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  • The South Pole is, without a doubt, one of the most extreme places on earth that's

  • continuously inhabited by humans.

  • In fact, it's safe to say that there's nowhere in earth with such a large populationabout

  • 45 in the winter and 150 in the summerwhere nature is so constantly working to kill you.

  • The warmest it's ever been at the pole, in recorded history, is just 10 degrees Fahrenheit,

  • or -12 degrees Celsius—a temperature that most of the world would consider absolutely

  • unbearablewhile most of the year is spent at 50 or 60 below zero, but it's not just

  • temperature that gives the pole itsextremeclassification.

  • It's also one of the driest places on earth, with a relative humidity regularly dipping

  • to 0.03%.

  • In comparison, most places' humidity hovers between 55% and 75%, meaning that those at

  • the South Pole are constantly battling skin and body dehydration.

  • In addition to all that, due to the thousands of feet of ice and snow layered on top of

  • the ground below, the Pole is located at about 9,300 feet or 2,800 meters above sea level,

  • which for most people isn't high enough to be deadly, but is enough to potentially

  • lead to sickness which could elevate the severity of other conditions.

  • Put together, these factors compound to paint a pretty clear picture: the South Pole was

  • not made for humans, but nonetheless, through sheer force of will, we're there, permanently.

  • What makes this possible is the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

  • This American-run facility is now in its third iteration.

  • The first was built in 1956 as a simple, wooden, pre-fabricated structure that quickly became

  • buried by snow.

  • This was upgraded in 1974 to a larger geodesic dome that itself protected buildings inside,

  • but this too was buried by snow each winter, meaning that each summer, considerable time

  • and fuel had to be used to dig the station out.

  • In a place where absolutely everything has to be flown in, this was an enormous expense

  • that got in the way of the science.

  • Therefore, in the years leading up to the turn of the millennia, the United States Antarctic

  • Program worked to develop a more permanent solution.

  • And that solution was this.

  • Now, this current structure is undoubtably distinctive, but its design comes with good

  • reason.

  • The building itself is shaped like an airplane wing, with the leading edge facing the prevailing

  • winds.

  • This pushes air down, accelerating it underneath the facility, which naturally clears out the

  • snow.

  • As most of Antarctica is a desert, only about 8 inches or 20 centimeters of snow per year

  • accumulates at the South Pole, but as the temperature quite literally never goes above

  • freezing, the snow never melts.

  • In addition, since the landscape surrounding the Pole is quite flat, and the winds are

  • strong, enormous snow banks quickly form on the upwind side of any building.

  • While the shape of the main station building reduces this, snow still does accumulate in

  • front and under it.

  • Therefore, it's designed so that, every ten to fifteen years, the structure will be

  • raised up a few feet.

  • This is a thirty-day process, which can only happen over the three-month summer period

  • when the station can be reached by plane, meaning that in order to not shut down the

  • facility during its busiest period, the building was designed to be operational while it's

  • lifted.

  • Therefore, its different components are connected by a number of flexible joints that can move

  • during the lifting process.

  • Of course, the actual purpose of the station is for research, but that poses the question,

  • what sort of research do you actually need to be at the South Pole for?

  • Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.

  • One of the top uses is for astronomy.

  • You see, in most places, water vapor in the air ever so slightly distorts the image from

  • telescopes, which for most types of astronomy isn't a problem, but when one is trying

  • to observe galaxies billions of light years away, for example, precision is key.

  • In fact, the South Pole telescope itself has discovered truly countless far-away galaxies.

  • In addition, thanks to this clarity, it was a crucial component of the planet-wide network

  • of telescopes that created the first-ever direct image of a black hole in 2019.

  • Beyond that, the clean air of the pole allows for super-precise atmospheric research, and

  • the relatively low annual accumulation allows for climate research through studying ice-cores.

  • This is all to say, the South Pole station isn't just there for prestige.

  • It's a critical piece of scientific infrastructure supporting a huge variety of research.

  • However, most of the research itself isn't actually conducted there.

  • Given how expensive it is to travel to the pole, various institutions generally only

  • send a small number of people to the station to calibrate and maintain their scientific

  • equipment, while the data are sent back to their respective headquarters' for analysis.

  • That means that, each summer, in that three-month window when flights can land, there's a

  • flurry of activity as personnel try to get all their work done before the season is over.

  • Then, over winter, only a skeleton crew remains to keep everything running.

  • Of course, given the absolute isolation that occurs over this period, the station staff

  • is very carefully selected.

  • Everyone is screened to assure that they're in near-perfect psychical health, as conditions

  • that might be minor in the rest of the world can turn deadly given the station's lack

  • of advanced medical care, and they're also subject to a extensive psychological evaluation.

  • This is primarily to assure that they can handle the severe degree of isolation, six-months

  • of continuous darkness, and small work community for nine months as, if mental health deteriorates

  • over winter, there's truly no way out.

  • Over this period, there tends to only be a single doctor at the station, conducting their

  • work with somewhat limited medical facilities.

  • This doctor is subject to even more rigorous medical screening themselves, given their

  • importance to the health of everyone else at the facility.

  • In fact, some countries' Antarctic programs even require their doctors to have their appendix

  • removed to prevent the possibility of appendicitis.

  • Of course, a single doctor can't know everything, so for any advanced conditions that arise

  • with station staff, the facility is outfitted with advanced telemedicine equipment, which

  • can transmit medical data in real-time, so specialists in the US can attempt to diagnose

  • and treat a patient remotely.

  • Of course, in order to do that they need internet, which is yet another challenge at the South

  • Pole.

  • Most non-polar, isolated research stations nowadays are able to rely completely on commercial

  • satellite internet providers, but that's not entirely possible at the bottom of the

  • world.

  • Commercial satellite internet is only widespread where there's a market, and there's only

  • a market where there are lots of people.

  • That means that most telecommunications satellites are not positioned in an orbit that the South

  • Pole can reliably view.

  • Therefore, the station has to largely count on the NASA network of communications satellites

  • designed to link spacecraft to earth.

  • In fact, this network is the very one the International Space Station uses for data

  • up and downlink.

  • Even this system, though, is only in view of the pole a few times per day.

  • On November 13th, 2020, for example, the South Pole could connect to one of its satellites

  • from 3:29 to 3:55 pm, 4:59 to 7:05 pm, and 8:09 to 9:27 pm, meaning they only had a connection

  • for three hours and fifty minutes that day.

  • These NASA satellites provide the bulk of the station's data connection, with an overall

  • capacity of 275 Mbps, meaning they use these short passes to transmit the bulk of the scientific

  • data back to the outside world, and this is also the time when it's possible for station

  • staff to use the internet themselves to connect with their families or friends.

  • The station supplements this connection, though, with a daily four and a half hour pass by

  • a UK Ministry of Defense communications satellite, which provides a much leaner 1.54 Mbps data

  • link, and a subsequent four-hour pass by a US military communications satellite, which

  • allows for 10 Mbps of uplink and 30 Mbps of downlink.

  • For the rest of the day, the station only has a very rudimentary 38 Kbps data link through

  • the Iridium satellite network, meaning, for all but the most urgent communications, it's

  • cut off from the world.

  • Beyond that, even just taking out the trash is difficult at the South Pole.

  • The station is required by international law to limit waste as much as possible, and this

  • means that nearly everything brought in is eventually brought out.

  • All trash and recycling is collected during the winter season, and flown back to the much

  • larger McMurdo Station.

  • There, recycling is processed, while trash is grouped together and stored to be sent

  • all the way back to the US on the single annual resupply ship.

  • That means that any garbage will travel 8,000 miles or 13,000 kilometers over a period of

  • up to a year from a trash can at the South Pole Station to a landfill in the US in order

  • to be disposed of.

  • The reason for this obsessiveness around cleanliness goes beyond environmental consciousnessit's

  • crucial to the science conducted there.

  • For example, there's a zone that stretches 98 miles or 150 kilometers north-west of the

  • station where no motor vehicles at all are allowed.

  • That's because this zone is upwind from that station's atmospheric research station,

  • which is located there due to the pollutant-free air, and the exhaust of one snowmobile could

  • contaminate the air enough to throw-off the observations, potentially complicating some

  • research.

  • Now, it's worth pointing out that this structure, the South Pole station, is the only thing

  • separating the staff of the facility from the deadly Antarctic environment and, for

  • nine months a year, the facility is entirely unreachable.

  • Outside of the summer season, stretching from November to mid-February, the weather is simply

  • too harsh for planes to land with any degree of safety, so if this facility fails, there

  • is almost zero opportunity for evacuation.

  • To put this into perspective, if the International Space Station fails, for example, astronauts

  • can almost immediately load into the spacecraft they came in and return to earth.

  • At the South Pole, even if it were life or death, and even if a pilot was willing to

  • put their life on the line to get to the pole, there are stretches of weeks when the weather

  • makes it physically impossible to get a plane on the ground in one piece.

  • However, in very limited circumstances, when it becomes clear that someone has developed

  • a medical condition severe enough that they will not make it till summer, and when there's

  • a flight crew willing to put their lives on the line to save another's, the Antarctic

  • Program has authorized attempts at evacuation.

  • This has only happened successfully three times.

  • Each of these flights was conducted by extremely experienced pilots from Ken Borek Air—a

  • Canadian airline accustomed to operating at the polesin small Twin Otter aircraftone

  • of the only types that can withstand the Antarctic winter cold.

  • These aircraft had to be ferried down from Canada, and then landed and held short of

  • the continent for a number of days while waiting for a weather window to fly further south

  • to the pole.

  • Once that happened, though, they flew the final stretch and landed in darkness, quickly

  • picking up their patient before the aircraft froze, and then flew to South America to reach

  • an advanced hospital.

  • With these evacuations, it took more than a week to actually get an aircraft down to

  • the pole, so if something went catastrophically wrong that made the entire station uninhabitable,

  • such as a fire, for example, there'd be little chance of getting everyone out in time.

  • That's why there's a smaller, self-sufficient, fireproof wing of the station designated as

  • an emergency life-boat.

  • This has a kitchen, a small living area, a dedicated generator, a water treatment plant,

  • and is designed to be able to keep the station staff alive through the winter, until an evacuation

  • is possible, if the rest of the station fails.

  • All in all, the 45 or so people living at the South Pole over the winter have to be,

  • in the most true sense possible, self-sufficient, because there is almost no opportunity for

  • outside help, and that's exactly what makes it so dangerous.

  • This season, though, the potential for danger is escalated.

  • Right now, in November 2020, the South Pole is reconnecting to the world for the first

  • time since February 14th as its summer season gets started.

  • Now, the world has obviously changed a lot between February and November, but Antarctica

  • has pretty much stayed the same.

  • Up until now, COVID was not a threat to the continent, since it severed its link to the

  • world before the virus became widespread.

  • Antarctica is currently the only COVID-free continent, and it's crucial it stays that

  • way.

  • In the cramped facilities of the various bases, social distancing is impossible, one case

  • can turn into a major outbreak very quickly, and there's really no ability for the intensive

  • care that severe cases require.

  • If the virus took hold in the Antarctic population, a winter season, with limited possibility

  • for evacuation, could become very difficult or impossible.

  • Therefore, all staff is now intensely tested and quarantined for at least two weeks before

  • flying to the continent, and the stations are implementing policies such as mask-wearing

  • for the first time as an extra-precaution.

  • Also, this season's activities have been scaled back to essentially the bare minimum

  • required to keep the science going, such as crucial maintenance and resupply, and so almost

  • all construction projects have been cancelled.

  • That means that McMurdo station, for example, will have a peak-population of just 450—compared

  • to 1,250 normally.

  • It's tough to understate how tough it is to live year-round at the South Pole, and

  • COVID is making it even more challenging.

  • Life at the bottom of the world is certainly an adventure, but it's one that requires

  • spending the vast majority of the year indoors, in a single building, with a small number

  • of people.

  • It is undoubtably a sacrifice.

  • Most of those living and working there don't do so because it's fun, because, for the

  • most part, it's not, but rather, they do so because they believe so deeply and fundamentally

  • that the science, even in the face of extreme adversity, is worth it.

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B1 US pole station south pole south antarctic facility

How Living at the South Pole Works

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    joey joey posted on 2021/06/11
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