December 24, 2002, 10:39 AM — The feasibility of laying nearly 2,000 kilometers of cable across the South Pole in -35 degree Celcius conditions would seem a foregone conclusion, but not to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).
Funded by the US Government, the NSF through its South Pole Connectivity Program aims to build a fiber cable and satellite link across the Antarctic by 2009, with an initial cost estimate of US$250 million. The link would give fast, reliable Internet access to scientists at the South Pole station, which is out of range of conventional satellites.
The link would stretch from the South Pole to Concordia, a permanently-manned French station in direct line of sight with conventional satellites.
Scientists at the station could then transmit data, as well as use a telephone, and researchers around the world could control Antarctic experiments remotely.
The feasibility study states bandwidth requirements will include a 384Kbps link for videoconferencing and telemedicine, as well as a 256Kbps link for remote weather sensing and imaging to support flight operations.
Gordon Hamilton, assistant professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Maine (US), advised the NSF on the glaciology of East Antarctica that will affect the feasibility of laying the cable.
"The proposed route for the cable is across the polar plateau where summertime temperatures rarely get warmer than -35C. So it will be cold. Also, the elevations are above 3,000 meters, so altitude makes for difficult working conditions. However, there has been plenty of work done in these conditions before. It will be uncomfortable, but not impossible."
Hamilton said the South Pole station already has a LAN of up to 250 machines, but added that quality IT systems were imperative to scientific research at a time when there is "a lot of interest in new scientific developments in Antarctica".
"The South Pole apparently is the next best place to space in which to site an observatory or telescope, because of its high elevation, cold air and lack of pollution.
"These telescopes are generating tremendous volumes of data, but most of the researchers spend only a few summer months at the station. Data collected during the winter must be stored on tapes and returned to researchers' laboratories the following summer when aircraft are able land at the station.
"Also, there is a need for a large capacity data link for safety reasons, for example telemedicine. The station has a doctor during the winter months, but often other specialists must be contacted for specific advice."
All this depends on the strength of the cable, however. The NSF expects it to be heated prior to deployment, before it is covered by snow. Its armoring and optical fibers must then withstand temperatures down to -80C degrees.