Problems at the Pole | Polarjournal
View of the snow overburden on the exterior of the arches containing the Admunsen-Scott Station’s power plant (exhaust pipes on left), logistics warehouse (left doorway), and vehicle maintenance facility (right doorway). Extensions to the air vents for the arches can be seen above the vehicle maintenance facility, indicating the depth of the snow. Photo: Seth Pilgrim
View of the snow overburden on the exterior of the arches containing the Amundsen-Scott Station’s power plant (exhaust pipes on left), logistics warehouse (left doorway), and vehicle maintenance facility (right doorway). Extensions to the air vents for the arches can be seen above the vehicle maintenance facility, indicating the depth of the snow. Photo: Seth Pilgrim

Getting to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is no easy feat. Constructed nearly twenty years ago, the station sits just short of the South Pole and more than 800 miles from the main US research station on the Antarctic coast. It is as remote a place as anywhere on earth. Between November and February, summer in the southern hemisphere, it is home to roughly 150 scientists and support team members working to accomplish as much as they can while the weather is relatively warm. Yet, there are several problems troubling the station and its operations.

The United States has maintained a permanent presence at the South Pole since 1957 and has occupied the current station since 2007. Approaching twenty years of service, Amundsen-Scott is wearing out prematurely due to the combination of a relentless climate and a lack of maintenance, while the debris from decades of activity at the South Pole presents a growing environmental problem.

The unforgiving nature of the environment is central to both problems at the South Pole. While it rarely snows, the South Pole accumulates around ten inches of snow per year. This accumulation is so consistent that anything left on the surface is eventually buried. When Roald Amundsen became the first reached the South Pole in 1911, his team erected and left a small canvas tent. Today, evidence suggests the tent still exists, buried under the snow and ice over time. Because of Mother Nature’s desire to keep the Antarctic Plateau flat and free of mankind’s debris, the National Science Foundation (NSF) took this into account when it built the existing station.

Engineers constructed the Amundsen-Scott Station and the outlining science buildings with the ever-changing environment in mind. Originally, all five of the major facilities at the South Pole were elevated by pillars or frames above the grade of the Antarctic ice. This feature harnesses the strong and nearly constant winds of the Antarctic plateau to sweep the snow from beneath each building to clear any drifting. While the design works and the area under the elevated facilities are generally free of snow, it does little to prevent the buildup of drifting snow in front of and around them. Nearing two decades of accumulation, the snow around all the major building is close to two stories above the 2007 level.   

Years of accumulated snow covers materials stored for future use on one of the active storage berms at the Admunsen-Scott South Pole Station. Photo: Seth Pilgrim
Years of accumulated snow covers materials stored for future use on one of the active storage berms at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Photo: Seth Pilgrim

The designers anticipated the inevitable accumulation and addressed the issue by planning to move or raise the buildings periodically. However, that solution has never occurred. Rather, a small team of heavy equipment operators conducts an enormous snow removal operation annually to allow operations to continue. Although they are able to restore access to the facilities and equipment, they are unable to keep pace with the constant accumulation of snow. The NSF recently began to address the necessity of moving or raising the buildings in 2023 and is not expected to begin correcting the issue until 2025 at the earliest.

Unfortunately, access to the elevated buildings, while important, is not the most pressing issue faced by the aging facility. The station also depends on several support facilities, collectively know as the Arches, which are slowly being destroyed by the harsh environment. Made from sheets of corrugated steel, the simplicity of the arch design is only matched by its potential longevity. The oldest of the three arches was built to support the previous domed station and provides space to house forty-five fuel tanks, each holding 10,000 gallons of fuel, and warehouse space for nearly two years’ of food for the station. Built in the 1970s, the logistics arch is nearing the end of its lifespan. Additional arches were added in the late 1990s to house the station’s power plant and vehicle maintenance facilities. During the construction, the newer arches were built below the existing grade alongside the older logistics arch, a decision which shortened their lifespan by several decades.

Today, all three arches are suffering the same fate: slowly being crushed by the surrounding ice. Despite their strength and usefulness, the arches have an achilles heel. Their shape only protects the structures inside from the accumulation of snow above and not the encroachment of the ice from below. While the years of snow accumulation press in on the arches from above, the movement of ice into the space from below pushes the facilities inside upward. Decades of this slow but steady pressure has closed the distance between the arches and their interior buildings from three feet to mere inches at some points within the arches. In places the arches are also showing signs of buckling from pressure of the increasing snow above.

The ultimate fate of the arches is not a secret, but a plan to replace the structures does not exist. In the last decade, the NSF has undertaken several studies to determine the impact of the constant pressure on the arches. The most recent suggested the arches were closer than ever to failing, though the study stopped short of stating when that failure might occur. Over time, the NSF has attempted to protect the facilities within the arches from the slow crush of nature with a series of mitigation measures such as turning vertical pipes in the fuel arch horizontal to maintain space between the arch and the inside fuel tanks. The most current mitigation effort involves cutting off an entire top edge of the vehicle maintenance facility and re-routing all the ductwork to keep the arch from crushing both. Creative as they are, these workarounds have failed to address the need to replace the arches in the next decade before they succumb to the pressure.

Experts with decades of experience at the South Pole believe a failure in one or more of the arches could occur in the next five to seven years.  Such a failure would reduce operations to a subsistence level for years. If work to replace the arches began today, even with the best-case scenario, such a project is unlikely to be completed until 2028, either just in the nick of time or a minute too late. Unfortunately, despite two decades to study the problem, the NSF has no project currently underway to replace the arches, which is worrying to some members of the South Pole community. The NSF has its timeline and Mother Nature has hers and, as those timelines are not the same, it looks as if Mother Nature will complete her work first.        

Compounding the infrastructure woes at the South Pole is the slow emptying of the current Rodriguez well, which supplies the station with its water. The well supplies thousands of gallons each day to meet the station’s needs. Unlike a normal well, which draws water from an aquifer, the Rodriquez well uses warm water to melt ice hundreds of meters beneath the surface forming a bulb from which more water is drawn. When all the water is drawn from the bulb, a new well is established at a location a short distance from the old well and the process resumes. The current well should last three more years but plans to replace it are still on the drawing board.

Like the replacement of the arches, the installation of a new Rod well is at least two years away using the most ambitious timeline. Disruptions to the installation schedule could create a serious problem for life on the station as the station’s emergency capability to melt snow cannot produce the same volume of water as a Rod well. If a new well is not operational by the time the old one runs out, the lack of water production would limit water usage to essential functions and could require a reduction in the station’s summer population at a time when those personnel are most needed.

Exterior view of the Rodriguez Well building after snow removal by heavy equipment operators in order to maintain access to the building. The depth of the surrounding snow nearly reaches the roof of the building requiring year round snow removal to maintain access. Photo: Seth Pilgrim
Exterior view of the Rodriguez Well building after snow removal by heavy equipment operators in order to maintain access to the building. The depth of the surrounding snow nearly reaches the roof of the building requiring year round snow removal to maintain access. Photo: Seth Pilgrim

Realistically, the installation of a new Rod well is three years away assuming the project meets all its milestones. Only after the design is complete, approved and funded, can materials be shipped from the United States to McMurdo Station, a process that under the best of circumstances takes a year.  From McMurdo, the materials are flown to the South Pole by means of an aging fleet of LC-130 aircraft or pulled 800 miles across the ice behind tractors as part of the overland traverse, which takes several weeks.

Flights to the South Pole are often delayed for days by mechanical issues, requirements elsewhere for the limited number of aircraft, and the whims of nature. Even with the most ambitious schedule, materials would not begin to arrive until the end of 2024, leaving the project with little room for delays at a time when major work on the upgrade to the South Pole neutrino observatory is scheduled to begin. Replacing any infrastructure will also compete for resources and space with the current project to install a new sewer outfall to replace the existing one, which was scheduled to start this year but has been behind schedule. With the limited space on the station, which currently can support around 170 personnel, the NSF will have to make hard choices about which activities occur during the upcoming summer seasons.  

Beyond infrastructure issues, Amundsen-Scott Station has an environmental issue stemming from the continued accumulation of waste material and a lack of capability to readily remove it. All non-sewage waste and other materials must be transported from the pole back to McMurdo Station for shipment off the continent. Annually, a small crew of logisticians does its best to move as much of the waste material off the station to make up for the eight months of the year when no material comes in or out.

Understaffed, the crew is hardly able to keep up with the existing waste, let alone tackle the decades of materials from previous projects. Backlogged materials are stored on berms, which are slowly being covered by the snow. Deeply buried, personnel refer to some of the oldest and most covered berms as “bermageddon” due to the strong probability the material will never be recovered. Instead, the material on those berms will join the growing list of items buried at the pole over the past seventy years including the original station, a variety of construction equipment, and a cargo plane. Despite making some progress in the 2022-23 season to uncover some of the berms and prepare the material for shipment with a small team dedicated to the project, budget shortfalls suspended further efforts on the project in 2024. Without dedicated resources, the current trajectory of “bermageddon” is unlikely to change course and continue to be an environmental issue, despite the United States’ obligations under the Antarctic Treaty.

View of a storage berm at the Admunsen-Scott South Pole Station. Some of the material on this berm has been completely covered by the accumulation of snow over time (right of center – sign 39/40). Photo: Seth Pilgrim
View of a storage berm at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Some of the material on this berm has been completely covered by the accumulation of snow over time (right of center – sign 39/40). Photo: Seth Pilgrim

Two measures to address the environmental problem are reducing the volume of waste generated at the South Pole and increasing the amount of transportation available to remove it. The easiest step would be to increase the number of overland traverses bringing supplies to and from the pole. The procurement of the vehicles and hiring the personnel required for one more logistic train could potentially provide two additional traverses each year with the right timing and dedicated resources. Such an addition would allow more northbound shipments and significantly reduce the delay in shipping materials off the continent without placing an unrealistically large burden on the existing infrastructure in Antarctica. While the NSF has considered and rejected this solution in the past, the ever expanding environmental problem suggests it might be time to reconsider.

A second method to address the environmental issues would be to reduce the volume of waste generated by the station. Packaging materials used to ship equipment and other items to the station are returned to McMurdo Station in a different condition but with the same volume which requires a substantial effort to package and transport northward. The application of technological methods to change that is an idea that deserves consideration in any future plans for the South Pole. Existing technologies such as micro-gasification, which burns waste material at extremely high temperature to reduce it to inert material, have proven effective in other polar regions. The inert material has less weight and volume than the original material reducing transportation requirements. Turning the waste into inert material also reduces the need to sort waste into multiple categories for shipment, making it easier to process the material. Unfortunately, this technology does not exist at the South Pole, but it and other technologies could be incorporated into the future of the station in order to begin addressing its future environmental impact on Antarctica.  

At the moment, the NSF is developing a South Pole Station Master Plan that has the potential to address the infrastructure and environmental issues described in this article. The plan seeks to establish a framework for envisioning the station’s future for the next thirty to fifty years rather than one season at a time. The master plan could enable resource programming to address these issues in the long-term, as well as, ensure immediate issues are prioritized in the near-term in order to correct existing infrastructure concerns. The master plan ought to include methods to address the environmental problem there by including improvements to the current way of managing Amundsen-Scott Station’s waste. Those ideas must be incorporated into the long-term planning efforts for the station and augmented by near-term efforts to prevent the continued growth of the station’s waste and infrastructure problems.

If the NSF continues to defer or fails to implement necessary projects, the station may not survive for another decade without experiencing a catastrophic failure of one or more of its major support systems. Without a change to the status quo, the ongoing environmental issue at the South Pole will only worsen. There is still a window of opportunity for the NSF to address these issues before they become emergencies which will require costly remedies and disrupt the exceptional science that occurs there. However, the environment at the South Pole is unrelenting in its drive to close that window and, if the NSF does not act promptly, it will probably succeed.

An avid traveller with a passion for visiting historic places and scuba diving, Seth Pilgrim was briefly a member of the US Antarctic Program’s Antarctic Support Contract team in 2022 and 2023 as the South Pole Area Manager and the South Pole Station Winter Site Manager. Having traveled to both the Arctic and Antarctic, he is an advocate for the need to maintain the fragile environment of both places. When not working as a consultant, he spends his time volunteering and pondering where to travel to next.

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