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Strong finish

Successful cargo operation completes challenging logistics season


The movement of supplies and cargo from the United States across thousands of miles of ocean to Antarctica to support scientific research on the southernmost continent relies on a certain serendipity.

When that fails, send in the Army.

That’s what the National Science Foundation (NSF) did when the ice pier at McMurdo Station, constructed during the 2011 winter, failed to thicken and harden, eventually melting away during the summer months like a deflated soufflé.

By Dec. 1, about two months before a cargo ship carrying nearly seven million pounds of supplies and equipment for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) was scheduled to arrive, it was apparent that the pier would not be in any sort of shape to support the truck traffic required to move hundreds of 40-foot shipping containers on and off the vessel.

“We were out of options by the first of December. We had to commit to something, because it was obvious the pier wasn’t going to firm up and be substantial enough for operation,” said Paul Sheppard, Operations & Logistics Systems manager for NSF’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP), which manages the USAP.

The ice pier is a one-of-a-kind structure. The first one was built by the U.S. Navy in the early 1970s. Most last multiple years, but for the last two years, the ice-based wharves have failed. The 2010 pier simply took too much of a beating, cracked, and was swept away in a powerful storm in early 2011.

An unseasonably warm winter that same year meant the next pier was only about half as thick as it should have been to begin the 2011-12 summer field season.

“It wasn’t going to work,” Sheppard said.

One idea had been to rent a commercial pier, but McMurdo simply didn’t have the expertise to assemble the pieces of a floating platform on such short notice.

But the 331st Transportation Company (Causeway) with the 24th Transportation Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade, out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, certainly did. Its mission is to set up and operate what the Army calls a modular causeway system (MCS) around the world.

A train of flatbed trucks carrying about of 33 pieces of the MCS, weighing more than 1.3 million pounds, crossed the country in early December to Port Hueneme, Calif., where most of the USAP’s cargo is staged for transportation to McMurdo Station.

Members of the 331st Transportation Company helped oversee the loading of the MCS — including two warping tugs, which are used to assemble and maneuver the interlocking components of the system — aboard the Military Sealift Command-chartered container ship MV Green Wave.

Problem solved. Except nothing is ever that easy when it comes to Antarctica.

The Green Wave broke down not long after leaving Port Hueneme, and mechanical problems continued to plague the 469-foot-long vessel until it reached Lyttleton, New Zealand. About 63 containers were removed at the port because there was concern about stability issues when the unloading the 90-ton warping tugs.

About 867,000 pounds of the materials left in New Zealand was later airlifted to McMurdo by the U.S. Air Force aboard the large cargo C-17 Globemaster III aircraft over the course of nine missions, according to Derrold Burnett, Supply Chain Management director for Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC), the prime contractor for the USAP.

The container ship finally pulled into Winter Quarters Bay, a natural harbor across from McMurdo Station, on Valentine’s Day, about two weeks behind schedule. (The name Winter Quarters Bay refers to Briton Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition, which wintered at the site for two years at the turn of the 20th century.)

Members of the 331st got to work immediately, assembling the floating causeway in about three days. It took about a week to unload the 6.8 million pounds of food, equipment and other sundries needed to run both McMurdo and South Pole Station for another year. The operation also involved members of the Navy Cargo Handling Battalion, New Zealand Defense Forces and station personnel.

“From the first lift, the operation has gone exceedingly well,” Burnett said via email from McMurdo as the operation wound down.

Despite working on a much smaller pier — the ice version is nearly twice the size of a football field at 100,000 square feet versus only 7,600 square feet for the MCS — and having a cargo ship with only two cranes instead of three, as in years past, the operation moved faster than anticipated.

“What we learned from the smaller surface area for landing the cargo is that we can move cargo effectively in a smaller area than the ice pier,” Burnett said. “The size of the ice pier is driven by the size of the vessel for mooring purposes. The other thing we developed from this adversity is another means to moor the ship without relying on the pier as a fender to the shoreline.”

Also, instead of using flatbed trucks to haul cargo containers to and from the ship, personnel employed heavy-lift fork trucks while on the pier. That shaved off about five minutes per lift over the trucks, Burnett said, eventually saving more than two days in charter costs for the vessel.  

“At this point, we are through all of the risky stuff for the program. If that cargo had not gotten down, that would have started another big problem of how you get the supplies in. We would have had to airlift it in at great expense,” Sheppard said.

The operation also includes reloading the ship with waste, recyclables and other materials no longer needed on the Ice. The ship also carries back scientific samples, such as ice cores and rocks, including meteorites, which researchers collected during the previous months.

“The reason we go to Antarctica is to do the science, so it’s important for the ship to get in this year. We can keep the people alive and keep the station running, but the science would have suffered,” Sheppard said.

The research was actually in jeopardy before the 2011-12 season even began for another issue related to ice and ships.

The USAP requires the services of an icebreaker each year to cut a channel through the annual sea ice that fronts McMurdo Station. The channel allows the cargo vessel and a fuel ship, escorted by the icebreaker, to reach the station.

For decades, U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers supported the USAP. However, in recent years, the Coast Guard’s two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, have been largely inoperable, though the latter is undergoing an extensive refit with hopes of going back to sea by 2014.

For the past several years, the NSF had contracted with the Swedish government for the icebreaker Oden, which also doubles as a research vessel. But the Swedish government decided that the Oden was needed at home after two harsh winters disrupted shipping lanes in the region.

It wasn’t until late August that the NSF chartered the Russian icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk for the job of breaking ice to McMurdo, even as the first flights were arriving.

“We’ve seen every one of our Achilles’ heels this year — those critical links in the logistics chain have been challenged, except for airlift,” Sheppard said. “Airlift went without a hitch this year, and really was a great gap filler.”

Airlift in this case involves the U.S. Air Force C-17, which flies between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo, and the smaller ski-equipped LC-130, which supports South Pole Station and deep-field camps.

The Vladimir Ignatyuk arrived at McMurdo in late January, followed by the MSC tanker Maersk Peary, which unloaded about seven million gallons of fuel. The icebreaker’s job to break a channel and clear the ice from Winter Quarters Bay was made easier by ample open water in McMurdo Sound. That was also a bonus for constructing the Army’s deployable pier.

“We’re fortunate this year that we have a lot of open water that normally isn’t there,” Sheppard said. “It was a struggle to the end, but it’s going out on a good note.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs