By: Tiara Walters, Correspondent
When the 16-man construction crew for the South African National Antarctic Programme’s (Sanap’s) new emergency base sailed out of Table Bay harbour in early December, they expected the voyage to the white desert to take just 14 days.
The treacherous seas of the earth’s southern extremities seemed such a world away that not even the ice veterans aboard the ship foresaw the unprecedented conditions that would extend the voyage by two weeks – although some expedition members, including some 80 maintenance staff and scientists at South Africa’s polar research base, Sanae IV, had heard whispers of a treacherous iceberg, the B15K.
The South African Weather Service reports that the B15K’s mother berg, the B15, was one of the largest ever to have calved off the Ross Ice shelf in March 2000. At the time, the B15 was a 300-km × 40-km titan and, when the B15K broke away in February 2004, it caused a stir in the US, where the scientific com- munity employed a range of technology, – such as a seismometer for analysing ‘icequakes’ – to study the mother berg’s extraordinary anatomy.
The 60-km × 5-km B15K spent almost six years trundling around Antarctica. It finally wedged itself into one of South Africa’s two offloading zones on the Dronning (Queen) Maud Land coast when the country’s polar research vessel, the SA Agulhas, approached the ice shelf in late December.
The Antarctic summer is short and leaves little room for contingencies. In fact, it is Sanap’s only annual window to replenish Sanae IV before the pack ice closes in again. Yet, here was the B15K, floating large across the Penguin Bukta (bay) inlet and threatening to jackknife and crush any ship, and threatening the South African mission.
The usually unflappable expedition leader, Adriaan Dreyer, described it as the most “difficult offloading process” he could remember – the 46-year-old has led 12 expeditions to Antarctica and several more to Marion Island.
However, no one was more ill at ease than structural engineer Hennie Stassen, the mastermind behind South Africa’s new emergency base, or ‘E-Base’.
“A lot was riding on this. It was, in many ways, a Sanap project commissioned by Germany, who’d asked us to decommission their old station (Neumayer II), which was being crushed by the shelf and whose materials we’d use to build the E-Base nearby,” Stassen recalled eight months later and back at his Pretoria-based engineering firm.
South Africa had established itself as a force in ice engineering when it unveiled Sanae IV in 1997 – then the most high-tech base in all of Antarctica. For Germany, which had unveiled its latest station, Neumayer III, in 2009, the South Africans became the obvious choice to dismantle Neumayer II.
Further, Dronning Maud Land’s relative proximity to Cape Town meant that the South Africans could do it more cheaply than anyone else. “In fact, we had insisted we could. So, failing to meet the brief might have damaged our hard-won credibility with Germany,” Stassen added.
But there was more riding on the project than merely pleasing the Germans.
An E-Base on Dronning Maud Land’s edge – the sweep of shelf at 70° S that extends from 20° W to 44° E – would greatly lessen the pressure on Sanae IV’s long-haul cargo drivers, who must make several trips every summer to heave supplies from shelf to station, situated on the rocky stability of continental Antarctica, some 300 km inland. It would serve as a depot and a pit stop of sorts, and a refuge, should something catastrophic happen to Sanae IV.
Stassen and his team had been contracted to decommission Neumayer II and haul 440 t of containers out of the 18 m of ice that had engulfed the German station before building the E-Base. This had to be achieved in less than 40 days, with a crew complement of 16, in the most unforgiving wilderness on the planet.
“We had to finish everything in one season. Sending another crew at the end of 2010 would have been too expensive. It would’ve been nice to have 50 guys to help with the heavy-duty stuff, but it all comes down to cost. So we chose 16 capable people, but it would exact some blood along the way.”
As the down voyage dragged on for three weeks, Stassen’s crew began pacing the ship’s tenement halls and chain-smoking on the poop deck. Finally, after a merciful gap in the weather, which had been garrotting Antarctica’s skies for days, Dreyer and Stassen ordered the recruits to kit up in their cold-weather gear and board Sanap’s two Bell 212 choppers. From there, it was a ten-minute flight to Neumayer, where project Ice Stassen Zebra could finally start.
Getting Down to Work
Comprising an engineer, two architects, two chefs, several technicians – and even a South African archery champion, Jaco Wessels, who came for the adventure but mucked in with all the hard labour – the team worked 13-hour days, seven days a week, to complete the project by February 10.
The Germans had based much of Neumayer II on the underground shaft design of South Africa’s former research station, Sanae III. Proof again that Sanap’s engineers and architects have generally been ahead of the ice pack, in 1997, Sanae IV was the largest Antarctic station ever to be unveiled on stilts and it was only 12 years later that the Germans followed with their own above-ground, raised design.
The, by now, decommissioned Neumayer II, based at 70° 39’ S 8° 15’ W, consisted of two parallel steel tunnels, each some 80 m long and 8 m in diameter. While the crew lived, ate and slept in the west tunnel, they harnessed a winch and sled system to begin lugging out the 58 containers that had made up Neumayer II, and kick off the E-Base’s construction.
Stassen says that environmental considerations were important in decommissioning the station. He had strict instructions to clear the two tunnels of everything except the steel tunnels themselves and some wooden frames.
Twenty-two containers were given to the Russian Antarctic expedition, which collected them at the end of March and would use them at either the Progress or Novo stations; 13 were shipped back to Cape Town for reuse; eight were left on the ice shelf for removal at the end of this year; and the remaining 15 were used to build the E-Base. All the chairs, tables, beds and cupboards that now furnish the emergency station came from Neumayer II and what Neumayer III could not salvage was broken up for recycling and backloaded onto the SA Agulhas.
By January 18, the team had achieved the astonishing feat of completing 85% of the project and moved into the half-completed E-Base, which they had already stationed on stilts above the ice. The remaining days were spent decommissioning the east tunnel, closing up Neumayer II’s entrances with bulldozed snow and putting the final touches to the project. They completed the entire operation ahead of schedule in early February.
While Sanae IV was the first base in Antarctica to have a sewage treatment and water-purification system, fibre-optic cables and a raised fibreglass design, the E-Base had its own ‘big idea’ – a steel frame with a 3-m ground clearance, to be hydraulically jacked up by 2 m every two years to beat the snow at its own game.
Dronning Maud Land’s 150-m-thick ice shelf moves towards the sea at a pace of 100 m/y. However, the E-Base, which has a life span estimated at 15 years, is 6 km from the ice shelf’s edge – by the time it reaches the coast, its 15 containers will have been removed from their structural frames, by then hoisted some 20 m, and used to cobble together the next E-Base. The steel, which is nontoxic, will eventually tumble into the sea with the rest of the calving ice.
For now, however, the new E-Base features five bedrooms that sleep 20, two bathrooms, a kitchen with pantry, a dining room and a lounge. A transmitter and receiver get wireless, if somewhat slow, Internet through Neumayer III. Each bedroom has been fitted with South African, as well as German, plugs to enable the Germans to stay at the E-Base during summer, when they might need extra accommodation. The E-Base has two glass doors, which allow its inhabitants to stay in touch with the sort of light that bounces off Dronning Maud Land’s ice fields and makes the soul sing.
Except for the heating, hot-water plumbing and air-circulation systems, two ovens and some fittings, which were brought from South Africa, everything was constructed from reclaimed material. Even the foundations were made from reclaimed wood – an excellent material to create a foundation on ice as it is a poor conductor of heat. The wood was sunk into a 15-m by 20-m pit to a depth of 2,5 m – “The point at which the ice becomes dense and hard,” said Stassen – and covered by a steel base.
The 54-year-old Stassen, who has visited the Antarctic on 27 seafaring expeditions since 1983, thinks he might hang up his snow boots for good after one last visit to the world’s biggest deep freeze at the end of the year. He wants a life in the forests on the southern Cape coast, in the arboreal hamlet of Sedgefield, where he has bought a farm. When he does retire from the place of sun dogs, snow and sorcery, the E-Base will be a fitting swansong to a lifetime’s work in Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen country.
“The best thing was that we were just a bunch of guys who got stuck in. We worked day and night – it’s a source of pride that we achieved what we did in the time we had available to us,” he mused.
- Tiara Walters is an independent environmental journalist based in Cape Town. She accompanied Sanap during the programme's 2009/10 expedition to Antarctica as its first-ever woman writer-in-residence. For more on the programme and its 50-year history, visit www.sanap.ac.za.