The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is the American scientific research station on the high plateau of Antarctica. This station is located at the southernmost place on the Earth, the Geographic South Pole, at an elevation of 2,835 meters (9301 feet) above sea level.
The original Amundsen-Scott Station was built by the United States Government during November 1956 as a part of its commitment to the scientific goals of the International Geophysical Year (I.G.Y.), an international effort lasting from January 1957 through June 1958 to study, among other things, the geophysics of the polar regions.
Before November 1956, there was no permanent human structure at the South Pole, and very little human presence in the interior of Antarctica at all. The few scientific stations in Antarctica were located on and near its seacoast. The station has been continuously occupied by people since it was built. The Amundsen-Scott Station has been rebuilt, demolished, expanded, and upgraded several times since 1956.
Since the Amundsen-Scott Station is located at the South Pole, it is at the only place on the land surface of the Earth where the sun is continuously up for six months and then continuously down for six months. (The only other such place is at the North Pole, on the sea ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.) Thus, during each year, this station experiences one extremely-long "day" and one extremely-long "night". During the six-month "day", the angle of elevation of the Sun above the horizon varies continuously. The sun rises on the vernal equinox, reaches its maximum angle above the horizon on the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, around 20 December, and sets on the autumnal equinox.
During the six-month "night", it gets extremely cold at the South Pole, with air temperatures sometimes dropping below −73 °C (−100 °F). This is also the time of the year when blizzards, sometimes with gale-force winds, strike the Amundsen-Scott Station. The continuous period of darkness and dry atmosphere make the station an excellent place from which to make astronomical observations.
The number of scientific researchers and members of the support staff housed at the Amundsen-Scott Station has always varied seasonally, with a peak population during the summer operational season, which lasts from October to February. In recent years the wintertime population has been around 50 people.
Description and history
The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Scientific Station is the (only possible) southernmost continually inhabited place on Earth. Its name honors Roald Amundsen whose Norwegian expedition reached the South Pole in December 1911, and Robert F. Scott whose British expedition of five men reached the South Pole about one month later (in January 1912). All five men in Scott's expedition perished during the journey back towards the coast. Everyone in Amundsen's expedition returned safely to their base on the seacoast of the continent.
The original Amundsen–Scott Scientific Station was constructed during November of 1956 to carry out part of the International Geophysical Year (I.G.Y.) of scientific observations during 1957 through 1958, and the station has been continuously occupied since then - except for the rare exceptions when everyone was outdoors. This station currently lies within 100 meters (330 ft) of the Geographic South Pole. Because this station is located on a moving glacier, this station is currently being carried towards the South Pole at a rate of about 10 meters (or yards) per year. Although the United States Government has continuously maintained an installation at the South Pole since 1957, the central berthing, galley, and communications units have been constructed and relocated several times. Each of the installations containing these central units has been named the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station.
Snow accumulation is about 60–80 millimeters (water equivalent) per year (3 in/yr). The station stands at an elevation of 2,835 meters (9,301 ft) on the interior of Antarctica's nearly featureless ice sheet, which is about 2,850 meters (9,350 ft) thick at that location. The recorded temperature has varied between −13.6 °C (7.5 °F) and −82.8 °C (−117 °F), with an annual mean of −49 °C (−56 °F); monthly mean temperatures vary from −28 °C (−18 °F) in December to −60 °C (−76 °F) in July. The average wind speed is 5.5 m/s (12 mph); the peak gust recorded was 25 m/s (55 mph).
Original station (1957–1975)
The original South Pole station, now referred to as "Old Pole", was constructed by an 18-man United States Navy crew during 1956–1957. The crew landed on site in October 1956 and was the first group to winter-over at the South Pole, during 1957. Since the winter conditions at the South Pole had never been measured, the station was built partially underground in order to protect it from the worst imaginable weather. The low temperature recorded during 1957 was −74 °C (−102 °F). These temperatures, combined with low humidity and low air pressure, are only survivable with proper protection.
As with all structures at the South Pole, the original station caused wind-blown snow to build up in the surrounding area. This snow accumulation resulted in the structure being further buried by about four feet of snow per year. The station, abandoned since 1975, is now deeply buried, and the pressure has caused the mostly wooden roof to cave in. The site is therefore a hazardous area and off limits to all visitors.
On 3 January 1958 Sir Edmund Hillary's New Zealand part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition reached the station over land from Scott Base, followed shortly by Sir Vivian Fuchs' British scientific component.
The station was relocated and rebuilt in 1975 as a geodesic dome 50 meters (164 ft) wide and 16 meters (52 ft) high, with 14×24 m (46x79 ft) steel archways, modular buildings, fuel bladders, and equipment. Detached buildings within the dome housed instruments for monitoring the upper and lower atmosphere and for numerous and complex projects in astronomy and astrophysics. The station also included the skylab, a box-shaped tower slightly taller than the dome at the 10:30 position to the dome in the picture to the right. Skylab was connected to the Dome by a tunnel. The Skylab housed atmospheric sensor equipment and later a music room.
During the 1970–1974 summers, the dome construction workers were housed in Korean War tents, or "jamesways". These tents consist of a wooden frame with a raised platform covered by canvas. A double-doored exit is at each end. Although the tents are heated, the heating power is not sufficient to keep them at room temperature during the winter. After several jamesways burnt down during the 1976–1977 summer, the construction camp was abandoned and later removed.
However, starting in the 1981–1982 summer, extra seasonal personnel have been housed in a group of jamesways known as "summer camp". Initially consisting of only two jamesways, summer camp now has 11 berthing tents housing about 10 people each, two recreational tents and bathroom and gym structures. In addition, a number of science and berthing structures, such as the hypertats and elevated dorm, were added in the 1990s, particularly for astronomy and astrophysics.
During the period in which the dome served as the main station, many changes to US South Pole operation took place. From the 1990s on, astrophysical research conducted at the South Pole took advantage of its favorable atmospheric conditions and began to produce important scientific results. Such experiments include the Python, Viper, and DASI telescopes, as well as the 10 m (394 in) South Pole Telescope. The AMANDA / IceCube experiment makes use of the two-mile (3 km)-thick ice sheet to detect neutrinos which have passed through the earth. An observatory building, the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO), was dedicated in 1995. The importance of these projects changed the priorities in station operation, increasing the status of scientific cargo and personnel.
The 1998–1999 summer season was the last year that the US Navy operated the five to six LC-130 Hercules service fleet. Beginning in 1999–2000, the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing took responsibility for the daily cargo and passenger ("PAX") flights between McMurdo Station and the South Pole during the summer.
Elevated station (2003–present)
Design of the building started in 1992. The design was a 7,400 m (80,000 sq ft), 2-story building that cost $150 million. The facility was officially dedicated on Jan. 12, 2008 with a ceremony that included the de-commissioning of the old Dome station. The ceremony was attended by a number of dignitaries flown in specifically for the day, including National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement, scientist Susan Solomon and other government officials.
Construction of a new station, adjacent to the Dome, began in 1999. Features of the new station included a modular design, to accommodate an increasing station population, and an adjustable elevation, in order to prevent the station from being buried in snow. The building faces into the wind with a sloping lower portion of wall. This angled wall increases the speed of the wind as it passes above, causing the snow to be scoured away and keeping the building from being quickly buried. Wind tunnel tests show that scouring will continue to occur until the snow level reaches the second floor.
In a location where about 20 centimetres (8 in) of snow accumulates every year without ever thawing, the building's rounded corners and edges help reduce snow drifts. Because snow gradually settles over time under its own weight, the foundations of the building were designed to accommodate substantial differential settlements over any one wing, any one line, or any one column. If differential settlement continues, the supported structure will need to be jacked and then leveled.
The facility was designed to be jacked up an entire story, so the primary building columns are outboard of the walls. During jacking, a new height of column will be added over the existing columns, and jacks will pull the building up to the higher elevation.
During the summer the station population is typically over 200. Most personnel leave by the middle of February, leaving several dozen (47 in 2010) "winter-overs", mostly support staff plus a few scientists, who keep the station functional through the months of Antarctic night. The winter personnel are isolated between mid-February and late October. Wintering-over offers notorious dangers and stresses, as the station population is almost totally isolated. The station is completely self-sufficient during the winter, and powered by three generators running on JP-8 jet fuel.
Research at the station includes glaciology, geophysics, meteorology, upper atmosphere physics, astronomy, astrophysics, and biomedical studies. In recent years, most of the summer scientists have worked for the IceCube Neutrino Observatory or for low-frequency astronomy experiments such as the South Pole Telescope and BICEP2. The low temperature and low moisture content of the polar air, combined with the altitude of over 2743 m (9,000 ft), causes the air to be far more transparent on some frequencies than is typical elsewhere, and the months of darkness permit sensitive equipment to run constantly.
There is a small greenhouse at the station. The variety of vegetables and herbs in the greenhouse, which range from fresh eggplant to jalapeños, are all produced hydroponically, using only water and nutrients and no soil. The greenhouse is the only source of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter.
The station has a runway for aircraft (ICAO: NZSP), 3658 m / 12000 ft long. Between October and February, there are several flights per day of ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft from McMurdo to supply the station. Resupply missions are collectively termed Operation Deep Freeze.
Data access to the station is provided by access via NASA's TDRS-F1, Marisat, LES 9, GOES & Iridium satellite constellation. For the 2007-2008 season, the TDRS relay (named South Pole TDRSS Relay or SPTR) was upgraded to support a data return rate of 50 Mbit/s, which comprises over 90% of the data return capability.
Media and events
In 1991, Michael Palin visited the base on the 8th and final episode, of his BBC Television Documentary, Pole to Pole.
On January 10, 1995, NASA, PBS, and NSF collaborated for the first live TV broadcast from the South Pole, titled Spaceship South Pole. During this interactive broadcast, students from several schools in the United States asked the scientists at the station questions about their work and conditions at the pole.
In 1999, the winter-over physician, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, discovered she had breast cancer. She had to rely on self-administered chemotherapy using supplies from a daring July cargo drop, then was picked up in an equally dangerous mid-October landing.
In January 2007 the station was visited by a group of high Russian officials, including FSB chiefs Nikolay Patrushev and Vladimir Pronichev. The expedition, led by polar explorer Artur Chilingarov, started from Chile on two Mi-8 helicopters and landed on South Pole.
On September 6, 2007, The National Geographic Channel's TV show Man Made aired an episode on the construction of their new facility.
On the November 9th, 2007 edition of NBC's Today (NBC program), Today show co-anchor Ann Curry made a satellite telephone call which was broadcast live from the South Pole. In 1999, CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen reported on camera in a talkback with anchors from the Saturday edition of CBS This Morning.
On Christmas 2007, two employees at the base got into a drunken fight and had to be evacuated.
In popular culture
The station has featured prominently in several science fiction television series, including The X-Files movie Fight the Future.
A South Pole station called Snowcap Base was the site of the first Cybermen invasion of earth in the 1966 Doctor Who serial The Tenth Planet.
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson's book Antarctica features a fictionalized account of the culture at Amundsen–Scott and McMurdo, set in the near future.
In the fourth season episode of House MD entitled "Frozen", Gregory House is tasked to help a female patient by videoconference who was located at 'an Antarctic outpost'; this was likely modeled on the Jerri Nielsen incident mentioned above.
The BBC program On Thin Ice covered the participation of two-time British Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell, television host Ben Fogle and Dr. Ed Coates in the first organised race to the South Pole since Amundsen beat Scott. The final episode of the five part series showed the three arriving at the "Ceremonial South Pole", with the Amundsen–Scott Station in the background. The three finished second, twenty hours behind a two-man team from Norway.
The 2009 film Whiteout is mainly set at the Amundsen–Scott base, although the building layouts are completely different.
The South Pole sees the sun rise and set only once a year, technically on the September equinox and the March equinox, respectively, but atmospheric refraction means that the sun is above the horizon for some four days longer at each equinox. The place has no solar time; there is no daily maximum or minimum solar height above the horizon. The station uses New Zealand time (UTC+12, UTC+13 during daylight saving time) since all flights to McMurdo station depart from Christchurch and therefore all official travel from the pole goes through New Zealand.
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