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Spoiled isolation

US science authorities are looking to expand Summit Station in Greenland before its popularity becomes its downfall
Sorry, no vacancy (Photo: Nasa)

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Find Greenland on a map, and then find the centre of the island. There you will find both its highest point (3,216m) and the appropriately named Summit Station.

Summit Station is as far as you can get from just about anything. It is 360km to Greenland’s eastern coast, and it is 500km to the western coast. The closest settlement, Ittoqqortoormiit (pop.452), is some 460km away.

As daunting as that isolation may sound, it has made Summit Station, operated by the US National Science Foundation, a popular place with scientists looking to conduct experiments as far away from air or light pollution as they can get. But, ironically, Summit Station’s isolation is such a draw that the number of scientists seeking to come there has increased dramatically in recent years and threatens to spoil its value.

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During the summer, the station houses as many as 55 scientists and staff. But due to a lack of quarters, some of them must sleep outside in tents in temperatures as low as -11 C. More than just leading to a housing shortage, the additional residents also create more local pollution in the form of engine exhaust from the aeroplanes that take them and their equipment there, to the diesel generators and snowmobiles that are essential to life on the base.

Air pollution has in certain cases become so great that scientists must factor it when taking measurements.

But if Summit Station is crowded now, just wait. In 2018, the US and Taiwan are expected to have completed work on a radio telescope measuring 12m in diameter. The telescope will be used to search for black holes, and when linked with a similar facility in Chile, it will create a much sharper image of the heavens than either could alone. In addition to bringing in more scientists, the increased activity at the base means that station’s permanent staff of five will double 10.

In order to keep up with the increasing interest in making use of Summit Station, while at the same time preserving it as a place where research can be carried out without being tainted by pollution, the National Science Foundation has been forced to incorporate some new ideas into a planned expansion.

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Among them are a decision to build the radio telescope more than a kilometre away from other buildings, a landing strip will be moved further east and the base’s facilities will, in general, be spread over a larger area.

Another initiative will be increased reliance on renewable energy. The source that will be used remains unidentified, however. Previous attempts with wind have proven inadequate, while solar would be less than optimal, given the winter darkness and the narrow angle of the sun during the summer.

No figure has been made public about the cost of the expansion, but sources say it is likely to put a strain on the National Science Foundation’s operating budget of $40 million for all its Arctic bases.