The station that has become our home for 9 ½ months is new on the spectrum of Antarctic bases. Built between 2005 and 2008, the ‘elevated station’ looks like a large novel tetris piece, with a long backbone, and four wings protruding off it. The backbone faces into the prevailing wind, that comes from ‘East’ Antarctica (I will explain later how a continent centred around the south pole has a north, east, south and west component)– that is the part closest to the Indian Ocean. Shaped like a large wing, the station is elevated, allowing wind to accelerate as it passes under the station, and scour out any drifting ice or snow that otherwise tends to accumulate and bury structures. This station is the third incantation of US South Pole stations, the first built in 1957. That was subsequently buried over time, and became unusable. For some time after, it was still apparetnly able to be accessed by the most adventurous of souls who would find exposed access points and ferret their way through the unoccluded passages buried beneath the snow. It was too much of a risk that collapsing structures would kill base habitants, so it was eventually dealt to with a dose of explosives, and the remains lie buried in the drifting ice sheet.
In 1967, a large geodesic dome was started, and finished in 1974, housing most of the living components of the station. This gradually also got buried, which whilst a boon for those who wanted to snowboard off the top, also gradually became a risk of collapse, and needed to be upgraded.
The elevated station we have now was constructed over 2003-2007. Sitting on large poles, it is designed to be able to ratcheted up higher, to evade the berm of snow that will gradually creep up on it from below. Whilst theoretically possible, it will be a massive logistical effort! Given the location of the base, every component from steel I-beam to toilet bowl to power socket had to be flown in by LC-130. In all, it was 21 million pounds (~9500 tons!) of material, which took 800 flights, and cost what I’ve heard to be somewhere between 130 and 250 million USD.
The dome was dismantled and removed from the continent upon completion of the new elevated station, with the last piece going in 2010.
Our new home houses a cosy but comfortable living environment. For those of us with jobs within the main station, we could essentially get away without venturing outside should we so wish. Three of the wings jutting out from the main body house berthing wings. With the capacity for around 160 people housed in two levels in individual rooms, we all get our own patch, complete with bed, desk, wardrobe and drawers. Half the rooms have windows to the outside world. The other half are denied the view, but with six months requiring the windows to be boarded up to keep warm during the darkness of winter and prevent light polution ruining the science, it is not a major loss. The fourth wing houses a basketball court and weights/work out room.
The backbone contains the communal areas and workspaces as well as several utility areas. On the upper level, running ‘west’ to ‘east’ first is the galley where our three chefs whip up freshly baked goodnesses, three cooked meals a day and far too many sweet treats to sabotage our healthy living plans. Next is our medical clinic, adjoined by a computer room. Sharing part of one of the berthing wings is a game lounge with pool table, foosball and darts etc, and one of two TV lounges. Kitted out with an extensive DVD collection as well as some old school VHS and even reportedly one of the worlds biggest collections of beta-max (a forerunner to VHS!), as well as modern gaming consoles to help pass the time.
The sceince department takes up a quarter of the upper level, with the different projects having areas that they can monitor and troubleshoot their projects from, without having to always brace the cold trudge out to the outlying science buildings to perform whatever is needed.
The rest of the upper floor is the admin offices where management and engineers run things from, where comms are directed from and a pair of conference rooms used for meetings and science requirements, including regular videoteleconferences with their principle investigators stateside.
Down below, running west to east, is a second TV room with a raft of TV series, enough to sink months of continuous TV binging into. A soundproof music room with everything from guitars to tubas lining the wall is a place of escape for those with more of a sense of rhythm. Some more offices, IT space, and utility areas dominate a lot fo the lower floor. Theres is an art/craft room with sewing machines, paints and other craft supplies. On our arrival a novel sight was several of the heavily bearded guys dominating this area, turning scrap material from cargo straps, old Scott style tent material and canvas cladding from rigid tents into all sorts of bags and homely enterprises. There is a quiet reading room which allows some solitude away from the constancy of the station, with a good range of novels, travel books and a well established antartic historical library. Next door lies a laundry where we can do our allotment of one load of washing a week, with the limit designed to preserve energy intense water and limit amount of waste water needed to be dealt with.
One of the places of sanctuary within the station is the greenhouse. With its humid air, smell of fresh herbs and lettuce, and bright light, it provides a source of sensory stimulation that is missing in the otherwise austere environment we live in. Other than the great aromas that come out of the galley and being down wind of a generator buring gas, there is very little else to provide any olfactory stimulus. The smells of fresh cut grass, of rain on dirt, even of rubbish (as it is all frozen once placed outside, it doesn’t smell at all), are all devoid at the pole. It adds another layer of sterility and monotony to the endless white that we see out our windows each day. The greenhouse antiroom is a popular place to sit and read a book, play some cards or talk smack. It also serves as a important source of fresh salad and some veges, which as the time since last flight extends out, our supply of fresh fruit and veges (‘freshies’) diminishes. The hydroponic greenhouse produces enough to have salad a couple of times per week.
Beside the greenhouse lies our store. We received a shipment of Dr Pepper and Red Bull just before the last flight, but given their popularity, they are rationed to one can of each per store opening, which is four times per week. We have a range of other carobnated drinks including coke, tonic, soda water, mountain dew etc, as well as beer and wine of varying quality. We got about half a pallet of Speights, some Monteiths Pacific Ale, Corona, Dos Equis, Samuel Adams and Milkaukees Best. In saying that, the desire to have a beer after work is much more diminished than living at sea level. Coupled with this is the fact the whole station is on call for emergency teams one week in two, so half the station is always dry. There is a suprising amount of hard tack available, but with the combination of being on call, and the altitude, most stay away from it, other than an occasional dram of 12 year Glenlivet when not on call. There is a range of chocolate bars and snacks, toiletry products, drink bottles and clothes available for sale. Some are definitely more stylishly designed than others.
The last communal area on the lower area is the sauna. After giving it a wide berth for a month whilst we acclimitised to the altitude and low humidity, I finally ventured in there a couple of weeks ago, after our twice weekly yoga class. Taking extra precaution around hydration, and making sure that one of your very limited showers was due, getting up to a toasty 90 C is great after a run and an attempt to increase my terribly bad flexibility in my first ever attempts at yoga. In the absence of a plunge pool, walking out on to the deck for a minute or two for a good 140 degree gradiant does a similar job. One of the biggest adjustments to life here is the shower quota. All the water needs to be melted from ice, which is very energy intensive. We are given the flexibility to split our four minutes as we wish. Do we take three 1:20 showers or two 2:00 showers? The art of getting wet, turning the water off, scrubbing down, and then rinsing off, all the while keeping an eye on the stopwatch to monitor cumulative water usage takes some getting used to. It becomes one of the highlights of the week! In the intervening days, it is suprising how well you tolerate not showering. With close to 0% humidity, you barely sweat, and wearing a fair amount of wool helps to be odour free.