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Tractor drives acros snow.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A tractor grooms a snow trail from the South Pole Station's Dark Sector, where sensitive science experiments are located. The primary research at the South Pole involves astrophysics and particle physics.

Growing older

Reasons for slashing the population go well beyond giving people more space. The greatly reduced workforce and workload saves the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, millions of dollars. The savings is particularly acute in energy, where a gallon of fuel eventually ends up costing more than $30 by the time it reaches the South Pole.

“You’re not using as much power,” Martinez noted. “Summer Camp required a lot of maintenance.”

Overpopulation was also starting to put wear and tear on the infrastructure. The kitchen, for example, was never intended to serve meals to 250 people through the summer months. A hundred less mouths to feed has eased the congestion and chaos, according to South Pole Station executive chef James Brown.

“We’ve definitely noticed less of an impact when it comes to the dining room,” he said.

The kitchen and dining facility were among the first components of the new station to come online. That was more than a decade ago, noted Brown, who has become the longest-serving executive chef of the world’s truly end-of-the-line restaurant.

Person shovels ice from underneath a building.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
South Pole employee Andy Titterington clears ice from under a building, which is being jacked up to offset differential settling.

Some facilities, such as the station’s power plant and garage, are even older, built during the first phase in the late 1990s of what was known as the South Pole Station Modernization project. Those buildings, housed under metal arches buried by snow, are shifting, requiring them to be shimmed. The arches are also experiencing differential movement. Electrical components attached to both structures have to be reset.

“It was known that it would happen,” said John Rand, an engineering consultant who first traveled to the South Pole during the 1970-71 field season with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) External U.S. government site. Rand has the distinction of being the only person who has lived in all three of the research stations that have existed at the South Pole.

“The power plant and infrastructure will be better suited to what it was designed to than trying to do three times as much,” Coughran noted.

Some of the columns of the station itself will need to be shimmed in the near future, Rand noted. The entire building was designed to be lifted 12 feet twice during its lifetime as snow built up around the building.

“I think it will be years out before we raise the station,” Rand said.

Growing up

Perhaps one of the biggest changes since the station was dedicated in January 2008 is cultural. At the time, it was still referred to as the Elevated Station – or, more simply, the El Station. The shell of the Dome Station, constructed in the 1970s, was still standing. Long since buried, the original IGY station from the 1950s, dubbed Old Pole, was more than just memory because the snow surface above the structures was unstable.

Crane lifts panel off of structure.
Photo Credit: Forest Banks/Antarctic Photo Library
The South Pole Dome is removed from the station landscape in January 2010.

Fast forward five years. The dome is mostly in boxes at a naval base in Port Hueneme, Calif. Strategically placed explosives have finally collapsed Old Pole. Only one station remains. [See previous articles — The Dome is down: Iconic South Pole Station building disassembled and shipped off Antarctica in one season and Blast to the past: Demolition of 'Old Pole' under the ice removes safety hazard.]

“To me, it’s just South Pole Station,” Coughran said from his second-floor office, which overlooks the ceremonial pole, a shiny globe atop what looks like a barber pole, which itself is surrounded by 12 flags from the nations that originally signed the Antarctic Treaty.

It took some years of convincing before Paul Sullivan finally acquiesced and moved into the new station after years of living in Summer Camp and then the Dome. He said he didn’t want to “get soft” by relocating to the modern facility. It only took about two weeks for him to get used to the new digs.

“If you bring up the Dome, it’s kind of like bringing up a compact disc versus an mp3 player: It’s kind of getting to be something of the past,” said Sullivan, South Pole Station manager of science support.

“The station has come together nicely,” said Rand, who fondly remembers the primitive conditions of living in Old Pole while watching with admiration the construction of the Dome Station by the Navy Seabees.

“Having lived [at Old Pole], it was a little sentimental – but it had to be done,” he said of imploding the buried facility.