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Expedition Antarctica: South Pole Bound

By Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is participating in a National Science Foundation media trip to report on scientists conducting polar research near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

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I never thought I’d dig military planes. But here I am, in my second cockpit in the space of two days, chatting up the pilot about the age of the LC-130 he’s flying to the South Pole (younger than my 30 years, but not by much).

 

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The LC-130 is equipped with skis, each of which cost $1 million

You really can’t help but be impressed by these Hercules, as they’re called. There are only around ten in existence, and there’s no other plane on Earth that can do what they do–transport huge amounts of cargo to the most desolate of polar reaches. LC-130s are the “backbone” of the U.S. Antarctic Program and the sole reason that Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is able to function, Tom Ellis, director of operations for Raytheon Polar Services–the U.S. Antarctic Program’s contractor–told me.

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Inside the LC-130

Every single bit of equipment and manpower for the $279-million dollar IceCube observatory just completed in December was flown in by LC-130. The U.S. originally built the planes in the 1950s during the Cold War to go head to head with the Soviets in the Arctic, according to the U.S. Antarctic commander. Now they fly missions for the National Science Foundation, jetting around the Antarctic in the summer and the Arctic in the winter.

On our three-hour ride from McMurdo to the South Pole this morning, we crossed over the 13,000-foot Transantarctic mountain range that splits the continent. I snapped pictures of the icy range, which seem to rise like the undulating back of a dragon out of the flat ice. “Not the green-eyed woman shot, but still beautiful,” the pilot shouted at me over the engine, referring to the famous portrait of the Afghan girl. The Air Force flies six flights to Pole daily, about 730 nautical miles and the equivalent of a trip from Houston to Omaha.

 

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Mount Erebus, the active volcano near McMurdo

 

Our Pole trip, originally set to be about three hours and include tours of several astrophysics experiments, was cut short unexpectedly, though we did get to see the IceCube laboratory. You can read more about my Pole trip on Victoria Jaggard’s Breaking Orbit blog here

Tomorrow we’re taking a helicopter ride with scientists to the Dry Valleys, an ecological research site that’s also Antarctica’s largest region without ice. And, I’m excited to report, there will be penguins.

 

pole-globe.jpgAt the geographic South Pole

Christine Dell’Amore is the environment writer/editor for National Geographic News.