• The Amundsen-Scott Pole Station in Antarctica 2000. A Twin Otter plane has completed half of its perilous journey to rescue a sick American doctor. (AAP, AP)Source: AAP, AP
A plane will fly a sick patient out of the US National Science Foundation’s scientific station.
Sarah Norton

22 Jun 2016 - 10:47 AM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2016 - 10:47 AM

There is a medical situation at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which warrants a member of the station’s winter crew be taken to a hospital.

No personal information has been released about the patient, but an NSF statement says the sick member is a seasonally employed contractor at the station for operations and research support. Reports from South Pole Station News say this is the first such medevac since September 2003.

The evacuation is risky because in Antarctica's winter there is no sunlight, visually the area is blanketed in complete darkness. Temperatures can drop way beyond freezing, to 60 or 70 degrees below zero. At those temperatures plane equipment can malfunction and the fuel can thicken to a jelly-like substance.

In the 60 years the station has been open, only two winter rescue operations have successfully been attempted, in 2001 and 2003. Everyone will be concerned about the mission until it is over, director of the foundation's polar programs Kelly Falkner told USA Today.

"In the 60 years the station has been open only two winter rescue operations have successfully been attempted."

The risky evacuation requires two propeller-driven Twin Otter aircraft (being flown from Canada) to fly to the Pole. The NSF's statement states that normally flights in and out of Amundsen-Scott are not planned between February and October because of the “extreme cold and darkness.”

A plan has been approved by NSF for an aircraft to fly from Canada, via South America, to Rothera, which is a research station on the Antarctic Peninsula. One aircraft will stay at the Peninsula station and the other will fly about 2, 400 km to the South Pole to pick up the patient.

It’s a risky trip but the aircraft are able to work in very low temperatures and can land on skis. There is no tarmac runway at the Pole so the plane will be landing in complete darkness and on compacted snow.

Amundsen-Scott is one of three year-round stations NSF operate in Antarctica, managing the United States’ research program on the southernmost continent. People located there are performing station maintenance and science work.

The Observatory at the Amundsen Scott South Pole station in 2001.

Research programs at the station involve long-term monitoring of the atmosphere, as well as scientific observations by two radio telescopes.

There is a 10-metre South Pole Telescope and a BICEP/Keck telescope. The telescopes are using the Cosmic Microwave Background to investigate the early history of the universe. They are investigating dark energy and dark matter. There is also an Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory, designed to look at subatomic particles produced by cosmic phenomena like black holes. 

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The operation to get a sick contractor out of the Pole requires assistance from the US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR) to track the weather, as well as other organisations to assist with medical expertise and Antarctic logistics.

The NSF is an independent US federal agency that supports research and education across all science and engineering fields.

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