South Pole Station Settles into Operational Mode

By Keith Cowing
November 12, 2013
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South Pole Station Settles into Operational Mode
South Pole Station
Jesse Peterson, National Science Foundation

Elbow room. It’s not something one would think to be lacking at South Pole – a location so remote that the first polar explorers only visited the geographic bottom of the planet a little more than a century ago.
A Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen returned triumphant, while Robert Falcon Scott and his fellow Britons perished on the return trip.

It took more than 40 years before anyone returned: A relatively small party of mostly U.S. Navy men and a handful of scientists established a research outpost in 1956, as part of the International Geophysical Year . In the 1970s, a shiny geodesic dome was built to house a new research station. It remained a small hamlet of the U.S. Antarctic Program for a number of years – until scientists recognized the advantages of doing astrophysics there.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station eventually grew to be the metropolis of inner Antarctica. More than 250 people occupied 90 degrees south every austral summer as construction of a third station, built on pillars above the polar plateau, got under way in the late 1990s. It was officially dedicated more than five years ago during the 2007-08 field season.

Designed to hold only 154 people, the station at times seemed more crowded than Seattle’s Pike Place Market at the height of tourist season. Big red parkas and tanned Carhartt jackets lined the long hallways.

The cold weather gear belonged to the 100-plus Polies who lived in South Pole’s version of suburbia known as Summer Camp, a dozen or so tent buildings called Jamesways heated by furnaces.

Meal times in the cafeteria nearly required traffic cops, as diners dashed in and out with trays of food laden with thousands of calories, as a bulwark against the extreme outdoor temperatures.

In other words, there was no elbow room. Until this past season.

Growing smaller

The station population dropped dramatically during the 2012-13 summer, a three-and-a-half month period when the sun shines 24 hours and ski-equipped military planes land with regularity on a packed snow skiway. The population never topped 168 people.

“The big headline news this season is that we’re making that adjustment. We’re starting that trajectory toward design,” explained Bill Coughran, South Pole area manager, referring to the intention of operating the station based on its capacity to house everyone inside the 65,000-square-foot building.

Gone is the 100-person strong construction crew that even in the summer worked in temperatures well below freezing to build the station and ancillary buildings like the power plant, garage and logistics arch. The cargo department has shrunk, now that the heavy stream of cargo planes bringing construction materials has turned into a trickle.

“Ramping down in a program like this is hard. It’s difficult to get consensus on anything,” noted Coughran, who has spent more than 20 seasons on the Ice, including six winters. “We are ripping the Band-Aid off.”

Even the big science projects of the last decade – the South Pole Telescope and IceCube Neutrino Observatory – have transitioned from construction to maintenance and observation.

People appreciate the new elbow room, said Andres Martinez, South Pole Station facilities engineer.

“The station is not bursting at the seams, the galley isn’t bursting at the seams, the lounges aren’t bursting at the seams with people,” said Martinez, who has twice wintered at the South Pole. “It’s actually very comfortable. They designed it right.”

Inside, the layout includes a gymnasium, library, cafeteria, store, hydroponic greenhouse and single-person rooms with Internet connection. Outside, the aerodynamic design of the elevated station allows air to flow underneath the structure, which helps to control the snowdrift around the building. One problem with the two previous stations is that they were being buried and crushed by the weight of the snow.

“The design of the building has done what it was supposed to do in terms of the scouring underneath,” Martinez said. “It’s drifting just like they said it would. It’s neat to see that.”

Reasons for slashing the population go well beyond giving people more space. The greatly reduced workforce and workload saves the National Science Foundation , which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, millions of dollars. The savings is particularly acute in energy, where a gallon of fuel eventually ends up costing more than $30 by the time it reaches the South Pole.

“You’re not using as much power,” Martinez noted. “Summer Camp required a lot of maintenance.”

Overpopulation was also starting to put wear and tear on the infrastructure. The kitchen, for example, was never intended to serve meals to 250 people through the summer months. A hundred less mouths to feed has eased the congestion and chaos, according to South Pole Station executive chef James Brown.

“We’ve definitely noticed less of an impact when it comes to the dining room,” he said.

The kitchen and dining facility were among the first components of the new station to come online. That was more than a decade ago, noted Brown, who has become the longest-serving executive chef of the world’s truly end-of-the-line restaurant.

Some facilities, such as the station’s power plant and garage, are even older, built during the first phase in the late 1990s of what was known as the South Pole Station Modernization project. Those buildings, housed under metal arches buried by snow, are shifting, requiring them to be shimmed. The arches are also experiencing differential movement. Electrical components attached to both structures have to be reset.

“It was known that it would happen,” said John Rand, an engineering consultant who first traveled to the South Pole during the 1970-71 field season with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) . Rand has the distinction of being the only person who has lived in all three of the research stations that have existed at the South Pole.

“The power plant and infrastructure will be better suited to what it was designed to than trying to do three times as much,” Coughran noted.

Some of the columns of the station itself will need to be shimmed in the near future, Rand noted. The entire building was designed to be lifted 12 feet twice during its lifetime as snow built up around the building.

“I think it will be years out before we raise the station,” Rand said.

Growing up

Perhaps one of the biggest changes since the station was dedicated in January 2008 is cultural. At the time, it was still referred to as the Elevated Station – or, more simply, the El Station. The shell of the Dome Station, constructed in the 1970s, was still standing. Long since buried, the original IGY station from the 1950s, dubbed Old Pole, was more than just memory because the snow surface above the structures was unstable.

Fast forward five years. The dome is mostly in boxes at a naval base in Port Hueneme, Calif. Strategically placed explosives have finally collapsed Old Pole. Only one station remains.

“To me, it’s just South Pole Station,” Coughran said from his second-floor office, which overlooks the ceremonial pole, a shiny globe atop what looks like a barber pole, which itself is surrounded by 12 flags from the nations that originally signed the Antarctic Treaty.

It took some years of convincing before Paul Sullivan finally acquiesced and moved into the new station after years of living in Summer Camp and then the Dome. He said he didn’t want to “get soft” by relocating to the modern facility. It only took about two weeks for him to get used to the new digs.

“If you bring up the Dome, it’s kind of like bringing up a compact disc versus an mp3 player: It’s kind of getting to be something of the past,” said Sullivan, South Pole Station manager of science support.

“The station has come together nicely,” said Rand, who fondly remembers the primitive conditions of living in Old Pole while watching with admiration the construction of the Dome Station by the Navy Seabees.

“Having lived [at Old Pole], it was a little sentimental – but it had to be done,” he said of imploding the buried facility.

The 2013-14 season at South Pole is just around the corner. The plan is to cap the population at about 150 people.

“I think we can get small,” Coughran said.

He has a few things working in his favor.

In recent years, the South Pole Traverse has proven itself to be a reliable way of transporting fuel and some limited cargo from McMurdo Station . The traverse uses tracked Caterpillar and Case tractors to haul bladders of fuel and sleds of cargo across about 1,000 miles on a snow-compacted trail.

“It’s a big change,” Coughran noted. The traverse reduces the amount of flights that are needed to deliver fuel, allowing the station to operate on a single day shift rather than a full 24-hour tempo.

One drawback thus far has been moving oversized cargo overland, he explained. A decade-worth of unused construction material sits on raised berms less than a mile from the station, alongside rows of other materials that have accumulated over the years.

There’s about 125 acres of “stuff” waiting to be moved north, according to Martinez. “Space has always been an in issue here,” he said.

Snow is also always an issue. Some outlying science buildings are slowly being swallowed by the inevitable drift.

NOAA’s Atmospheric Research Observatory will need to be jacked up sooner rather than later. Antarctica’s blowing snow is also engulfing the Balloon Inflation Facility, which is used to launch balloons that carry weather and ozone instruments into the atmosphere.

Fortunately, there are no plans to add more major science projects to the South Pole Station footprint in the near-term. Last year, an antenna array that monitors auroral activity called SuperDARN was built not far from the station, but little else is scheduled.

In reality, there’s no place to plug in another project, according to Sullivan.

“We are definitely making a shift to operations and maintenance science,” he said. “We’re really power limited. We couldn’t take another SPT or IceCube.”

In fact, Coughran would like to see the station footprint shrink further by consolidating buildings and operations – breaking down the departmental barriers that went up as the station population climbed. He would prefer to go back to the days when work was more goal-oriented than job-oriented.

“Once we shift those paradigms, I think we can operate with a lot fewer people,” Coughran said. “We’ll have some fine-tuning to do in the coming years.”

– By Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.