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Antarctica: the coldest, highest, driest and windiest of the continents, and the least hospitable to human life; but also, a unique scientific laboratory. NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits at the Earth's axis, atop a constantly shifting continental ice sheet several miles thick.

A century ago, on Dec. 14, 1911, the first man-made structure was erected at the Earth's southernmost point: a forlorn pyramidal tent left by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, testifying to his achievement as the first person in history to reach the South Pole. Briton Robert F. Scott, his rival for that honor, found it roughly a month later. Scott and his party, who died returning from the Pole, were the last people to stand there for more than 40 years.
In January of 2008, the National Science Foundation (NSF) dedicated a new research station at the geographic South Pole, the third successive U.S. station there since 1957. It bears the name of the two explorers.
The dedication of the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station officially ushered in a new support system for enormously complex telescopes; seismic instruments; a massive detector for elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos; an atmospheric observatory; and other large-scale scientific experiments. It culminated a multi-year modernization project, authorized by the U.S. Congress in the late 1990's, to replace a domed station built in the 1970's.

South Pole Station

The complexity of the new station is in stark contrast to Amundsen's flag-decked tent.

Unlike its two predecessors, which eventually were buried by drifting snow, the new station is aerodynamically designed and elevated above the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet to allow blowing snow to drift beneath it. It was designed and constructed so that it can be hydraulically raised to extend the station's useful life.

It is capable of housing more than 100 people. Fuel and cargo storage, waste-management facilities, maintenance garages and power plant in the new station are located beneath the surface of the ice sheet. Housing, dining, recreation, administration, science and communications are located in the new building.

As it has in its various incarnations for more than 50 years, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits at the Earth's axis, atop a continental ice sheet more than a mile thick that moves 30 feet every year. Perhaps the world's most remote research facility, it lies at the heart of a continent the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined that is cut off from the rest of the globe by a circulating Southern Ocean current.

The station is an amazing feat of engineering, dedicated to advancing the farthest frontiers of science.

— by Peter West

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