Deconstruction of the Dome
Iconic South Pole building to come down during 2009-10 season
Posted December 11, 2009
It was never supposed to hang around this long. Ten years, maybe 15 at most.
Perhaps that’s why the South Pole Dome — a modestly sized structure spanning 164 feet and topping out at about 52 feet high — has loomed so large in the lore and legacy of polar history.
The final chapter in that story will be completed 35 years after the U.S. Antarctic Program’s most iconic research station was officially dedicated in January 1975. The dome, the second research station built at the geographic South Pole, is coming down.
“That means [that] icon will no longer be there, and it’s really sad to know that it’s coming down, and I won’t be there this year to be part of it,” said Jerry Marty.
A longtime Polie (as South Pole residents are called), Marty retired earlier this year from the National Science Foundation (NSF) after devoting the last 15 years of his life to the construction of the third and latest South Pole Station. He had also been involved in the final year of construction on the station during the 1974-75 season, mainly attending to the last-minute fixes before the first crew moved in that January.
The new station, a two-story structure built atop stilts on a moving ice sheet, officially entered into service on Jan. 12, 2008. But even before then the geodesic dome, erected by U.S. Naval Construction Battalion 71 (the Seabees), had been relieved of duty.
Civilian construction crews had finished disassembling the modular buildings under the protective aluminum shell a couple of winters ago after all operations had moved to the elevated station. More recently, the dome had been used for cold storage. Completion of a new logistics facility, an arched building near the elevated station, over this past winter means all those frozen goods now have a dedicated warehouse for storage.
The dome, half buried by drifted snow and empty of everything but memories, must go as part of the South Pole long-term modernization plan. Veteran Polies like Paddy Douglas are sad to see it come down.
“I have been around long enough to have lived under the dome … While the new station is grander, the old station had more character,” said Douglas, South Pole logistics supervisor. “The new station has yet to develop its own character.”
Building at Pole
Navy Seabees built the first South Pole Station during a frenzy of scientific activity known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). A global effort of research during 1957-58, IGY particularly focused on the polar regions. The United States eventually built seven research stations to support scientists for their work in Antarctica.
Navy Seabees assembled the first South Pole Station in less than two months over the 1956-57 field season for what was to be a temporary science campaign. In reality, IGY never really ended. And no one had predicted the collection of hastily built Jamesway tents and connecting tunnels would need to last nearly 20 years.
Snow quickly buried the first station, commonly referred to as Old Pole. Eventually, the crushing weight of the snow on the ice-entombed structures meant time was running out before the station would become uninhabitable.
The Navy Facilities Engineering Command had determined that a new design was required for continued research by the National Science Foundation at the South Pole, according to a 1977 document published by the dome design and manufacture company, Temcor of Torrance, Calif.
A dome “would be large enough to enclose and protect three buildings for quarters and operations, two of them two stories high. All these buildings were supported above the snow floor of the dome for cross ventilation,” wrote Temcor vice president Don L. Richter in the 1977 dome design document.
“The dome was to offer shelter from the wind and snow, but not the cold. The need is to keep the inside temperature below 0 [degrees] F to prevent deformation of the snow support and settlement destruction of the buildings. Five vent holes were opened in the top of the dome to bleed off warm air.”
Lee Mattis was the Temcor project engineer who designed the specialized erection equipment and the scheme of how to build a geodesic dome on ice. “I was the guy who said, ‘OK, here’s the dome, but here’s how we’re going to put it up,’” said Mattis, who spent two seasons at South Pole during the dome construction between 1971 and 1973.
Why a dome? Mattis said a dome is a very efficient structure in terms of stability and the protection it offers from the snow. “The problem was the snow build-up [with Old Pole]. They felt if they could keep the snow off the buildings, they could extend the life, and that turned out to be true.
“The dome is a unique structure. It is very strong. It has a low profile,” added Mattis, who returned to the South Pole in 2005 to advise the NSF about possible ways to bring the dome safely down.
Putting up the dome certainly wasn’t an easy task in the brief Antarctic summer, where ambient temperatures rarely reach 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The foundation proved to be the trickiest part because a crucial piece of machinery couldn’t handle the harsh conditions.
The Seabees used a Peter Snow Miller, a Swiss snowplow used to clear roads in the Alps, to process the snow and work it up to the firmness necessary to support the dome’s wooden foundation footings. The same machine did double-duty in cutting a circular trench for the dome foundation and a trench for the “utilidor” for utility and sewage lines.
The hydraulic machine constantly broke down and was “always a mess,” Mattis recalled. “The Peter Snow Miller was a major problem.” He said little of the dome actually went up in 1971-72.
Most of the erection occurred the following season, 1972-73. “Basically, we went back down and did it,” Mattis said.
During this time, the Seabees were also busy constructing a new power plant and arches to serve as a garage. Work on these structures and the interior dome buildings continued into the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons. Civilian contractors, including Marty, with the company Holmes and Narver Inc., mainly worked on the utilities.
On Jan. 9, 1975, a group of dignitaries dedicated the new station, including Ruth Siple, wife of Paul Siple, the first South Pole winter-over leader in 1957.
Bill Spindler worked as the South Pole station manager for a year in 1976-77, during the dome’s third year in service, and has been involved with the U.S. Antarctic program on and off for more than 30 years. An engineer by trade, Spindler also wintered twice more, in 2005 and 2008.
The unofficial historian of the South Pole, Spindler was matter-of-fact when asked about its imminent disassembly.
“When I showed up at Pole in 1976, the dome made the new station seem state-of-the-art,” he wrote in an e-mail. “No more collapsing snow tunnels, lots of storage space, and an instant icon for the U.S. Antarctic Research Program.
“But snow happens, things get old, drifts build up and structures get stressed,” he added. “As an engineer, my feeling at this point is that the dome has outlived its usefulness at Pole and needs to go away before it becomes a structural hazard.”
Time to go
During the late 1980s, the NSF started preliminary planning for a new station, and at the time, the dome was sacrosanct, according to Spindler. “All plans for the new station included it, either as a cover for buildings, as it was in the existing station, a storage space, or perhaps even an insulated and heated structure. Some of the designs even included building another dome to match the original.
“All of this suddenly was to change as a result of a loud noise heard by the 1988 winter-overs,” he explained. “They reported that it sounded like something broke.”
A computer analysis at about the same time indicated that some of the aluminum dome foundation base ring beams might be overstressed, Spindler said. “The next summer the entire base ring was dug out, and yours truly got to crawl through the trench and inspect every node and every beam. Sure enough, I found cracks and broken beams at the predicted locations.”
The damage was repaired, but the dream of keeping the dome in some capacity was broken. The winning design would call for a 65,000-square-foot building capable of sleeping about 150 people, elevated above the polar plateau and capable of being jacked up twice during its lifetime.
The Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement among nations with scientific interests and operations in Antarctica, requires obsolete structures like the dome to be removed where practicable.
The dome would have to go. But how?
In 2005, to assess how the dome could be deconstructed, Mattis said he returned to the South Pole at the behest of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps (CEC)/Seabee Historical Foundation, which would like to save the dome for posterity.
What did he think after seeing the dome for the first time in more than 30 years? “My first thought was, ‘wow.’ Why did I become a civil engineer? Because I wanted to see what I built, and here was something that lasted for much longer than it was designed to last. It’s still functional. It’s still working. It’s still providing its intended use. It was a feeling of pride. Just to go back and see it was great,” Mattis said.
“It was in good shape,” he added. His recommendation to disassemble the dome is basically to reverse the order of construction — taking it apart from the top down.
That’s pretty much the plan, according to Brandon “Shaggy” Neahusan, construction manager for Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) and the lead person for the deconstruction project. RPSC is the prime contractor to the NSF for the U.S. Antarctic Program. RPSC’s crew also built the new $150 million station over the past decade.
“The overall method we will be using is to start at the top and peel it like an orange,” Neahusan said via-email from Antarctica. “In other words, we start at the top and move around the dome, panel by panel, clockwise disassembling until we get to the foundations.”
The job — which also includes taking down Skylab, a separate, orange, boxy tower that housed different science experiments near the dome — will require a six-person crew.
First, the piece to be removed will be rigged to a crane and then two people working from a lift will use abrasive saws from the inside of the dome to cut partially through the structural members. Once that team is safely out of the way, a second two-person team working from the exterior of the dome will finish cutting the piece free. The crane will then lower the pieces to the ground, where the other two workers will continue to disassemble the panels for eventual transport from South Pole by plane or tractor train.
Neahusan said the primary challenge for such a job is safety. “Demolition is inherently dangerous work, so we take every action possible to mitigate the risks associated with it,” he said. “This is a handpicked crew that I’ve worked with for several seasons now, and as this is a very high-profile project, it’s my responsibility to not let my crew feel any of that pressure and just allow them to do their jobs.”
Time and weather are the other obstacles. The project started in mid-November by clearing out the dome and moving snow away from outside perimeter for the heavy equipment to operate. Temperatures need to remain above minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit for the cranes and mechanical lifts to work properly — not always a guarantee, even in summer.
“We plan to have both buildings down and packaged for shipment off continent by end of season,” Neahusan said.
The crown of the dome and the next two rows of polygonal panels will be saved for display at a new Seabee museum in Port Hueneme, Calif.
“Disassembly will be accomplished by removing the bolted connections and using a tool called a collar cutter to snip the heads off the existing rivets and removing each component of the dome, documenting it for reassembly and crating the components for shipment to Port Hueneme,” Neahusan said. “The rest of the structure will be cut up and shipped off continent and be recycled.”
Neahusan said that the NSF had tried to figure out a way to send the whole dome back to the United States for display at the Seabee museum or other locations interested in its history. However, the labor costs alone would have been six times more expensive, and “the amount of time it would take to do so would not fit into the Congressionally mandated end date of the South Pole Station Modernization effort, which is March 31st, 2010.”
Marty, who has been working with the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation the last few years on bringing the dome to Port Hueneme, said the entire dome likely wouldn’t fit in the new museum based on its current configuration.
“It’s the old story of when you start to put things in a museum, it fills up pretty quick,” he said. The new museum’s concept is to suspend the dome near an exhibit focused on the polar history of the Seabees, according to Marty.
The current museum, converted from two Quonset huts, displays various Antarctic artifacts, such as a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood with braided rope around the edges. The Seabees who built the dome burned their names into the wood, which a forklift tine had damaged at some point. A demolition crew discovered the memento while taking apart the buildings under the dome, Marty said.
The new museum itself will be a “virtual” walk through of Seabee history. Visitors will follow in the Seabee’ footsteps, starting with basic training and then on to conflicts from World War II and the Korean War to Vietnam and the modern conflicts in the Middle East. Finally, the tour ends with a look into their humanitarian and civil projects.
“The military campaigns are one thing, but the Seabees are unique because they’ve got this Antarctic-IGY piece of their historical background,” Marty noted.
It would seem the dome is no longer for Polies alone.
“I think it hit us harder when we saw the galley and all the buildings inside go away,” said Doug “Dog” Forsythe, a RPSC construction manager involved in the construction of the new station from the beginning in the late 1990s. “I hate to see it go, but I guess that’s progress.”
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