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Surveying at the Bottom of the Earth

Tuesday, April 16, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: George Nyfeler, LS
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The surveying profession is known for offering interesting work locations.  I spent most of February 2019 away from home for a project location I would characterize as quite interesting. Nyfeler Associates was subcontracted by Parsons to provide building expansion layout work for a portion of the National Science Foundation (NSF) McMurdo Station modernization that is taking place on the New Zealand side of the Antarctic continent. 
February occurs near the end of the austral summer, allowing for balmy outside working temperatures above zero and 24-hour daylight.  The warmest day during my 10 days ‘on the ice’ reached 25-degrees F.  Most of my work on the site happened in 12-degree, 25-mph wind conditions.  Back home I would have hated working in that weather, but given the uniqueness of the job site location, I wasn’t bothered by it.  The temperature at the NSF building at the South Pole about 850-miles away from my project, however, is typically 60 degrees colderThat building sits atop a vertical mile

of freshwater ice at an elevation of 9,300 feet above sea level.  On my warmest 25 degree McMurdo day, the South Pole temperature was -45 degrees.  During the austral winter, McMurdo record low temperatures have reached -60 F, while record lows at the South Pole have been measured at -100 F.  Weather conditions are broken down into 3 categories.  Condition 3 requires visibility at or greater than ¼ mile, wind speeds under 55 mph (allowing for greater than 55 mph for less than one minute durations) and wind-chill temperatures at or warmer than -75 F.  Condition 3 is the ‘nice weather’ rating.  Condition 2 and Condition 1 are more severe!

The last of the five plane rides necessary to travel from Richmond to the project site is a 5 ½ hour flight requiring the use of ear plugs and strapped to nylon seats in an Air Force C-17.  Near the end of my inbound flight, the pilots performed a flyby inspection of the flagged Phoenix Airfield on the surface of the 300-ft thick Ross Ice Shelf only to find a small group of penguins occupying our runway.  “Penguin chasers” were dispatched to scare them away while we circled back for another attempt at landing. 

C-17 flights carry enough fuel to abort Antarctic landings and return to New Zealand without refueling – an option exercised by the Air Force on about 20% of their flight missions.  Among the strapped down cargo on our flight was a 4,600 pound tank of liquid oxygen with a metal flex pipe cryogenically vented to the side of the plane.  We elected not to touch the flex pipe, nor its frosty-white fittings, as some of us stepped over it to reach a small rear window to catch a glimpse of some 18,000-ft Antarctic mountains.

Food at the station galley was excellent and the quarters comfortable.  Ethernet wired internet connections were sorely lacking in speed most of the time, with all 950 McMurdo summer inhabitants sharing the equivalent of one 4G cell phone connection.  I managed to hog most of that bandwidth on the night that one of the station bars hosted ‘costume karaoke night’.  Among the other deployed people, PhDs were common and I learned quickly at meals, sitting with and meeting new people, that I was not going to be able to compete intellectually in this environment.  Work occurs in shifts to take advantage of 24-hours of daylight over the summer season.  Just outside my dormitory (labeled, “Hotel California”), a half dozen helicopters were parked and could be heard around the clock taking off or landing from cargo missions to or from tent field camps.  The difficulty in living with these sleep disruptions was mitigated by the opportunity to experience such a place.  On my third day, I was assigned a roommate.  He had been at a tent camp for two months and didn’t talk much.

The challenge level for the survey work on this project was average for most surveyors – column line layout and differential level work for grading tops of precast concrete footers.  Concrete is not poured in Antarctica. That rule, and other limitations for adherence to the Antarctic Treaty imposed on the 59 participating nations include no military bases and a dedication to shared scientific research and activity by necessary support staff – to include surveyors!

Outside the construction surveying associated with McMurdo building expansion, there is an austral summer season LS position with responsibility for such tasks as locating and marking Phoenix Field and Williams Field runways on the ice.  Phoenix Field moves about 360-ft per year due to glacier movement.  It also twists over time, with half of the runway twisting at a different rate than the rest of it.  That survey position is filled as an employee of Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE).  I met that PAE surveyor while there as he was finishing up his fourth summer season ‘on ice’.  As of a few months ago, that position had not been filled.  Steven Letchford – are you reading this?

My experience in Antarctica was a terrific one.  Traveling back through New Zealand on my way home, I added a week to backpack 49-miles through the Reece and Dart Valleys, a few hours north of Queenstown.  Or, as they say in Kiwi-talk, “I was tramping” through New Zealand.

We’ll know more in a month about the possible Nyfeler Associates return to McMurdo Station next austral summer (October). This next project would be much larger and require three of us for the first month, with the probability of the need
for one of our senior crew chiefs to stay there with a robot and RTK-GPS gear for the full 5-month austral summers of 2019/2020 and 2020/2021.