The dangerous race for the South Pole - Elizabeth Leane
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However, an expedition is about more than just its leaders: both of these ventures required a large team of people both before their departure and in Antarctica, as well as the animals that accompanied them. Additionally, both expeditions produced fascinating written and visual records – diaries, narratives, photographs, films and more. The Scott Polar Research Institute Library and Archives in Cambridge, UK, and the Fram Museum in Oslo are great resources.
The teams led by Scott and Amundsen achieved a geographical first when they reached the South Pole, but it was not clear then whether this remote place would have any practical use for humans. Why and how do people live at the South Pole now? What special insights does this location offer to researchers?
The South Pole has been inhabited since the mid-1950s, when the United States established a base there – the first of three (they keep getting swallowed by the accumulating snow and ever-moving ice!). These days there may be a couple of hundred people living there over summer, and about fifty over winter. The station needs to be able to allow them to live in relative comfort during the months of darkness, with temperatures diving down to nearly -120 degrees Fahrenheit. You can start learning about the station and its history at this website run by the US National Science Foundation, which also runs the station. A less formal but very useful resource is this site maintained by a former ‘Polie’. You can even have a look at the place yourself using the South Pole Live Camera. Do you think Scott or Amundsen would ever have anticipated such a thing?
The interesting thing about the South Pole is not so much what is there – which, apart from what humans have brought, is pretty much just ice (several kilometers thick) – but what you can see from there. High, cold places are excellent for astronomical research, and data from the South Pole Telescope helps scientists address fundamental questions about the nature and origins of the universe. The IceCube neutrino observatory uses detectors buried thousands of meters deep in the ice cap to search for tiny, almost massless particles that provide insight into the universe’s structure and evolution. The South Pole is a great place to study seismology, atmospheric competition, and climate history through the drilling of ice cores. People too are studied at the South Pole: psychologists find the communities living there to be interesting examples of how humans function in isolated environments, and see them as useful models for the teams involved in space exploration.
There is a lot to learn about the South Pole: a short, accessible introduction is Elizabeth Leane’s book South Pole: Nature and Culture which covers exploration, science, art, mythology, literature, politics and tourism, and has lots of pictures. Excerpts are available here.
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