ‘You know that reminded me of X, Y, and Z.’ …It’s really a unique place.”
The Eurasian Pole sits near the Chinese city of Urumqi.
While the Northern and Southern Poles of Inaccessibility sit at the frozen edges of our world and are almost entirely cut off from humanity, the poles of inaccessibility for the other six continents remain connected to, yet isolated from, the most populous regions on Earth.
Perhaps this is no more apparent than when it comes to the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, a spot located in the massive province of China, Xinjiang.
Chinese travel expert Josh Summers has visited the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility and provides some context to its remoteness: “Getting [there] requires a five-hour flight from Beijing, China, or a two-hour flight from Almaty, Kazakhstan, in addition to hours in a vehicle through remote Uyghur villages.” The spot is not far from the Xinjiang city of Urumqi, which appears in the Guiness Book of World Records as “Land Farthest From Sea.”
Certainly there is much about Urumqi and the Xinjiang Province that make it remote, but such terms mean different things in our modern world. At least that’s one point Michael Lindberg, PhD, chair of the geography department at Elmhurst College, makes when discussing poles of inaccessibility.
“Inaccessibility is a relative term,” Lindberg says. “There’s no place on the planet that, with the right resources, you could not get to within a 24-hour period.” And even though Lindberg confirms that western China is a distant rural region, he adds, “Many societies that are believed to be remote are not as cut off as they used to be largely because of cell phones.”
That said, Lindberg states that life in the Xinjiang Province is going to be noticeably different than life in say, Shanghai—which is one of the most populous cities in the world with roughly 24 million residents. Whereas the massive coastal cities of China are known for being modern and cosmopolitan, “Rural China, particularly the further removed you get from the coastal provinces,” Lindberg explains, “they’re going to have a much more traditional lifestyle.”
Indeed, just as Shanghai differs from Urumqi, which is near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, there is a similar contrast between New York City and Allen, South Dakota, which is near the North American Pole of Inaccessibility.
Allen feels a world apart from America’s coastal population centers. It is an area marked by the traditionalism of its Native American residents. It may very well be that the disparate poles of inaccessibility are connected in ways beyond being answers to questions at the National Geographic Bee.
There are poles of inaccessibility on all continents.
The poles of inaccessibility for other continents seem to have little in common at first glance: The African Pole and South American Pole are located in thick, uninhabited jungle areas; the Australian Pole is in the middle of a desert in Australia’s Northern Territory; and the North American Pole is in the rustic hills of South Dakota.
But there are some commonalities to these odd spots of longitude and latitude. “The further removed from the ocean you get, the more extreme the climate conditions tend to be,” Lindberg says. “Central Asia and Siberia … have some of the highest recorded temperatures in the summer and some of the coldest temperatures in the winter.” And a quick glance at the weather near the North American Pole in South Dakota shows some pretty extreme record highs and lows.
These locations in the center of land masses, sitting hundreds of miles from the tempering effects of ocean air, are generally less hospitable than regions closer to the water. This adds to the poles being relatively sparsely populated because they aren’t particularly pleasant weather-wise. “One of the reasons they’re remote,” hypothesizes Lindberg, “is that they’re not very hospitable places. No one would want to live there if they didn’t have to.”
The preference for more moderate temperatures means that humans are overwhelmingly coastal creatures. According to NASA, “Over one-third of the total human population, nearly 2.4 billion people, lives within 100 km (60 miles) of an oceanic coast.” For this reason, the continental poles of inaccessibility could also be referred to as poles of inhospitableness.
The unpleasant climates likely explain why most continental poles of inaccessibility are not particularly popular travel destinations and don’t have any kind of designated commemoration. Lyons never had much interest in seeking out the world’s poles of inaccessibility—to him, they feel like “a location for the sake of location.”
Perhaps that is the best way to define the other waterlogged pole of inaccessibility, a spot in the Pacific that may just be the most uninhabited area on planet Earth.
Point Nemo is the literal center of the ocean.
The Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility is called Point Nemo, a name derived from Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This distant ocean location is almost unfathomably far from any coastline—1,668 miles separate Point Nemo from any piece of dry land or living soul. As a result, if you were to find yourself at this faraway latitude and longitude, the closest other humans to you would be orbiting the earth in the International Space Station some 250 miles above you.
Another dubious distinction of Point Nemo is that it is known as Earth’s “Spaceship Graveyard.” The fact that Point Nemo is so remote makes it the perfect spot for the world’s space agencies to send unwanted satellites and spacecraft. Of course, it is officially known as the “South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area,” but Spaceship Graveyard has a much more interesting and ominous ring to it.
Is Point Nemo on anyone’s travel bucket list? It’s quite unlikely. While the Volvo Ocean Race will see some participants near the location, there’s no real reason to make the trek across miles of open ocean just to see…more open ocean.
Again, Lyons doesn’t have much interest in such a trip: “I tend to shy away from glorifying those areas. You can go down and have an incredible experience on the Antarctic Peninsula rather than going to the so-called Pole of Inaccessibility.” Plus there’s, you know, all the space junk hurtling in that could spoil your trip.
The Benefits of Inaccessibility
Perhaps our interest in these poles of inaccessibility is tied to humanity’s adventurous spirit. The poles can be seen as some unclimbed mountain, some last bits of unconquered territory in a Google Earth–explorable world. Such interest is evident in the website of Jerry Penry, who documented his visit to the North American Pole of Inaccessibility with the same attentiveness and exuberance as Lewis and Clark.
“The idea of unexplored frontiers is a thing of the past,” declares Lindberg, squashing the dreams of any would-be Magellans. “Even places like the Amazon Jungle or the Sahara Desert or Antarctica … all those places have been explored.”
Such stark truths offer insight into why these poles may pique our curiosity. In an age when we can see the whole world quite literally in the palm of our hand, could there be something thrilling about finding yourself somewhere nobody has been before? To be detached from the prying eyes and cell phone connectivity of satellites above?
Lyons argues there is value in being disconnected from our busy lives. After leading trips to the South Pole, the shores of Antarctica, and the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Lyons says folks experience a range of emotions: “It can be exciting. It can be eye-opening. It’s invigorating and it’s exhilarating.” One location, however, offers a bit more than the rest. “More than anywhere else, people come away from Antarctica changed … they come away reflecting differently on things.”