December 24, 2008 | 5
Editor’s note: Marine geophysicist Robin Bell is leading an expedition to Antarctica to explore a mysterious mountain range beneath the ice sheet. Following is the fourteenth of her updates on the effort as part of ScientificAmerican.com’s in-depth report on the "Future of the Poles."
THE SOUTH POLE — We are now 10 days behind schedule. After waiting for almost a week in McMurdo and sitting at South Pole for 2 days, people are getting fidgety and frustrated. For now, the nervous energy for many of them is focused on feeling unwelcome at the main station. The station is bursting at the seams with 300 people in residence. The traverse that dragged our fuel from McMurdo, the U.S. Norwegian Traverse and our AGAP South groups all arrived at once. We were not supposed to end up here at the same time. For a station accustomed to accommodating mainly astronomers, we are an usual assemblage.
We live in the ‘suburbs’ of the state-of-the-art station, sleeping in bunks set up in 1950’s Quonset huts. We eat in our bright blue arched tent. The Twin Otter aircrafts are parked so close it seems as if they will drive between the tables and the stove when they land. It is probably better for everyone to be eating in this intimate setting. The station is a large cafeteria overlooking the South Pole. We have a small triangular window overlooking the aircraft. Before dinner we can sit in the snow banks while spicy smoke billows from our tent as our cook, Dan, and medic, Mel, prepare wicked meals.
As I acclimatize to the altitude, I decide it is time to visit the South Pole Station manager. Dave Scheuerman has been working closely with the rebuilding of South Pole station. He knows almost every nook and cranny of the new space age South Pole station; it seems like his baby. Having heard of our rising frustrations, he kindly asks what he can do to help improve our stay at South Pole. I quickly ask for an oscilloscope, a tour pf the station for our group, and the possibility of working out of South Pole Station if the camp high on the ice sheet cannot support the survey aircraft. He considers each request.
Sunday afternoon is a time when the South Pole is quiet for once. Usually trying to sleep is really difficult, but without the normal traffic of bulldozers, snowmobiles and forklifts we all slept late. At 4:30 in the afternoon, we are set to meet with the station manager for a tour. While the gym, the lounges and the music room are interesting, we are eager to see the innards of this space station on Earth.
It is amazing that somehow this large building remains heated through the long polar night, water comes out of the faucets and the toilets flush. Just like a space station, behind heavy freezer-style doors is a compartment where the people who stay for the winter could survive if the rest of the station were destroyed in a fire. While there is a push for energy efficiency, the station depends on the same fuel supply line that our field station will. The fuel to both is delivered in the wings of a C-130 aircraft and towed over 800 miles from sea level by a surface traverse.
I arrived on the 92nd C-130 flight to the pole this year. The engineers carefully track how much fuel is delivered each week. It takes 450,000 gallons of fuel to run the station for a year. The fuel is used to heat the buildings, power the vehicles and melt the snow to make the water. The water comes from a deep well in which warm water is pumped down over 70’ into the ice sheet. A large subsurface cavity develops, providing the station with water. Scientists have sent a mini robot into the cavity to vacuum the micro-meteorites that accumulate in its base. A well is used until the pond grows too big. ‘Too big’ means when it takes too much energy to keep the cavity open. A new well is drilled and the old one becomes the sink for the station sewage. Beneath the lines of cargo is a maze of subterranean tunnels up to 50 feet below the surface where the temperature is minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just as we are about to turn to go into the tunnels where there are small offerings to the obscure, including a sturgeon given to the station by the Russians, Dave Schueurman’s radio crackles. Mac Ops is looks for me. I will have to skip the tunnels – this may be a good thing given my slight tendency to be claustrophic.
I return the call on the satellite phone. We have been approved to put 12 people in the field camp tomorrow. Our survey aircraft, caught in the weather yesterday, is on its way toward us. We will use two other aircraft to shuttle people and cargo up to the 3,500 meter camp.
By the time the others return from their tour of the sub-ice tunnels and the neutrino detectors, their faces are glowing. With any luck our first data set will be collected tomorrow. Our fingers are crossed.