Reproduced from the book   'The Oddest Place on Earth: Rediscovering the North Pole'   by 
Christopher Pala, 2002, iUniverse. This piece written while on a trip to the North Pole.

At the Pole, the sun rises in March, taking nearly two turns around the horizon from the time its upper arc peeks over it to the time it’s lower arc can be seen to detach itself form the horizon. On June 22nd it peeks at 23. 5°. If 90 degrees is straight above the observer, half of that is 45° and a bit more than half of that is 23 degrees. Today was May 1st and the sun’s altitude was 18°. It’s rate of ascent is so slow – five degrees in 50 days – that the naked eye can’t detect the daily difference of one tenth of a degree. It just seems to go round and round doing laps of the horizon. If I stood on the North Pole during the three months of the winter (no one ever has), I would see the entire Northern Hemisphere firmament dance around the Pole Star which is anchored straight above the North Pole, one turn every 24 hours.

Time appears to flow continuously at the Pole, in the absence of any difference in light between noon and midnight. A watch at the Pole will accurately record the passage of time, but lacking a meridian to cling to it will not be able to give a particular time.

The sun, however is unerringly situated in one direction at any given moment (south, since all directions from the Pole are South, but along a specific meridian) and 12 hours later South, is in exactly the opposite direction to which it was earlier!

Since it was no particular time at the Pole I decided to create one. I decreed that when the sun passes over say, the meridian that points from here to the London suburb of Greenwich, it would be noon. Twelve hours later, the sun would shine from the opposite direction: midnight in Greenwich. Thus although time flows here at the same speed as everywhere else (one revolution of the sun every 24 hours) I could decide what to call any point in time. I could adopt Greenwich time, or its opposite, Samoa time, or Moscow time, or any time at all.

The only problem is that I couldn’t see the Greenwich meridian, or any other for that matter. So I had to anchor my system to what I could see: for example a distinct feature in the ice.

But the ice drifts, folds and changes constantly and that wrecked my plan.

I decided arbitrarily that midnight was when the sun is directly over say ‘that big ridge over there’. But while the general direction of the drift runs from the Bering Strait to the Greenland Sea, it’s path is erratic and it looks more like a squiggle than a line. First the drift will go in one direction, pushed by a storm beyond my vision. Then the tide may force the drift in another direction, perhaps perpendicular to the first. The ridge and I may have moved a quarter circle in a week. At that time, the sun will be over that same, unchanged hummock not at midnight, but at 6 am. Very confusing indeed.

An examination of the path of 31 multi-year Soviet ice stations shows that on average, each station made two full loops as it wandered around the Arctic; that is twice it returned to a spot over the ocean floor where it had already been but travelling in a different direction. On the second time around the sun that had been over a particular hummock at midnight, was now over it at an entirely different time. Yet the ice flow on which the camp was built may have remained exactly the same.

But the very existence of the drift made my question of what time it is academic; as soon as I drifted outside the GPS error zone of 100 feet, I was on a specific meridian with a specific time. Further South the solar time on say, the eastern border of Montana is more than an hour apart from the solar time on its western border, 620 miles away. But close to the Pole the meridians come close and thick – just 16 feet apart at 1,000 feet from the Pole.

Thus with a GPS that would have showed my longitude, I would know precisely what time it was, although a short walk east or west would have me adjusting my watch every few seconds.

At this time I asked myself: do I care what time it is in Greenwich? Or New York? Since time has lost its anchor in space, what does it mean? OK I still want to keep my watch to measure the passage of time – how long I’ve walked or slept, for example. But otherwise I no longer live in a daily rhythm, but in a yearly rhythm. Animals and people in temperate and tropical zones alike, regulate their life by the position of the sun in the sky.

But not me, I am suspended in time. I can sleep when I’m tired and if I stay here long enough, perhaps my body will demand two short sleep periods instead of one long. Or three, who knows?

Traditional notions of space are gone too; the place where I am standing could crack and change its appearance at any time – and its orientation is in constant movement.

At the Pole I realized, I had freed myself from two of the most powerful constraints imposed upon life on Earth; time and place. I was in a place that wasn’t a place at a time that could not be determined. Truly a very odd place indeed.