Tradition of Horror
The few "winter-overs" at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station have an annual tradition. After the last supply plane has left the facility (not to return for six months), they watch two movies: The Thing (about a parasitic alien being terrorizing an Antarctic research facility) and The Shining (about a caretaker isolated at a remote hotel in the winter).
Cold and Lonely Highway
The South Pole Traverse is not paved. The highway was created by filling in deep crevasses in the Antarctic ice sheet. The only vehicles on the highway are specialized tractors equipped with specialized towing sleds.
No Time at the Poles
Time is calculated using longitude. For instance, when the sun seems directly overhead, the local time is about noon. However, all lines of longitude meet at the poles, and the sun is only overhead twice a year (at the equinoxes.) For this reason, scientists and explorers at the poles record time-related data using whatever time zone they want.
The South Pole is the southernmost point on the Earth. It is the precise point of the southern intersection of the Earth's axis and the Earth's surface.
From the South Pole, all directions are north. Its latitude is 90 degrees south, and all lines of longitude meet there (as well as at the North Pole, on the opposite end of the Earth).
The South Pole is located on Antarctica, one of the Earth's seven continents. Although land at the South Pole is only about a hundred meters above sea level, the ice sheet above it is roughly 2,700 meters (9,000 feet) thick. This elevation makes the South Pole much colder than the North Pole, which sits in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. In fact, the warmest temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was a freezing -12.3 degrees Celsius (9.9 degrees Fahrenheit).
The South Pole is close to the coldest place on Earth. The coldest temperature recorded at the South Pole, -82.8 degrees Celsius (-117.0 degrees Fahrenheit), is still warmer than the coldest temperature ever recorded, -89.2 degrees Celsius (-128.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That temperature was recorded at the Russian Vostok Research Station, about 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) away.
Because the Earth rotates on a tilted axis as it revolves around the sun, sunlight is experienced in extremes at the poles. In fact, the South Pole experiences only one sunrise (at the September equinox) and one sunset (at the March equinox) every year. From the South Pole, the sun is always above the horizon in the summer and below the horizon in the winter. This means the region experiences up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.
Due to plate tectonics, the exact location of the South Pole is constantly moving. Plate tectonics is the process of large slabs of Earth's crust moving slowly around the planet, bumping into and pulling apart from one another.
Over billions of years, Earth's continents have shifted together and rifted apart. Millions of years ago, land that today is the east coast of South America was at the South Pole. Today, the ice sheet above the South Pole drifts about 10 meters (33 feet) every year.
Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station
Compared to the North Pole, the South Pole is relatively easy to travel to and study. The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, while the South Pole is on a stable piece of land.
The United States has had scientists working at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station since 1956. Between 50 and 200 scientists and support staff live at the this research station at any given time. The station itself does not sit on the ground or ice sheet. It is able to adjust its elevation, to prevent it from being buried in snow, which accumulates at a rate of about 20 centimeters (8 inches) every year, and does not melt.
In the winter, the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is completely self-sufficient. The dark sky, freezing temperatures, and gale-force winds prevent most supplies from being flown or trekked in. All food, medical supplies, and other material must be secured before the long Antarctic winter. The station's energy is provided by three enormous generators that run on jet fuel.
In winter, stores of food are supplemented by the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station's greenhouse. Vegetables in the greenhouse are grown with hydroponics, in a nutrient solution instead of soil.
Some of the earliest discoveries made at South Pole research stations helped support the theory of continental drift, the idea that continents rift apart and shift together. Rock samples collected near the South Pole and throughout Antarctica match samples dated to the same time period collected at tropical latitudes. Geologists conclude that the samples formed at the same time and the same place, and were torn apart over millions of years, as the Earth split into different continents.
Today, the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is host to a wide variety of research. The relatively undisturbed ice sheet maintains a pristine record of snowfalls, air quality, and weather patterns. Ice cores provide data for glaciologists, climatologists, and meteorologists, as well as scientists tracking patterns in climate change.
The South Pole has low temperatures and humidity and high elevation, making it an outstanding place to study astronomy and astrophysics. The South Pole Telescope studies low-frequency radiation, such as microwaves and radio waves. The South Pole Telescope is one of the instruments designed measure the cosmic microwave background (CMB)–faint, diffuse radiation left over from the Big Bang.
Astrophysicists also search for tiny particles called neutrinos at the South Pole. Neutrinos interact very, very weakly with all other matter. Neutrino detectors therefore must be very large to detect a measurable number of the particles. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station's IceCube Neutrino Detector has more than 80 "strings" of sensors reaching as deep as 2,450 meters (8,038 feet) beneath the ice. It is the largest neutrino detector in the world.
Ecosystems at the South Pole
Although the Antarctic coast is teeming with marine life, few biologists conduct research at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. The habitat is far too harsh for most organisms to survive.
In fact, the South Pole sits in the middle of the largest, coldest, driest, and windiest desert on Earth. More temperate parts of this desert (called either East Antarctica or Maudlandia) support native flora such as moss and lichen, and organisms such as mites and midges. The South Pole itself has no native plant or animal life at all. Sometimes, however, seabirds such as skuas can be spotted if they are blown off-course.
The early 20th century's "Race to the Pole" stands as a symbol of the harrowing nature of polar exploration.
European and American explorers had attempted to reach the South Pole since British Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's expedition of 1904. Scott, along with fellow Antarctic explorers Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, came within 660 kilometers (410 miles) of the pole, but turned back due to weather and inadequate supplies.
Shackleton and Scott were determined to reach the pole. Scott worked with scientists, intent on using the best techniques to gather data and collect samples.
Shackleton also conducted scientific surveys, although his expeditions were more narrowly focused on reaching the South Pole. He came within 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the pole in 1907, but again had to turn back due to weather.
Scott gathered public support and public funding for his 1910 Terra Nova expedition. He secured provisions and scientific equipment. In addition to the sailors and scientists on his team, the Terra Nova expedition also included tourists—guests who helped finance the voyage in exchange for taking part in it.
On the way to Antarctica, the Terra Nova expedition stopped in Australia to take on final supplies. Here, Scott received a surprising telegram from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen: "Beg leave to inform you Fram [Amundsen's ship] proceeding Antarctic."
Amundsen was apparently racing for the pole, ahead of Scott, but had kept all preparation secret. His initial ambition, to be the first to reach the North Pole, had been thwarted by American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, both of whom claimed to reach the North Pole first. (Both claims are now disputed, and Amundsen's flight over the North Pole is generally recognized as the first verified journey there.)
The Terra Nova and Fram expeditions arrived in Antarctica about the same time, in the middle of the Antarctic summer (January). They set up base camps about 640 kilometers (400 miles) apart. As they proceeded south, both expeditions established resupply depots with supplies for their return journey. While Scott's team stuck to a route forged by Shackleton years earlier, Amundsen took a new route.
Scott proceeded with scientific and expeditionary equipment hauled by dogs, ponies, and motor sledges. The motorized equipment soon broke down, and the ponies could not adapt to the harsh Antarctic climate. Even the sled dogs became weary. All the ponies died, and most members of the expedition turned back. Only four men from the Terra Nova expedition (including Scott's friend Wilson) proceeded with Scott to the pole.
Amundsen traveled by dog sled, with a team of explorers, skiers, and mushers. The foresight and navigation paid off: Amundsen reached the pole in December 1911. He called the camp Polheim, and the entire Fram expedition successfully returned to their resupply depots, ship, and Norway.
More than a month later, Scott reached the South Pole, only to be met by Amundsen's camp—he had left a tent, equipment, and supplies for Scott, as well as a note for the King of Norway to be delivered if the Fram expedition failed to make it back.
Disheartened, Scott's team slowly headed back north. They faced colder temperatures and harsher weather than Amundsen's team. They had fewer supplies. Suffering from hunger, hypothermia, and frostbite, all members of Scott's South Pole expedition died fewer than 18 kilometers (11 miles) from a resupply depot.
American explorer Richard E. Byrd became the first person to fly over the South Pole, in 1926, and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station was established thirty years later.
However, the next overland expedition to the South Pole was not made until 1958, more than 40 years after Amundsen and Scott's deadly race. The 1958 expedition was led by legendary New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, who had become the first person to scale Mount Everest in 1953.
Transportation to the South Pole
Almost all scientists and support personnel, as well as supplies, are flown in to the South Pole. Hardy military aircraft usually fly from McMurdo Station, an American facility on the Antarctic coast and the most populated area on the continent. The extreme and unpredictable weather around the pole can often delay flights.
In 2009, the U.S. completed construction of the South Pole Traverse. Also called the McMurdo-South Pole Highway, this stretch of unpaved road runs more than 1,600 kilometers (995 miles) over the Antarctic ice sheet, from McMurdo Station to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. It takes about 40 days for supplies to reach the pole from McMurdo, but the route is far more reliable and inexpensive than air flights. The highway can also supply much heavier equipment (such as that needed by the South Pole's astrophysics laboratories) than aircraft.
Resources and Territorial Claims
The entire continent of Antarctica has no official political boundaries, although many nations and territories claim land there. The South Pole is claimed by seven nations: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry accumulate Verb
to gather or collect.
Earth's fifth-largest continental landmass.
Encyclopedic Entry: Antarctica astrophysics Noun
study of the composition of matter and the activity of radiation in space.
an invisible line around which an object spins.
Encyclopedic Entry: axis Big Bang Noun
(12-20 billion years ago) theoretical event where a small, dense, hot body of matter exploded, creating the expanding universe.
climate change Noun
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate change continent Noun
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent continental drift Noun
the movement of continents resulting from the motion of tectonic plates.
Encyclopedic Entry: continental drift cosmic microwave background (CMB) Noun
radiation spread almost uniformly throughout the universe, faint energy still left over from the Big Bang.
rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: crust data Plural Noun
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: desert diffuse Verb
to spread out or scatter.
dog sled Noun
sled pulled by dogs. Also called a dog sledge.
height above or below sea level.
Encyclopedic Entry: elevation equinox Noun
period in which daylight and darkness are nearly equal. There are two equinoxes a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: equinox Ernest Shackleton Noun
(1874-1922) British explorer of the Antarctic.
journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.
injury or destruction of skin and tissue due to exposure to extremely cold temperatures.
strong wind or air current.
machine that converts one type of energy to another, such as mechanical energy to electricity.
person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: habitat harrowing Adjective
extremely disturbing or scary.
line where the Earth and the sky seem to meet.
Encyclopedic Entry: horizon humidity Noun
amount of water vapor in the air.
Encyclopedic Entry: humidity hydroponics Noun
cultivation of plants by growing them in nutrient solutions instead of soil.
potentially deadly condition in which an organism's body temperature drops.
ice core Noun
sample of ice taken to demonstrate changes in climate over many years.
ice sheet Noun
thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.
Encyclopedic Entry: ice sheet initial Adjective
distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.
Encyclopedic Entry: latitude longitude Noun
distance east or west of the prime meridian, measured in degrees.
Encyclopedic Entry: longitude meteorologist Noun
person who studies patterns and changes in Earth's atmosphere.
driver of a team of sled dogs.
art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.
Encyclopedic Entry: navigation neutrino Noun
subatomic particle that carries no electrical charge and interacts weakly with all other matter.
North Pole Noun
fixed point that, along with the South Pole, forms the axis on which the Earth spins.
Encyclopedic Entry: North Pole plate tectonics Noun
movement and interaction of the Earth's plates.
pure or unpolluted.
materials necessary to complete a task, such as food or tools.
energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.
radio wave Noun
electromagnetic wave with a wavelength between 1 millimeter and 30,000 meters, or a frequency between 10 kilohertz and 300,000 megahertz.
research station Noun
structure or structures built for scientific study of the surrounding region, possibly including residential and lab facilities.
Roald Amundsen Noun
(1872-1928) Norwegian explorer of the Arctic and Antarctic.
Robert Falcon Scott Noun
(1868-1912) British explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic.
Robert Peary Noun
(1856-1920) American explorer of the polar regions.
path or way.
sea level Noun
base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.
Encyclopedic Entry: sea level self-sufficient Adjective
able to support all of one's basic needs without assistance.
bird related to the seagull.
South Pole Noun
fixed point that, along with the North Pole, forms the axis on which the Earth spins.
Encyclopedic Entry: South Pole telegram Noun
message sent by an electronic method of communication called a telegraph.
degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.
Encyclopedic Entry: temperature thwart Verb
to oppose, block, or delay.
person who travels for pleasure.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
Encyclopedic Entry: weather