The South Pole Traverse: The Southernmost Road in the World

For most the past three decades, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have laid claim to sharing the world’s longest ice road or winter road.Built to serve remote gold, silver, and now diamond mines, the 400-to-600 km Tibbitt-Contwoyto Winter Road forms one of the extreme points of the North American highway system as it slashes across frozen rivers and lakes alongside the northern edge of the boreal forest into the bottom end of the Arctic tundra.Each winter, a road the equivalent of eight lanes wide is laid out on top of ice so thick it can support 70-tonne trucks.Tibbitt-Contwoyto can still claim to be the longest heavy-haul ice road on the planet.In 2006, however, it was surpassed by a road even more epic both in length and in remoteness. It may be built upon a continental ice shelf rather than lake ice, but at 1 450-to- 1 600 km, the South Pole Traverse (also known as the McMurdo-South Pole Highway) is easily the longest ‘winter’ road on Earth.It also takes the title of the world’s southernmost road, a title it can never lose because it literally ends at the South Pole.

718px-Map_of_the_McMurdo-South_Pole_highway

Source: M. Dörrbecker, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_the_McMurdo-South_Pole_highway.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

The idea behind the road was simple: to lower the cost of supplies into the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station while ensuring a more consistent delivery of said supplies. All supplies to the Pole (in fact, all travel, period) must come from McMurdo Station on the Ross Sea. The persistent threat of inclement polar weather can often delay the arrival of valuable supplies and personnel, especially in summer. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) came up with the idea of a supply road between the two stations that could replace dependence upon airlifts.

Construction on the Traverse was inaugurated in late 2002 (the polar summer from October to February is the only time construction is feasible), budgeted at a cost of US$350 million. The road would cross the Ross Ice Shelf before crossing the Transantarctic Mountains and turning for the pole.In order to complete the road, snow had to be levelled, and crevasses in the ice had to be filled in. The road crosses flat pack ice on the Ross Ice Shelf only to run into pressure ridges in the Antarctic shear zone; the spot where the Ross and McMurdo shelves meet, and giant chunks of ice are squeezed together and form giant ridges and crevasses that become nearly impassable. Once on land, highway builders also encountered giant snow dunes known as sastrugi as well as ‘snow swamps’, giant tracts of soft, powdery snow that bogged down tractors in conditions similar to quicksand (even the flags used to mark the road would sink into the snow swamp). There was a fair bit of environmental outcry from people who disdained the idea of a functioning highway crossing the mostly pristine continent (most notably from Sir Edmund Hillary), as parties fretted about everything from the local carbon footprint left by transport vehicles to the potential South Pole tourism that could one day result from the road. The NSF countered that the road actually reduced the carbon footprint by reducing the number of air flights, and that the highway met the environmental standards laid out in the Antarctic Treaty .The International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition endorses the concept of traverses as a gateway to research (most notably, the collection of ice cores in the interior in order to gather historical climate data). On 23 December 2005, the Traverse was finally completed, and 110 tonnes of cargo were delivered to Amundsen-Scott that season.

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A cargo convoy makes the journey along the South Pole Traverse during the inaugural 2005-06 season. Source: http://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/media/images/icy1_h.jpg.

After a one-year hiatus, the 2007-08 polar summer saw the world’s southernmost road back in action, left in surprisingly good condition and with only a few crevasses in the shear zone needing to be filled. Today, the tractors that pull cargo along the Traverse take about 40 days to make the journey to the Pole from McMurdo, crawling along at 5 mph (8 km/h) (the return journey is quicker thanks to the lack of fuel and cargo). Lead vehicles must carry ground-penetrating radar in order to detect hidden crevasses that can be hundred of metres deep. Each convoy carries ten people, although there are proposals to reduce this to two mechanics while automating the journey. The ultimate goal for the road is for it to carry 757 000 litres (200 000 US gallons) of fuel each year, but the short-term goal is rather simple: two heavy-haul trips each year with a round-trip time of 45 days.

Further Reading

International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (2006). Science and Implementation Plans.  Available at http://www2.umaine.edu/itase/content/Science/strategies.html. Accessed 14 February 2011.

Line, J. (2004). USA’s Science-Driven “Ice Highway” Hitting Rough Sledding in Antarctica.Site Selection, 13 December 2004. Available at http://www.siteselection.com/ssinsider/snapshot/sf041213.htm. Accessed 14 February 2011.

Niler, E. (2011). Tractor caravan supplies South Pole scientists; robotic replacements considered. The Washington Post, 8 February 2011.Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/08/AR2011020800418.html?wpisrc=nl_headline. Accessed 14 February 2011.

Rejcek, P. (2006). Success!South Pole Traverse arrives Dec. 23. The Antarctic Sun, 1 January 2006: 1. Available at http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/pastIssues/2005-2006/2006_01_01.pdf. Accessed 14 February 2011.

Rejcek, P. (2008). Ready to roll: South Pole Traverse re-establishes 1,600-kilometer trail for logistics transport of fuel and materials. The Antarctic Sun, 29 February 2008. Available at http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/contentHandler.cfm?id=1361. Accessed 14 February 2011.

Wise, J. (2009). Building Canada’s Epic Ice Road. Popular Mechanics, 18 December 2009. Available at http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/infrastructure/4212314. Accessed 13 February 2011.

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