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Tents and orange building on snow.
Photo Credit: Michelle Brown
A field camp is set up to work on an automated geophysical observatory (AGO) in East Antarctica. The space weather station, with its communication and power requirements, was a topic of conversation at the annual Polar Technology Conference.

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Polar Technology Conference shares advances for work in extreme environments

A unique gathering of polar veterans met in Fairlee, Vt., for the eighth annual Polar Technology Conference External Non-U.S. government site in early April.

The conference brings together engineers and polar scientists to exchange information on the latest research needs and technology solutions that have been successful in polar environments.

The topics of power and communications always top the list. Speakers talked about the requirements for remote, automated data collection stations such as the large Automated Geophysical Observatories (AGO) External Non-U.S. government site in the Antarctic, as well as for smaller stations using only a few watts of power at smaller stations to transmit various types of data, and even photos, via Iridium or similar satellite systems.

These stations are typically powered by a mix of solar and wind generation, with a complex battery backup system to ensure operation for one or more years between site visits.

One particularly vexing issue for the Arctic remote stations has been to “bear-proof” the cable connections and other components. So far, animal damage has not been an issue in the Antarctic.

Tractors and buildings on ice with planes in background.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
The South Pole Traverse staged on the sea ice near McMurdo Station.

Other topics involved larger infrastructure issues. This year’s presentations included a talk by David Blake of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) External Non-U.S. government site on the construction of the new Halley VI research station External Non-U.S. government site. The facility consists of a series of blue modules (and one larger red building) on stilts, looking like a giant, frozen caterpillar. The stilts sit on skis, allowing the whole station to be moved by bulldozer. The modules are linked together using flexible connections, similar to those found on train cars.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site research station at Summit External Non-U.S. government site in Greenland will be getting a structure similar to one of the Halley VI modules.

Another significant topic is transportation. Both the Arctic and Antarctic programs rely on tractor trains to supply inland stations. There are many similarities between the Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) and the South Pole Traverse (SPT), but there are also many differences due to terrain, weather, altitude, snow and crevasse issues.

The GrIT operation has had to deal with an increasingly vexing crevasse field near the coast, while the SPoT train has had to overcome large crevasses in the shear zone near McMurdo Station External U.S. government site and a steep climb up the Leverett Glacier to the Antarctic plateau. Research has continued on the types of vehicles and equipment such as fuel containers and sleds. Both traverses have standardized a system of plastic sleds towing multiple, flexible fuel bladders, though the systems are still being tweaked.

Smaller vehicles were also a topic. The Arctic program supports the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge External Non-U.S. government site, a competition that includes both low-emission, internal combustion engine vehicles and electric-powered vehicles. The electric snowmobiles are important in Greenland, where clean snow and air sampling sites must be visited by researchers, and gasoline engine exhaust would contaminate the sampling sites.

Another vehicle discussed at the conference was Yeti, a small ground vehicle developed at Dartmouth College External Non-U.S. government site in collaboration with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) External U.S. government site to tow ground-penetrating radar for detecting crevasses. The autonomous robot has been used in Antarctica at the South Pole to survey a site where an old research station had been buried by snow, and in Greenland to detect crevasses along the traverse route.

Other technical topics this year included design and deployment of ocean buoys in the Arctic; drilling through Antarctic ice; exploration of subglacial lakes and ocean areas with autonomous unmanned vehicles; helicopter and ground reconnaissance of crevasses in Greenland; and new equipment for milling snow for ice road maintenance around McMurdo Station.

The conference is strictly a volunteer effort led by the PTC’s Steering Committee and the annual host. Roy Stehle from SRI International External Non-U.S. government site, a partner in CH2M Hill Polar Services External Non-U.S. government site, served as the conference MC.

The first conference was held in Mountain View, Calif., in 2005 with 31 participants. The conference has grown to include more than 70 attendees. This year’s event was sponsored by the Dartmouth College Institute of Arctic Sciences External Non-U.S. government site, and the Ice Drilling Program Office External Non-U.S. government site at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering External Non-U.S. government site. Support was also provided by CRREL and the NSF.