Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is a United States scientific research station at the South Pole, the southernmost place on the Earth. The station is located on the high plateau of Antarctica at an elevation of 2,835 metres (9,301 feet) above sea level and is administered by the Division of Polar Programs within the National Science Foundation under the United States Antarctic Program (USAP).

The original Amundsen–Scott Station was built by the federal government of the United States during November 1956, as a part of its commitment to the scientific goals of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an international effort lasting from January 1957 through June 1958, to study, among other things, the geophysics of the polar regions of Earth.

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 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 September equinox, reaches its maximum angle above the horizon on the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, around December 20, and sets on the March equinox.

During the six-month "night", it gets extremely cold at the South Pole, with air temperatures sometimes dropping below −73 °C (−99 °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, although the Moon is up for two weeks of every 27.3 days.

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 of about 200 in the summer operational season from October to February. In recent years the winter-time population has been around 50 people.

SouthPoleStationDestinationAlpha.jpg
A view of the Amundsen–Scott Station in 2009. In the foreground is Destination Alpha, one of the two main entrances.
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A map of Antarctica showing the location of the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station (circled)
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Location of Amundsen–Scott Station in Antarctica

Description and history

South Pole Dome From Station.JPG
The dome in January 2009, as seen from the new elevated station.
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January 2010: The last section of the old dome, before it was removed the next day.
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Geographic South Pole
Ceremonial South Pole.jpg
Ceremonial South Pole. (The dome in the background was dismantled in 2009–2010.)
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The main entrance to the former geodesic dome ramped down from the surface level. The base of the dome was originally at the surface level of the ice cap, but the base had been slowly buried by snow and ice.
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The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station during the 2007–2008 summer season.
SPSM.05.jpg
An aerial view of the Amundsen–Scott Station in January 2005. The older domed station is visible on the right-hand side of this photo.
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A photo of the station in the night. The new station can be seen at the far left, the electric power plant is in the center, and the old vehicle mechanic's garage in the lower right. The green light in the sky is part of the aurora australis.

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Scientific Station is the southernmost habitation on Earth. It is continuously inhabited. Its name honors Roald Amundsen, whose Norwegian expedition reached the Geographic 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) in a race to become the first person ever to reach the South Pole. All of Scott's expedition perished during the journey back towards the coast, while all of Amundsen's expedition returned safely to their base on the seacoast of the continent.

The original Amundsen–Scott Scientific Station was constructed during November 1956 to carry out part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of scientific observations during 1957 through 1958, and the station has been continuously occupied since then. As of 2005, this station lies within 100 meters (330 feet) of the Geographic South Pole. Because this station is located on a moving glacier, this station is, as of 2005, being carried towards the South Pole at a rate of about 10 meters (or yards) per year. Although the federal government of the United States has continuously maintained an installation at the South Pole since 1957, the central berthing, galley, and communications units were 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 millimetres (2.4–3.1 in) (water equivalent) per year. The station stands at an elevation of 2,835 meters (9,301 feet) on the interior of Antarctica's nearly featureless ice sheet, which is about 2,700 meters (8,900 feet) thick at that location. The recorded temperature has varied between −12.3 °C (9.9 °F) and −82.8 °C (−117.0 °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 metres per second (18 ft/s); the peak gust recorded was 25 metres per second (82 ft/s).

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 overwinter at the South Pole, during 1957. The low temperature recorded during 1957 was −74 °C (−101 °F). These temperatures, combined with low humidity and low air pressure, are survivable only with specialized equipment.

On January 3, 1958, Sir Edmund Hillary's team from 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 buildings of Old Pole were assembled from prefabricated components delivered to the South Pole by air and airdropped. They were originally built on the surface, with covered wood-framed walkways connecting the buildings. Although snow accumulation in open areas at the South Pole is approximately 8 in (20 cm) per year, wind-blown snow accumulates much more quickly in the vicinity of raised structures. By 1960, three years after the construction of the station, it had already been buried by 6 ft (1.8 m) of snow.

The station was abandoned in 1975 and became deeply buried, with the pressure causing the mostly wooden roof to cave in. The station was demolished in December 2010, after an equipment operator fell through the structure doing snow stability testing for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The area was being vetted for use as a campground for NGO guests.

Dome (1975–2003)

The station was moved and rebuilt in 1975 as a geodesic dome 50 meters (160 feet) wide and 16 meters (52 feet) high, with 14 m × 24 m (46 ft × 79 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. 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-era tents, or Jamesway huts. These huts consist of a wooden frame with a raised platform covered by canvas. A double-doored exit is at each end. Although the huts are heated, the heat output is not sufficient to keep them at room temperature during the winter. After several huts burned down during the 1976–1977 summer, the construction camp was abandoned and later removed.

However, starting in the 1981–1982 summer, extra seasonal personnel were housed in a group of Jamesway huts known as "summer camp". Initially consisting of only two huts, summer camp at its peak consisted of 11 berthing huts housing about 10 people each, two recreational huts and bathroom and gym facilities. In addition, a number of science and berthing structures, such as the hypertats and elevated dormitory, 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 United States 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 (390 in) South Pole Telescope. The DASI telescope has since been decommissioned and its mount used for the Keck Array. 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 United States Navy operated the fleet of five to six Lockheed LC-130 aircraft. Beginning in 1999–2000, the New York Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing took responsibility for the daily cargo and passenger flights between McMurdo Station and the South Pole during the summer.

During the winter of 1988 a loud crack was heard in the dome. Upon investigation it was discovered that the foundation base ring beams were broken due to being overstressed.

The dome was dismantled in late 2009.

Elevated station (2003–present)

In 1992, the design of a new station began for a 7,400 m2 (80,000 sq ft) building with two floor levels that cost US$150 million. Construction began in 1999, adjacent to the Dome. The facility was officially dedicated on January 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.

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. 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. The building faces into the wind with a sloping lower portion of wall. The angled wall increases the wind speed as it flows under the buildings, and passes above the snow-pack, causing the snow to be scoured away. This prevents the building from being quickly buried. Wind tunnel tests show that scouring will continue to occur until the snow level reaches the second floor.

Because snow gradually settles over time under its own weight, the foundations of the building were designed to accommodate substantial differential settling over any one wing in any one line or any one column. If differential settling continues, the supported structure will need to be jacked up and re-leveled. The facility was designed with the primary support columns outboard of the exterior walls so that the entire building can be jacked up a full floor level. During this process, a new section of column will be added over the existing columns then the jacks pull the building up to the higher elevation.

Astrophysics experiments at the station

  • South Pole Telescope (2007–present), used to survey the cosmic microwave background (CMB) to look for distant galaxy clusters.
  • Viper telescope (1997–2000), used to observe temperature anisotropies in the CMB. Was refitted with the ACBAR bolometer (2000-2008).
  • Python Telescope (1992–1997), used to observe temperature anisotropies in the CMB.
  • AMANDA (1997–2009) was an experiment to detect neutrinos.
  • IceCube (2010–present), is an experiment to detect neutrinos.
  • The Keck Array (2010–present), using the DASI mount, is now used to continue work on the polarization anisotropies of the CMB.
  • The BICEP1 (2006–2008) and BICEP2 (2010–2012) instruments were also used to observe polarization anisotropies in the CMB. BICEP3 began collecting data on 15 May 2016.
  • The QUaD (2004–2009),used the DASI mount, used to make detailed observations of CMB polarization.

Operation

During the summer the station population is typically around 150. Most personnel leave by the middle of February, leaving a few dozen (45 in 2015) "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 presents 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. An annual tradition is a back-to-back viewing of The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing (1982), and The Thing (2011) after the last flight has left for the winter.

Research at the station includes glaciology, geophysics, meteorology, upper atmosphere physics, astronomy, astrophysics, and biomedical studies. In recent years, most of the winter 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 2,743 m (8,999 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.

Transportation

The station has a runway for aircraft (ICAO: NZSP), 3,658 m (12,001 ft) long. Between October and February, there are several flights per day of ski-equipped Lockheed LC-130 Hercules aircraft from McMurdo Station to supply the station. Resupply missions are collectively termed Operation Deep Freeze.

There is a snow road over the ice sheet from McMurdo, the McMurdo-South Pole highway.

Communication

Data access to the station is provided by access via NASA's TDRS-4, 5, and 6 satellites, the DOD DSCS-3 satellite, and the commercial 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. The TDRS-1 satellite formerly provided services to the station, but it failed in October 2009 and was subsequently decommissioned. Marisat and LES9 were also formerly used. In July 2016, the GOES-3 satellite was decommissioned due to it nearing the end of its supply of propellant and was replaced by the use of the DSCS-3 satellite, a military communications satellite. DSCS-3 can provide a 30 MB/s data rate compared to GOES-3's 1.5 MB/s. DSCS-3 and TDRS-4, 5, and 6 are used together to provide the main communications capability for the station. These satellites provide the data uplink for the station's scientific data as well as provide broadband internet and telecommunications access. Only during the main satellite events is the station's telephone system able to dial out. The commercial Iridium satellite is used when the TDRS and DSCS satellites are all out of range to give the station limited communications capability during those times. During those times, telephone calls may only be made on several Iridium satellite telephones owned by the station. The station's IT system also has a limited data uplink over the Iridium network, which allows emails less than 100KB to be sent and received and small critical data files to be transmitted. This uplink works by bonding the data stream over 12 voice channels.

Climate

Typical of inland Antarctica, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station experiences an ice cap climate (EF). The peak season of summer lasts October to February.

Climate data for Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) −14.4
(6.1)
−20.6
(−5.1)
−26.7
(−16.1)
−27.8
(−18)
−25.1
(−13.2)
−28.8
(−19.8)
−33.9
(−29)
−32.8
(−27)
−29.3
(−20.7)
−25.1
(−13.2)
−18.9
(−2)
−12.3
(9.9)
−12.3
(9.9)
Average high °C (°F) −26.0
(−14.8)
−37.9
(−36.2)
−49.6
(−57.3)
−53.0
(−63.4)
−53.6
(−64.5)
−54.5
(−66.1)
−55.2
(−67.4)
−54.9
(−66.8)
−54.4
(−65.9)
−48.4
(−55.1)
−36.2
(−33.2)
−26.3
(−15.3)
−45.8
(−50.4)
Daily mean °C (°F) −28.4
(−19.1)
−40.9
(−41.6)
−53.7
(−64.7)
−57.8
(−72)
−58.0
(−72.4)
−58.9
(−74)
−59.8
(−75.6)
−59.7
(−75.5)
−59.1
(−74.4)
−51.6
(−60.9)
−38.2
(−36.8)
−28.0
(−18.4)
−49.5
(−57.1)
Average low °C (°F) −29.6
(−21.3)
−43.1
(−45.6)
−56.8
(−70.2)
−60.9
(−77.6)
−61.5
(−78.7)
−62.8
(−81)
−63.4
(−82.1)
−63.2
(−81.8)
−61.7
(−79.1)
−54.3
(−65.7)
−40.1
(−40.2)
−29.1
(−20.4)
−52.2
(−62)
Record low °C (°F) −41.1
(−42)
−58.9
(−74)
−71.1
(−96)
−75.0
(−103)
−78.3
(−108.9)
−82.8
(−117)
−80.6
(−113.1)
−79.3
(−110.7)
−79.4
(−110.9)
−72.0
(−97.6)
−55.0
(−67)
−41.1
(−42)
−82.8
(−117)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 0.3
(0.012)
0.6
(0.024)
0.2
(0.008)
0.1
(0.004)
0.2
(0.008)
0.1
(0.004)
Trace Trace 0.1
(0.004)
0.1
(0.004)
0.1
(0.004)
0.3
(0.012)
2.3
(0.091)
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.1 mm) 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.0 0.2 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.3 1.6
Average snowy days 22.0 19.6 13.6 11.4 17.2 17.3 18.2 17.5 11.7 16.7 16.9 20.6 203.0
Mean monthly sunshine hours 406.1 497.2 195.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 34.1 390.6 558.0 616.9 2,698.2
Mean daily sunshine hours 13.1 17.6 6.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 1.1 12.6 18.6 19.9 7.4
Source #1: Pogoda.ru.net (temperatures, 1981–2010, extremes 1957–present)
Source #2: Deutscher Wetterdienst (Precipitation 1957–1988 and Sun 1978–1993), NOAA (snowy days data, 1961–1988)

Media and events

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An aerial view of the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station taken in about 1983. The central dome is shown along with the arches, with various storage buildings, and other auxiliary buildings such as garages and hangars.

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 television 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, CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen reported on camera in a talkback with anchors from the Saturday edition of CBS This Morning.

In 1999, the winter-over physician, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, found that 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.

On May 11, 2000, astrophysicist Dr. Rodney Marks became ill while walking between the remote observatory and the base. He became increasingly sick over 36 hours, three times returning increasingly distressed to the station's doctor. Advice was sought by satellite, but Dr. Marks died on May 12, 2000 with his condition undiagnosed. The National Science Foundation issued a statement that Rodney Marks had "apparently died of natural causes, but the specific cause of death ha[d] yet to be determined". The exact cause of Marks' death could not be determined until his body was removed from Amundsen–Scott Station and flown off Antarctica for an autopsy. Marks' death was due to methanol poisoning, and the case received media attention as the "first South Pole murder", although there is no evidence that Marks died as the result of the act of another person.

On 26 April 2001, Kenn Borek Air used a DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft to rescue Dr. Ronald Shemenski from Amundsen–Scott. This was the first ever rescue from the South Pole during polar winter. To achieve the range necessary for this flight, the Twin Otter was equipped with a special ferry tank.

In January 2007, the station was visited by a group of high-level Russian officials, including FSB chiefs Nikolai Patrushev and Vladimir Pronichev. The expedition, led by polar explorer Artur Chilingarov, started from Chile on two Mi-8 helicopters and landed at the South Pole.

On September 6, 2007, The National Geographic Channel's television show Man Made aired an episode on the construction of their new facility.

On the November 9, 2007 edition of NBC's Today, Today show co-anchor Ann Curry made a satellite telephone call which was broadcast live from the South Pole.

On Christmas 2007, two employees at the base got into a drunken fight and had to be evacuated.

On July 11, 2011, the winter-over communications technician fell ill and was diagnosed with appendicitis. An emergency open appendectomy was performed by the station doctors with several winter-overs assisting during the surgery.

The 2011 BBC TV programme Frozen Planet discusses the base and shows footage of the inside and outside of the elevated station in the "Last Frontier Episode".

During the 2011 winter-over season, station manager Renee-Nicole Douceur experienced a stroke on August 27, resulting in loss of vision and cognitive function. Because the Amundsen–Scott base lacks diagnostic medical equipment such as an MRI or CT scan machine, station doctors were unable to fully evaluate the damage done by the stroke or the chance of recurrence. Physicians on site recommended a medevac flight as soon as possible for Douceur, but offsite doctors hired by Raytheon Polar Services (the company contracted to run the base) and the National Science Foundation disagreed with the severity of the situation. The National Science Foundation, which is the final authority on all flights and assumes all financial responsibility for the flights, denied the request for medevac, saying the weather was still too hazardous. Plans were made to evacuate Douceur on the first flight available. Douceur and her niece, believing Douceur's condition to be grave and believing an earlier medevac flight possible, contacted Senator Jeanne Shaheen for assistance; as the NSF continued to state Douceur's condition did not qualify for a medevac attempt and conditions at the base would not permit an earlier flight, Douceur and her supporters brought the situation to media attention.

Douceur was evacuated, along with a doctor and an escort, on an October 17 cargo flight. This was the first flight available when the weather window opened up on October 16. This first flight is usually solely for supply and refueling of the station, and does not customarily accept passengers, as the plane's cabin is unpressurized. The evacuation was successful, and Douceur arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, at 10:55 p.m. She ultimately made a full recovery.

In March 2014, BICEP2 announced that they had detected B-modes from gravitational waves generated in the early universe, supporting the inflation theory of cosmology.

On 20 June 2016, there was another medical evacuation of two personnel around midwinter day, again involving Kenn Borek Air and DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft.

In December 2016, Buzz Aldrin was visiting the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica, as part of a tourist group, when he fell ill and was evacuated, first to McMurdo Station and from there to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was reported to be in stable condition. Aldrin's visit at age 86 makes him the oldest person to ever reach the South Pole.

In popular culture

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.

The station is featured prominently in the 1998 The X-Files movie Fight the Future.

The 2009 film Whiteout is mainly set at the Amundsen–Scott base, although the building layouts are completely different.

Time zone

The South Pole sees the Sun rise and set only once a year. Due to atmospheric refraction, these do not occur exactly on the September equinox and the March equinox, respectively: the Sun is above the horizon for 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.

The zone identifier in the IANA time zone database is Antarctica/South Pole.

See also

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