Cold work if you can get it

South Pole: Harsh conditions seem to fuel efforts of construction workers at the bottom of the world.

February 09, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

SOUTH POLE -- At the world's coldest and most isolated construction site, workers slog along six days a week, with no overtime and below-average wages. Welding torches crack. Metal freezes to bare skin. Twenty-four hours of sunlight causes "big eye," chronic insomnia. And the 9,300-foot altitude leaves recent arrivals gasping for breath.

But all this scarcely matters to many building a new research station at the South Pole, who talk rapturously about pulling double shifts at the bottom of the world. "There's just something special about this place and the people who work here," says Kim Durovec, 30, an ironworker from Minnesota.

Racing to replace pieces of this aging polar outpost before life-support systems fail, workers clamber over the steel structures wearing bulky layers of clothing, balaclavas under their hard hats and ski goggles over welder's glasses. They drill, weld and hammer in summer temperatures that struggle to reach minus 6 and can plunge to minus 120 in winter.

Carlton Walker, 39, a lean, hoarse-voiced native of Pascagoula, Miss., serves as construction boss. He bears three tiny rings in his left ear, a 5 o'clock shadow and an intense sunburn, thanks in part to the hole in the ozone layer that opens in the upper atmosphere annually.

"I've had six hours of sleep since Sunday," Walker says on a Friday, slouching in a metal chair in a cozily heated room. His eyes are red-rimmed. His chin is peppered with stubble. Still, he insists that the breakneck schedule, called "hyper-track construction," suits him just fine: "It's putting myself to the limit every day."

Always on call

Everyone is on call all the time. When a plane arrived at midnight with three new generators a few weeks ago, the equipment had to be unloaded and placed in their new power plant quickly, before delicate parts froze.

Durovec dragged herself out of bed to help haul the huge machines into the new plant, a steel arch erected below the snow's surface. She didn't get back to her cubicle until 3 a.m. "I think I got 20 minutes sleep," she says. But she isn't complaining. "You've got a job to do, you do it."

Only a tiny number of people have been here. The South Pole was first seen by humans in December 1911, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen skied here with three countrymen. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott followed on foot in mid-January 1912. No one stepped here again until 1956, when U.S. scientists arrived. The United States has operated a research station here since 1957.

`Totally taxed'

Until the early 1970s, the pole station typically housed only 33 people during the summer and 18 in winter. Then evidence of global warming and the thinning ozone layer raised interest in Antarctic research. By the mid-1990s, the station's population ballooned to more than 140 during the summer.

"The influx of scientists was overwhelming," said Jerry Marty, a South Pole veteran who works for the National Science Foundation, the government agency that runs the U.S. polar programs. "It totally taxed the infrastructure." Some additional buildings were thrown up, but bed space remains at a premium. This summer, just ending, the station housed more than 200.

Physically, the pole has few charms. Inside its older buildings, nearly buried in snow, it is dark, decrepit and smells of diesel oil. Beyond its boundaries sprawls a prairie of ice. The flat surface is broken only by sastrugi, a Russian word for frozen waves of hard snow. Winds kick up a haze of tiny ice crystals, shrouding the horizon.

There is not a tree, flower or blade of grass for more than a thousand miles in every direction. No animals live in the Antarctic interior. A couple of years ago, a skua, a dirty-brown bird resembling a sea gull, strayed more than 700 miles from the coast and visited the station. Pole staff were elated by the visit until they later found the bird lying in the snow, dead.

Dining hall, saloon, gift shop

The heart of the current station is a dark, unheated warehouse-sized geodesic dome, completed in 1975. Inside are metal structures the size of cargo containers that house the dining hall, saloon, gift shop, communications center, infirmary, offices and winter sleeping quarters. Scattered outside are a few boxy modern structures and a cluster of insulated canvas huts, used only in summer.

By the early 1990s, the dome and some older structures were in pathetic shape. Inspectors found more than 300 violations of U.S. building and safety codes, a quarter of them health- or life-threatening. Drifting snow has almost buried the dome, threatening to crush it. The electrical generators can't handle increased power demands, and brownouts are common. It's a major worry. A lengthy power failure in the winter could have catastrophic consequences.

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