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Encyclopedic Entry

South Pole Geographic Pole

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The is the southernmost point on the . It is the precise point of the southern intersection of the Earth's axis and the Earth's surface.

From the South Pole, all directions are north. Its is 90 degrees south, and all lines of longitude meet there (as well as at the , on the opposite end of the Earth).

The South Pole is located on , one of the Earth's seven . Although at the South Pole is only about a hundred meters above level, the sheet above it is roughly 2,700 meters (9,000 feet) thick. This elevation makes the South Pole much colder than the North Pole, which sits in the middle of the . In fact, the warmest temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was a freezing -12.3 degrees Celsius (9.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

The South Pole is close to the coldest place on Earth. The coldest temperature recorded at the South Pole, -82.8 degrees Celsius (-117.0 degrees Fahrenheit), is still warmer than the coldest temperature ever recorded, -89.2 degrees Celsius (-128.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That temperature was recorded at the Russian , about 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) away.

Because the Earth rotates on a tilted axis as it revolves around the , sunlight is experienced in extremes at the poles. In fact, the South Pole experiences only one sunrise (at the September equinox) and one sunset (at the March equinox) every . From the South Pole, the sun is always above the horizon in the summer and below the horizon in the . This means the experiences up to 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.

Due to , the exact location of the South Pole is constantly moving. Plate tectonics is the process of large slabs of Earth's crust moving slowly around the , bumping into and pulling apart from one another.

Over billions of , Earth's continents have shifted together and rifted apart. Millions of years ago, land that today is the east of was at the South Pole. Today, the above the South Pole drifts about 10 meters (33 feet) every year.

Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station

Compared to the North Pole, the South Pole is relatively easy to travel to and study. The North Pole is in the middle of the , while the South Pole is on a stable piece of land.

The United States has had scientists working at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station since 1956. Between 50 and 1 of 6 200 scientists and support staff live at the this research station at any given time. The station itself does not sit on the ground or ice sheet. It is able to adjust its elevation, to prevent it from being buried in , which accumulates at a rate of about 20 centimeters (8 inches) every year, and does not melt. In the winter, the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is completely self-sufficient. The dark sky, freezing temperatures, and gale-force prevent most supplies from being flown or trekked in. All food, medical supplies, and other material must be secured before the long winter. The station's energy is provided by three enormous generators that run on jet fuel.

In winter, stores of food are supplemented by the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station's greenhouse. Vegetables in the greenhouse are grown with hydroponics, in a nutrient solution instead of .

Some of the earliest discoveries made at South Pole research stations helped support the theory of , the idea that continents apart and shift together. Rock samples collected near the South Pole and throughout Antarctica match samples dated to the same time period collected at tropical . conclude that the samples formed at the same time and the same place, and were torn apart over millions of years, as the Earth split into different continents.

Today, the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is host to a wide variety of research. The relatively undisturbed ice sheet maintains a pristine record of snowfalls, air quality, and patterns. Ice cores provide data for glaciologists, climatologists, and meteorologists, as well as scientists tracking patterns in change.

The South Pole has low temperatures and humidity and high elevation, making it an outstanding place to study astronomy and astrophysics. The South Pole Telescope studies low-frequency radiation, such as microwaves and radio waves. The South Pole Telescope is one of the instruments designed measure the cosmic microwave background (CMB)–faint, diffuse radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Astrophysicists also search for tiny particles called neutrinos at the South Pole. Neutrinos interact very, very weakly with all other matter. Neutrino detectors therefore must be very large to detect a measurable number of the particles. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station's IceCube Neutrino Detector has more than 80 "strings" of sensors reaching as deep as 2,450 meters (8,038 feet) beneath the ice. It is the largest neutrino detector in the .

Ecosystems at the South Pole

Although the Antarctic coast is teeming with , few conduct research at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. The is far too harsh for most organisms to survive.

In fact, the South Pole sits in the middle of the largest, coldest, driest, and windiest on Earth. More temperate parts of this desert (called either or Maudlandia) support native such as and , and organisms such as and midges. The South Pole itself has no native or life at all. Sometimes, however, such as can be spotted if they are blown off-course. Exploration

The early 20th century's "Race to the Pole" stands as a symbol of the harrowing of .

European and American explorers had attempted to reach the South Pole since British Capt. 's expedition of 1904. Scott, along with fellow Antarctic explorers Ernest and Edward Wilson, came within 660 kilometers (410 miles) of the pole, but turned back due to weather and inadequate supplies.

Shackleton and Scott were determined to reach the pole. Scott worked with scientists, intent on using the best

2 of 6 techniques to gather data and collect samples.

Shackleton also conducted scientific surveys, although his expeditions were more narrowly focused on reaching the South Pole. He came within 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the pole in 1907, but again had to turn back due to weather.

Scott gathered public support and public funding for his 1910 expedition. He secured provisions and scientific equipment. In addition to the sailors and scientists on his team, the also included tourists—guests who helped finance the voyage in exchange for taking part in it.

On the way to Antarctica, the Terra Nova expedition stopped in to take on final supplies. Here, Scott received a surprising telegram from Norwegian explorer : "Beg leave to inform you [Amundsen's ship] proceeding Antarctic."

Amundsen was apparently racing for the pole, ahead of Scott, but had kept all preparation secret. His initial ambition, to be the first to reach the North Pole, had been thwarted by American explorers and , both of whom claimed to reach the North Pole first. (Both claims are now disputed, and Amundsen's flight over the North Pole is generally recognized as the first verified journey there.)

The Terra Nova and Fram expeditions arrived in Antarctica about the same time, in the middle of the Antarctic summer (January). They set up base camps about 640 kilometers (400 miles) apart. As they proceeded south, both expeditions established resupply depots with supplies for their return journey. While Scott's team stuck to a route forged by Shackleton years earlier, Amundsen took a new route.

Scott proceeded with scientific and expeditionary equipment hauled by , ponies, and motor sledges. The motorized equipment soon broke down, and the ponies could not adapt to the harsh Antarctic climate. Even the dogs became weary. All the ponies died, and most members of the expedition turned back. Only four men from the Terra Nova expedition (including Scott's friend Wilson) proceeded with Scott to the pole.

Amundsen traveled by sled, with a team of explorers, skiers, and mushers. The foresight and navigation paid off: Amundsen reached the pole in December 1911. He called the camp , and the entire Fram expedition successfully returned to their resupply depots, ship, and . More than a month later, Scott reached the South Pole, only to be met by Amundsen's camp—he had left a tent, equipment, and supplies for Scott, as well as a note for the King of Norway to be delivered if the Fram expedition failed to make it back.

Disheartened, Scott's team slowly headed back north. They faced colder temperatures and harsher weather than Amundsen's team. They had fewer supplies. Suffering from hunger, hypothermia, and frostbite, all members of Scott's South Pole expedition died fewer than 18 kilometers (11 miles) from a resupply depot.

American explorer Richard E. Byrd became the first person to fly over the South Pole, in 1926, and the Amundsen– Scott South Pole Station was established thirty years later.

However, the next overland expedition to the South Pole was not made until 1958, more than 40 years after Amundsen and Scott's deadly race. The 1958 expedition was led by legendary mountaineer Sir , who had become the first person to scale Mount Everest in 1953.

Transportation to the South Pole

Almost all scientists and support personnel, as well as supplies, are flown in to the South Pole. Hardy military aircraft usually fly from McMurdo Station, an American facility on the Antarctic coast and the most populated area 3 of 6 on the . The extreme and unpredictable weather around the pole can often delay flights.

In 2009, the U.S. completed construction of the . Also called the McMurdo-South Pole Highway, this stretch of unpaved runs more than 1,600 kilometers (995 miles) over the , from McMurdo Station to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. It takes about 40 days for supplies to reach the pole from McMurdo, but the route is far more reliable and inexpensive than air flights. The highway can also supply much heavier equipment (such as that needed by the South Pole's astrophysics laboratories) than aircraft.

Resources and Territorial Claims

The entire continent of Antarctica has no official political boundaries, although many nations and territories claim land there. The South Pole is claimed by seven nations: , Australia, , , New Zealand, and the .


Term Part of Speech Definition

accumulate verb to gather or collect.

Antarctica noun Earth's fifth-largest continental .

astrophysics noun study of the composition of matter and the activity of radiation in space.

axis noun an invisible line around which an object spins.

Big Bang noun (12-20 billion years ago) theoretical event where a small, dense, hot body of matter exploded, creating the expanding universe.

noun gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

continent noun one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

continental drift noun the movement of continents resulting from the motion of tectonic plates.

cosmic microwave noun radiation spread almost uniformly throughout the universe, faint energy still background (CMB) left over from the Big Bang.

crust noun rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.

data plural noun (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

desert noun area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of a year.

diffuse verb to spread out or scatter.

dog sled noun sled pulled by dogs. Also called a dog sledge.

elevation noun height above or below .

equinox noun period in which daylight and darkness are nearly equal. There are two equinoxes a year.

Ernest Shackleton noun (1874-1922) British explorer of the Antarctic.

expedition noun journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

frostbite noun injury or destruction of skin and tissue due to exposure to extremely temperatures.

4 of 6 gale noun strong or air current. generator noun machine that converts one type of energy to another, such as mechanical energy to electricity. noun person who studies the physical formations of the Earth. habitat noun environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time. harrowing adjective extremely disturbing or scary. horizon noun line where the Earth and the sky seem to meet. humidity noun amount of in the air. hydroponics noun cultivation of by growing them in nutrient solutions instead of soil. hypothermia noun potentially deadly condition in which an organism's body temperature drops. noun sample of ice taken to demonstrate changes in climate over many years. ice sheet noun thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land. initial adjective first. latitude noun distance north or south of the , measured in degrees. longitude noun distance east or west of the prime , measured in degrees. meteorologist noun person who studies patterns and changes in Earth's . military noun armed forces. musher noun driver of a team of sled dogs. navigation noun art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled. neutrino noun subatomic particle that carries no electrical charge and interacts weakly with all other matter.

North Pole noun fixed point that, along with the South Pole, forms the axis on which the Earth spins. plate tectonics noun movement and interaction of the Earth's plates. pristine adjective pure or unpolluted. provision noun materials necessary to complete a task, such as food or tools. radiation noun energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source. radio wave noun electromagnetic wave with a wavelength between 1 millimeter and 30,000 meters, or a frequency between 10 kilohertz and 300,000 megahertz. research station noun structure or structures built for scientific study of the surrounding region, possibly including residential and lab facilities.

Roald Amundsen noun (1872-1928) Norwegian explorer of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Robert Falcon Scott noun (1868-1912) British explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic.

Robert Peary noun (1856-1920) American explorer of the polar . route noun path or way.

5 of 6 sea level noun base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.

self-sufficient adjective able to support all of one's basic needs without assistance.

noun related to the seagull.

South Pole noun fixed point that, along with the North Pole, forms the axis on which the Earth spins.

telegram noun message sent by an electronic method of communication called a telegraph.

temperature noun degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

thwart verb to oppose, block, or delay.

tourist noun person who travels for pleasure.

tropical adjective existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the in the north and the in the south.

weather noun state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

For Further Exploration

Audio & Video National Geographic Channel: Man Made—The South Pole Project NOAA: South Pole Cam Images National Geographic Adventure: How to Retrace the 1912 Race to the South Pole

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