Difference between revisions of "South Pole"
Revision as of 22:21, 10 December 2012
Although there's more than one definition of "the South Pole", the most popularly accepted one (and a travel destination) is a fixed location in the southern hemisphere at the Earth's axis of rotation, latitude 90°S (longitude not applicable). Unlike the North Pole, which is nothing but a sheet of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean, the geographic South Pole is located on solid ground, allowing a permanent research station to be built at the site of the pole itself. Although it was once an elusive goal that took the lives of many explorers, thanks to modern technology, it has been permanently staffed since 1956, and is now a destination of commercial travel expeditions.
"The South Pole" is also defined geomagnetically. This pole drifts around, and since there's nothing particularly interesting about it other than perhaps watching your compass not work, it receives no visitors. There's also a southern pole of inaccessibility, the point in Antarctica farthest from any coastline. This is a fixed location (barring major sea level changes that might redefine coastlines) at 85°50'S 65°47'E, but as the name suggests, travel to this point is generally impractical.
The first persons to successfully reach the south pole were the 4 men of a party led by Roald Amundsen, who reached the pole on December 14, 1911. A competing British team led by Robert F. Scott reach the pole on January 17, 1912, but ran short of supplies and died of starvation or exposure 11 miles from their last supply depot. A US Navy plane with 2 aboard flew over the pole on November 29, 1929.
No one stepped foot on the south pole until 1956, when another US Navy plane reached the pole, landing this time. Soon thereafter, the US constructed a station as part of the International Geophysical Year, which has been permanently staffed since.
It's tempting to say that the climate at the South Pole is consistently cold, but it is not. In December it is very cold, with an average temperature of around -28℃ (-18℉). However In July it is astonishingly cold, with temperatures sagging to -80℃ (-112℉). (Note that there are no "day-time highs" or "night-time lows" in these figures, because the sun only sets and rises once each year.) Snowfall is scarce; since weather systems rarely penetrate into inland Antarctica and because the temperature is often too low, hence its desert status. The existing snow does drift, however, with winds averaging a modest 12 knots. (At these temperatures, calculating wind-chill factors is fairly pointless.) Antarctica is the coldest, windiest continent on Earth and as such an expedition there surely carries a risk of danger. Freak snowstorms and white conditions (both caused by high winds) can affect South Pole expeditions and have buried the ceremonial South Pole markers (they have to be bulldozed out of the snow usually).
The terrain around the South Pole is consistently flat. Ice is fluid enough to settle to a flat surface if left undisturbed, and the underlying rock isn't geologically active, nor is there any rainfall to sculpt it.
Antarctica is (for obvious reasons) the least-visited continent, and the South Pole is (because it is not accessible by sea) the least-visited site in Antarctica that is nominally "open to tourism".
Most expeditions take place in November thru January, during the Antarctic summer/day. They generally launch from Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile, stop at Patriot Hills camp in the Ellsworth Mountains on Antarctica, and make the final leg of the trip by air as a day trip to the Pole itself. Some expeditions drop travelers well short of the Pole, leaving them to finish on the ice.
The area of interest around the Pole is quite compact, making it easy to get from one part to another on foot. Venturing farther afield should be done on skis or using base transportation.
Ask for a tour of the station from staff. Some staff volunteer to be tour guides for visitors, so you may be able to get a tour of the Elevated Station. It is very unlikely that you will be allowed to visit the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), or the Ice Cube Lab Neutrino Detector (ICL). These are working research facilities and do not allow tourists. You will not be allowed to walk around un-escorted on the base as it can be dangerous to those who do not know the area or hazards. Safe areas for camps are located near the visitor center between SPT, ARO and the Elevated Station.
In late December an ice sculpture contest is held by station staff and researchers. Some beautiful and whimsical ice art can be created. The sculptures are displayed until the closing of the station in early February, when they are destroyed to prevent the formation of snow drifts during the winter.
Frisbee golf—"holes" are sometimes set up around the base to play frisbee golf...if you can handle the temperatures!
While there is a base on site, visitors need to provide all of their own provisions.
As the Pole is entirely covered by a massive ice sheet, those with the ability to melt ice should not worry about lack of water.
Although they are not in the habit of accommodating visitors, the facilities of Amundsen-Scott station can provide shelter in the event that weather prevents you from returning to your base at the end of your day visit.
All of the health and safety advisories for Antarctica in general apply to the Pole.
Although the ground at the South Pole is close to sea level, the thick ice at that location raises the station to an altitude of 9,300 feet (2,835 meters). And because the earth's rotation causes the atmosphere to thin out at the poles, the air pressure is more like at 11,000 feet. So in addition to preparing for the coldness and dryness of the air, travel to the Pole also requires acclimatization for high-altitude travel. (See the Altitude sickness article for more.) The altitude also makes the danger of UV exposure even greater than at the Antarctic coast.
All visitors to the South Pole head north from there, as that is - literally - the only direction in which you can go.