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A ship docks at a pier.
Photo Credit: William Henriksen/Antarctic Photo Library
Cargo is unloaded from the MV GREEN WAVE onto a temporary pier built by the U.S. Army. The ice pier normally used for the cargo operation in Winter Quarters Bay failed to solidify this season.

Strong finish

Successful cargo operation completes challenging logistics season

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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) External U.S. government site did when the ice pier at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, 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) External U.S. government site 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) External U.S. government site, which manages the USAP.

Small raft next to large ship.
Photo Credit: William Henriksen/Antarctic Photo Library
A crane lowers parts of the floating causeway for the ship offload operation.

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. [See previous article — Without pier: Floating dock from McMurdo Station found locked in sea ice.]

“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 External U.S. government site 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 External U.S. government site-chartered container ship MV Green Wave.

Explosion sends water up in the air.
Photo Credit: Carlie Reum
Explosives dislodge the ice pier from Winter Quarters Bay.

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) External Non-U.S. government site, 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 External U.S. government site 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.1 2   Next