Notes from the Field

South Pole Station: The Last Stop Before the Traverse

December 19th, 2017 by Tom Neumann

After a few extra days in the seaside town of McMurdo Station, we flew on a ski-equipped LC-130 for the sunny environs of South Pole Station, where we had a flawless touchdown on the groomed skiway next to the station. This is our last stop before embarking on the traverse in about a week.  Our main objective here is to prepare our vehicles and sleds for travel, and take some cool pictures.

The team at the bottom of the world.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is located right at 90 degrees south latitude (ok, maybe not exactly there, but the station is within about 100m of 90 S). It’s named for the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who first set foot here in December of 1911, and for the British explorer Robert F. Scott, who followed closely behind in January 1912. The United States established a station here in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year, and it has been continuously occupied ever since. The current station, commissioned in 2008, is the third major station the U.S. Antarctic Program has built here. The prior station (the iconic geodesic dome) was disassembled and sent back to the US.

The elevated design of the station is intended to reduce snow drift, a major consideration when building structures on the ice sheet.

We are here in the height of the summer season, and there are ~150 people on station making the most of the relatively warm weather (-30 C, or -22F) for construction projects, moving cargo, and of course, science projects like ours. In winter, the station is much quieter with around 40 people spending the long winter keeping the station running.

For the first few days we’re here, our main job is to do very little. The South Pole Station sits on top of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet at about 10,000 feet above sea level, which is a big jump from the sea level McMurdo Station. The keys to acclimatization are to drink plenty of water and avoid exercise, though a little walking is fine. After about three days, we will be cleared to move on to more vigorous activities.

The 2017 geographic south pole marker.

There is a marker placed at the geographic South Pole, designed by the wintering crew at the station.  Every year on January 1, the new marker is placed and the marker from the past year is put on display inside the station. Since the entire station (and skiway, and cargo, and traverse vehicles) are on top of the ice sheet, the whole station moves along with the ice. The ice shifts about 30 feet per year toward the 40 degrees west line of longitude where it eventually becomes part of the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. (Don’t worry though, at the current velocity, it will take tens of thousands of years to get there.)

The perhaps more familiar scene is from the ceremonial south pole – a post with barbershop stripes and a reflective ball on top, surrounded by the flags of nations signing the original Antarctic treaty. The two poles are a few hundred yards apart and are both worth a visit if you find yourself down this way. Tell ‘em Tom sent you.

The team at the geographic south pole: Forrest McCarthy, Tom Neumann, Kelly Brunt, and Chad Seay.

Earlier today, we visited our cargo that we shipped from McMurdo and had a look at our sleds. It looks like everything has arrived, and as soon as our breath catches up with us, we will begin packing the sleds and pitching our tents!

-Tom and Kelly


Tags: , , , ,

8 Responses to “South Pole Station: The Last Stop Before the Traverse”

  1. Mike and Bethany says:

    Good luck with all that!
    And a Merry Christmas!

  2. Steve says:

    Good to hear all your cargo arrived at the baggage claim, anything routed to the wrong airport might take awhile…

  3. Nancy Salo says:

    It must take a certain type of person, to be able to stand the cold and isolated station. It looks beautiful, tho, thru pictures! Thank you to the many men that make these photos possible! Merry Christmas and stay safe..

  4. Pete Kuhns says:

    -22F is the high? Yikes! That would shut down my city (Indianapolis). We had -16 a few years ago and the governor forbid people on the highways for three days. We are in Zone 6a (formerly zone 5 but that whole warming thing…). Greetings from a flatter landscape!

  5. Cynthia says:

    Thanks for the account. You brought me to the station through your writing. Enjoy the visit and research. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

  6. Lucy says:

    Glad the coffee made it. Good luck on the traverse!

  7. Gary says:

    Thanks for sharing the adventure so we can enjoy vicariously, albeit in a comparatively warmer location. Let us know if Santa Claus makes it that far South.

  8. Mary Pat Harris says:

    I’ll be sharing your blog with Elementary students in Ohio. Thank you for sharing wishing you all the best in your work. Merry Christmas!