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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.