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Navy Seabees
Photo Credit: Paul Siple
The U.S. Navy Seabees who built the first South Pole Station beginning in late November 1956. The shadow of the South Pole marker can be seen down the middle.


South Pole future bright with 21st century science

The challenges remain, for sure, but the scope of science at the South Pole has certainly reached new depths and heights. Two ambitious programs are in construction now. The IceCube project (see the Jan. 29, 2006, issue at is burying strings of detectors more than 2 kilometers deep into the ice in an array to search for elusive neutrinos. The South Pole Telescope is within weeks of aiming its huge 10-meter dish at the darkest parts of the night sky in search for clues of the origin of the universe.


And who knows what will come next?

“I think there’s a platform, there’s an infrastructure here now that’s truly going to support 21st century science,” Marty said. “I don’t see South Pole Station as remaining stagnant from a scientific research standpoint in terms of monitoring our climate change and/or telescope observations. I think those areas are probably going to expand in the future.

“I think the South Pole may find itself as being a support base for projects going away from South Pole but coming back to South Pole for infrastructure support.”

In fact, he cited a recently completed project by glaciologist Sridhar Anandakrishnan, which researched a subsurface lake 16 kilometers from the Pole.

“That’s the beginning, I think, of more of that type of scientific research to come,” Marty said. “I think you’ll find more 10-meter, more IceCube type of projects at South Pole in the future.”


Empowering the future

The recent flurry of gigantic projects also underscores a need to evaluate how to support future growth of research at the South Pole.


“I think the jury is still out on what the true plans are,” Marty said. “I think we have to recognize that when we formulated the basis of design for the new station in the early ’90s, the projects of the magnitude and infrastructure demand – power, logistics, IT, connectivity, population and equipment hours – to support projects such as an IceCube project and a 10-meter really hadn’t been envisioned. We hadn’t realized that we were going to be discovered and that this was truly a location that was ideal for these types of experiments.”

For example, the South Pole Telescope (SPT) is projected to generate data at the rate of 120 gigabytes a day.

“To put that in perspective,” said John Carlstrom, principal investigator of the project, “the current amount of data you can get from the South Pole up to the continental U.S. during the day, currently is 10 gigabytes.”

He said there is a scheduled upgrade to, hopefully, 70 gigabytes a day and Carlstrom’s group anticipates it can compress its data to about 30 gigabytes. All the data will be recorded at the Pole, but the hope is that they will be able to upload it daily so the whole team can look at the results.

Another challenge is electricity, of which, “every kilowatt at the South Pole is an issue these days,” Carlstrom said.

The SPT, as it is scanning the sky, will require power at uneven intervals, creating peak demands that, along with other needs, could overburden the power station, he said.

To moderate that, the SPT will have a power load leveler – 10,000 pounds of batteries – built into the system to keep the power draw steady.

Those are the sorts of needs that will be driving National Science Foundation officials as they consider the next steps of development at the South Pole.

“The future on how we’re going to handle power, connectivity and all of those items that I mentioned will have to be part of long-range planning,” Marty said. “The science has expanded and exploded so quickly, we’re desperately trying to determine what are those needs. ... We’re in the embryonic stages of identifying options and solutions.”


Honoring the past

Marty carved time out of the South Pole Station’s busy schedule on Jan. 4, the 50th anniversary of the date the station was handed over to researchers and the winter staff, to recognize the work of the 24 men who built the original station.


American flags at South Pole.
Photo Credit: Jerry Marty
American flags flown at the South Pole on Jan. 4, 2007, were later donated to Navy Seabee survivors.

For each of the 15 surviving Seabees, a United States flag was flown at the South Pole marker. Those flags, certificates, letters of thanks and photos were sent to each of those survivors and a 16th flag to the Seabee Museum.

Bowers, in typical fashion, continued to spread the praise.

“You really realize all your own frailties when you run up against the extreme conditions down there,” he said. “You realize how you depend on others; it’s just a great feeling. We still have that, and we get together, and we enjoy each other, and we keep track of what [current USAP participants] are doing because what you’re doing is so important.” 

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Office of Polar Programs