South Pole Traverse

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South Pole Traverse
McMurdo–South Pole Highway
A red line indicating the path of the traverse
Route information
Length995 mi[1] (1,601 km)
Major junctions
South endAmundsen–Scott South Pole Station
North endMcMurdo Station
Transport in Antarctica

The South Pole Traverse, also called the South Pole Overland Traverse,[2] is an approximately 995-mile-long (1,601 km) flagged route over compacted snow and ice[3] in Antarctica that links McMurdo Station on the coast to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, both operated by the National Science Foundation of the United States.[4] It was constructed by levelling snow and filling in crevasses; flags mark its route from McMurdo Station across the Ross Ice Shelf to the Leverett Glacier, where the route ascends to the polar plateau and on to the South Pole.[5]

Route description[edit]

Satellite photo of the McMurdo Station with the South Pole Traverse (central road)

After four years of development, the trail was fully traversed for the first time in 2005, with Caterpillar and Case Corp. tractors pulling specialized sleds to deliver fuel and cargo to the South Pole in about 40 days. The return trip to McMurdo Station, with less fuel and cargo, is substantially quicker. Construction started during the 2002-03 southern summer field season. It was finished in the 2005-2006 southern summer.[6]

The McMurdo Ice Shelf and the Antarctic Plateau are relatively stable. Most crevasses occur in the short steep shear zone between them, where the road climbs along Leverett Glacier from near the southernmost point of Ross Ice Shelf to the Polar Plateau more than 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) above sea level. This section of the road needs maintenance each season. The section caused much more construction work than planned, because the ice sheets are likely to move.


Cargo caravan on the ice highway in early 2006
Topographic Map Sheet Leverett Glacier 1:250,000

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a new "Traverse Program" in an effort to lower cost and potentially develop a more reliable method of supplying the South Pole Station. Bad weather at McMurdo some summers has reduced the total number of supply flights the NSF could make to bring in construction supplies and scientific equipment. In addition, the traverse saves an estimated 40 flights and lowers the carbon footprint over the use of aircraft.[7] After a one-year hiatus, a traverse team re-occupied the trail during the 2007–08 season after extensive work and completed the first operational traverse in 2008–09.[1]

The road also facilitated the movement of heavy equipment needed to implement its proposed South Pole Connectivity Program, a planned optical fiber link between the South Pole and the French–Italian Concordia Station located at Dome C at the edge of the Antarctic Plateau; Concordia has 24-hour access to geosynchronous satellites. Such satellites cannot be used at the poles since they are below the horizon; the South Pole now uses a few older, low-bandwidth satellites that dip sufficiently south of the equator to be usable for several hours daily. These satellites are near the end of their life. The road to McMurdo might provide a regularly maintained alternate route for such a link; however, opinions vary as to the shear zone section's suitability for a long-term cable. The NSF may also choose to deploy several special purpose satellites in polar orbits.[8]

A 7 February 2006 NSF press release stated that 110 tons (100 tonnes) of cargo had been delivered overland to the South Pole Station in a "proof of concept" of the highway.[9]

In February 2013, Maria Leijerstam pedaled a three-wheeled recumbent fatbike over a portion of the South Pole Traverse route,[10] for which she was recognized by Guinness World Records as the first person to arrive at the South Pole by tricycle.[11]

Major intersections[edit]

Region Location Mile km Destinations Notes
East AntarcticaAntarctic Plateau00.0Amundsen–Scott South Pole StationSouthern terminus
West AntarcticaRoss Ice Shelf9941,600General McMurdo RoadAccess to southern area of station
9951,601McMurdo StationNorthern terminus

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rejcek, Peter (29 February 2008). "Ready to roll". The Antarctic Sun. McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Retrieved 1 May 2009.
  2. ^ Beaumont, Peter (30 April 2021). "Polar Classification Scheme Sheds Light on Bold Expeditions that Never Were". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 1 May 2021.
  3. ^ Maxwell, Bob (December 2011). "The controversy around the proposal and formation of the South Pole Traverse" (PDF). University of Canterbury.
  4. ^ "United States Antarctic Program". National Science Foundation.
  5. ^ "Ultimate Road Trip". The Antarctic Sun, National Science Foundation. 15 February 2013.
  6. ^ Rejcek, Peter (1 January 2006). "Success! South Pole Traverse arrives Dec. 23" (PDF). The Antarctic Sun. McMurdo Station, Antarctica. pp. 1, 12.
  7. ^ Keating, Vicki & Melendy, Renee. "Projects: South Pole Station Fuel Resupply". Polar Research and Engineering. United States Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Archived from the original on 15 February 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
  8. ^ Deare, Steven (24 December 2002). "South Pole online in 2009". ITworld. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
  9. ^ West, Peter (7 February 2006). "Icy Overland Trip May Add Ground Vehicles to South Pole Supply Missions" (Press release). National Science Foundation. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  10. ^ Wright, Benjamin (27 December 2013). "British Adventurer Maria Leijerstam Achieves World First by Cycling to South Pole". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 24 May 2022. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  11. ^ "First Person to Bicycle to the South Pole". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 28 February 2015.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]