Every child knows that Santa, his reindeer, and hardworking elves live at the North Pole, but why? Surely living on the solid ground of Antarctica would provide a more stable foundation for Santa’s workshop. And, not needing to worry about hungry polar bears would be a more desirable option for the reindeer. Here we will delve into the differences between the North (Arctic) and South (Antarctic) Pole to try and figure out why Santa has made his home in the North. He is, after all, quite difficult to pin down for an interview.
Like any good scientific investigation, we must start with some basic assumptions. Sure, Santa has some magic, but his magic can only do so much. I mean, he takes an entire night to deliver all those toys, so while that sleigh is pretty fast, there must be some maximum speed. Additionally, it takes a bright red nose to get through a little fog, so we can assume that his magic can’t outperform basic radar in those situations. The elves also have a workshop, so we can also assume that even though making all those toys in a year (2.2 billion children in the world, 364 toy making days in a year, that’s about 6 million toys a day) is quite impossible without magic, that magic has its limits. The point is, with these limitations, surely an environment more suited to his operation will be more preferred than one which is not. So, let’s look at the options.
Antarctica is a continent all on its own. It is a land mass roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined (Fig. 2), and it is cut off from the rest of the planet year-round by the Southern Ocean. In contrast, the Arctic region is a frozen sea surrounded by land (Fig. 3), and physically attached to North America, Northern Europe, and Russia during the winter months. This means that if Santa’s sleigh has a breakdown, or he needs to borrow a few million cups of sugar from a neighbor, it is a little easier to do so from the North without having to literally cross an ocean. While it would seem preferable to have his shop on solid ground at the South Pole, we can also go ahead and assume that the Santa magic is good enough to keep that shop stationary at the North Pole and overcome the drift of Arctic ice over the ocean below (about the speed of a brisk walk).
Both the Arctic and Antarctic spend equal amounts of time exposed to sunlight throughout the year (albeit, opposite months) due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis (Fig. 4). However, Antarctic temperatures are considerably colder than those found in the Arctic. In the summer months, the North experiences temperatures of about 32°F (0°C), which is a nice New England winter day, and the South averages about -18°F (-28°C). Winter months are harsh in both locations, but still favorable in the North with average temperatures about -40°F (-40°C) compared to the South which sees temperatures plunge to around -76°F (-60°C).
This means that Santa and his elves could take advantage of those balmy summer months at the North Pole to be productive and get all those toys made for the big day, and then hunker down for the winter months until it is time to do it all over again. Because the South experiences the seasons in opposite to the North, they would also have to work during those cold, dark -76°F days if they lived down South to be ready for Christmas Eve (early summer at the South Pole). That would give a whole new meaning to the winter blues, and I am quite sure they can’t call in sick.
Due to the extreme weather of the Antarctic, there is far more wildlife in the Arctic. Antarctica is home to many marine animals (whales, seals, sea lions, penguins, and a vast array of other marine organisms), but the only land animal is a 1 mm (0.039 in) insect called a midge. Additionally, Antarctica is practically devoid of vegetation, harboring only a bit of grass, flowers, and lichens on the Antarctic Peninsula. In contrast, the Arctic is home to the Tundra (Fig. 5). This means that although there is much of the same marine life as the Antarctic (minus the penguins), the Tundra sustains many large land animals such as polar bears, musk ox, caribou, foxes, hare, wolves, lemmings, and of course, reindeer. This is possible because the Tundra is home to around 1,700 species of plants that can support these large herbivores, and provide a more suitable habitat for the smaller predators and scavengers. Therefore, the North not only provides the food needed for the reindeer (elves stick to their basic food groups), but is also a nice area to, you know, get out in nature every once in a while. Very good for some life perspective.
Not surprisingly, throughout tens of thousands of years of global migration, humans never settled Antarctica. It is only with modern technology that we have created a few permanent scientific outposts and other than the tourist ships that flock there over the summer, Antarctica only has around 4,000 residents (1,000 in the winter). Within the Arctic circle there are indigenous cultures that have been there for thousands of years (Fig. 7) and even a few very modern cities dotted across each major northern continent. In all, there are some 4 million permanent residents in the Arctic, and most of them survive without any of the modern conveniences that make Antarctic life even possible. I am sure that Santa’s workshop keeps everyone quite busy most of the time, but it is probably nice to get together with neighbors sometimes and share a cup of hot chocolate.
Can You Blame Them?
Warm summer temperatures. Bountiful animal and plant life. Neighbors close enough to help you change a flat, but far enough away so you can’t hear their leaf blowers in the fall. I think we have seen that Santa and his crew made the right decision and I’ll bet you would have made the same one, too. Although, I may have chosen a little island in the Caribbean or South Pacific.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
I am completing my doctorate at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island where I study the community structure and evolution of deep-sea sediment bacteria. I have also been an adjunct professor at the Community College of Rhode Island for two years. I earned a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Miami and spent 12 years in the US Navy driving submarines before coming back to grad school.