At the South Pole

Getting there is a trip, but the work being done there is remarkable

January 24, 2014

TFK's David Bjerklie reports on scientific research happening at the South Pole.

We were headed to the South Pole! Travelers were told to report to the passenger pick up in McMurdo at 6:45 am. But passenger-service staffer Kristy Queen informed us that because of a mechanical issue, our flight would be delayed. Nearly 12 hours later we would finally take off from McMurdo and head south. Because of weather and the complications of flying in Antarctica, our experience wasn't unusual, explained Queen. This is her fourth season at McMurdo. She is considering “wintering over” this year, which means she will stay to work during the dark Antarctic winter. Queen grew up in Granville, Michigan, and read TFK in school. She says she was inspired to seek adventure and look for a job in Antarctica after talking to a friend who served in the Peace Corps.

The view from the cockpit: On its way to the Pole, the plane soars over mountains.

The view from the cockpit: On its way to the Pole, the plane soars over mountains.

Pilot Dave LaFrance of the New York Air National Guard has been flying to and from the Pole since 1997. He piloted the plane that took us to the Pole and back. I was lucky to sit next to him in the cockpit. As we fly over the spectacular Transantarctic Mountains, LaFrance points down to the extraordinary view. “This is our milk run,” he says. “I’ve flown this hundreds of times.” As remarkable as the view is, LaFrance says he prefers the views he sees on flights to the “deep camps” way out in the middle of nowhere. He has taken research teams that look for meteorites and others that look for dinosaur bones to these deep camps. Flights to deep camps are not routine.

From the window, I observe large "wrinkles" far below the plane in the snow. LaFrance explains that the wrinkles are large cracks in the ice called crevasses. They are one reason flights to deep camps are not routine. Glaciers move fast—some move more than three feet in a day. When they rub and push against each other or against mountains, the result can be cracks and tears in the ice. “Back in 1998, one of our planes landed on a crevasse that was covered by snow,” says LaFrance. “It was big enough for the plane to get stuck in it and we lost an engine. But it was actually lucky we ran into it. Two hundred yards further, there was a crevasse that would have swallowed the plane.”

Scientists at Work

While I was waiting for the flight to take off, I had the opportunity to talk to Jason Gallichio. He is a physicist who worked for nearly a year at the South Pole Telescope. The telescope is used to look at the universe far beyond what can be seen with the naked eye.  Visible light is just a narrow portion of the electromagnetic energy that fills the universe. Electromagnetic energy of different wavelengths can tell astronomers things about the universe that visible light can't.

Scientists use the South Pole Telescope (seen here) to explore the universe.

Scientists use the South Pole Telescope (seen here) to explore the universe.

The South Pole Telescope isn't the only large science experiment at the Pole. There is a project called Ice Cube that consists of a large grid of detectors buried deep into the ice. The detectors are designed to “catch” particles called neutrinos that constantly bombard the Earth from space. Neutrinos are produced by nuclear reactions in space, including those that take place in the Sun. These particles are much smaller than even atoms. They are so unimaginably tiny that they pass right through the Earth. That’s what makes them so incredibly hard to detect.

A third major project at the South Pole Station is the Atmospheric Research Observatory, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is referred to as the "Clean Air" Observatory and is responsible for collecting information on changes in the global atmosphere, particularly the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. (Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas produced by human activity that scientists believe is responsible for climate change.) Antarctica is a perfect place on the planet to sample air and detect changes in the atmosphere. That's because the continent's air is so clean and not affected by the pollution from the rest of the world.

An Epic Journey

What’s more difficult than getting to the South Pole? Building a research station there! The current research station was completed in 2008. LaFrance said it took five years to build it. “Crews were making five flights a day to the pole,” he says. The planes carried construction materials, equipment, and workers.

It’s possible to drive to the South Pole. But vehicles only make the trip a two to three times a year. The trip is done for one very special reason: to bring fuel to the Pole. In Antarctica, all equipment —from power plant generators to bulldozers that travel at a speed of four miles per hour—use jet fuel. It doesn’t freeze or thicken at low temperatures like other fuels do. A plane can bring only a relatively small amount of fuel. This is why a few times a year, a special expedition called the South Pole Traverse is mounted from McMurdo to the Pole. Heavy tractor-like vehicles drag large thick bladders of fuel that sit on thick plastic sheets. The bladders look like huge, super-tough balloons. One traverse can drag 120,000 gallons of jet fuel to the Pole.

While it's possible to drive to the South Pole, most visitors get there by plane.

While it's possible to drive to the South Pole, most visitors get there by plane.

The South Pole Traverse is an epic journey. It takes four weeks to drive to the Pole. That's about 45 miles each day, driving 12 hours a day. A special vehicle goes ahead with a radar instrument on a long boom, which is used to detect crevasses. “The first traverses were done back in the 1950s. It was very dangerous and there were accidents,” says McMurdo Station Area Manager Steve Dunbar. “Aerial images helped map out a route.” He explains that the jet fuel that Antarctica runs on is a special blend that not many refineries make. This year’s supply comes from a refinery in Athens, Greece. It will be delivered by ship to McMurdo in the next two weeks.

More than a 100 years ago, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole. Just a month later, the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott also reached the Pole, but tragically died on the return trip. Reaching the South Pole was an extraordinary achievement. Traveling to the Pole today, as well as living and working there, may have become more routine, but it is every bit as remarkable.

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