"A New Research Station at the South Pole."
(Text and Photos Copied from the March/April 1975 Issue of the Antarctic Journal)
-Written By Guy G. Guthridge-

A New Dome

You can see the 16-meter high aluminum geodesic dome a full half-hour before the ski-equipped Hercules airplane lands. Then the semicircular steel arch comes into view: 14 meters wide, 24 meters long. The plane taxis to roughly the mid-point of the arch, opposite the geodesic dome, where a large wooden double door stands open. Over the door, in neat red letters on a white background, is a sign: UNITED STATES WELCOMES YOU TO THE SOUTH POLE.

All around is the great antarctic ice sheet: flat, unrelentingly white. Ice crystals drift out of a cloudless, brilliantly blue sky. If you arrive on the solstice, December 22, the sun is as high as it can be: 23.5 above the horizon. The nearest earth is 2,700 meters away, straight down. The nearest protrusion through the ice is a nunatak, Mount Howe, 290 kilometers away. The nearest known indigenous life is a colony of bacteria and yeasts, also at Mount Howe. The nearest settlement is the Soviet research station Vostok, on the ice sheet 1,255 kilometers distant.

Perhaps, 2,500 people have been at the geographic South Pole-the earth’s spin axis. The first were four Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen, who arrived on December 14, 1911, and left their tent and their flag. Robert Scott and four other Englishmen arrived on January 17, 1912. On November 29, 1929, Richard E. Byrd flew over the South Pole in a three-motor airplane. After Scott, the first person to set foot at the South Pole was George J. Dufek, who stepped out of a Navy R4D airplane named Que Sera Sera on October 31, 1956.

The First Landing
Que Sera Sera lands at the South Pole on October 31, 1956.

An IGY station

Admiral Dufek preceded a party that built an research station at the South Pole (now referred to as "Old Pole") primarily for use in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. The station was made of Jamesway huts and prefabricated wood buildings called T-5s, and were ready in time for Paul A. Siple, station science leader, and John Tuck, the Navy officer in charge, with a 16-person research and support staff to take up year-round occupancy before the 1957 austral winter.

Science projects at the South Pole formed one link in the IGY chain of simultaneous observations being made around the globe-on weather, the ionosphere, aurora, and airglow, geomagnetism, seismology, and glaciology. The Pole provided a vital link that would have been a 3,000-kilometer gap between IGY stations.

The South Pole then, as it is now, was unique among antarctic station. It had the longest period of darkness: upper-air soundings throughout the first winter showed, contrary to expectations, that the ionosphere did not shrink during the sunless period. Further, auroral displays (recorded hourly with a spectrograph and an all sky camera) were more active than expected, with some activity occurring almost daily.

At The Ceremonial Pole
A visitor is photographed at the symbolic (now called "ceremonial") South Pole.

Pole Station was the first inland weather station in Antarctica. Weather balloons were sent aloft every 12 hours. The first winter’s data from the balloons confirmed the presence of a temperature inversion zone 300 to 450 meters up, where the air was warmer than at the surface. Sample were taken to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

The South Pole seismograph was unique among the 16 IGY seismic stations because it sat on the thick snow layer, which was found not to damp the earth ‘s vibrations , and because it was at a point of symmetry. On the average, earthquakes from somewhere in the world were recorded twice every 3 days.

Glaciology projects were initiated to study past climates through analysis of snow samples from increasingly deeper pits. Particles from atmospheric dust or from meteorites were found in the snow samples.

Beyond the IGY

These and other scientific inquiries at the South Pole during the IGY formed the basis for more detailed investigation later on. "When I had first considered going to the Pole," wrote Dr. Siple, "I had questioned how much scientific work would actually be accomplished. I had felt it would require almost all the combined efforts of the station’s personnel merely to stay alive. So it was gratifying that, as things turned out, the results of our scientific endeavors were of a reasonably high order."

At the South Pole, and at other stations, the reasonably high order of results was enough to persuade the United States and other nations to continue their scientific observations in Antarctica beyond the IGY. Observations continued year-round at the South Pole, with increasing attention being given to many disciplines.

In 1961 the station received its present name, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, to commemorate the early explorers and to emphasize that the station’s facilities and its research results were part of an international endeavor.

By the mid-1960s it was clear that the need for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station would outlive the station itself. Built on the surface, the station immediately began to block the constantly drifting snow and ice crystals the same way a snow fence does on an open field. Soon the station was covered completely; tunnels were formed to connect buildings. The snow piled higher on roofs, and supporting trusses had to be added. A stairway and a ramp to the station level had to be installed and renovated yearly. The buildings became distorted under the weight of tons of snow and ice.

Old Pole
A snow ramp leads down to the original Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station that is buried under some 15 meters of snow and ice. On the surface the station is visible largely by vents and radio antennas.

In December of 1967, with 6 meters of snow on the station, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica, began to explore the feasibility of constructing a new station. They turned to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command for design support, with research and development assistance from the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory.

Two adverse factors influenced the design: the remoteness of the site and the extreme environment. The Pole is 1,300 kilometers from McMurdo Station, the nearest seaport, and the only practical transportation between the two points is by airplane. Thus components had to fit inside an LC-130 Hercules (2.5 by 2.5 by 11 meters) and could not weigh over 9,000 kilograms, including crating. The structures would have to withstand temperature extremes (to -80C), high winds (to 24 meters per second), drifting snow (average wind speed about 6 meters per second), and a constantly moving ice sheet (9 to 10 meters per year towards South America) with low shear strength (500 grams per square centimeter to a depth of 2.5 meters). The construction season of some 75 days (mid-November to early February) would have an average temperature of -32C. The station , isolated each year from early February to mid-October , would need highly reliable life support systems. A station design life of 15 years was specified.

Models at Pole
A 1:10 scale model of the new station’s proposed design was placed near the original station to study snow drift patterns. Other model studies were conducted in wind ducts where the effects of blowing snow could be scaled down in proportion to the models size.

Three Design Concepts

Three design concepts were considered:: above grade (on stilits), at grade, at below grade. The elevated concept was rejected because it would be too expensive and would require too much on-site labor. The below grade concept was not suitable because the trenches would take too long to cut and because the snow at the Pole is too weak to form walls. The at-grade concept, with a geodesic dome and long arches, was chosen in November 1968; final design began immediately.

Artist’s Concept
Artist’s concept of the new station’s design. A. Garage, mechanical shop, and gymnasium. B. Helium storage. C. Weather balloon inflation and launching tower. D. Diesel-electric generators and maintenance shop. E. Biomedical and medical facilities. F. Fuel storage. G. "Skylab" tower for all-sky photography and other atmospheric studies. H. Geodesic dome enclosing three buildings: building 1 (clockwise from the top), science facilities and quarters, building 2, communications equipment, store, lounge, and library; building 3, kitchen, dining hall, post office, photographic laboratory, and meeting hall.

The structures were planned for a maximum wind load of 35 meters per second (the Navy’s minimum criterion). Roof design was for a maximum of 1.5 meters of snow cover, with the top of the dome designed for no snow cover at all. Snow would be processed and compacted to a depth of 2.5 meters to provide a uniform foundation with a shear strength of over 250 kilograms per square meter.

The dome, 50 meters in diameter at its base, would serve as a protective covering for three two-story buildings made from prefabricated modules sized to fit in the LC-130s. These buildings would contain a communications center, a store, a library, and a recreation room, science spaces, single-room quarters for 16 (later 23) persons, a galley, a post office, a photographic darkroom and laboratory, and a meeting hall. A separate small building under the dome would house a vault for earth tide measurements. Under the adjacent steel arches would be a dispensary, biomedical facilities, vehicle repair and maintenance shops, three 250-kilowatt diesel-electric generators, a storage space for helium (to inflate weather balloons), nine 95,000-liter fuel bladders, and a small gymnasium. Open spaces under the dome and arches would be unheated, with vents for any heat to escape; this system would prevent melting of both interior snow and exterior snow on the arches or the dome to prevent the accumulation of heavier ice. The heated buildings would rest on 60-centimeter-high aluminum floor trusses on timbers. Outside would be a four-story, 17-meter-high "skylab," an equally high balloon inflation building, and a clean-air sampling chamber upwind of the station. It was later decided that part of a construction camp, a hlf-kilometer away, would serve as an emergency camp.

LC-130 Offloading a Dome Building
One of over 50 crates containing prefabricated building modules is delivered to the new station’s construction site by Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6)

Two-meter-high undersnow steel arches ("utilidors") would be made of corrugated steel to house power, water, and sewage lines. The sewage utilidor would extend 60 meters beyond the dome for outfall. The utilidor itself would have lighting, ventilation, and an extensive heat tape system (to prevent pipe freezing).

The space heating system for the entire station would circulate a water-glycol mixture through the diesel generator cooling system to scavenge waste heat. A boiler would supplement this system as necessary, and oil-fired space heaters would be available for emergency use. Waste heat from the generators would melt snow for the stations fresh water supply.

Only one of the three generators would operate at a time, the other two being standby units. Routine changeover from one unit to another would be made without interrupting the station power supply. Emergency transition (in the event of instantaneous failure of a unit) would take less than 15 minutes. There would be an extensive fire alarm system throughout the station and an automatic carbon dioxide extinguisher system in the generator building.

This design is reflected almost exactly in the completed facility. Materials for the station, which were purchased by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command using standard federal procurement procedures, cost about $3.5 million-labor and related services cost about $2.5 million. Thus the total direct cost of building the station was about $6 million.

Delivery of materials began in the 1970-1971 austral summer when eight LC-140 flights brought 45,000 kilograms of materials to the site. In the next season, 65 flights brought 405,000 kilograms. The third season, 1972-1973, saw 93 flights bring nearly 545,000 kilograms. In 1973-1974, a final 150 flights brought over 860,000 kilograms. These flights included transport of workers and equipment between the Pole and McMurdo at the beginning and the end of each season.


Navy Seabees began work in the 1970-1971 season as Construction Battalion Unit 201 (later renamed Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Unit 71), created expressly for work in Antarctica. The Seabees worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, in the short construction season, often taking advantage of the 24-hour sunlight through the use of multiple shifts.

The cold, thin air lowered production significantly. Also, machine to mill the snow and to prepare it as a foundation had mechanical difficulties that further reduced progress. By the end of the first season, only 10 percent of the foundation pad and the utilidor shell had been completed.

Despite repairs, the snow miller again had mechanical difficulties and broke down frequently in the following season. A wide-track tractor also failed. By the end of the 1971-1972 season, the dome base was finished and part of its framework was erected. Problems with structural fit of the base ring, combined with deteriorating weather, brought construction to a halt in late January 1972. The December 4, 1971, crash of an LC-130 hampered haulage of materials to the site; the completion date was postponed from January 1974 to January 1975.

Dome Under Construction
Navy Seabees erected the geodesic dome during the 1971-1972 and the 1972-1973 construction seasons.

The 1972-1973 season went better. A construction camp was built to house over a hundred workers (formerly housed in the old station). The ailing snow miller was abandoned, and a low-ground-pressure D-8 tractor was used in ordinary cut-and-fill methods to prepare snow for the foundation. The dome was finished in mid-January, and work was well under way on the arches, the utilities, and some of the interior buildings.

A New Building Under the Dome
One of the three buildings completed beneath the geodesic dome.

In 1973 the need for Seabees elsewhere in the world became urgent, and a reduced number (about 100) deployed in 1973-1974. A National Science Foundation contractor, Holmes and Narver, Inc., supplied 30 workers to fill the gap. By February 7, 1974, the station was about 85 percent complete. The remaining work was completed by Holmes and Narver workers in the 1974-1975 season.

A Completed Station
This aerial view of the partially completed station was taken in the 1973-1974 season.

From beginning to end the task of building the new South Pole Station had taken the Seabees over 11,000 direct man-days, 18,000 including indirect and overhead requirements attributable to the project. Also, Holmes and Narver had expended 1,952 man-days. The Navy’s Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6), Antarctic Support Activities (now Naval Support Force, Antarctica), and other members of Task Force 43 (now Task Force 199) contributed large amounts of time, as did the National Science Foundation.

A Science Technician at Work
A technician calibrates seismic recorders installed at the new station.

Towards the end of the 1973-1974 season, Holmes and Narver took over operational responsibility for the new station. In December 1974, with major construction complete, scientists and technicians began to move from the old to the new station: this process was complete by the end of the 1974-1975 season.

Visitors to the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are astonished to find a modern, comfortable, well-equipped research facility in the middle of an ice sheet. So are the tenants-especially those who lived in the old station, which would have needed extensive renovation for even one more season of habitation.