[2008.01.17] Snow place like home 冰天雪地 宾至如归

Antarctic science

Snow place like home
冰天雪地 宾至如归

Jan 17th 2008 | THE SOUTH POLE
From The Economist print edition

America’s new research station at the South Pole is officially opened

MOVING house is always traumatic, and the odd tear would have been forgivable as the flag came down over America’s old base at the South Pole. It was handed from person to person along a line of scientists and support staff like an egg being passed between penguins. Slowly, it made its way past the marker that represents the exact point of the Pole, and then on to its new staff outside the third incarnation of the Amundsen-Scott station that is the home of America’s scientific effort at the Pole. This new station, which formally opened for business on January 12th, took almost 20 years to design and build, and cost $174m. It will house researchers from fields as diverse as neutrino astronomy, cosmology, seismology and atmospheric physics.

The first polar base was established in 1957, during the International Geophysical Year. Eventually, it succumbed to the elements and was buried under years of snowdrift. It was followed by a geodesic dome, an unheated structure filled with small shipping containers that served as buildings. That, too, is now partially buried and is scheduled for demolition over the next few years.
The latest station, though, is designed to stave off the fate of its predecessors by using the very elements against themselves. The building rests on 36 steel columns, elevating it four metres above the surface of the ice. Using detailed computer simulations, its designers have arranged its orientation and aerodynamic exterior to accelerate the gale-force winds that blow over the pole and channel them underneath the station. The resulting gusts scour the ice surface, depositing snow on the other side instead of letting it build up against the station itself.
However, in Antarctica, the elements are relentless. Eventually, over a period of about 15 years, snowdrifts will build up. When they do, the designers have another trick up their sleeves. Using hydraulic jacks, the entire building can be raised. Extensions another four metres long can be added to the steel columns, and the scouring can begin anew. Two such extensions will add 30 years to the base’s life.

Once inside, not all is so strictly utilitarian. The station has many of the comforts of home—a full-sized gym for volleyball and basketball, an exercise room, a music room, an arts-and-crafts room and a library. For those needing an escape from the 24-hour sunlight (or 24-hour darkness), there are lounges with televisions, a pool table and a good supply of beer and Scotch whisky. And for those who prefer a healthier diet there is also a hydroponic greenhouse where fresh vegetables will grow all year round.

Each of the 750 people who will pass through the base in a typical summer season will have the luxury of a private room with a phone and an internet connection. In fact, it sounds just the place for an exotic holiday. So, to remind the inhabitants that this is, indeed, Antarctica, they will be allowed to shower only twice a week.


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