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Compare the Poles: Science

palmer station
The icebreaker Laurence M. Gould at Palmer Station, one of three U.S. science stations on Antarctica. Palmer is home to about 45 researchers and support personnel during the austral summer. Photo by Janis Umschlag, WHOI.

Over 60 scientific bases have been established by 27 different nations in Antarctica. In summer, more than 4,000 scientists are there conducting experiments. This number decreases to 1,000 in the winter. McMurdo Station, run by the United States, is capable of housing more than 1,000 scientists, visitors, and tourists.

Researchers from a variety of disciplines study here, including biologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists, and meteorologists. Geologists study plate tectonics, meteorites from outer space, and resources from the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Glaciologists study the history and dynamics of floating ice, seasonal snow, glaciers, and ice sheets. Biologists study adaptation and survival strategies in a wide variety of organisms. Medical physicians have made discoveries about the spread of viruses and the body's response to extreme temperatures.

Astrophysicists at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are better able to study the stars and planets because of the dry, cloud-free environment. Antarctic ice serves as both the shield and the detection medium for the largest neutrino telescope in the world, built 2 km below Amundsen-Scott station.


The US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy working in the pack ice off Alaska.
As you know by now, the Arctic is primarily a deep ocean covered with a thin layer of sea ice. This means that research has been conducted there in an entirely different manner—from ships capable of breaking ice or from camps set up on the sea ice. The first major scientific Arctic expedition took began in 1893, when Norwegian explorer/scientist Fridtjof Nansen deliberately froze his ship Fram into the pack ice. The ship drifted for three years locked in the ice. Nansen made a number of important observations, including the first temperature and salinity measurements from the central Arctic basin. He also recorded the depth of the deep basins and the extent of the pack ice. Since then, scientists from all of the polar nations have explored the Arctic Ocean, studying the physical oceanography, geology, biology, and chemistry of this remote region. Despite technological advances, contending with shifting pack ice and extreme temperatures makes it difficult to obtain measurements in the Arctic, especially during the cold, dark winter months. To address this problem, scientists have teamed up with engineers to develop autonomous (unmanned) research platforms. The first Polar Discovery expedition will follow a team of engineers as they install a suite of ice-tethered buoys at an ice camp near the North Pole.