Evacuation Under Way for South Pole Doctor

The Air Force has mounted a mission to the South Pole to evacuate a physician who may have breast cancer. In an attempt to land at the pole as soon as the antarctic spring permits, two ski-equipped planes took off today from an airfield in New York.

In June, the staff doctor at the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station discovered a lump in one of her breasts. Because the frigid temperatures and perpetual darkness prevent planes from landing during the antarctic winter, NSF opted to air-drop drugs and diagnostic equipment (ScienceNOW, 12 July). Since then, Jerri Nielsen, 47, has been treating herself, in consultation with stateside physicians. Now NSF and the Air Force are trying to bring Nielsen back--and drop off a replacement doctor--as soon as they can safely land a plane at the station.

It's an early arrival. While the first flights of the summer season descend on the coastal McMurdo Station as early as August, planes typically don't land at the South Pole until early November. But by landing the ski-equipped planes at McMurdo by 12 October, NSF hopes to be able to fly one of them to the pole at the first sign of acceptable weather. Temperatures must be above -50 degrees Celsius to prevent hydraulics from freezing. (To check current weather at the pole, go to the station Web site.)

Unlike the airdrop in June, the planes will not be carrying any cargo to McMurdo or the South Pole. Nor will they be taking along any film crews--a CBS camera team went along on the June drop. That's to protect the privacy of Nielsen, who has requested not to be interviewed, and to "minimize distractions" for the crew, says NSF spokesperson Peter West.