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The United States Antarctic Program is a rich source of scientific exploration, providing numerous discoveries about the planet and the universe.

ANTARCTIC EXPLORATION began in earnest early in the 19th century, and, today, the seventh continent continues to fascinate scientists, tourists, and diplomats. Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty that went into effect in 1961 as a means of allowing the peaceful uses of the continent in the face of conflicting territorial claims. No one "owns" Antarctica. Many countries have built and run scientific research stations there, mostly in the Antarctic Peninsula, which is relatively easy to reach from South America.

To foster scientific exploration in Antarctica, the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs manages and funds the United States Antarctic Program. USAP operates and maintains three year-round research stations and two research vessels. During the (Southern Hemisphere) austral summer, it also supports a number of large and small field camps. A sophisticated air and ship logistics system is required to support this far-flung network.

Antarctica has no indigenous human population. Living and working there is not quite as demanding as living and working on the moon, but there are similarities. Everything--including building materials, clothing, food, and research equipment--must be imported. People must be trained in survival techniques and instructed on how to cope with the extreme cold, avoid crevasses in the ice, and beware of dangerous situations that may lead to, for example, frostbite or dehydration. Because the Earth rotates on its axis as it travels in its orbit around the sun, the Antarctic enjoys 24 hours of daylight each day during the austral summer months and, conversely, during the austral winter, it is continually dark because the sun is in the Northern Hemisphere, where the Arctic is having its daylight period.

McMurdo Station, the largest of the research stations, is located on Ross Island at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. The USAP operating season begins around Aug. 20 each year, when the long winter night ends and the sun appears above the horizon for a few hours each day. At that time, the U.S. Air Force flies people and supplies to the Pegasus permanent ice runway near McMurdo for approximately a one-week period (depending on the weather). This is called Winfly, or the winter fly-in, and it is done to prepare for the full science season which begins around Oct. 1. Duties of support personnel include quickly building a runway on the sea ice very close to McMurdo. During 2000, four C-141 flights were executed, one every other day starting on Aug. 21. After Winfly, no other flights were scheduled (except in an emergency) until the summer science season opened.

Through the month of October, the U.S. Air Force brings in large transport airplanes (a C-5B, C-17s, and C-141s)to carry people, supplies, and scientific equipment to the two ice runways. Air Force C-141s continue to fly at various times throughout the summer season. Standard C-130s (flown by the Royal New Zealand Air Force) and wheel/ski-equipped LC-130s (flown by the New York Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing) operate on a regular schedule from October through late February. The ice runways at McMurdo are not usable at the height of summer (mid December through mid January), when only the skiway (Williams Field) is able to be utilized.

Normal summer-season LC-130 air transport and helicopter support were formerly provided by the U.S. Navy's VXE-6 Squadron. They gradually withdrew from the program, ceasing helicopter operations at McMurdo in February, 1995, and LC-130 large-transport airplane operations in February, 1999. The 109th Airlift Wing currently flies LC-130 airplanes between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo Station (2,300 miles), between McMurdo and the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (825 miles), and to and from the science field camps as necessary. USAP also leases two smaller wheel/ski-equipped Twin Otter airplanes and various-size helicopters to service its field camps. Pole, the second year-round U.S. station, is located at the geographic South Pole, the spin axis of the Earth, and has just a snow runway, so only ski-equipped airplanes can land there.

Ship support for McMurdo Station comes at the end of the summer season in the form of a U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker and a fuel tanker and cargo vessel chartered by the Department of Defense's Military Sealift Command. The cargo ship not only delivers supplies, building materials, and equipment to be stored for the following season, it removes 100% of the solid refuse and hazardous materials waste generated at McMurdo and Pole stations.

The third U.S. facility, Palmer Station, is relatively small and is located on Anvers Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. It is primarily a marine/biological research center, the focus of an Antarctic Long Term Ecological Research program, and supports a year-round population of 43. The facility is serviced by ship from Punta Arenas, Chile. USAP leases an ice-strengthened ship, the R/V Laurence M. Gould, to bring people and supplies to Palmer Station, as well as to serve as a research vessel in the waters of the peninsula. A second, larger ship, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, is used mainly for research, on rare occasions to service Palmer Station, and is capable of navigating all the waters around Antarctica.

Although the three stations are occupied year-round, there is no transportation in or out of McMurdo and Pole during the austral winter. Consequently, winter staffs there are much reduced. McMurdo supports a maximum summer population (October through February) of 1,100, and a typical winter (March-August) population of 200. Pole's 1999-2000 summer population (November through January) was 220, and was 50 for the 2000 winter. The populations at Pole are higher than in previous years (150/28 during the 1997-98 summer/1998 winter) because construction on a new South Pole Station has begun. More about that later.


The scientific projects that are selected for Antarctica by the National Science Foundation must survive close scrutiny. They are not only peer-reviewed, but must be logistically supportable, fundable, and such that Antarctica is clearly the best or most cost-effective place to do the work. These restrictions result because of the harsh climate, long logistics chain, and costs of doing research in the highest, coldest, and arguably driest desert on Earth.

Currently, USAP funds projects in polar biology and medicine, astrophysics, upper atmospheric physics, atmospheric sciences, glaciology, oceanography, geology and geophysics, and environmental sciences. Some of the projects are large in scope and done with the involvement of international partners who supply funding, support, and scientific personnel.

Each U.S. station has laboratory space in which scientists can analyze their field samples as data-gathering progresses. McMurdo Station's Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center has a working area of 46,500 square feet, divided into five pods where various projects are assigned office and lab space. It is equipped with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, computers, workstations, and other necessities for the conduct of research.

McMurdo also has a long-duration balloon support building and launch site. It is here that the 28,000,000 cubic-foot unmanned balloon carrying the BOOMERANG (Balloon Observations Of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation ANd Geophysics) telescope was launched in December, 1998. That balloon and its two-ton telescope were carded on a journey of 5,000 miles by stratospheric winds on a roughly circular path around Antarctica at an altitude of 120,000 feet. Its altitude allowed it to be above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. The payload was recovered after a 10.5-day trip within 31 miles of McMurdo Station. This was an international project, with the involvement of U.S., British, Canadian, and Italian scientists.

The BOOMERANG telescope measures fine structure of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the radiation left over 300,000 years after the Big Bang, when atoms were first formed and the universe became transparent. Theoretical calculations based on the "Inflationary" theory of the universe show that the size of the "hot" and "cold" spots for a flat universe should be about one degree. If the universe is curved, then light would bend and distort, so that the size would be more (convergent) or less (divergent) than one degree. The telescope was incredibly sensitive, measuring temperature fluctuations in the CMB on the order of 0.0001 [degrees] Celsius. The experiment showed that the geometry of space-time is very nearly linear or flat, as opposed to being curved, consistent with Inflationary theory.

South Pole Station is an outstanding location for conducting astronomy and astrophysics experiments because it is high, dry, cold, and the atmosphere is very stable. The mean sea level altitude of Pole Station, situated atop the polar ice cap, is 9,300 feet. By comparison, the elevation of the Kitt Peak observatory, near Tucson, Ariz., is 6,875 feet and the Gemini North observatory atop Muna Kea, Hawaii, is 13,824 feet.

The water vapor content of the air at Pole is extremely low, and this quality allows the atmosphere to be transparent to infrared and submillimeter wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation from the skies. Because it is so cold, the interfering heat radiation generated by the telescope itself is significantly reduced. The mean annual temperature is -56 [degrees] F, and the recorded high is 7.5 [degrees] F. The atmosphere is extremely stable because there is only one day/night cycle per year, so it does not heat up and cool down in a normal diurnal period.

An interesting feature of Pole Station is that objects in the sky do not rise and set, but rotate around the geographic South Pole. This means that celestial objects that can be seen from the Southern Hemisphere are always in view. This has facilitated long-term studies of the vibration modes of the sun well before satellite studies were initiated. The pieces of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (1994) were tracked continuously with the SPIREX (South Pole InfraRed EXplorer) telescope as they crashed into Jupiter.

Astronomy and astrophysics projects at Pole are assigned to a more-or-less isolated area of the station known (romantically) as "The Dark Sector," dubbed "The Dark Side" by the locals. There, an international group of scientists and technicians has set up an exciting and innovative high-energy neutrino observatory called AMANDA (Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array) that is bound to make new discoveries about the nature of the universe.

AMANDA uses the polar ice cap itself as a detecting medium to sense the elusive and difficult-to-detect subatomic particle known as the neutrino. Once you get below about three-quarters of a mile, the 1.8-mile-thick icecap is quite transparent to light. Strings of photomultiplier tubes are frozen into the ice, with over 650 PMTs placed at depths of four-fifths to one and a half miles. Those PMTs can sense the blue Cherenkov radiation that is generated during the rare event of a high-energy neutrino entering the planet from the Northern Hemisphere, passing completely through it, then colliding with a water molecule in the ice sheet in the vicinity of the detector. Since the Earth is constantly being bombarded by billions and billions of neutrinos every second, collisions occur regularly.

The last of the AMANDA PMT arrays was frozen into the ice during the 1999-2000 summer season, and the full telescope is now operating. Analysis techniques, such as refinements of Monte Carlo algorithms, are being developed and tested as the data are being processed. Much is being learned about optimizing observations from the 100,000-squarefoot, high-energy neutrino observatory. An array with 4,800 PMTs, called Ice Cube, has been proposed as the next high-energy neutrino telescope to take advantage of conditions at the South Pole. A new window on the universe is open, and a voyage of discovery has begun.

Other projects in the Dark Sector include infrared and submillimeter telescopes run under the umbrella of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica. CARA includes several telescopes that study the cosmic microwave background, a new and more sensitive version of the infrared SPIREX, and a radio telescope called AST/RO (Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope/Remote Observatory), which is looking at certain areas of the spectrum that will tell scientists more about interstellar gas clouds, star formation, and galactic nuclei--specifically, the neutral carbon and carbon monoxide lines.

The data gathered by most of these telescopes can be sent via the Internet to the various institutions sponsoring the projects. There are several geosynchronous satellites in inclined orbits around the Earth that can be seen periodically from Pole Station. Several of these are used to establish two-way communications with the telescopes. A few technicians on site are necessary, but, once the telescopes are installed and fully operating, data analysis can proceed at a researcher's home institution.

Upgrading facilities

The current U.S. station at the South Pole was not the first to be built there. The U.S. Navy, which initially managed the Antarctic research program starting in 1955, built the original station between November, 1956, and March, 1957, in preparation for the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. The first "winter-over" party consisted of nine scientists and nine military support personnel. Over the years, the old station was buried by blowing snow and ice, as well as by the annual precipitation water-equivalent of about two-three inches. It is now in process of being crushed by the weight of the ice.

The current station was dedicated on Jan. 9, 1975. The most impressive feature is the 165' x 53' aluminum and steel geodesic dome that shields the buildings inside it from wind and weather. The dome was subject to a major dig-out and repair in the early 1990s. Since the station is aging, safety is a concern for a number of reasons. The dormitory, labs, galley, communications, and other buildings under the dome are made of wood and have become very dry, and facilities like the heavy vehicle maintenance garage are too small to service modern bulldozers, cranes, and other equipment properly. Construction on the new garage arch began in 1998, and the building inside this protective arch was completed in 2000. The 400,000-gallon fuel storage facility, critical for winter survival, was upgraded and enlarged in 1999. This was the start of the South Pole Station Modernization Project that will continue through 2005.

The new station will look quite different from the existing one. The current plan calls for the landmark dome to be removed later in 2001. The materials from the dome will be returned to the U.S. via the McMurdo cargo ship. Construction of the new elevated dormitories and galley and the connecting tunnels between these and the garage, fuel, etc. will be completed in 2002. It should be mentioned that all major components of the new buildings are test-built and assembled in the U.S., then broken down into sections that can be carded by the LC-130 cargo planes to Pole Station, where they will be reassembled.

When the new South Pole Station is competed in 2005, it will include two large elevated structures: one containing winter/summer berthing, the galley, the medical facility, and science spaces; the second with more science spaces, administrative offices, communications rooms, summer berthing, an emergency power plant, and a multipurpose section. These will be built on stilts so as to minimize snow drifting and so they can be jacked above the surface every 10-15 years as needed. The fuel storage facility, garage, main power plant, and cargo/warehousing will all be housed under steel arches. These eventually will be covered by blowing and falling snow and ice. A vertical tower will be completed by 2002 as part of the under-ice system of connecting tunnels between the arches and the elevated buildings.

The new station will house a maximum of 110 scientists and support personnel. The plan sets aside room for future expansion for up to 40 additional people.

Returning to the rest of Antarctica, two more examples of international cooperation and exciting science stand out. In the waters of the Ross Sea, the Cape Roberts seabed drilling project has discovered large volcanic eruptions from 25,000,000 years ago. Drilling has revealed valuable data on geologic and climate conditions of the distant past. Lake Vostok is a suspected liquid water lake buried 12,000 feet below the surface of the ice cap at the Russian Vostok Station, 800 miles from the South Pole. Scientists are working in an attempt to reach the lake with a sterile probe and identify early forms of life that most likely exist there. In December, 1999, it was announced that bacteria isolated for millions of years were identified in ice cores from about 400 feet above the suspected lake. In addition, the ice core through the ice cap to just above the suspected lake at Vostok Station provides a climate record going back more than 400,000 years. If the lake sediment can eventually be cored, the record would go back millions of years.

Carol A. Roberts served as deputy director of the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs from 1988 to 1996. For her contributions, a mountain in Antarctica, Roberts Peak, was named after her. Since she retired, she has been producing cable television shows.
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Title Annotation:United States Antarctic Program
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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