Medevac Launched for South Pole Research Station Worker

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When you get sick at the South Pole, you can't just ring up your local doctor and swing by his office for a check-up. (WPVI)

When you get sick at the South Pole, you can't just ring up your local doctor and swing by his office for a check-up.

Multiple agencies are called in to consult, multiple plans are offered up and multiple airplanes are requested for evacuation from one of the harshest environments on Earth.

The National Science Foundation announced today that it has launched a medical evacuation mission for one of the 48 members currently living and working at its facility at the South Pole.

"After comprehensive consultation with outside medical professionals, agency officials decided that a medical situation at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station warrants returning a member of the station's winter crew to a hospital that can provide a level of medical care that is unavailable at the station," the NSF said in a statement.

The mission kicked off this morning in Calgary, Canada, on board two Twin Otter aircraft operated by Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian firm that provides contractual logistical support to the Antarctic Program. To battle freezing temperatures and extreme darkness, the design of the Twin Otter aircraft is crucial on this type of mission, as they "operate in extremely low temperatures and are able to land on skis," the NSF said in its statement.

There's also no runway at Amundsen-Scott Station, so the two aircraft will be landing in complete darkness on compacted snow.

The two planes will fly from Canada through South America and eventually land at Rothera, a research station nearly 2,000 kilometers due south of Argentina on the Antarctic Peninsula managed by the British Antarctic Survey and in use since 1975. While one aircraft continues on for another 1,500 miles to the South Pole to pick up the NSF member, the other aircraft will stay behind at Rothera and assist with search-and-rescue missions, officials said.

The Kenn Borek firm has flown two similar medevac missions to the South Pole -- in 2001 and 2003. But like any flight made between the months of February and October (Antarctica's winter), much depends on Mother Nature.

"The mission will be highly weather-dependent and the current best-case scenario is that a plane would arrive at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station no sooner than June 19," the NSF said.

"Because of the complexity of the operation, the evacuation will require contributions from multiple entities involved in the U.S. Antarctic Program including weather forecasts from the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR) Center Atlantic; expertise from the University of Texas Medical Branch; and various contributions from ASC, NSF's Colorado-based Antarctic logistics contractor as well as assistance from other nations," the NSF added.

NSF declined to comment further on the personal or medical information regarding the NSF member in question, but it did confirm that the patient is "seasonally employed through the Lockheed Martin Antarctic Support Contract," a contract firm the NSF regularly uses in its United States Antarctic Program.

Amundsen-Scott is one of three year-round stations NSF operates in Antarctica in its role as manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program, in addition to McMurdo Station and Palmer Station.

NSF currently oversees "long-term monitoring of the atmosphere and its constituent gases -- such as methane and carbon dioxide -- and scientific observations by two radio telescopes; the 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP/Keck telescopes, which are using the Cosmic Microwave Background to investigate the early history of the universe, including investigations of dark energy and dark matter that makes up most of the cosmos."

The NSF also oversees the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory, "which is designed to observe subatomic particles, produced by some of the most violent and exotic cosmic phenomena, including black holes," the statement added.

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