Down at the crossroads
Several science groups pass through the South Pole during the International Polar Year
Posted February 29, 2008
Fifty years have passed since Sir Edmund Hillary drove halfway across Antarctica on modified farm tractors to the South Pole. It marked the first overland traverse to the Pole by mechanized means.
The traffic is still pretty light at 90 degrees south, though this season was unusually busy with not only the arrival of the South Pole logistics traverse, but several scientific expeditions pulled into this unlikely crossroads on the polar plateau.
The International Trans Antarctic Expedition (ITASE) arrived first, on Christmas Eve. Led by Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, ITASE is comprised of 20 nations. It operates as a cooperative effort to describe and understand Antarctic environmental change in a regional and global context over the last 200 to 1,000 years.
The scientists on the U.S. component collected samples and data through a variety of methods, such as drilling ice cores, using ground-penetrating radar to measure the ice sheets, and mapping the topography of the surface with high-precision GPS. The team later left the South Pole by ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft.
Mayewski likens a scientific traverse to that of an oceanographic science cruise — a sort of self-contained expedition that sails across a frozen ocean.
“The reason the traverses in my mind are exciting … you have the possibility of taking a few institutions along, of doing multi-disciplinary projects,” Mayewski said after returning to the United States. “And, most importantly, it gets you into the climate that you are presumably studying.”
A Chilean expedition passed through Pole just after the New Year, on Jan. 4, 50 years to the day that Hillary arrived. They resumed their travels a couple of days later, en route to the Pole of Inaccessibility, the point on the continent most distant from the Southern Ocean.
The joint Norwegian-U.S. International Polar Year traverse team might have been able to point the Chileans in the right direction. Scientists from these two nations passed the Pole of Inaccessibility on their way to the South Pole on New Year’s Day. The team garnered some media attention when they reported back finding a bust of Lenin that Soviet Union scientists had left behind from a 1958 expedition.
The Norwegian-U.S. team fell short of reaching the Pole because of equipment problems. The nearby South Pole traverse team was able to assist, but in the end, a Twin Otter airplane retrieved the scientists and their ice samples and gear.
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