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Men stick hose in a snow hole.
Photo Credit: Andy Martinez
Keith Frazer, assistant explosive handler, John Rand, consultant engineer for CRREL and Jason Dietz, general assistant, from left, use a hotwater drill system to make a hole in the snow above Old Pole so explosives can be lowered down. The area above the first South Pole Station had become unstable.

Blast to the past

Demolition of 'Old Pole' under the ice removes safety hazard

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“Good. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

— Adm. George Dufek to his men as they started to succumb to frostbite soon after arriving at the South Pole and planting the American flag on Oct. 31, 1956.

And then there was one.

The United States has built three research stations at the South Pole since Adm. George Dufek’s hasty retreat nearly 55 years ago. Now only the latest generation — a gleaming facility built on stilts — remains.

Last year, the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site disassembled the iconic Dome Station after it had far outlived its shelf life. [See previous article: Deconstruction of the Dome.] This austral summer, the original station, built in little more than a month by a handful of U.S. Navy Seabees for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site of 1957-58, was demolished for safety reasons.

“It took a lot of effort and a lot of people. But we got it done in a timely fashion,” said Andres Martinez, South Pole Technical Support manager, from the comfortable confines of his office in what most Polies still refer to as the new station several years after its official dedication in January 2008.

An explosion of snow.
Photo Credit: Robert Schwarz
One of the three explosions that demolished Old Pole under the ice.
Crater in snow with buildings in the background.
Photo Credit: Andy Martinez
A crater made by one of the blasts.
People on roof of building with big dish.
Photo Credit: Andy Martinez
People watch the demolition from a safe distance at the Dark Sector Lab.
[See previous article: A new era.]

Martinez led the effort to finish a job that Mother Nature had begun not long after members of the Seabee construction battalion departed in January 1957, as drifting snow and ice quickly buried the buildings. The station was intended to last only a couple of years, but the scientific campaign was so successful that the United States and many of the other nations involved in the IGY continued to use many of their research bases.

In the case of the first South Pole Station External U.S. government site, it would be occupied for nearly 20 years. Over the course of those two decades, the station required constant vigilance to brace it against the ever-crushing weight of the ice above. For example, the original system of tunnels that connected the buildings were covered by chicken wire and burlap. Those would later be rebuilt using heavy timbers, then steel beams and planking.

Dick Wolak, the civilian South Pole Station manager for the transition from Old Pole to the new Dome Station in 1974-75, summed up the state of the IGY base in an article he wrote for the Fall-Winter 2002 edition of The Polar Times, a publication of the American Polar SocietyExternal Non-U.S. government site:

“The old station, no longer the object of structural or mechanical improvements, gamely carried on. It showed its years in the distortion of buildings, metal arches, and shoring timbers. Its generators were a constant problem, and often irregular in their output. The patchwork of devices used to heat buildings and provide water was notably inefficient in its use of costly diesel fuel.”

During that season, everyone eventually moved from Old Pole into the buildings under the geodesic dome, an unheated structure that offered protection from the wind and blowing snow.

Wolak was the last one to leave Old Pole, literally turning off the lights as he moved his personal belongings to the Dome Station about a mile away.

“But that didn’t happen for several days,” he wrote, “as we were moving massive quantities of equipment and supplies from Old Pole, and the heat and power were great benefits. The lights finally did go out on Feb. 3.”

Today, the entire facility is entombed under about 30 feet or more of snow, having moved away from the geographic pole with the slow drift of the ice sheet.

But the surface above is unstable. In the last couple of years, several heavy machines have fallen through the snow. One Caterpillar Challenger broke through several stories into one of the IGY station buildings last season. The driver was unhurt.

The National Science Foundation External U.S. government site, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, decided enough was enough. The decision was made to implode most of the major buildings, prefabricated T-5 structures. 1 2   Next