A reader of this newspaper called regarding a photograph of the Moon she received via an unsolicited e-mail dated July 23.
"The e-mail has a photo of the Moon over the North Pole and claiming it was 'at its closest point' and has never been so large in the sky," the caller said. "It's beautiful." But she wanted to know more: "Is it real?"
The caller next forwarded the e-mail to this writer. It included text and the photograph in question; the image is supposed to show a larger-than-normal crescent Moon above the setting Sun.
The mysterious image purports to have been taken at the North Pole during the week of May 11, 2009. Ice-free ocean water and low hills also appear in the image.
The image has all the earmarks of fakery.
The e-mail image shows a waxing crescent Moon for May 11, 2009. A quick glance at an astronomical almanac for May 2009 shows that the waning gibbous phase was visible during the week of May 11-not the crescent phase. Also, the Moon in this image is enormous-it's simply too large to be believable as seen in the sky from Earth. But there are other clues: open water and hills in the picture. There is no land within hundreds of miles of the North Pole.
We had New Market Press news photographer J. Kirk Edwards of Ferrisburgh study the image.
"It looks like it's 'photoshopped' to me," he said. "Perhaps two or more images blended together?"
This writer contacted Quark Expeditions, an adventure- travel firm based in Norwalk, Conn. Quark organizes annual expeditions to the North Pole aboard a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. The trips are conducted during late June and July when it is safest to travel to the far north.
Prisca Campbell, marketing manager at Quark, last visited the pole in the summer of 2008; she looked at the e-mail and said its North Pole image is doctored.
"Completely fake! There's just not that kind of open water at the pole. The image is not showing the geographic North Pole. Maybe it's supposed to be North Pole, Aka.? It's not clear in the e-mail. Still, it's probably a composite of some real photos, but as a whole, it's a fake."
Campbell said that she plans to provide some Internet education sessions for her well-heeled polar vacationers, who pay up to $24,000 for a visit to the North Pole.
"When it comes to Internet claims and pictures, people need to practice discernment," she said. "How to discern what's true and what's false in cyberspace is a critical skill today."
Campbell said that arctic ice hummocks typically rise only 5 feet above the surrounding ice. There's simply no terra firma at the North Pole-only ice-unlike what appears in the e-mail image.
American adventurers John Huston and Tyler Fish completed an historic trek to the North Pole earlier this year, but they returned to the U.S. in late April, so the May 11 photo cannot be linked to them. Furthermore, news archives reveal no North Polar expedition anytime during the month of May; it appears that no human ever set foot at the geographic North Pole between April and late June of this year.
This writer also contacted Lonnie Dupre, a respected Minnesota-based arctic researcher and explorer; he agrees-the image is a fake.
Dupre has retraced the icy footsteps of famous polar explorers from Knud Rasmussen to Frederick Cook to the top of the world. He is also an accomplished photographer with extensive knowledge of astronomical events as observed from far above the Arctic Circle.
"I've spent most of my life in the Arctic as well as trips to the North Pole. I've never seen anything like it," Dupre said. "I believe it is fake and any astronomer worth his or her weight could tell you the same."