The Dome is constructed from geodesic aluminium, 50 metres in diameter at the base and approximately 17 metres high at its apex. The entrance is down a long, gloomy ramp, walking down it feels rather like entering into an underground dungeon or wandering through a set for a sci-fi film. We pass through several sets of doors and coverings designed to keep the cold out and the heat in. There are hot air blowers to provide continual heating. The system works well and soon we start to warm up and need to disrobe our outer garments. It seems almost impossible we are here, inside this structure that continually has to withstand the crushing forces of nature. A twentieth century wonder of the world.
Antarctic Expedition Cruises Photo Gallery
Fortunately we are expected and Wayne Sukow the Base manager, a physicist by training, makes himself readily available to show us around. Previously I had heard that visitors to Antarctic bases were not generally welcome and were looked upon as something of a nuisance, causing too much interference in the daily routines. Often they were not allowed inside, even to use the basic facilities. Still Amundsen and Scott would have ‘watered the ice’ so anyone also doing the same would be in excellent company. Perhaps my work and connections with the Red Cross have helped, or more likely Max is well thought of as a pilot of grace and discretion. Whatever the reason, Sukow is welcoming and friendly and indeed asks his colleagues to support my fund-raising. Although he was born in the US his family were originally from Poland and again I take this further Polish connection as a sign that he will make a special effort for us and so it turns out. Sukow is very happy to answer all our questions and willing to show us anything we want to see. He tells us the scientists here are often referred to as ‘beakers’ and there is a whole Base vocabulary which those staying permanently need to learn and use. You can always tell someone who’s been based here and is returning. He or she will say ‘I’m going to the Ice,’ meaning, returning to the Antarctic. ‘Boondoggles’, a wonderful word to conjure with, is used to indicate those much sought after occasional opportunities to get away from the base.
The Dome houses three two-storey structures which contain the living, dining, recreation and meeting areas, communications, laboratory and scientific facilities. There are all kinds of other rooms and depots containing power plants as well as fuel storage. The Amundsen-Scott Station is supplied entirely by aircraft from McMurdo Station, the largest in the Antarctic. Overall, the base is an amazing place, deeply constructed below the ice, it is an extraordinary feat of engineering and dedicated determination to build a research station at the most isolated spot in the world that it is possible to find. The elements are always threatening to reclaim it and Sukow explains that they need continual maintenance to keep everything operating. There are several back-up systems if one or two break down, as happens more often than one would imagine. Safety is of the utmost concern. One of the greatest dangers, strangely enough, is that of fire. There are fire prevention notices everywhere and constant fire drills. If a fire broke out underground and wasn’t checked immediately the consequences could be devastating. In the single and communal living sections there are many notices ‘Smoking in bed is not permitted’. I wonder how they keep a check on this! Everything always needs to be under constant supervision and the station is kept on a permanent state of alert.
Working in these ferocious conditions is constantly demanding and those underground most of the time need a great deal of personal freedom and the opportunity to relax. Now of course it is the Antarctic’s summer period but in the winter months the weather can become very dire indeed. Sukow says that during the light months the number of people staying here is between 140 and 200 but this drops to 60 when it becomes permanently dark. It’s much more difficult to withstand the enormous pressure, mentally as well as physically, for those that have to remain in this specially created sanctuary from the sub-zero conditions of winter that rage above ground. Particularly with the detailed rules and regulations everyone is instructed to follow
Tempers can become very frayed when people are confined below the ice for weeks and months at a time and there have been numerous (so-called) accidents and injuries. In past years, chefs have been known to chase staff members, waving choppers and knives, if challenged about the state of the food and their cooking. When underground for such long periods it is very easy to lose one’s temper or patience and the smallest incident can be blown up out of all normal proportion. Like the weather, nothing here under the ice is predictable or normal. It’s all important to be aware of everyone else and to watch for any signs of abnormality. There is an intensity in living underground at the polar cap that is not like anything else on earth. Even with medical facilities readily available and several doctors, nurses and even psychologists on hand, anything can happen. Sometimes it’s the doctors themselves who are the ones to crack, as they react against those who constantly come to them with minor or even imaginary problems. One Argentine doctor burned down his country’s base to force an immediate evacuation.
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