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South Pole Station
Photo Credit: Scot Jackson/Antarctic Photo Library
An aerial view of the South Pole Station from January 2008, when most tourists visit 90 degrees south. The number of tourists to the South Pole has quadrupled in the last five years, leaving the USAP weighing alternatives on how to handle the influx.

Tourism influx

Steady increase in visitors at South Pole has USAP weighing alternatives

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The South Pole’s most famous visitor didn’t offer a very encouraging description of 90 degrees south when he and his team arrived on Jan. 17, 1912.

“Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here …” Capt. Robert F. Scott recorded in his diary, devastated to have lost the race to the Pole to Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Scott and his companions later perished on their return journey.

These days the South Pole is home to a new U.S. research station — officially called Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station External U.S. government site — the third to occupy the spot since 1957. More than 250 people labor there each austral summer, supporting and conducting a dizzying array of scientific research, much of it devoted to astrophysics and unraveling the mysteries of the universe thanks to an environment conducive to such experiments.

But scientists aren’t the only ones attracted to the Pole. A handful of tourists venture south each year, and the number, while modest, has quadrupled in the last five years. The number has climbed steadily from 40 during the 2003-04 season to 164 (which includes repeated visits by pilots) last year, according to statistics kept by South Pole Station Support Supervisor Beth Watson.

“The burden that increasing tourism is placing on station personnel and resources has the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site weighing alternatives for managing the influx of international visitors and looking at how the issue is handled at other USAP facilities such as Palmer Station,” said Peter West, a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site.

The tourist season lasts from roughly early December to late January, a period of about 50 days.

“There’s this block of [time] that we find they’re coming, and they come and they come,” noted Jerry Marty, the NSF’s representative at the South Pole who oversaw the construction of the new South Pole Station over the last decade, an elevated structure that can house 154 scientists and support personnel. The official dedication was held in January.

“Personally, I think it was a surprise. I think it was to all of us at the station. It’s one of those unknowns that we hadn’t expected,” he said of the rise in visitors.

While perhaps unexpected, the NSF has official policies and procedures in place to handle visitors, or what it calls non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or non-governmental activities (NGAs). The official policy states that, “The U.S. Government is not able to offer support or other service to private expeditions, U.S. or foreign, in Antarctica.”

The South Pole itself is an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) External Non-U.S. government site, an internationally recognized designation that provides guidelines for its management.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs