Settlement of the South Pole

Here in Minnesota, it’s been colder than usual.

Social media is full of people performing cold weather stunts. Schools are closing. Breathless reporters are positive the apocalypse is near. I’ve seen current outdoor temps here unfavorably compared both to Antarctica and Mars.

Minnesota is not Antarctica. And its not Mars either.

But It did get me thinking about Antarctica, and one of the most extreme spots on the continent, namely the South Pole. Going into this summer (which is their winter) humans will have inhabited the South Pole almost continuously for 62 years.

Map of Antarctica
The continent of Antarctica

Putting Boots on the Ice Cap

In October of 1956, almost a full year before the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, a team of U.S. Navy Seabees landed in a modified Douglas DC-3 at a desolate stretch of polar ice cap designated as the Geographic South Pole.

Douglas DC-3 at the South Pole
Landing on the ice

 

Due to the International Geophysical Year, many countries of the world were both competing and collaborating to increase scientific development.

Over 500 tons of equipment including aluminum panels, plywood, and fiberglass insulation were previously airdropped into the area.

The first South Pole station
The first South Pole station

 

The structures of what would become known historically as the “Navy Base” could house 20 scientists and support personnel.

It was officially open for business on January 28th, 1957, and the opening cerimony included a speech by President Eisenhower (by radio). Subjects of proposed scientific study included meteorology, cosmic rays, solar activity, study of the ionosphere, geomagnetism, oceanography and glaciation.

The very first lucky inhabitants to spent winter at the South Pole was a group of 18 men led by veteran explorer and scientist Paul Siple. He’s perhaps most famous for discovering wind chill.

Starting in mid-March, the sun goes down completely and the Pole is in total darkness until the sun rises again in October. During that first winter-over, the record low temperature was -107ºF recorded on September 18, 1957.

First winter-over group at the South Pole Station
First winter-over group at the South Pole Station (photo from here). Paul Siple is second from the top right.

Codification of International Agreements

The official status of the South Pole Navy Base wasn’t entirely clear, as Antarctica was not officially recognized as a part of any country.

This changed in 1961 with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty by the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as 10 other countries with established interests on the continent: Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, Norway, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

The treaty established in writing the scientific nature of the endeavors conducted in Antarctica. It stipulated that actions in Antarctica were to be free of military activity, that personnel were under the jurisdiction of their own states, and that any operation was always open to observation at any time by representatives of any signing state.

The treaty also notably prohibited nuclear testing and explosions, putting a halt to any fanciful ideas of escalation in Cold War tensions.

The Modern Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Today, the South Pole looks nothing like the original structure constructed by those Seabees. In 1974, the original camp was abandoned in favor of an entirely new base that most notably featured a giant geodesic dome. This next Base survived for more than 30 years before it too was replaced.

 

The Geographic South Pole, with signatory flags
The Geographic South Pole, with participating flags

 

The current Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a massive modular structure sitting atop a series of sturdy elevated supports. These supports prevent a problem experienced with both the previous stations: snow settles, never melts, and eventually buries and compacts any structure. The supports prevents drifts from forming and can be adjusted to go higher to get above any buildup of ice.

The Base is no longer supported by the U.S. Navy, instead it receives all its supplies and personnel shipped by the 109thAirlift Wing of the New York Air Guard. Almost all of the airlifting is done by a fleet of 10 LC-130 Hercules. The craft have skis instead of wheels, useful for landing strips constructed out of compacted snow and ice. Each plane also has the capability to use JATO (jet-assisted-takeoff) rockets, for gaining lift in the notoriously cold and thin air of Antarctica.

LC-130 Hercules on an airfield made of compacted snow

 

Despite the amazing performance of the LC-130 in cold weather conditions, even now in 2019 the typical winter at the South Pole is still too much to handle. Air service is suspended from February until November, and all winter personnel at the station must make do with the supplies provided until then. There is no way in or out for 8 months of the year.

Going into February, average daily temperatures at the Pole are expected to drop to around –40ºF, and continue dropping each month until July when they will hit -75ºF.

Here in Minnesota, the temperatures should be much better (42ºF) by Sunday.

I’ll be looking forward to it.

Further Info

Youtube Videos

Construction of the current Station in 2008

Antarctica Job Listings

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8 Responses to “Settlement of the South Pole”

  1. John NMI Flasker

    Wow that’s informative

    Reply
  2. Greg E Hawkins

    Enjoyed the info hope you explore more

    Reply
  3. Raymond Herbst

    I love this informative information.
    While most medical emergencies and procedures can be handled there… if a female of the team is pregnant or becomes pregnant a new inhabitant will be the first American natural born inhabitant of Antarctica. So does the baby only have US Citizenship of some US – Dual World citizenship? I can just see trying to get through pass control with papers that say birth place of Antarctica!

    Reply
  4. Perry White

    Wow, this is awesome. Loved the article. I wonder why all our nations don’t work together under those same agreements for all the earth. Just a thought. God bless

    Reply
  5. LARRY LICHTENBERGER

    VERY INTERESTING. IT WOULD BE GREAT IF ALL THE PICTURED PEOPLE WAS NAMED. YOU MIGHT ASK WHY I CARE. IT BECAUSE I HAD A COUSIN INVOLED WITH BUILDING THE BAS WHILE HE WAS A SEABEE.,

    Reply
  6. Desmond Rochon USA Retired

    Operation Deep Freeze is the supply effort to Antarctica I think . They fly out of New Zeland.

    Reply
  7. Roger Morin

    My Uncle who was in the Navel unit (VX-6 Quonset Point NAS RI) supporting “Operation Deep Freeze” went to the “ICE” for 10 years. Every year he’d deploy around October and return in April. They’d fly back and forth to Christ Church New Zealand for supplies, fuel and so forth in support of the researchers down there. All they had back then was (60’s era) 8mm movie cams but he always managed to bring back something of interest whether it was penguins, 130’s taking off with JATO or landing on the snow pack or on one occasion a bulldozer breaking through the ice (no casualties thankfully.) He mentioned that the McMurdo base was never permanent as it would move with the ice shelf and needed to constantly be moved back to a more stable location.

    Reply