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Emily Wampler adjusts forklift.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Emily Wampler, a materialsperson apprentice for the retrograde project, adjusts the forklifts on a vehicle referred to as a pickle. The five-year retrograde project has removed more than 5.5 million pounds of obsolete or unwanted materials from Antarctica. Many items end up at auction.

Spring cleaning

Project has moved more than 5.5 million pounds of excess and obsolete materials from Antarctica

For the last five years, McMurdo Station has been shrinking.

No, it has nothing to do with climate change or natural erosion, or even an extraterrestrial plot dreamed up by conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Art Bell.

The disappearance of thousands of tons of stuff — from earplugs to engines — is a part of a deliberate plan to remove excess and obsolete material off the continent. And this is the final season of the five-year retrograde project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Think spring-cleaning on a town-wide scale.

Emily Wampler is one of the self-described “worker bees” (her official title is materialsperson apprentice), whose job it is to track down everything deemed obsolete by the many departments around the station.

Often someone will call her with an item that has been collecting dust for too long — maybe a desk or a small, half-horsepower engine. An inventory specialist on the five-person retrograde team also does a paper chase through the supply database looking for material that hasn’t seen the light of day for many moons.

Darrell Kimmes, retrograde project manager, keeps a meticulous tab on all those widgets. He can give you any sort of number.

How many different items have been removed from the continent? 26,865 line items. How many total items? 4.6 million and counting. In weight, that’s more than 5.5 million pounds.

Kimmes can even calculate the square footage that’s been freed: 194,000 square feet — the size of the biggest Super Wal-Mart, or nearly three times the size of the new elevated station building at the South Pole.

The retrograde team packages all that material into MilVans, metal containers that the Waste Department will load onto the annual re-supply vessel that arrives at McMurdo Station at the end of each season, usually the beginning of February.

“We couldn’t do the job without Waste Management,” Kimmes said.

The ship arrives laden with all sorts of goods and food for the upcoming year, and leaves carrying 12 months of waste and the retrograde material. The latter is headed to auction. Over the first four years of the project, the unwanted items have fetched an average of $64,029. All of the money goes back to the NSF, Kimmes said.

“We do a real good service for the community,” he said.

For Wampler, the job takes her to every corner of the station, an improvement over her first year when she worked as a dining attendant washing dishes six days a week.

“I love it,” she said. “You get to be outside. The variety of the work is great, because you never know what kind of material you’ll be handling. We get to see a lot of the station, because we’re in different buildings collecting materials or in a different warehouse.”

And there’s no end to the different items that turn up on her daily treasure hunt. One of the biggest was something she called a helium processor, a 2,000-pound behemoth of a machine. Apparently, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) owns two, but only needs one.

“It was a rather valuable piece of laboratory equipment, that rather than just sitting here it can be resold,” she said. “It seems this year we’ve [also] had a lot of excess consumer items like skis.”

Kimmes said the oldest items date back to the 1980s. Sometimes the crew will open a crate and discover newspapers used for packaging material, enjoying a laugh at the nearly 30-year-old advertisements.

This is the last year of the project, but by no means the end of obsolete material that the USAP could ship off. Kimmes said the NSF will evaluate the need to fund the project for the future. 

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