In the ice house

How many scientists, chefs, power-plant mechanics, doctors and maintenance specialists does it take to build an igloo? What sounds like the start of a terrible joke, ended up in a way being a cruel joke of a project that we recently embarked on. The answer of the ideal group was one of each of the above.

There had been talk with Josh – one of the Utility technicians who maintains all of the things that keep the station alive such as heating, water, cooking facilities etc – for some time about plans to build an igloo and sleep in it at some stage over the winter. Surely it can’t be that hard we thought. Surely that’s madness the rest of the station thought. Whilst most of the station were heavily skeptical about firstly our sanity, and secondly our construction abilities, we assembled a crew of people that were up to the challenge, and we planned some time for when to build it.

Josh had been busy watching documentaries about how the Inuit make an igloo, and was full of optimism. Apparently inuit children can build one in a few hours. And we aren’t children, and there is 5 of us, so surely it will be done in a few hours. A planning meeting was convened, with equipment assembled, sleeping bags sourced, and tools sharpened. We planned the project for a 2 day weekend – when we get Sunday and Monday off (Sun/Mon rather than Sat/Sun to better line up with offices back in the States). These come around every 5 or so weeks, and it was a good chance to build on the Sunday, sleep there that night, and then have Monday to nap should our sleep be sub par.

So come Sunday, we decided on our spot, just a few metres away from the Ceremonial Pole marker, and got shovelling. Our optimism was short lived. Our two day weekend had coincided with some of the highest winds of the season, sitting around 30 knots. Being outside in -60C is a bit of a challenge at the best of times. Couple that with holding metal shovels that conduct heat out of your hands rapidly, and wind that blows ice straight into your face and convects the last vestiges of warmth away, it soon turned into a project with an extended timeline. We’d last outside for about an hour, with often the rate limiting factor being when our eyelashes would be icing up too much that it was hard to keep them open, and they’d start to freeze over. Time to go inside and warm up.

Firstly we had to dig down about 2 feet to get to hard ice, rather than the more powdery surface ice that is snow like in consistency. Josh’s grand plan consisted of a 12 or so foot (~4m) diameter igloo, big enough to sleep 5 of us. Getting down to the base to build on took longer than the inuit take to finish one. It turns out we’re not ingrained with this in our genetics…

Shovelling by head torches that tend to pack up after half an hour as the batteries get to cold was a bit of a battle. We did have some fantastic displays of auroras though, to the degree that at times the reflected green light of the auroras were much brighter than our head lamps. At times like those, you just need to lie down on the snow, and admire one of nature’s great displays, as the sky erupts overhead.

Eventually, after a few warm ups, we were down to the base ice layer, that we were to cut the blocks from. A hunt station wide had been mounted for a good hand saw that would cut through ice, but alas, we were left with a few blunt tools, and an ice knife Josh had machined from a piece of scrap steel. Hand cutting proved fruitile in the super cold ice, so a little technology was turned to. The station has a supply of ice chainsaws, used for maintaining the ice tunnels that service the water and sewage systems. Some ultra-cold rated extension cords were strung together, the chainsaw wired up with cold temp cable (the normal cables snap promptly in the cold as the plastic gets too brittle), and we were away. A lot of care had to be taken using the chainsaws in bulky mitts, but after an hour or so, we had a good routine cutting blocks, chiselling the base free, and passing them up to be trimmed up to shape. The base layers were around 3 feet long, 1 foot high and 6 inches deep (man, I really have become americanised with even my measurements…!). Rosey, one of the powerplant mechanics, aka ‘Snow Rose’, and myself, aka ‘the Block Doc’, were in charge of cutting the blocks.

A base layer was laid on the pad that we had shovelled out, with the blocks having compound angles cut on each end, so that the ends tapered together well, with the outsides face being slightly longer than the inside. Once the base layer was laid, we cut and ramp in the base layer for which to slowly spiral the layer up. The structural strength in part comes from the fact that the left side of the block being laid is supported by overlap that the compound angle that the right hand edge of the previous block provides. As we laid each block, Josh, aka ‘Cheng’ (Chief Engineer), would shape the surfaces with the snow saw made of aluminium. Traditionally the inuit get soft snow, mush it in their mouths and spit it in the gaps. Christian, one of the Ice Cube Neutrino array scientists, aka ‘Spitter’ didn’t fancy frostbite of the tongue, so had to modify his technique to fills the gaps. He and Darby, the head chef, aka ‘Ice Jac’ (may have been something to do with him acting like a jack a…) would get the freshly drifted snow to pack into the cracks, and then pour water on it from thermoses, to set the blocks. Hearing the water freeze within a few seconds of touching minus 50C ice was a strange experience.

The end of day one were were spent, all collapsing onto the couches and trying to replenish the calories that were expended that day, and get some sleep before day two. Overnight, the strong winds did us no favours, given we’d disrupted the contours of the plateau. The low wall that we’d got done provided a perfect means to create eddy currents in the wind, and let it deposit all of its drifting snow in our igloo that we’d shovelled clear the previous day.

The start to Day two was spent clearing the drifts out, down to where our ice mining operation was occurring in the hard deeper ice. Eventually we got back into the swing of things, but it was clear, that this was going to extend well past the two day mark. Gradually the wall crept higher, and out working level grew lower as we dug out the blocks. Breaks were taken in between to allow our corneas to recover from the powdered ice continually whipped up by the wind that was now at eye level slamming into our faces.

Skepticism still remained high in the station about chances of success. The physicists claimed the diameter was too large, the angles to steep. The engineer claimed we didn’t have enough expertise to build it strong enough. Haters gonna hate right?

That week, we took turns adding a few blocks at a time, with thankfully some more gentle winds to prevent us form having to shovel out too much drifted snow. A door portal was cut once it was up to the level that we couldn’t climb over the wall any more, and a trench leading in to it was dug. Eventually the tapering roof took shape, with such a spacious cavern built that ladders were needed to lay the upper levels, especially once we were down to taking a second layer of blocks out of the floor.

Come the next weekend, it was time to lay the keystone. We all took turns at shaping the last of the blocks to provide the final step of the structural process. With the last pour of water we were done. The skeptics were apologetic, and we were a content bunch. Structural integrity was robust, with Christian able to stand on the roof without even a creak of the ice.

The final step consisted of building a cold trap inside beside the door, and a sleeping platform. After spending a week shovelling ice out, we were shovelling fresh drifted snow that had better insulting ability back in, behind a retaining wall. That gave us an elevated platform, higher than the door level. A small ventilation hole had been left when we built to stop us all getting groggy from too much CO2.

The next day, we gathered up the survival sleeping bags (2 each), sleeping closed cell foam, blankets, thermals and a thermometer and headed out. Darby had whipped up a fantastic thai red curry, and as we sat inside nicely insulated from the -50C or so outside, instead in a toast -20C. We played a couple games of 500, listened to some tunes (have to have the mod cons!), and had a celebratory whiskey. For the Americans who are fond of their scotch on the rocks, there was no shortage of ice, and the ice knife was able to chisel a bit off the wall. Note to self: if you put your drink that has a freezing point well below freezing, down on a surface that is -50C, and then drink it, you may freeze your tongue. The kind of thing you only do once. Thankfully whiskey is something best sipped.

Sleeping in two mummy style sleeping bags, with multiple layers on, is a bit restricting but we all eventually got settled in. After a surprisingly comfortable sleep, aside from a bit of snoring from one side of the igloo, and regular wake ups to make sure our entry trench wasn’t drifting in, we returned the station, content with a mission well completed.

A few other hardy souls followed out a few nights later to sleep in it, before the igloo met its demise. Due to being upwind of the station, a condition on building it was that it couldn’t stay permanently due to the influence it would have on drifting around the station which is a perennial problem and source of a lot of work to keep on to of. So therefore, a week after completion, 100 man hours of work was demolished by one swipe of a D6 dozer’s blade! From the records it appears it was the first winter igloo at the South Pole. A couple have been built in the summer when it’s a) light b) not -60C c) not 30 knot winds. A fun mission to stave off the insanity that 6 months without sun can induce.

Many thanks to Christian for the use of many of his photos below.

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3 Responses to In the ice house

  1. Noel Munford says:

    Hmmm interesting, but I think you have been too long in the dark or cold or both

  2. Elizabeth Wright says:

    An exciting thing to do to help pass the time!!

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