Bottom of the World: The Dome at the Amundsen-Scott base, where Aussie scientist Rodney Marks died in 2000.
Credit: Brien Barnett / National Science Foundation

Antarctica belongs to no one. Seven countries officially have territorial claims on the continent, but the U.S. has never recognized any of them. Supported by a 1959 treaty of cooperation, 29 countries have set up scientific research stations there, and an ever-changing population of up to 4,500 scientists and support staff from all corners of the globe call it home for anywhere from four days to 14 months at a time.

Nearly all who come to work in Antarctica will first touch down in McMurdo, the continent's only working township. Resembling a small town in arctic Alaska, it sits at the edge of the ice, where it meets the Southern Ocean. Getting off the plane in Mac Town for the first time is a startling experience. The eight-hour flight from New Zealand aboard one of the cavernous military cargo planes leaves ears ringing and backsides numb. After landing, sensory overload gives way to the blinding absence of color and a Hoth-like landscape: a smoldering volcano in one direction, the Royal Society range and Mount Discovery across McMurdo Sound, ice and snow everywhere.

Nearly a thousand miles from McMurdo, at 90 degrees south, just 100 yards or so from the always slightly moving geographic pole marker, sits the Amundsen-Scott research station, the loneliest habitation on Earth. Named for the first two explorers to reach the South Pole – separately in 1911 and 1912 – the American base is run by the National Science Foundation. In the mid-'50s, the intensifying Cold War goaded the United States into establishing a presence on the continent, so the navy announced it would build and man a permanent base at the South Pole. It launched Operation Deep Freeze in 1955, primarily as a research endeavor. The Dome, in which Marks lived, replaced the original station in 1975. It comprises three separate two-story structures that sit beneath an 18,000-square-foot, 50-foot-high geodesic shell, which acts as a giant windbreak, sheltering the living quarters from the deadly sting of the elements. The buildings themselves look like red portable sheds stacked on top of one another, each with a thick walk-in-freezer-style door.

Amundsen-Scott is populated year-round by scientists – most working for American universities and studying the atmosphere, astronomy, or seismology – and a support staff that includes everyone from cooks to carpenters. Nearly 250 people are based there in the summer, but the population shrinks to just a quarter of that for the austral winter: February through October.

The first week of February is frenzied as the remaining summer crew clears out and the winter crew receives its vital resupplies. The real cold arrives in March, and the base becomes a very different place: Soon the sun no longer makes it above the horizon, and it becomes so cold (temperatures regularly hit minus-80) that a plane's hydraulic fluids would freeze solid within minutes of touching down. After the last plane leaves, there's no way in or out for eight months, and the continent goes dark and quiet, just the way a winter Polie likes it.