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Scientific Logistics at the Poles

Map of Antarctica and U.S. Research Stations in text
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U.S. Antarctic Program Research Stations and Logistical Support

February 10, 2003

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.


Background. The National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Office of Polar Programs (OPP), supports basic research in a wide range of scientific disciplines in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Due to the harsh conditions and remoteness of these locations, logistical support for science in the field is a complex undertaking and involves partnerships with other nations, with the private sector, with academic institutions and with the U.S. military. NSF is an independent federal agency and is the only federal agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering.

The 109th Airlift Wing, N.Y. Air National Guard. One common element in NSF's logistical infrastructure at both Poles is air support provided by the Scotia, N.Y.-based 109th Airlift Wing. The unit flies and maintains the world's only fleet of ski-equipped LC-130 "Hercules" transport aircraft.

In the Arctic, the planes transport scientists and supplies to Kangerlussuaq, NSF's logistics Hub in Greenland, and to the Summit Environmental Observatory high on the Greenland ice cap. This spring, the 109th also will provide an airlink to transport personnel and equipment to an automated station at the North Pole, maintained for NSF by the University of Washington.

For more information, about the North Pole Environmental Observatory, see:

In the Antarctic, the 109th flies its "Hercs" in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). NSF, through the USAP, coordinates almost all U.S. scientific research in the Antarctic. The 109th's aircraft are the program's workhorses, transporting scientists and support personnel to the continent from New Zealand and transporting science parties and equipment into the field. The planes also are used to transship all materials needed to rebuild Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and to build East Station, a new U.S. scientific facility at Lake Vostok, deep in the Antarctic interior.

Arctic Logistics. To provide logistical support for Arctic science, OPP contracts with Veco Polar Resources, of Englewood, Colo. OPP also maintains relationships with several other organizations to conduct Arctic science. Due to the international nature of Arctic research, NSF also maintains strong ties with the Canadian and Danish governments.

VECO Polar Resources. VPR is a subsidiary of VECO Corporation, an organization with 30 years of experience in logistics, construction, and operations services in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. VPR coordinates the transportation, clothing and housing of NSF science parties in Greenland and runs NSF's Summit Greenland Environmental Observatory. Summit is operated in partnership with the Danish Polar Center and the European Union.

NSF also works cooperatively with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) which operates an environmental observatory at Point Barrow, Alaska and with the Institute of Arctic Biology (IAB) at University of Alaska Fairbanks, which operates the Toolik Field Station. Both provide Arctic researchers with access to modern laboratory facilities as well as accommodation and supplies in the field to conduct science.

For more information about VPR, see

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Commissioned in 2000, Healy is designed to conduct a wide range of research activities, providing more than 4,200 square feet of lab space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, and accommodations for up to 50 scientists. Healy is designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at three knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -50 degrees F. The science community provided invaluable advice on lab lay-outs and science capabilities during design and construction of the ship.

For more information on the Healy, see

The Alpha Helix. The University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science operates the 133-foot oceanographic vessel Alpha Helix for NSF. The ship's homeport is Seward, Alaska. The Alpha Helix is maintained and used as a year-round platform supporting oceanographic research on the open ocean and in Alaska's shelf and coastal waters. Through participation in the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) the ship is available to the worldwide oceanographic community.

For more information about the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory Systems, see

Antarctic Logistics. OPP provides scientists with the equipment and facilities needed to conduct cutting-edge science in the field despite the very difficult conditions on the Antarctic continent and surrounding ocean; to analyze data in the state-of-the-art Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center at McMurdo Station, the USAP's logistics hub; and to communicate large amounts of data electronically to laboratories in the U.S.

To support a wide-range of sciences, from oceanography to astronomy, and to insure that scientists are able to access the remote sites that often are most productive to their work, NSF maintains three U.S. year-round research stations on the continent; summer camps (as required for research in the field); the ice-strengthened research ship R/V Laurence M. Gould; the icebreaking research ship R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer; a fleet of ski-equipped, propeller-driven LC-130 airplanes; Twin Otter airplanes; and helicopters.

Research stations. NSF's logistic structure in Antarctic centers around three major facilities:

McMurdo Station: Located on the Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, the largest U.S. Antarctic station serves as a "gateway" to continent for scientific field teams as well as the logistical hub for most of the U.S. scientific activity. During the Southern Hemisphere's summer (austral summer), the population of scientists and support personnel at McMurdo often exceeds 1,000 people. In the austral winter (from February to late October), the population drops to roughly 180 persons. Scientists use the facilities in the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center to conduct their work with a comfort and an access to equipment, telecommunications, and supplies similar to that to which they are accustomed in laboratories in the home institutions. McMurdo also provides field parties with access to everything from tents and sleeping bags to snow mobiles and air transportation to conduct their investigations.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station: Located 841 statute miles inland from McMurdo, at the geographic South Pole, this station accommodates a maximum of 220 people (80 of whom are construction workers or construction-support personnel) during the austral summer. Astronomy and astrophysics are the primary scientific work carried out at the South Pole and several sophisticated telescopes are maintained there.

The current Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, named for the two men who raced to discover the South Pole in 1911 and 1912, was built in the 1970's and features a central geodesic dome. The station currently is being rebuilt and modernized with reconstruction scheduled for completion in 2005. Part of the modernization includes an upgrade of the telecommunications capability at the Pole to allow for higher bandwidth.

For more information about astrophysics in Antarctica, see

For more information about upgrades to South Pole Station, see

Palmer Station: Located on Anvers Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region, logistically isolated from the other stations, it relies mainly on the R/V Laurence M. Gould for transport of passengers and resupply from a port at the southern tip of South America. The R/V Laurence M. Gould provides onboard research support in marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics and can support science in other areas of the southern oceans.

Icebreaking. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers Polar Star and Polar Sea provide channel breaking at McMurdo, allowing for a resupply ship and a refueling ship to reach the station; treaty inspection missions and occasional research support; a variety of other vehicles; and automated, unmanned weather and geophysical observatories. Ships of the U.S. academic fleet and the ocean-drilling program also occasionally support research in Antarctica.

Air Support. In addition to support from the N.Y. Air National Guard, the U.S. Air Force's 62nd Airlift Wing, based at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State, provides additional logistical support at the beginning and the end of the austral summer with C-141 jet cargo aircraft.

Logistics. USAP also contracts with Raytheon Polar Services Corp. (RPSC), of Englewood, Colo., for logistical support for the program.

For more information about RPSC, see


Media Contacts
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, its budget is $7.8 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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