Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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Cold, clear, and quiet:

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Into the white at the South Pole.
by Noel Wanner

January 1, 2001

When the motors fall silent, the silence rushes in from the flat horizon and hits you like a wall-- the silence of thousands of miles of empty ice, a frozen desert on an ice plateau two miles deep.

We've come to explore the life and science at the South Pole, at Amundsen-Scott Station. Around us, the construction crews work at a fevered pace, building the new South Pole Station, but the bustle of the cranes and bulldozers seems somehow just a desperate attempt to keep the silence back. And when the shift is over, everyone hurries indoors for warmth, and the comfort of human voice, of four walls limiting that deep horizon.

A C-130 passes away high above the dome of the South Pole Station.

The people who live and work at the South Pole deal with one of the harshest environments on earth. The average temperature is about -50 degrees, and during the months-long winter, temperatures can drop to 100 below zero. The air is too cold to hold any moisture-- it dries your sinuses until they bleed. Nothing lives here, except humans, in a tiny community ranging from 220 summer inhabitants to 45 hardy souls over the winter. This community and its work are sustained through a massive logistical effort, including several LC-130 flights each day, bringing food, fuel, scientific equipment, and construction materials, and taking away waste and Pole workers headed home. The comfort that exists here is entirely dependent on this supply chain-- without it, silence and cold would soon return to empty this place. That this community persists is nearly miraculous, a testament to the will humans have to explore.

Scientists make use of this silence, this last most clear and empty space: astronomers point telescopes at the thin sky, strange kaleidoscope eyes sorting the spectra of the cosmic background radiation, hunting for the faint traces of the birth of our universe. Some drill down to place seismographs, listening for earthquakes and nuclear tests around the world.


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