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Friday, June 22, 2012

NOAA Celebrates Centennial at South Pole

Friday, June 22, 2012

by Heather Moe

One hundred years after the first explorers reached the South Pole, researchers commemorated the event and showcased the research station located there. NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory research programs have been underway at the South Pole since 1957. Researchers have conducted continuous, long-term atmospheric measurements, provided leadership for the Atmospheric Research Observatory, and given scientists the chance to study “the cleanest air on earth”.

The Norwegian expedition’s arrival to South Pole in December 2011.

The Norwegian expedition’s arrival to South Pole in December 2011.

The team followed Amundsen’s original route to the South Pole and was greeted on arrival by Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg.

The U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (an NSF research facility) is located near the center of the Antarctic continent at the geographic South Pole. During winter months temperatures can drop as low as -100˚F as the sun remains below the horizon for six long months of darkness. These cold winter temperatures along with the high altitude (9,305 ft above sea level) lead to the South Pole being referred to as one of the “highest, driest, coldest place on earth”. The station is inaccessible for eight months per year, cut off from civilization and support, when it is too cold for aircraft to safely operate.

One hundred years ago, on December 14, 1911, Norway’s Roald Amundsen and his four-man crew reached the geographic South Pole, becoming the first people ever to do so. A short five weeks later on January 17, 1912, Amundsen’s British rival, Robert Falcon Scott, arrived with his team to find that they had been beaten by the Amundsen party, and in the face of devastating setbacks, all five members of the Scott expedition perished. The 800-mile journeys along two different routes that Amundsen and Scott made to the pole from the Antarctic coast were arduous and crossed crevasse-filled terrain. The two expeditions and their very different fates are well documented and a testament to mankind’s tenacity to explore the natural world.

The current Norwegian Prime Minister and 12 others traveled to the South Pole in December 2011 to acknowledge the historic anniversary of Amundsen’s team and remained on station for a few days hosting several events and outreach opportunities. More than 100 other tourists were on site for the anniversary, some skiing in from the coast, some flying in with a tourist company, and some arriving in huge trucks. To start the celebrations on December 14, science groups at the South Pole met in the temporarily erected visitor center to host an open house with the tourists to describe the research conducted at the bottom of the world and why these projects are run in such a remote and harsh environment. After the science open house, a ceremony was held outside that was broadcast live in Norway. The winds picked up shortly after the ceremony, driving participants inside. A reception hosted by the Norwegian team took place in the gym and a formal dinner with the Prime Minister followed.

Prime Minister Stoltenberg with NOAA Corps LTJG Moe

Prime Minister Stoltenberg with NOAA Corps LTJG Moe

Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and NOAA Corps officer, LTJG Heather Moe, discussing air sampling programs at the South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory.

In January, a subdued celebration for Scott’s expedition was held on the anniversary of his team’s arrival to South Pole in 1912. Following the same general format of the Norwegian celebration, events began with a well-attended meet-and-greet among scientists and tourists at the visitor center. The ceremony for Scott’s team was held at the Geographic Pole following the open house. Speeches were somber as they acknowledged the ultimate fate of the Scott party, but they also focused on the scientific observations of Earth’s magnetic field that Scott and his men worked very hard to complete, even to the bitter end. That dedication to science continues today at the South Pole as several research projects acquire data in these harsh conditions, even through the long winter night.

Climate monitoring is one of the research areas studied at the South Pole since the opening of the station in the summer of 1956/57 as a part of the International Geophysical Year. The Global Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory now heads those efforts, conducting research in long-term measurements of ozone depletion, climate forcing, and baseline air quality. Each year two NOAA employees oversee the NOAA research program at the South Pole. NOAA Corps officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Heather Moe and Earth System Research Laboratory scientist Don Neff took part in the festivities that commemorated one hundred years of man’s presence at the bottom of the world.

“I was excited to be down here for the centennial thinking we would have some small ceremony where I could learn a bit about the history of Antarctic exploration,” said LTJG Moe. “The celebrations were way beyond what I expected and were absolutely amazing. Everyone went to great effort to make the centennial one to remember both for station folks and tourists. I was also very honored to be invited to the Norwegian reception and dinner with the Prime Minister.”

NOAA research at the South Pole is conducted with the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), a National Science Foundation facility housing NOAA’s projects and located upwind of the main station to prevent pristine air samples from contamination by station activities. Due to the extremely remote location of the observatory, the South Pole is ideal for long-term atmospheric measurements for climate research. Data collected there and at other global observatories are used to develop and test climate models and to keep the public, policy-makers, and scientists informed of the changing state of the atmosphere.

More information on the South Pole Observatory is available on the Earth System Research Laboratory website.

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