Americans study Antarctic road to South Pole

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- A century after pioneer explorers with dogs and horse-drawn sleds tried to cross from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, American engineers may carve a 1,000-mile track so supplies can be driven to the pole.

The U.S.-based National Science Foundation has begun a three-year study to establish the feasibility of a road from its McMurdo Station on the frozen continent's Ross Sea coast to its South Pole base.

"We are in the proof of concept phase right now, it's a three-year effort," foundation spokesman Arthur Brown said Monday.

"This is not a highway ... or a road, more a trail or a route," Brown told National Radio of the plan, which would cost about $350 million.

The route would be open for 100 days of the Southern Hemisphere summer each year. The trip between the coast and the Amundsen-Scott polar science base would take about 10 days.

The South Pole trail idea came from a study of transport options for servicing the South Pole station from the coast, Brown said. Currently, that is all done by ski-equipped C130 Hercules cargo planes carrying 25,000 pounds per flight.

Brown said providing support to the South Pole base and its science programs needs more than 250 such flights each summer season, from Oct. 1 to Feb. 25.

Currently, the maximum number of support flights to the continent is 260 a year.

"We have to come up with some way" of getting the cargo to the South Pole to support other activities on the continent, Brown said.

In an interview with London's The Times newspaper, U.S. Antarctic Program director Karl Erb said, "Once the route has been done, you will just drive across it. It will greatly improve our ability to do science in Antarctica."

Brown said the first phase of the project -- filling huge crevasses with ice on fields 40 miles south of McMurdo -- already is completed.

Filling the giant ice cracks allows tracked vehicles to cross the 3-mile wide area, the first major hurdle on the route to the pole.

Next year, the project will move from the crevasse field to the top of a glacier leading onto the polar plateau.

"Then in the third year (we would) traverse from the plateau out to South Pole and return," he said. If the road proves feasible, "we would have to go through a rather extensive comprehensive environmental evaluation," which would have to be submitted to Antarctic nations for approval.

Brown said the route proposal would come under the strict environmental protocols of the Antarctic Treaty, which preserves and protects the pristine environment of the frozen continent.

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