Shivery Science in the South Pole

Scientists at the South Pole investigate the Big Bang, Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and more.


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Photo Credits: Mike Lucibella, National Science Foundation

An NSF-funded researcher cleans an ice core in preparation for storage.

Ice cores taken from the South Pole tell a story about Earth’s ancient atmosphere. Through the NSF-funded South Pole Ice Core (SPICECore) project, researchers drill deep into the ice to extract ice cores. During the research season, SPICECore researchers may drill for 24 hours a day and collect samples of ice from as deep as 5,744 feet.

Photo Credits: Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

An NSF-funded researcher points to annual layers of snow accumulation in a snow pit located near the South Pole. The strata lines are similar to tree rings in that each year's snowfall can be clearly viewed. Ice cores extracted from deep within the ice contain atmospheric gases from hundreds of thousands of years ago. These gases provide an accurate record of what the Earth's atmosphere was like in the past.

Photo Credits: Keith Vanderlinde, National Science Foundation

The Aurora Australis and a satellite flare—in which sunlight reflects off a satellite (upper right)—appear over the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP) Telescope and the South Pole Telescope in the Dark Sector at South Pole Station.

Named for the absence of light and radio wave interference, the Dark Sector is home to all of the South Pole’s telescopes. BICEP measures the polarization of the cosmic microwave background and allows scientists to investigate the theory that the universe expanded exponentially in the fraction of a second directly following the Big Bang.

Photo Credits: Deven Stross, National Science Foundation

A sundog appears behind the 2011 South Pole marker. South Pole markers pinpoint exactly where the geographic South Pole is located but must be repositioned each year due to ice flow. With NSF approval, staff on site design and craft a new South Pole marker each year.

From the first station constructed at the South Pole to today’s Scott South Pole Station, the geographic South Pole has been a hub of scientific investigation for close to 60 years. NSF support and management of the station makes it possible for researchers around the world to carry out their scientific pursuits for the benefit of all mankind at one of the world’s most unique research sites.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Jens Dreyer, National Science Foundation

At South Pole Station, the average mean temperature ranges between -18 degrees and -100 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the season, and winds blow at a near constant 10 to 15 mph, though some wind speeds have clocked in at 58 mph. The station has five times the average insulation of a typical U.S. residence.

In addition, 8 inches of snow accumulate but never melt each year, placing particular stress on South Pole facilities and other structures. The station’s aerodynamic design and elevated construction helps to minimize snow build up. The 65,000-square-foot building also sits atop 36 hydraulic columns, which can raise the entire structure in 25-centimeter increments, extending the life of the station.

Photo Credits: Joe Phillips, National Science Foundation

Flown by the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, large, ski-equipped LC-130 airplanes provide the air logistics for getting people, supplies and construction materials to and from South Pole Station. Tracked or wheeled vehicles provide transport over land, snow and ice.

Photo Credits: Daniel Luong-Van, National Science Foundation

Standing 75 feet tall and 33 feet wide, the South Pole Telescope (SPT) is the largest radio telescope in Antarctica. It resides at South Pole Station in a zone called the Dark Sector and was designed to answer big questions about the cosmos, such as the age of the universe and what will it look like in the future.

Thanks to the dry, clear atmosphere at the South Pole, SPT is better able to “look” at the cosmic microwave background — the thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang — and map out the location of galaxy clusters, which are hundreds to thousands of galaxies that are bound together gravitationally and among the largest objects in the universe. With a better understanding of clusters, astronomers can probe the nature of other cosmic mysteries, such as dark matter and dark energy.

Photo Credits: U.S. Antarctic Program, National Science Foundation

South Pole Station sits in the heart of Antarctica, one of the least hospitable places for human life on the planet. The South Pole’s remote location and frigid, desert-like conditions, make it a unique natural laboratory.

The station sits atop a continental ice sheet more than 1 mile thick that slides toward the sea at a rate of 33 feet every year. It can house more than 100 people above ground at a time, while fuel and cargo storage, waste-management facilities, maintenance garages and a power plant are all located beneath the surface of the ice sheet.

Photo Credits: Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

Though the North Pole has quite a reputation during the holidays, the South Pole is always a hive of activity, as scientists at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station investigate everything from the origins of the universe to pollutants in the atmosphere.

Since 1956, the U.S. has maintained an uninterrupted presence at the planet’s southernmost point. Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds and manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, or simply the South Pole Station, is one of three stations NSF operates under USAP. It is located at the geographic South Pole, 90 degrees south latitude.

The Aurora Australis, pictured here, dances above the South Pole Station. Auroras are caused by the excitation of charged particles in the upper atmosphere as solar winds travel along Earth’s magnetic field.

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Photo Credits: Ethan Dicks, National Science Foundation

One of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory sensors, a digital optical module (DOM), is lowered into a hole in the ice at South Pole Station. Holes are drilled 1.5 miles deep into the ice, with 60 DOMs lowered into each hole and frozen in place. The decade-long DOM installation was completed in 2015, and observations began shortly thereafter.

When neutrinos pass through ultra-clear-blue ice, the collision produces a particle—called a muon—that radiates blue light. The DOMs detect this light and send back data, via the internet, to scientists around the world.

Photo Credits: IceCube Collaboration

A graphic of one of the highest-energy neutrino events ever observed is superimposed on a view of South Pole Station’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory, the world’s largest neutrino detector.

IceCube captures fleeting bursts of light when tiny neutrinos — one of the fundamental particles that make up the universe — crash into the atomic nuclei of water molecules in ice, causing an eruption of subatomic particles. Built into the ice sheet, the main IceCube detector consists of 5,160 sensors installed inside of 86 holes drilled into the ice.

The electrically neutral neutrino is able to travel great distances through space unhindered by stars, planets and powerful magnetic fields. In this way, it remains virtually pristine and could hold valuable clues about the origins of the universe.

Photo Credits: Christian Krueger, IceCube

A time-lapse image captures a balloon launch at the South Pole. Each week, an officer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sends a balloon aloft bearing different instrumentation to gather atmospheric data from the cleanest air on Earth.

NSF’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at South Pole Station serves as one of the sites of a long-term, global atmospheric monitoring and research program maintained by NOAA. ARO scientists monitor a range of atmospheric phenomena, from the influence of gases and aerosols on Earth's climate to the impact of pollutants in the atmosphere.

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