Tag Archives: Engineering

Heavy Lifting

Establishing and maintaining a long-term station on an ice sheet raises unique challenges for engineering and construction and with over a mile of ice beneath us it’s a constant battle to keep surface structures unburied. The South Pole faces similar issues, but the issue there is primarily drifting, thus the aerodynamic shape. At Summit it’s not only drifting, but also the issue of roughly a meter of snow accumulation annually. To deal with this issue there are several ideas in use: some buildings are on skis and can be dragged around the station with heavy equipment, others are modular and can be moved every few years to a berm which will gradually be buried, a few instruments are buried in vaults, and many are seasonal – simply taken down and put on a berm for winter to be set up come summer.
The Big House and TAWO however, utilize an “infinite leg” system. The buildings are raised up on stilts, or legs, and can slide up as the snow level, or grade, rises. Once they reach the top of the legs another section can be welded on and the process continues. Let me say at this point that this is not quite as easy as it sounds…but it does work and it’s pretty awesome!

The Big House is essentially a double wide trailer with the kitchen, a large refrigerator, a scullery, a bathroom with a shower and a toilet stall, the manager’s office and comms, and large common space that’s used as a dining and living room. There are lots of windows and it’s quite homey. Beneath the building, in the area scoured clear by the wind moving under the structure, there is a wide metal hatch leading down to the freezer trench where all dry and frozen food is stored. With the accumulation rate at about a meter a year, the Big House is raised every two years. During my first year up here (2010) they welded on new leg extensions and raised the building. They raised it again in 2012 and now again in 2014. The hollow, square, steel legs have holes drilled through them every ~6inches. The building rests on a set of 3/4in steel bolts that run through the holes on each leg. BHJacks2014bSmall platforms are bolted to the legs below the building. When it’s time to raise the building hydraulic jacks are securely bolted to each of the smaller platforms. The jacks are connected to a manifold which regulates the hydraulic pressure across all the jacks – the system has a lifting capacity of about 120,000lbs. The jacks lift the building just enough to take the weight and then the upper bolts (or pins) can be manually removed. Once those are all removed the building is resting on the jacks and the lower platforms. It can then be raised to the next set of holes where the pins are replaced, slowly inching its way up 4-6 feet. TAWO is designed in much the same way, but a bit smaller in scale.

Here are some photos from 2010 and 2014:

The Big House encrusted with frost and snow in April 2010

The Big House encrusted with frost and snow in April 2010

The Big House in April 2010

The Big House in April 2010

The kitchen

The kitchen

The scullery

The scullery

The common living/dining room

The common living/dining room

BHlegs2010

The Big House with one set of new legs in 2010

Raising the Big House in 2010

Raising the Big House in 2010

BHRaise2014

The Big House being raised in 2014

One of the jacks in place

One of the jacks in place

The hydraulic lines all hooked up

The hydraulic lines all hooked up

The Big House at it current height

The Big House at it current height

TAWO in 2011

TAWO in 2011

The midnight sun on Aug 2

The midnight sun on Aug 2

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Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Summit Station

The Elevated Station

The sign welcoming visitors and tourists to the South Pole

I’ve written a little bit about the station in previous posts, but here is a little bit more about the station itself.

The Elevated Station sits about 12 feet above the ground on large steel pilings. Facing the Ceremonial Pole the front of the two story station is smooth and flat – the lower level cut away for a more aerodynamic shape in an attempt to reduce drifting issues. Four wings extend off the backside toward the berms. The long “front” of the station is where most communal sites are, while the gym, a lounge, an emergency power plant, bathrooms and housing are in the wings.

The back of the station

Emergency escape stairs leading off the end of each wing

Looking under the station – the Ceremonial Pole is to the right

There are three main entrances/exits to the station: Destination Alpha (D.A.), Destination Zulu (D.Z.), and the “Beer Can.” D.A. is the grand entrance and is closest to the skyway. A wide stair case and short steps make for an easy climb for all the folks fresh off the herc and unused to the altitude. D.Z. is a little rougher with unfinished wood railing, but is the primary entrance to and from Summer Camp. All the doors are large metal freezer doors with hanging sheets of plastic on the inside to block out drafts. The “Beer Can” is a tall metal sheathed unheated cylinder housing many sets stairs that lead from the upper level of the station down to the Ice Tunnels and Arches. While an elevator was installed to help transport heavy awkward cargo and food, people must take the stairs.

Destination Alpha

Destination Zulu

The "Beer Can" the nickname was not officially endorsed, but it stuck

The windows lighting the above snow portion of the Beer Can

The lower level of the station contains a small lounge with some books and couches for movie watching. There is also an IT room that focuses on the radio and satellite equipment, the Craft Room, Reading Room/Library, Laundry room, Greenhouse, Post Office/Store and a coat room. The upper level has the Galley, computer lab, science lab, and two conference rooms. Both levels look very similar and it’s a little confusing at first trying to remember which floor the library is on.

The "Quite Reading Room" or Library

Looking down the hallway outside the Reading Room - towards D.A.

With Summer Camp being a bit of a walk away I try not to make more trips than necessary. On Sundays I shower out in Summer Camp then take my laundry and anything else I’ll want for the day and head into the station.

The Elevated Station is the third station to be constructed here at the South Pole. In 1957 the US Navy constructed “Old Pole” which was followed by the iconic Dome. Over the past 10 years the new Elevated station was constructed and the Dome was taken down piece by piece, and shipped back to the states. Old Pole, on the other hand, had a far more interesting fate.

After being abandoned Old Pole was buried completely by about 30 feet of drifting snow. In the summer of 2009-10 a piece of equipment that was driving in the vicinity fell into a cavity that had formed around the remaining buildings. The area was cordoned off and last summer a team from CRREL (Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory) came to survey the area with ground penetrating radar. With future safety in mind they decided to implode Old Pole. Crushing the buildings and collapsing the cavities with explosives. As a General Assistant last summer I got to help out with this project. Holes were drilled with hot water 30 feet deep to the station level and strings of 7-9 sticks (5.5lb each) of dynamite were lowered on detcord. Three days and three blasts later the site was finally deemed stable.

The blasters from McMurdo brought boxes of tnt for the project

Stringing the explosives together on detcord

It was a chilly day – all the frost on my face is from my breath condensing and freezing to my neck gaitor and hat.

It was quite the project and the other G.A. Jason and I were very excited to be a part of the small blasting crew. On the day of the blast people lined the roof tops of the buildings here and a general all-call was made by comms so no one would miss out. Using an old pump action detonating device we ignited the detcord. Geysers of snow shot up from each hole like a giant water fountain display and cameras clicked away. I stood with the blasting crew a safe distance away.

This was taken from the roof of the station – not by me – I was in the brown coat right in between the two red Pisten Bullys

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Filed under Antarctic, History, South Pole, Stations

One Hundred Years

December 14, 1911. One Hundred years ago.

Superconductivity was discovered, Bingham rediscovered Machu Pichu in Peru, the first public elevator was unveiled, and construction began in Boston for Fenway Park.

Only three years before, in 1908, the Ford Model-T car made its debut. The year after, in 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. It would be another three years yet, in 1914, that the First World War began.

One hundred years ago today, Roald Amundsen of Norway (1872-1928) became the first man to reach the Geographic South Pole. He and four companions left the coast, anchoring their ship the Fram in the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea on October 20th and arriving at the South Pole on December 14th 1911. They stayed for three day to take, and re-take, sun measurements and verify their actual position at the Pole.

Amundsen's team leaving their ship the Fram

Taking a solar observation at the South Pole on Dec 14, 1911

It was a long and arduous journey – a race against England’s Robert F. Scott. Yet as much as it was a competition between contemporary polar explorers it was a competition between the established country of England and the young nation of Norway (which gained independence in 1905). Both were experienced and tenacious men, however the two differed significantly in their planning, preparation, and outlook. The goals of the two teams also differed in that Scott and his financial supporters saw the expedition as a platform for science as much as exploration, whereas Amundsen’s primary purpose was to reach the Pole as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Roald Amundsen

Robert Falcon Scott

Learning from his experience in the North and with the Inuit populations Amundsen’s team brought dog teams and sleds, skiing much of the way. Amundsen had dreamed of being the first to reach the North Pole, but Frederick Cook and Robert Peary beat him to it, reaching the North Pole in 1908-9. He thus turned his passion for polar exploration to the South. Scott on the other hand, was motivated less by passion than by duty. He would have received notable promotion upon planting Britain’s flag at the Pole. He brought ponies, who unlike the dogs could not eat penguin and seal meat and whose fodder had to be brought all the way). They designed special snowshoes for the ponies, but these proved to be fragile. When the ponies succumbed to the harsh cold and exertion they resorted to man-hauling the heavy and cumbersome sledges by foot. While Amundsen’s men had been skiing for many years Scott did not attempt to do so before starting the journey itself. It proved to be difficult and frustrating and in the end they walked. Another piece which I found particularly interesting with a sizable rock collection in storage myself: Scott and his men hauled over 30 lbs of rock samples from the mountains they passed early in the journey all the way to the pole.

Amundsen near the Pole with his dog team

A photo from Amundsen's journey

Perhaps surprisingly Scott did manage to make it to the South Pole, arriving on January 17th, 1912. Heartbroken at finding Amundsen’s tent and Norwegian flag planted and left more than a month prior he turned around depressed and pessimistic. Tragically while Amundsen returned to his base camp, with no casualties, nearly 100 days after leaving, none of Scott’s expedition survived the return march from the Pole.

Upon his return and his telegram announcing their success in reaching the Pole Roald Amundsen penned a manuscript detailing his voyage and experience:
“Brisbane, Queensland, April 13, 1912.
Here I am, sitting in the shade of palms, surrounded by the most wonderful
vegetation, enjoying the most magnificent fruits, and writing — the history of
the South Pole. What an infinite distance seems to separate that region from
these surroundings! And yet it is only four months since my gallant comrades and
I reached the coveted spot.
I write the history of the South Pole! If anyone had hinted a word of anything
of the sort four or five years ago, I should have looked upon him as incurably
mad. And yet the madman would have been right. One circumstance has followed on
the heels of another, and everything has turned out so entirely different from
what I had imagined.
On December 14, 1911, five men stood at the southern end of our earth’s axis,
planted the Norwegian flag there, and named the region after the man for whom
they would all gladly have offered their lives — King Haakon VII. Thus the veil
was torn aside for all time, and one of the greatest of our earth’s secrets had
ceased to exist.”

The official photo of Amundsen's team and the tent and flag they erected

On November 29th, 1929 Admiral Byrd flew over the South Pole, but Scott’s arrival in January 1912, marked the last man stood at the Pole itself until 1957. It was the International Polar Year (IPY) and the US Navy constructed the first South Pole Station. There has been a US station manned year-round ever since. The first women did not make it to the Pole for another 12 years. In November 1969 six women stepped off the back of a US Navy plane, so none could claim to be the first, these women were Pam Young, Jean Pearson, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney, Kay Lindsay, and Terry Tickhill.

The first women to stand at the South Pole - US Navy photo

The first station, now familiarly called “Old Pole”, was built of simple rectangular buildings and covered walkways placed on the snow itself. Steadily the drifting snow began to bury the place and in the end it was buried completely. In 1972-73 the iconic Dome was built and Old Pole was abandoned. Construction of the new Elevated Station began in 2000 and was finally completed in 2008. The Dome has since been completely deconstructed and Old Pole was demolished last year. (a post about that event will come shortly)


Today the new Elevated Station rises almost majestically above the wide flat polar plateau. It looks a bit futuristic, standing eerily out of place reminiscent of the obelisk in 2001 Space Odyssey. Shinning a dark grey-green with a sloping aerodynamic bottom it sits about 15-20 feet above the ice beneath on numerous columnar legs. Four wings or “pods” stretch back towards the cargo yard, summer camp, and the berms. The front of the station faces the Ceremonial Pole; the galley windows looking out over the white nothingness to the often indistinct flat line of the horizon. There are over 230 people here today: support staff, research groups, and DVs or Distinguished Visitors and over 90 tourists/visitors – a record for the largest number of people at the South Pole yet! Of note the Prime Minister of Norway is here for the centennial along with several camera crews and advisors. A small tent city of tourists has grown about 500m on the other side of the Pole, facing the station. Two larger tents have been erected as a visitor’s center in something of the middle ground. Tourists are not allowed into the station except in small guided groups, we are not to go marching into their tent area without express permission. Most are on Chile’s time. It’s a bit surreal sometimes to be having breakfast and watching men and women pose next to the Pole in their expensive and brightly colored expedition down suits. Some have skied in all the way from the coast, some flew in today, some are self-supported, but most are with tour companies. There are world renowned adventurers and mountaineers and people who just had enough cash to buy the ticket. And then there are us – here for several months in the name of science to maintain the U.S. presence at the axis of the Earth.

It’s remarkable really, to think of all that has happened in the past 100 years; from World War 1, to putting men on the Moon, to the development of the internet and cell phones. There are few places as untouched as this. If one were to walk away from the station, off the groomed and pushed or drifted snow, past the bamboo poles and little nylon colored flags, past the buildings and berms and antennas, past the snowmobiles/machines and heavy equipment, past the exhaust of the power plant and furnaces…if one were to pass beyond these signs of habitation the view is exactly the same as Amundsen and Scott and their men witnessed a century ago. Beyond our bubble, our island of influence here, we are surrounded by literally hundred of miles of snow and ice, the emptiness that is the Great Flat White.

An excerpt describing in detail the arrival at the Pole from The South Pole Vol. 1 and 2 by Roald Amundsen:

“The weather during the forenoon had been just as fine as before; in the afternoon we had some snow-showers from the south-east. It was like the eve of some great festival that night in the tent. One could feel that a great event was at hand. Our flag was taken out again and lashed to the same two ski-sticks as before. Then it was rolled up and laid aside, to be ready when the time came. I was awake several times during the night, and had the same feeling that I can remember as a little boy on the night before Christmas Eve — an intense expectation of what was going to happen. Otherwise I think we slept just as well that night as any other.
On the morning of December 14 the weather was of the finest, just as if it had
been made for arriving at the Pole. I am not quite sure, but I believe we despatched our breakfast rather more quickly than usual and were out of the tent sooner, though I must admit that we always accomplished this with all reasonable haste. We went in the usual order — the forerunner, Hanssen, Wisting, Bjaaland, and the reserve forerunner. By noon we had reached 89º 53′ by dead reckoning, and made ready to take the rest in one stage. At 10 a.m. a light breeze had sprung up from the south-east, and it had clouded over, so that we got no noon altitude; but the clouds were not thick, and from time to time we had a glimpse of the sun through them. The going on that day was rather different from what it had been; sometimes the ski went over it well, but at others it was pretty bad. We advanced that day in the same mechanical way as before; not much was said, but eyes were used all the more. Hanssen’s neck grew twice as long as before in his endeavour to see a few inches farther. I had asked him before we started to spy out ahead for all he was worth, and he did so with a vengeance. But, however keenly he stared, he could not descry anything but the endless flat plain ahead of us. The dogs had dropped their scenting, and appeared to have lost their interest in the regions about the earth’s axis.

At three in the afternoon a simultaneous “Halt!” rang out from the drivers. They had carefully examined their sledge-meters, and they all showed the full distance — our Pole by reckoning. The goal was reached, the journey ended. I cannot say — though I know it would sound much more effective — that the object of my life was attained. That would be romancing rather too bare-facedly. I had better be honest and admit straight out that I have never known any man to be placed in such a diametrically opposite position to the goal of his desires as I was at that moment. The regions around the North Pole — well, yes, the North Pole itself — had attracted me from childhood, and here I was at the South Pole. Can anything more topsy-turvy be imagined? We reckoned now that we were at the Pole. Of course, every one of us knew that we were not standing on the absolute spot; it would be an impossibility with the time and the instruments at our disposal to ascertain that exact spot. But we were so near it that the few miles which possibly separated us from it could not be of the slightest importance. It was our intention to make a circle round this camp, with a radius of twelve and a half miles (20 kilometres), and to be satisfied with that. After we had halted we collected and congratulated each other. We had good grounds for mutual respect in what had been achieved, and I think that was just the feeling that was expressed in the firm and powerful grasps of the fist that were exchanged. After this we proceeded to the greatest and most solemn act of the whole journey — the planting of our flag. Pride and affection shone in the five pairs of eyes that gazed upon the flag, as it unfurled itself with a sharp crack, and waved over the Pole. I had determined that the act of planting it — the historic event — should be equally divided among us all. It was not for one man to do this; it was for all who had staked their lives in the struggle, and held together through thick and thin. This was the only way in which I could show my gratitude to my comrades in this desolate spot. I could see that they understood and accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered. Five weather-beaten, frost-bitten fists they were that grasped the pole, raised the waving flag in the air, and planted it as the first at the geographical South Pole. “Thus we plant thee, beloved flag, at the South Pole, and give to the plain on which it lies the name of King Haakon VII.’s Plateau.”

That moment will certainly be remembered by all of us who stood there. One gets out of the way of protracted ceremonies in those regions — the shorter they are the better. Everyday life began again at once.

Discovery has a brief and interesting article at:
http://news.discovery.com/adventure/100-years-ago-today-amundsens-farthest-south-111208.html

Bill Spindler has a great summary of Antarctic history at: http://southpolestation.com/trivia/igy/intro.html. More recent history can be found by following the link at the bottom back to the Timeline.

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Filed under Antarctic, History, South Pole

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station United States Antarctic Program

Bright. That’s probably the first thought that comes to mind, the first perception my senses register. The sun is up 24/7 during the austral summer and at nearly 10,000ft, with no ozone, extremely low atmospheric water content, and virtually no dust it’s harsh. Beneath me the earth is pure white snow. Above me the sky is one moment a cirrus haze…and the next a most magnificent infinite blue.

Then, Cold! A shock that steals the first breath and nips at bare skin. So cold sometimes the metal tracks of the heavy equipment crackles like rice crispies. So cold that doorknobs stick to finger tips and palms. So cold that breath freezes onto eye lashes like chunky white mascara and films over sunglasses, hats, and gaiters, with persistent frost.

The world down here is white and blue; the horizon as flat as a sheet of paper. The only place that has come close to this openness is the sea, far from the sight of land. The minute relief of sastrugi provides a bit of texture, it is the waves of the ice – the result of the constant wind that drifts and scours, transporting some grains and hardening others. The result is a beautiful wave-like surface. They generally rise no more than a foot or so in undisturbed areas around Pole, but can grow to several feet with sheer sides depending on conditions.

The white and blue horizon of the polar plateau. Note the sastrugi on the wave-like surface.

It’s sterile here. The first step off the plane is exhilarating to most, myself included, but can instill a deep sense of intruding in some people – a sense that humans are not suppose to be here. That life is not supposed to be here. It takes an enormous amount of energy to support a station here, a fact that is not forgotten or taken lightly. There is no plant or animal life, nothing to smell; too dry even for mold. Some days this simple world seems untainted and pure, while at other times it’s just dead. We joke about the common sense of the rest of the animal kingdom not to venture to the edge of the world.

Despite all of this it’s beautiful. The cold is bearable and just adds to the sense of exotic and adventure. It’s at once a very plain and simple landscape, but also one of the most complex I’ve encountered. Like the sea there are innumerable moods to the seemingly boring landscape of snow and ice. Never exactly pure white, it’s a mix of pale blues, yellows, greens, purples, pinks, browns, and grays – a bit like clouds. The texture and movement of the snow changes by the hour.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station beneath the immense sky.

Welcome to the South Pole, Antarctica.

90 degrees South – where the pin fits into the bottom (or top) of the globe. It’s on the rotational axis of earth, so standing at the surveyed pole itself you are in all time-zones simultaneously! For convenience we operate on New Zealand and McMurdo time. This means we’re a day ahead of the U.S. because we crossed the date line flying to N.Z. At the time of this post it is 6pm on November 12 here, and 9pm November 11 on the Pacific Coast.
The sun rises and sets once a year at the Equinox and other than a few weeks of dusky-dawn light it’s either daylight or night 24/7. The sun follows a gradual spiral higher and higher to a point about 23.5 degrees above the horizon at the December solstice, and subsequently follows its path down to a point at the same angle below the horizon in June. (This is indeed the same angle as the earth’s tilt – if the earth spun on a axis exactly perpendicular to its orbital plane the sun here would stay right on the horizon all year round)

There’s no change in temperature between noon and midnight. It’s just varying degrees of cold. While -50F to -60F isn’t unusual for this time of year the temperature will gradually rise to -30F and up to almost 0F around New Years before dropping again in February. Lately it’s been very warm for this early in the season – yesterday the high was -32.4 F and the low was -42.7 F.

A red and white barbershop pole topped by a mirrored ball marks the “Ceremonial Pole” and is surrounded by the flags of the first 12 countries to sign the Antarctic Treaty.

The Ceremonial Pole

This site is positioned pictorially front and center of the new station. The actual Geographic Pole is a little ways away. The ice here is gradually moving towards the sea carrying the station and everything else here with it. This motion makes it seem as if the Geographic Pole is moving. Eventually it will sit right on top of the VMF or Vehicle Maintenance Facility (aka Garage)! Surveyed annually the actual pole is marked by a metal rod and a sculpture designed by the departing winter-over crew.

The Amundsen-Scott U.S. South Pole Station is named for the first two men to reach the Pole. It was a close race and a competition not only of the men and their crews, but of the countries and philosophies they represented. Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14th 1911. Sir Robert Falcon Scott arrived on January 17, 1912. Brokenhearted, Scott died on his return to the coast.

There have been several stations here since the U.S. Navy erected a year-round base in 1957. The modern station is a futuristic two story building raised up about 15ft on pilings.

The back of the station as seen from the Cargo Yard where we build and tear down pallets from the aircraft

In theory the wind scours beneath and around the structure automatically clearing drifts. Like everything here it works better on paper. In practice, while it does scour quite well directly underneath, a large bow wave-like drift grows in front of the station and long contrail-like dunes extend downwind. This main building contains housing for ~150 people, a kitchen and galley, a small gym, a half basket ball court, an emergency power plant, a small experimental hydroponic greenhouse, a few lounges for movie watching and game playing, a little self-help library,   a laundry room and bathrooms.

I took this picture of the front of the station last year during an early season storm.

The other ~100 or so souls that reside at Pole during the austral summer live in “Summer Camp.” A series of Jamesways about a quarter mile from the main station. Jamesways are structures of insulated fabric stretched over wooden ribs on a wood foundation.

A few of the Jamesways in Summer Camp

The view of the station from Summer Camp – as we sleep in Summer Camp and all meals are in the station it’s a bit of walk each morning and evening, especially at -30F or -40F and at ~10,000ft.

They are dark and warm inside, which is really what counts. The space inside is separated into 8-10 rooms with walls of canvas curtains and a narrow walkway down the middle. Over the years people have taken charge of their small space installing desks, windows, plywood walls, or cubbies and shelves. Each space is unique.

J-12: my home away from home this austral summer

People from all over the world, with a full range of backgrounds and experiences, end up down here. The dinner conversations alone are fascinating.

A picture of me last year as a G.A. or General Assistant as we shoveled out buried Summer Camp doors

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Filed under Antarctic, History, South Pole, Stations