Although it’s the only continent on Earth without a native or permanent human population, Antarctica does indeed host people—a relative handful, mind you—all year round at Antarctic bases.

Its many wide-scattered research stations, which are mainly coastal setups but also encompass a few staggeringly remote outposts in the vast white interior, mark the main footprint of humankind on this least-impacted landmass on the planet.

The Antarctic plays host to more than 70 research stations operated by 40-plus countries all around the world: from Japan (Showa Station on East Ongul Island) and South Africa (SANAE IV on the Vesleskarnet nunatak in Queen Maud Land) to Pakistan (Jinnah Antarctic Station near the Sør Rondane Mountains) and Bulgaria (St. Kliment Ohridski in the South Shetland Islands). Argentina and Chile lead the pack, with 13 and a dozen stations, respectively.

A map showing the 82 research stations in the Antarctic as of 2014

The COMNAP (Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs) Antarctic Bases Map. (Credit: Sophie Berger)

Given the rigors of the White Continent’s winter, many of these Antarctica stations are only staffed in the austral summer; some are little more than summertime field camps. But more than a dozen others operate year-round, though, understandably, with majorly pared-down personnel over the long, dark winter. Numbers vary from year to year, but roughly speaking some 4,000 or 5,000 folks live in Antarctica in the summer, with 1,000 or so “winterers.”

Antarctic research stations include not only scientists—biologists, geologists, astrophysicists, meteorologists, and more—but also essential staff of all sorts, from mechanics to chefs to firefighters to doctors. And two of the stations—Argentina’s Esperanza Base and Chile’s Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, host to Villa Las Estrellas—include Antarctica’s only civilian settlements.

The purpose of these Antarctic research stations is the collection of scientific information. Antarctica’s comparably pristine state, plus its superlative ice-sheet environment and climate, long geologic isolation, polar position, and other basic physical characteristics, make it a singular study zone for a broad array of scientific disciplines: from glaciology, astronomy, and meteorology to marine biology, engineering, and even medicine.

Among the fundamental tenets of the Antarctic Treaty is the use of Antarctica “for peaceful purposes only.” While military equipment and personnel are allowed if present in support of scientific research and similarly peaceful aims, Antarctic bases are not military installations.

That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t some geopolitical strategy and posturing wrapped up in these Antarctic facilities. Nations may partly maintain or establish bases to reinforce or establish a presence on the White Continent—perhaps with an eye toward future access to resources.

And ulterior motives for research stations continue to be floated: Some international observers, for example, have questioned whether a new base being constructed by China on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea, which could be completed by 2024, may be used to to surveil the satellite communications of other governments—a suggestion China has flatly denied.

In 1903, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition established the first meteorological station in Antarctica: Omond House, situated on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. The following year, this stone hut was formally transferred to Argentina, which has maintained it as a year-round research station—called Orcadas—ever since.

This makes Orcadas the most venerable Antarctic base. Remarkably, Omond House—now known as Casa Omond—still stands, one of several officially designated Historic Sites & Monuments on the grounds of Orcadas Station.

A flurry of research stations were established in the 1940s and 1950s, on the heels of Britain constructing permanent bases at Port Lockroy (in the Palmer Archipelago), Hope Bay (on the Antarctic Peninsula), and Deception Island (in the South Shetlands) during Operation Tabarin (1943-1946).

New research stations continue to be built in Antarctica. Prior to the in-progress construction of the aforementioned Chinese base on Inexpressible Island, the most recent Antarctic base to be established was South Korea’s Jang Bogo Station on Terra Nova Bay, which opened in 2014.

While the Antarctic Treaty generally requires nations to remove derelict research stations, there are quite a few exceptions that allow abandoned installations to remain, as when they predate adoption of the Treaty’s relevant Protocol on Environmental Protection and/or fall under protection as historic sites. And some bases that see only very periodic visitation, while not formally abandoned, may effectively be “ghost stations.”

Some Antarctic research stations have been outright lost, as when eruptions on the volcanically active Deception Island in the late 1960s destroyed or damaged a number of bases.

In this section, we’ll spotlight just a few of the dozens and dozens of seasonal and year-round research stations in Antarctica, including some of the best known or historically significant.

This year-round Russian Antarctic research station—staffing about 30 individuals in the summer and about half that in winter—was established in December 1957 on the East Antarctic Polar Plateau.

Its elevation on this harsh, ice-sheet landscape—3,488 meters/11,444 feet—at the so-called “Pole of Cold” gives Vostok a notably harsh climate: The station lays claim to the official record for the coldest temperature on Earth, -89.2 degrees Celsius (-128.6 degrees Fahrenheit), set on July 21, 1983. (That said, there are colder places on the Polar Plateau, and the defunct, short-lived U.S. Plateau Station may have been the Antarctic base subject to the most bone-chilling climate.)

Australia’s Mawson Station is one of the longest-running Antarctic bases, having been established in February 1954. This year-round base sits on a lonesome outpost of coastal rock at Horseshoe Harbour, largely surrounded by ice. New station facilities were constructed in the 1990s, though some of the original structures remain.

In summer, Mawson Station hosts about 50 staff and three scientists, while some 15 staff members typically overwinter.

Not only the largest research base, but also the largest community in the Antarctic, McMurdo Station is a year-round facility on the Hut Point Peninsula of Ross Island that houses as many as 1,200 personnel during the austral summer, with about 150 winterers. Its 80-plus buildings include (or have included in the past) stores, bars, and even a bowling alley. McMurdo Station Antarctica—only about two miles from New Zealand’s Scott Base—opened in December 1956 and remains the nerve center of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Incidentally, if you’re interested to see what life is like there, there’s a great documentary called Antarctica: A Year On Ice.

The Amundsen Scott South Pole Station is the research base at Antarctica’s best-known landmark: the Geographic South Pole itself. Opened in February 1957, this year-round station was majorly upgraded in 2008 to form a fully connected facility raised up above the drifting snow that continually threatened to bury the former station dome.

Set atop the Polar Plateau ice sheet, some 9,000 feet deep here, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station hosts about 90 staff and 60 scientists in summer, and roughly 40 staff and nine scientists in winter.

A ring of international flags marks the Ceremonial South Pole beside the station: an iconic Antarctic photo op for the comparatively few tourists who make the journey to the world’s southernmost point.

Jointly operated by France and Italy, Concordia Station is, along with Vostok and Amunsden-Scott, one of only three year-round Antarctic research stations in the interior of the White Continent. Set at 3,233 meters/10,607 feet on East Antarctica’s Polar Plateau, its demanding, bleak environment makes it (among other scientific pursuits) keenly interesting to the European Space Agency in terms of simulating extraterrestrial human endeavors.

Situated along Admiralty Bay on the Keller Peninsula of King George Island, this Brazilian base was entirely rebuilt—and substantially upgraded—after its predecessor burned down in a fire in 2012: a stark reminder of the risk a station fire poses in the dry, windy Antarctic climate.

The $100 million redesign marked a significant boost in Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station’s research capabilities in climate science, molecular biology, and other pursuits, and also unveiled state-of-the-art, “hotel-style” accommodations for up to 64 personnel.

The southernmost of the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Antarctic research stations, Halley VI is also “the world’s first relocatable research facility,” as the BAS describes it. Its unique design—eight modules or pods, rigged atop hydraulic legs with skis and each easily towable—reflects its dynamic location upon the Brunt Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea.

Naturally shunted via ice-shelf movements as it is, the Halley VI Research Station is vulnerable to calving off on an iceberg, so it’s safeguarded by a grid of GPS sensors termed the “Lifeline of Halley” network. Nearby ice splintering prompted the wholesale move of the station in 2016 and 2017, after which this previously year-round station shifted to summer-only staff (with automated wintertime data collection).

The Halley VI Research Station is also notable for first documenting the hole in the ozone layer back in 1985.

Owned by Belgium but operated by the International Polar Foundation, Princess Elisabeth Antarctica is a summer-only research station situated on Utsteinen Nunatak in Queen Maud Land. Opened in 2009, it’s notable as Antarctica’s first zero-emissions base, powered as it entirely is by solar and wind energy.

While many Antarctic bases and research stations are off the beaten path in terms of the tourism circuit, some are readily visited on cruises, sightseeing flights, and other experiences. Argentina’s Esperanza Base welcomes more than 1,000 tourists in an average year, for example. Other Antarctica research stations that can, depending on conditions and the itinerary, be visited include Ukraine’s Academician Vernadsky Station, Britain’s Rothera Station, and Russia’s Bellingshausen Station—not to mention, of course, the Ceremonial South Pole at the American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

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