The Antarctic

The cleanest place in the world to study the atmosphere

At the geographic South Pole, on the Antarctic plateau, sits the South Pole Observatory[3][1] where the expected high on this fine June day is -43 degrees.  Operated by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the facility was built in 1957, redesigned in 1997 and can house up to 150 people.  The majority of researchers are there in the summer; only around 50 people remain in the winter.  During the coldest months, from mid February to late October, anyone at the station is completely isolated. 

The facility


The original South Pole Station was built during the International Geophysical Year of 1957 during which 67 nations agreed to work together for the purposes of scientific study.  From this event came the Antarctic treaty which states, among other things, “Recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.  This cooperative spirit continues even though the original site was buried under ice long ago.

 In with the new...

The original buildings were only expected to be in use for about a year, but researchers soon realized that science in the South Pole was going to continue.  A better structure was devised in 1975 consisting of a large geodesic dome constructed over three buildings meant to house scientists and allow for research to continue.  The purpose of the dome was to keep snow off the structures and shelter them from the wind, but the temperature inside was kept below freezing to avoid melting the snow that accumulated on the surface.  In this new facility, 33 summer and 18 winter researchers could be housed. Although built using the best technology and information available at the time, the dome was pretty quickly overcome by nature. 

Every year the structure had to be dug out of the snow, and the stress was beginning to show.  During the 1980s a decision was made to begin construction on a new facility.  To deal with the snow which accumulated at an average of eight inches a year, an elevated facility, the Scott-Amundsen South Pole Station, was designed.  Not only is the current structure elevated, it’s capable of being jacked up even higher.  The walkways are flexible to cope with different buildings moving at different speeds on the glaciers, and the whole thing is built like an airplane wing to deflect the wind over and under the building.  Actually the whole glacier on which the facility is built is sliding and the building moves about 33 feet closer to the sea every year.

And out with the old

DomeCredit: ESRL

Both the original structure and the dome were deemed hazardous and they were removed.  The dome was deconstructed piece by piece and the plan is to display a portion of it in the Seabees museum as a tribute to the Navy Seabees who built the original South Pole Station in 1956-1957.

To get to the South Pole Station, you must first pass through another USAP facility, McMurdo Station[2] which is on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound.  Although the territory is claimed by New Zealand, the station is run by the United States Antarctic Program and supports around 1200 residents, most of whom are there for support functions.  During the warmest part of the year the weather here might rise above freezing.  McMurdo also boasts the only ATM on the continent.

The scienceAROCredit: ESRL

The Atmospheric Research Observatory is about 500 meters away from the main facility and atmospheric phenomena are studied there.  The Baseline Observatory measures solar radiation, aerosol and trace gases, tracking the long-term trends and influences of these on the Earth’s climate.  They also launch balloon-borne instruments to monitor ozone depletion over Antarctica.  These two programs comprise the biggest use of the facility, but other research programs are also carried out.  An ultraviolet spectroradiometer is in use, effects of long-wave radiation on the Antarctic plateau are under study, and the nitrogen chemistry in the Antarctic troposphere is being investigated.  All of these take place in a 3000 square foot building with no running water or sewage.

Upwind of the ARO is the Clean Air Sector with very restricted access.  This region was established to preserve the atmospheric conditions of the South Pole from any influence.  This may be one of the few spots left on Earth that has experienced almost no disruption by human influence. 

Unexpected science

Many universities have research projects that take place in the Antarctic and only run for a year or two.  Past projects have included Studies of Solar wind (Augsburg College), Antarctic aural imaging (University of California, Berkeley), imaging of magnetic fields in the Sun’s atmosphere (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii) and a study of altitude symptoms at the South Pole (Mayo Clinic). 

Palmer Station, the third Antarctic research facility operated by USAP is on Anvers Island in the Palmer Archipelago.  Most of the science done here focuses on marine biology, but seismic, atmospheric and UV research also takes place.

Art happens

Research beyond science is also encouraged; writers, photographers and anyone with a good idea can apply to work there for a summer.  Several filmmakers have produced documentaries, photographic and graphic artists have done shows about the beauty of the region, and writers have produced works about the people, penguins and other aspects of life in the Antarctic.  Anyone that can sell their idea has a chance.  I once knew a librarian who managed to create a project that could be done at the South Pole so she spent a summer there.  Her tip is to pack your clothes in plastic bags as the humidity is 100% in the Antarctic.

Interested?  You don’t have to have a research project to spend the summer there.  Many companies provide support including equipment maintenance, administrative work, kitchen duties, janitors, hairstylists …pretty much everything you need to run a small city.[4] The USAP says that it sends about 3000 people to the station every year for either science or support.  The wind chill in the winter can make the temperature feel like -100 degrees and night lasts for six months.  Bring a good jacket and a book.