As I write this I am sitting in a hotel room in Christchurch, New Zealand. This morning, our team will be flying down to Antarctica in support of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) projects “on the ice.” I am part of a team of engineers under contract with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific to inspect and commission several of the construction projects completed during this current summer season at the U.S.’s McMurdo and South Pole Stations.
Christchurch is the jumping off point for those traveling to these stations, as well as, New Zealand’s Scott Station, near McMurdo Station.
Having to get to Antarctica via Christchurch is a nice added benefit to our trip. Christchurch, is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. In recent years, Christchurch and surrounding areas have been struggling to recover from a major earthquake (Richter 8.0) that occurred in February 2011, killing hundreds of people. There were also additional significant damaging quakes within the next two years. The 2011 earthquake occurred within a few weeks after my last visit to Antarctica and New Zealand. On this current trip, it was heartbreaking to see the remains of the famous Canterbury Cathedral at Cathedral Square.
No nation owns any part of Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty, first signed in 1959 by 12 nations including the U.S., provides the principles that signatory nations adhere to on the continent. From Article I of the treaty: Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.
Another key provision of the treaty is contained in Article II: Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end, as applied during the International Geophysical Year, shall continue, subject to the provisions of the present Treaty.
The treaty also contains a prohibition against nuclear explosions, but is vague about the use of nuclear energy.
Today, there are currently more than 50 signatory nations to the Antarctic Treaty. Back to the travelogue.
We are flown from Christchurch down to McMurdo in a C-17 cargo aircraft owned and operated by the Air Force of the U.S. The Air Force provides all the major air transport support between Christchurch and McMurdo; and between McMurdo and the South Pole Station.
Weighted down with our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, my seatmates and I sit very comfortably on standard military style jump seats in the aircraft’s cargo hold. The ECW gear consists of a heavy parka (Big Red), insulated coveralls, a knit cap or baklava, and gloves. The overalls are worn over our street clothes (and thermal undies, of course). The shoes consist of “bunny boots,” heavy white, air-insulated boots. During flights, we must make sure the air valves on our bunny boots are open so as to avoid a bunny boot explosion. During our stay in Antarctica, we are required to always be either wearing or carrying our ECW gear with us. Our flight to McMurdo took about 5 hours and 15 minutes, landing at the recently completed Phoenix Runaway located on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, 11 miles from the station. The Phoenix runway is used for aircraft with tires. Aircraft flying from McMurdo to the South Pole station use skis on the Williams (Willy) Field runway. We are fortunate the weather was good today. Our flight left New Zealand on time and landed on time. Occasionally, weather conditions at McMurdo force flight cancellations or worse, require your already departed flight to boomerang and return back to New Zealand. That could amount to a 10-hour flight to end up right back where you started.
After deplaning, our group is transported to the station in large tractor vehicle. Our vehicle is affectionately known as Ivan-the-Terra-Bus. On our way to the station, we pass near famed Mount Erebus, an active volcano which measures in at 12,447 feet in height. On the road to the main station, just before the transition between the ice shelf and land (the actual continent), we can see, off to our left, a large rookery of seals lounge on the ice.
McMurdo Station is the largest U.S. station and is the southernmost point on the globe that a ship can reach. From the United States Antarctic Program Participant Guide, published by NSF:
McMurdo (77°51'South, 166°40'East) is the main U.S. station in Antarctica. It is a coastal station on the barren low ash and lava volcanic hills at the southern tip of Ross Island, about 2,415 nautical miles (mi) south of Christchurch and 850 mi north of the South Pole. The original station was constructed in 1955-1956. With many additions and modernization over the years, today’s station is the primary logistics facility for airborne and overland resupply of inland stations and for field science projects. The station is also the waste management center for much of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center serves as the primary laboratory and research facility.
The mean annual temperature is minus 8 C (0 F). Temperatures may reach 8 C (46 F) in summer and –50 C (–58 F) in winter. The average wind speed is 12 knots, but winds have exceeded 100 knots.
Today, the temperature is 25 F with a wind chill of -13 F. Our visit to Antarctica is during the summer season, which runs approximately from October to February. During this time both McMurdo and South Pole Stations have regular air flight operations and ships have access to the port at McMurdo. During the winter period, it is too cold to fly and the ice mass prevents port access. Late in the summer season, an icebreaker works constantly to keep a channel open into the port. It does appear that this winter season the NSF will have one monthly flight come into McMurdo.
Fire protection at McMurdo is not too much different than other extremely cold weather locations in the U.S. As one would expect, firefighting efforts are hampered by extreme weather conditions, and limited water supply. McMurdo also has a significant amount of combustible construction, wood being a relatively easy construction material to transport down to the ice. Naturally there is increased emphasis on fire prevention and fire suppression systems.
There is a full-time fire department at McMurdo station, operating two engines and a tanker truck. During summer season, there is a full complement of about 20 firefighters, and during the winter season there is a smaller crew of firefighters. During the summer season, the base population is about 1,000 persons. During winter, the population drops to about 150 people. Several buildings are closed and winterized at that time.
McMurdo Station has a base water supply system consisting of aboveground insulated piping with heat trace. Fire hydrants are located at key locations around the system. The water supply has the capability of providing approximately 1,000 gpm. Total water storage capacity is 210,000 gallons. All fresh water at McMurdo comes from the desalinization plant using a reverse osmosis process. The plant can make about 70,000 gallons of fresh water a day.
There are several automatic sprinkler systems provided at McMurdo Station. All new major construction in recent years is provided with sprinkler protection. The typical sprinkler system is a preaction type system activated by heat detection.
Before a reliable water distribution system was developed, the few sprinkler systems at McMurdo had limited water supplies using pressure tanks, pressurized with nitrogen. Several of the old tanks are still around.
All berthing areas are provided with sprinkler protection. This includes the largest building at McMurdo, Building 155, which, in addition to containing several berthing spaces, houses the dining facility, and offices for many station support functions.
Power at the station is provided by diesel generators. Generators are protected with local application carbon dioxide fire suppression systems.There is also a redundant system of generators.
McMurdo station monitors all building fire protection systems are supervised by a radio fire alarm system which reports to the fire station.
It is now Feb. 1, and tomorrow we will be traveling south to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (To be continued next month.)
Samuel S. Dannaway, P.E., FSFPE, is a licensed fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is a past president and fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is vice president of Fire Protection Technology at Coffman Engineers Inc., a multi-discipline engineering firm with over 360 employees across eight offices. Dannaway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.