Saturday, January 07, 2012

South Pole Traverse

Yesterday we got a tour of the South Pole Traverse vehicles. This is a group of 8 vehicles pulling sleds of fuel on the Antarctic "highway" from McMurdo base to the South Pole station. The "highway" is a snow road constructed over several years by filling in crevasses and leveling the snow as much as possible. It's marked by flags and needs to be maintained every year.

That sounds like a lot of work, but it turns out to be very cost effective. The traverse vehicles end up using about 1 gallon of fuel for every gallon delivered to the Pole, while it takes two gallons of fuel for a C-17 plane to fly each gallon of fuel. Each traverse ends up saving about 40 flights per year.

It takes the team about 3 weeks to drive from McMurdo to the South Pole. Along the way, they picked up all the scientific gear from a camp which was at high altitude and thus would have taken many more flights to remove. There's less air at high altitudes, so the planes have less air to "grab", and therefore can't carry very much for each trip. The traverse vehicles just loaded everything onto a couple of sleds and carried it along with everything else.

The red buildings in the background are part of the traverse. One of tractors tows the living quarters (kitchen, bunks, etc.) and a module with a generator and a toilet, and a second tractor tows a module containing all the food needed for many weeks along with a toolshed module.

The driver who gave us the tour said that the tractor engines generate enough heat that he's actually hot. There were times when he was driving along, shirt off, with the door open to try to keep the cab comfortable!

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