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U.S. South Pole Station - A Special Report

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Still from animation showing new telescope
South Pole Telescope
Just days before the official start of the International Polar Year—and 50 years after 18 men first wintered at the South Pole—scientists collected the first test observations from a massive new telescope.

Credit: Trent Schindler, National Science Foundation
Still from video showing a galactic cataclysm
A Galactic Cataclysm
Every 20 million years or so, gas pours into the galactic center and sets off bursts of star formation. The larger stars soon go supernova, blasting the surrounding space and sterilizing it. NSF based this animation of such a cataclysm on research carried out by astronomer Antony Stark, using the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory (AST / RO).

Credit: Trent Schindler, National Science Foundation
Still from video showing the Science at the Pole
NBC's Today Show at the South Pole
In 2007, The Today Show's Ann Curry visited Antarctica with the help of the National Science Foundation, and her trip to the South Pole made national news. See clips from that visit, courtesy of NBC News.

Credit: NBC News
Still from video showing the South Pole overland Traverse
South Pole Traverse
Team completes overland traverse to South Pole station.

Credit: Dena Headlee, National Science Foundation
Still from video showing the polar neutrino observatory

Polar Neutrino Observatory
Watch a story about how IceCube searches for neutrinos in this piece from Science Nation, NSF's on-line video magazine.

Credit: National Science Foundation

Read More:
NSF Dedicates New South Pole Station
Global Earth Day Broadcast to Feature South Pole
South Pole Telescope Completed: New NSF Video, Animation Available
Inflation at South Pole:
New telescopes search universe for signs of rapid expansion after the Big Bang
Highs and lows:
South Pole experiences warmest year on record in 2009
Windy days:
Pole storms bring record-breaking gusts in September
New NSF Station
The elevated two-story structure of the station is shown in this cutaway view
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In January 2008, nearly a century after Norwegian Roald Amundsen erected the first artificial structure—a small pyramidal tent—at the South Pole, the National Science Foundation (NSF) dedicated the third and newest scientific station at the Earth's southern extremity, replacing an iconic domed facility built in 1975.

"Our purpose is to dedicate a facility that will help us push back the boundaries of the unknown--a quest that has continued year-round at this site for over 50 years," said then-NSF Director Arden L. Bement Jr. at the dedication ceremony. "And to pay our respects to those who helped transform this mysterious and forbidding continent into a globally recognized place of wonder, transformation and knowledge."

The new $174 million Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a technological and engineering marvel designed to support an array of scientific investigations, from astrophysics to seismology, while accommodating harsh conditions on the polar plateau. It is capable of housing more than 20 times as many people as stood at the Pole with Amundsen—or his British rival Robert F. Scott—and at a level of comfort, safety and connectedness to the outside world that would have been almost inconceivable to the explorers for whom the station is named.

Map showing transportation of supplies to South Pole
Supplies and equipment travel halfway around the Earth by ship and aircraft
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The successful completion of the elevated station was also a logistical marvel: all of the components used in its construction were carried to the Pole in propeller-driven aircraft that fly three times as fast, and many times higher, than did Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the American naval aviator who in 1929 became the first person to fly over the Pole.
Such a sophisticated scientific presence at the South Pole allows NSF not only to carry out its mission of advancing the frontiers of science, it also allows the agency, as manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program,  to meet its obligations under the terms of Presidential Memorandum 6646 (http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/ant/memo_6646.jsp), signed by President Reagan in 1982.
The Memorandum directs that:

  • The United States Antarctic Program shall be main­tain­ed at a level providing an active and influential presence in Antarc­tica designed to support the range of U.S. Antarctic interests.
  • this presence shall include the conduct of scientific activities in major disciplines; year-round occupation of the South Pole and two coastal stations; and availability of related necessary logistics support.

The new station allows scientists to meet those requirements, as did its two predecessors.

Building structures in the forbidding environment at the South Pole is very hard
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The dome—which had been showing signs of structural fatigue from years of excessive and unevenly distributed snow loading and which was no longer adequate for a growing population of scientists and operations personnel—was dismantled in 2008.

The original 1956 South Pole station which long since had vanished under 30 feet of ice and was finally demolished to reduce the hazard it presented as snow compacted under the weight of vehicles travelling over the site.
The designers of the new station faced innumerable unique obstacles, but also learned from the stresses placed on the previous structures.
One of the most daunting is snow cover. Eight inches of snow accumulate every year, without ever melting, in an environment that routinely sees zero humidity and temperatures of minus 73 Celsius (-100° F). Winds create snowdrifts that inevitably bury low-lying buildings in months.

The previous South Pole station was sheltered beneath a 50-meter diameter geodesic dome that was largely covered in the austral winter. So every year, bulldozer crews spent the summer excavating the dome.
Aerial photo of geodesic dome and new South Pole station
This 2005 photo shows the new station (top right) and the old dome (bottom left)
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To meet the challenge of drifting snow, the new station is designed with the profile of a sleek airplane wing. It is elevated and faces into the prevailing near-constant 10 to 15 mph wind, which flows above and below the station. The fast-moving winds beneath the station effectively help scour the area of snow, thereby greatly reducing the need for manual excavation. However, because some snow buildup is inevitable, the building also sits on 36 uniquely designed hydraulic jack columns that allow the 65,000-square-foot structure to be raised in 25-centimeter (10-inch) increments, thereby effectively adding decades to its building life.

Another problem involves the 'ground' supporting the structure. Actually, it sits on a glacier almost two miles deep that slides 33 feet toward the sea each year. (As a result, the marker designating the true geographic South Pole must be moved annually.) And because different parts of glaciers move at different speeds, buildings are in constant danger of being ripped apart. So the connecting walkways between building modules are designed to be flexible. To ease fuel consumption, the structure is insulated to five times the value of the average U.S. residence.

Finally, builders faced the challenge of getting nearly 40,000 tons of construction materials to a site that has no roads, railroads or other type of access infrastructure. The facility was designed so that all parts could be shipped in the cargo bay of ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft.

The result is a city in miniature—when even includes a NASA plant-growth chamber to help augment supplies of fresh food. The W-shaped structure will accommodate NSF's Antarctic research program at the Pole, which includes 150 people during the three-month austral summer and 50 people during the remaining nine months.

—by Peter West

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