How Long Would It Take To Drive To The North Pole?

About a week ago, we’re in my car running a few errands. My son is chattering away, happily talking about how Winnie-the-Pooh didn’t really discover the North Pole because he was just pretending. (The Winnie-the-Pooh books are our current bedtime story, if you’re wondering.) Something about the combination of these two facts must have sparked what happened next.

“Dad? How long would it take to drive to the North Pole?”

“Magnetic, or true?” I counter.

“What?” he responds.

The Two Poles

There are two North Poles (and two South Poles as well), the “true” (or geographic) North Pole and the magnetic North Pole. And they do not really match up. So what’s the difference between the two of them? Here’s how National Geographic describes the North Pole:

The North Pole is the northernmost point on Earth. It is the precise point of the intersection of the Earth’s axis and the Earth’s surface.

The North Pole sits in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, on water that is almost always covered with ice. The ice is about 2-3 meters (6-10 feet) thick. The depth of the ocean at  North Pole is more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).


The magnetic North Pole is a little more difficult to pin down. Why? Well, let’s start by letting NOAA tell us what the magnetic poles are:

Magnetic poles are defined in different ways. They are commonly understood as positions on the Earth’s surface where the geomagnetic field is vertical (i.e., perpendicular) to the ellipsoid. These north and south positions, called dip poles, do not need to be (and are not currently) antipodal.

“Antipodal”, by the way, is your new word for the day. It means:

  1. Geography. on the opposite side of the globe
  2. diametrically opposite
  3. Botany. (in a developing ovule) of or at the end opposite to the micropyle

So why does the magnetic field move? Because it’s produced by the spinning of the Earth’s inner core – a solid iron ball almost as big as the moon and hotter than the sun that spins a little faster than the Earth’s crust in a massive sea of liquid (or, at least more liquid) metal called the “liquid inner core”. So far, so good. Right?


Now, the full details of what generates the magnetic field are not understood – a fact that I’m certain makes scientists extremely happy. But, as Natural Resources Canada explains, we do understand the basic concepts:

For magnetic field generation to occur several conditions must be met:

  1. there must be a conducting fluid;
  2. there must be enough energy to cause the fluid to move with sufficient speed and with the appropriate flow pattern;
  3. there must be a “seed” magnetic field.

All these conditions are met in the outer core. Molten iron is a good conductor. There is sufficient energy to drive convection, and the convective motion, coupled with the Earth’s rotation, produce the appropriate flow pattern. Even before the Earth’s magnetic field was first formed magnetic fields were present in the form of the sun’s magnetic field. Once the process is going, the existing field acts as the seed field. As a stream of molten iron passes through the existing magnetic field, an electric current is generated through a process called magnetic induction. The newly created electric field will in turn create a magnetic field. Given the right relationship between the magnetic field and the fluid flow, the generated magnetic field can reinforces the initial magnetic field. As long as there is sufficient fluid motion in the outer core, the process will continue.

So why does it move? well, the magnetic field is created by a fast-spinning ball inside a slow-spinning ball. So it wobbles, at an average speed of 10 kilometers per year for the entire 20th century.


So where is it right now? According to the World Data Center for Geomagnetism you’ll find it at 80.4° North, 72.6° west. Or, in other words, Nunavut, Canada.

Magnetic Pole
Right there

How long would it take to drive there?

According to the handy Computing Distances between Latitudes/Longitudes in One Step page, and checking the latitude and longitude of Cincinnati, Ohio (39.1000° N, 84.5167° W), I get the following figures:

  • Geographic North Pole: 3,524.64 miles
  • Magnetic North Pole: 4,144.18 miles

Now, looking at the map above, you would think that driving to either pole would be impossible. After all, there’s ocean in the way! But this is where living in Cincinnati comes in handy – we have a Ride the Ducks tour here!

duck boat

The “Duck Boat” is a World War II surplus DUKW, an amphibious vehicle capable of cruising at 35 mph (56 km/h) on roads and 4.41 mph (7.14 km/h) in the water with an operational range of 400 miles on land (or 58 miles/93 km in the water). I doubt it has the ring mount for the machine guns, though. So, we can do this. In theory, at least.

Eyeballing the map, I’m going to go with an estimate of 90% overland travel to the magnetic North Pole and 65% overland travel to the geographic North Pole. Further assumptions will be:

  • Driving 18 hours a day – my wife has agreed to go along with this mad idea, so we can drive quite a bit. But we still need to stop for bathroom breaks, meals, stretching our legs, and refueling.
  • We’ll be hitting our cruising speed.
  • We don’t get eaten by polar bears.
  • We’re not worrying about mountains.
  • We drive in a straight line, and we don’t get lost.

Getting to the geographic North Pole is roughly 2,291 miles over land and 1233.64 miles over sea. That’s (2,291/35) + (1233.64/4.41) = 345.19 hours. Based on our assumptions, that’s 19 days, 4 hours, 15 minutes. And we would have needed to stop for gas 27 times on the trip.

Getting to the magnetic North Pole is 3,729.762 miles over land and 414.418 miles over sea. That’s (3,729.762/35) + (414.418/4.41) = 200.54 hours. Based on our assumptions that’s 11 days, 3 hours, 23 minutes. And we would have needed to stop for gas 17 times.

Either way, we also get a complimentary duck whistle for the trip.  So my son is going to love this!

Why Is It A Creek?

Two of my son’s friends live in an apartment complex that has to be reached by crossing a bridge. One day, when we’re going to visit them, my son looks over the bridge and cheerfully announces that “They’ve got a lake!”

“It’s not a lake,” my wife corrects him. “It’s a creek.”

“Why is it a creek?” he asks.

You know what? I haven’t the slightest idea. Growing up I’d heard of rivers, and streams, and creeks, and criks (the latter being a word I’ve only ever heard in Kentucky, and may just be “creek” with an accent). As a child, I’d simply assumed that rivers were big, streams were medium-sized, creeks were small, and criks were really small. Turns out, though, that I don’t actually know. So I turned to the Internet, and ended up at Duhaime’s Law Dictionary.

The dictionary defines a river as: “a watercourse with a current and which is of capacity to be navigated”. Fair enough. So, what’s a watercourse? Well, according to the dictionary, it is “a stream usually flowing in a particular direction, in a definite channel, having a bed or banks, though it need not flow continually”. What’s a stream (), then? “A watercourse having banks and channel through which waters flow, at least periodically”.

Recursion is a popular technique in law, apparently.

The discussion in the definition of “river” muddies the water (so to speak), because navigable doesn’t seem to mean what you think it would mean. I mean, [i]I[/i] assumed that “navigable” means “you can navigate on it”. That is, boats can travel on it. But, in the United States at least, that’s not what it means. 33 CFR 329.4 (Definition of Navigable Waters of the United States) defines it in this fashion:

Navigable waters of the United States are those waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce. A determination of navigability, once made, applies laterally over the entire surface of the waterbody, and is not extinguished by later actions or events which impede or destroy navigable capacity.

So, a river is a watercourse with a current that is subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, or that is (or has been) used to transport interstate or foreign commerce. Presumably, then, if it doesn’t cross state lines or feed into the ocean, then it isn’t a river.

But wait! It’s more complicated than that! In State v. Bonelli Cattle Company, the Arizona supreme court stated:

Obviously, a river does not have to flow continuously across the whole of its bed to the high water mark in order to avoid a claim by abutting owners to a part of the river’s bed. The channel of a river is the bed of the stream over which its waters run, Benjamin v. Manistee River Imp. Co., 42 Mich. 628, 4 N.W. 483, and the bed of a river is the space contained between its banks, Pulley v. Municipality No. 2, 18 La. 278.

And in Mogle v. Moore, the California Supreme Court stated:

Surface waters are defined as waters falling upon and naturally spreading over lands. They may come from seasonal rains, melting snows, swamps or springs, or from all of them. Surface waters consist of surface drainage falling on or flowing from and over a tract or tracts of land before 9*9 such waters have found their way into a natural watercourse. (26 Cal.Jur., p. 279, and cases cited.)

A stream is a watercourse having a source and terminus, banks and channel, through which waters flow, at least periodically. Streams usually empty into other streams, lakes, or the ocean, but a stream does not lose its character as a watercourse even though it may break up and disappear. (Hellman etc. Bank v. Southern Pacific Co., 190 Cal. 626 [214 P. 46].) Streams are usually formed by surface waters gathering together in one channel and flowing therein. The waters then lose their character as surface waters and become stream waters. (Lindblom v. Round Valley Water Co., 178 Cal. 450 [173 P. 994]; Horton v. Goodenough, 184 Cal. 451 [194 P. 34]; Gray v. Reclamation District No. 1500, 174 Cal. 622, at p. 650 [163 P. 1024].) As we have observed, a continuous flow of water is not necessary to constitute a stream and its waters stream waters. (San Gabriel Valley Country Club v. Los Angeles County, 182 Cal. 392 [188 P. 554, 9 L.R.A. 1200].)


So. A stream is any watercourse with a source, an ending, and a distinct set of banks and a channel. A river, apparently, is just a stream subject to tidal action, or that is used for interstate commerce. But what on earth is a creek? Well, at this point I’m giving up and going to a regular dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines “creek” as:

  1. chiefly British : a small inlet or bay narrower and extending farther inland than a cove
  2. a natural stream of water normally smaller than and often tributary to a river
  3. archaic : a narrow or winding passage

Origin of CREEK
Middle English crike, creke, from Old NOrse -kriki bend[/quote]

So, there you have it. A creek is a stream that feeds into a river. Unless it’s a narrow bay. And so the creek in front of my friend’s apartment complex is a creek because it’s a stream that feeds into a river.