Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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Mary and Noel's requisite "Hero shot." Click to enlarge.

Welcome to the South Pole

Science at the Bottom of the World
by Mary Miller

January 3, 2002

There’s a tradition for anyone visiting the South Pole to get what’s known as the "hero shot." The location for the hero photo is not far from the geographical South Pole, where all lines of longitude meet at the southern most part of the globe at 90 degrees south. Navigation here is a little tricky: After all the rest of the world is north of the South Pole in any direction you choose. To make sure that planes fly in the correct direction when they leave the pole, a grid system has been established which actually places McMurdo Station to the south of the south pole.

The location of the geographic South Pole marker drifts about 30 feet a year carried along by the flowing ice sheet that covers the continent’s interior. Every January 1st, the US Geologic Survey relocates the geographic pole. Standing by the new marker feels significant, as if the whole world were revolving under your feet. All around you is a sea of flat ice two miles thick, met at the horizon by brilliant blue sky. The air is so clear here that you can actually see the curvature of the earth. The air is also very thin because the South Pole is on a mountain of ice, which raises our altitude from sea level to 10,000 feet. The altitude makes is tough for newcomers to move around without losing their breath, so our first few days at the pole we took it easy, drank lots of water, and tried to rest in between taking tours and getting acquainted with the people and science of this remarkable place.

A view out the window, where you can see the curvature of the Earth. Click to enlarge.

The ceremonial South Pole, where hero shots are traditionally taken, doesn’t change its location on top of the ice. Every year it drifts with the ice closer to the station, known as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station after the two explorers who first made their way to the spot early in the 20th century. The ceremonial pole is a simple re-and-white striped pole with a reflective ball on top, surrounded by the flags of the countries that were original signatories of the Antarctic treaty.
On our tour of science at the South Pole, the ceremonial pole was the first stop we made so we could get our "hero shot." Then we trudged across a snow runway where ski-equipped military transport planes land and take off. After a slow half-mile, we finally arrived at the "dark sector." The dark sector houses several telescopes located far enough away from the main station to keep the lights and electronic transmissions there from interfering with sensitive detectors. During the Antarctic summer, most of the activity in the dark sector is geared towards getting the telescopes ready for the winter observation season when the skies are dark, cold, and very very dry.

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