Applications and Innovations: Get ready for winter
Way down south where it’s really cold
Equipment care in Antarctica means always knowing how to deal effectively with ice and snow. There is no room for error.
By Carol Fey, Special to Better Roads
O nce a year, the South Pole Traverse hauls supplies and fuel from coastal McMurdo Station more than 1,000 miles over ice to South Pole Station. McMurdo receives one annual supply ship and one fuel ship. Until recently, South Pole’s provisions had to be flown on LC-130s – ski-equipped planes known as “skiers.”
The Traverse is a caravan of nine vehicles: four Case STX Quad Trac tractors, models 450, 530 and 535; four Caterpillars, models MT865B and MT865C, and Challenger 95E; and a tracked radar vehicle to detect crevasses in the ice. The crevasse detector travels in front of the tractors, using ground-penetrating radar to sense dangerous ice cracks. The cracks are then filled with snow and compacted to create a safe passageway.
The tractors pull large sleds of cargo and fuel. To minimize ground pressure, the sleds are actually sheets of high molecular weight polyethylene (HMW), 1/2 inch thick, 8 feet wide and 68 feet long,
Ten crew members make up the traverse: a field supervisor, a shop foreman, a field instructor, three heavy equipment mechanics and four heavy equipment operators.
In 2009-2010, the traverse made it from McMurdo Station to South Pole in 27 days, gaining 10,000 feet in elevation, traveling 1,036 miles at an average of seven miles per hour. The tractors were loaded to carry just under their maximum. Whenever they stopped, it took some time to get them back up to speed because the sled surfaces cooled.
The Traverse delivered 94,626 gallons of fuel, as well as 40,000 pounds of cargo. According to traverse operations manager Paul Thur, on average one pound of support equipment – tractors, buildings, food, fuel – was required for each pound of deliverable cargo. Traveling downhill and loaded only with waste from South Pole, the Traverse was able to return to McMurdo in just 17 days.
There are nearly 500 vehicles in the United States Antarctic Program. In the summer, 32 people work in the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF); in the winter there are 16. Many have done this 10 seasons or more. As a result, the equipment is well-known and well-loved.
Heavy mechanic Bob Gosdin’s favorite piece of equipment is the Delta truck, because all of the parts and components, especially transmissions, are very rebuildable. “That’s especially important when the parts manufacturers are out of business,” he says.
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