Moving into position: We are cleared to move on to South Pole

Many obstacles are overcome, and we prepare to move 796 miles west of McMurdo to Dome A, the highest point of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

This is the fourth post in Robin Bell’s description of scientific research in Antarctica in late 2008 and early 2009.

We had been waiting for clearance to move the team from McMurdo to South Pole, which at 9,300 ft. of elevation is the first step in acclimatizing for work in the high altitude AGAP S camp, our ultimate destination.

McMurdo Station is located at sea level so acclimatizing the group will be done in two steps. We will be working about 796 miles west of McMurdo on Dome A, the highest point of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, rising more than 13,000 feet above sea level. Our AGAP S camp will be nestled on the South side of the Dome at a slightly lower elevation of 11,482 feet.

We had been prepared for the issues with altitude. It poses a problem for our equipment, which will operate at 40% efficiency, but it poses a more serious problem for people. The high altitude class we took at McMurdo sobered us with stories of the last high altitude East Antarctica science program which resulted in seven medical evacuations from the camp, one with serious acute cerebral edema. The issue is that atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude, and so the air is thinner at high altitudes, as there are fewer oxygen molecules in the air. People’s bodies have to adjust to compensate for this reduction in oxygen in the air.

Because of being in a polar region the problems with altitude are magnified. At the poles the effect of the spinning Earth and the cold temperatures means that  the surface of the Earth is about 13 miles closer to the center of the Earth than near the equator in Singapore. These rotational forces act on the ocean and the atmosphere causing them to bulge. The net result is there is more atmosphere at the equator than at the poles.

With this decrease in pressure at the poles the altitude issues are accentuated. For example, the AGAP S camp (11,482 ft.) is at a similar elevation to a Colorado ski resort, a challenging, but not extreme altitude. However, when combined with the polar low the average pressure is closer to 14,800 feet – more like the highest peaks in the Rockies, a very difficult working environment.

The acclimatization schedule has been complicated by two factors. First, the limited number of beds at South Pole means that for any new person, or group of person,  to move to the station someone else must move out. There are teams of scientists who normally work out of South Pole and so there are a limited number of mobile spaces that can be taken advantage of. This short field season there is our AGAP S geophysical team, our AGAP S seismic team, our AGAP N team, our overland fuel traverse team, and the Norwegian/US traverse team, all converging on the pole and hoping for accommodations.

Secondly, there has been an issue with inadequate power being available at South Pole to accommodate some of the new quarters that have been constructed, and the project equipment needs. Because of the cold temperatures in East Antarctica it is essential to keep the airplanes and instruments plugged in when not flying. This adds to the already stretched electrical demands on the station. The camp cook is preparing meals for 16 people on two Coleman camping stoves, but it seems the tents are filling with carbon monoxide.

At last it seems they have worked this all out.

We are cleared to move on to South Pole, as our AGAP N team moves on to their final destination for serious data collection.

Robin Bell is a geophysicist and research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She has coordinated seven major aero-geophysical expeditions to Antarctica studying subglacial lakes, ice sheets and the mechanisms of ice sheet movement and collapse, and currently the Gamburtsev Mountains, a large alp sized subglacial mountain range in East Antarctica.