How electricians battle bitter cold while doing extreme electrical work in Antarctica
When asked to remember the most extreme job they’ve ever worked on, most electricians can quickly recall the details like it was yesterday — telling war stories of battling extreme temperatures or weather, maneuvering in confined spaces to complete intricate electrical work, or conquering the challenges of hazardous locations. What most electricians can’t say is they’ve worked in the coldest, windiest, driest, and highest environment on earth. Danny Warrick found himself in this seemingly alien world several years ago when he was transported directly from his life as an electrical contractor in Florida to South Pole Station in Antarctica.
After owning his own electrical contracting business for many years, Warrick learned about the opportunities for working as an electrician in Antarctica from a newspaper travel article. After applying for a four- to six-month seasonal job with a contractor for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), he turned his contracting business over to his son. Like many first timers, Warrick took the job mostly to experience Antarctica. At first, he was delighted with his assignment — wiring the deep space telescope building at South Pole Station. “It was an honor, but it was just too cold down there,” he says. “Temperatures of -50°F or -80°F with wind chill are just too much to work outside, but sometimes we had to do it anyway.”
Add to that the challenge of getting enough oxygen to breathe at a mile and a half above sea level, and this climate proved to be almost too severe. Hooked on Antarctica nonetheless, Warrick spent his next season at McMurdo Station, which has much milder weather. “If the wind’s not blowing, -10°F isn’t that bad,” he says.
McMurdo Station, like South Pole Station and Palmer Station, has a mission to support NSF scientific investigations; however, ordinary life must be supported there as well. During the summer months — October to February — more than 1,000 people live at McMurdo Station, many of whom are scientists. In addition, more than half of the population is made up of support personnel, such as equipment operators, janitors, cooks, and electricians. Depending on the season and special projects, the number of licensed electricians can vary from five to 20. For these adventurous electricians, the pay is decent but not extraordinary. However, all expenses are paid, including cold weather clothing and travel. In this land of extremes, electricians do everything from maintaining the miles of electric heat systems that keep water and sewage pipelines from freezing at McMurdo Station to wiring the building that houses the deep space telescope at South Pole Station — not to mention repairing a lot of light fixtures along the way.
Because McMurdo Station is located on the coast, its climate is not as extreme as the interior of the continent. Nevertheless, a crisis is easy to come by, considering the remoteness of this land — the nearest civilization (New Zealand) is a 5-hour flight away. As a result, the station must be completely self-sufficient, including generating its own electrical power, which is accomplished via a power plant featuring four on-site generators. The power distribution system is 120/240 VAC. Heat coming off the generators is collected in a glycol system, which is distributed as supplemental heat throughout the station.
Because of the remoteness of the station, a critical condition can arise out of the simplest error in judgment. Electrician Roxann Hoganson realized this first-hand one night when she got an emergency call. “Our whole crew was called out at 11:30, because a dump truck pulled down the power lines that fed half the station,” she says. “We helped the linemen kill the power and remove the lines from the road. Luckily, most everyone was sleeping and didn’t even know what had happened.”
Despite getting accustomed to emergencies like this, acclimation to McMurdo Station was easy for Hoganson, who began her extreme electrician career endeavor at the beginning of summer one October, when the weather resembled her native Minnesota in January (ranging from -10°F to +10°F). According to Hoganson, there’s a misconception about Antarctica — that it’s always really cold and dark, and everyone lives in tents. In reality, there is full daylight around the clock at McMurdo during the summer season, and everyone live in dormitories, except for scientists conducting research out in the field. In fact, the temperatures commonly reach above freezing in December and January — the height of summer. Surprisingly enough, this warmer weather presents just as much of a problem as the cold, notes fellow electrician James Pierce. “During the winter, snow blows in between the exterior and interior walls of the buildings,” he explains. “When the weather warms, it melts the snow. The water finds the path of least resistance, which is usually our electrical conduit. I have had emergency calls for water pouring from a fluorescent light fixture.”
In addition to a self-contained power plant, McMurdo Station has its own water and sewage plants with many miles of piping. Water is pulled from beneath 15 feet of sea ice and piped to a water plant where it is desalinated by reverse osmosis. It is then minimally treated — it’s naturally some of the cleanest water on earth — and distributed throughout the station. Wastewater and sewage are piped to the treatment plant where the sewage is dried, compacted, and shipped to California for disposal.
Nine miles of electric heat, called “heat trace,” runs the full length of the pipeline. A few years ago, serious problems had been created by the fact that the original system was 20 years old and failing. In response, a special 18-month project was launched in order for electricians to analyze and overhaul the entire system. The heat-trace upgrade project consisted of 22 people, including electricians, plumbers, insulators, and general assistants.
According to Project Manager Mike St. Jean, the old heat-trace system was not energy efficient and posed a danger to the safety of the community. When electrical lines broke, the only way to identify breaks was to have a USAP employee walk the pipelines daily, looking for small red lights set periodically along the pipeline. This task presented quite a challenge due to blowing and drifting snow.
Because much of the piping, though above ground, was buried in several feet of ice and snow, there was a lot of chipping and shoveling to be done. Then, there was also inspecting and analyzing the current state of the system to determine how much conduit and pipe needed to be replaced, the source of existing power, and the best location for the new control panels. Although many sections of pipe had to be replaced, the real challenge was the complete electrical rewiring that took place. Insulated wire was run through a ¾-inch conduit, which was placed inside 4 inches of rigid insulation, creating a 9-inch pipe. Miles of these pipes were laid throughout the station, mounted at about knee level so that much of the blowing snow would not be trapped, creating unnecessary buildup.
One of the most exciting features of the new heat-trace system is the direct digital control (DDC) component, which allows remote monitoring of every line. Rather than having a person walk the line on-site in Antarctica, the system can be monitored and controlled by DDC and energy engineers in the United States. According to St. Jean, the new system is 40% more efficient, which saves
approximately $300,000 a year in energy costs.
Just can’t get enough. As was the case on the heat-trace upgrade project, electricians working in Antarctica sustain harsh conditions to get the job done — 9 hours a day, six days a week is the norm. Nevertheless, people go back season after season and year after year. More than 1,000 individuals can be found at McMurdo during the endless daylight of “summer,” followed by a couple hundred who “winter over” to endure the ongoing days of darkness and bitter cold. There’s no doubt that at least a handful of the committed few will continue to be electricians, inspiring new generations of electrical workers to answer this call for career opportunities and adventure in this land of extremes.
Fey has worked in Antarctica for two seasons as a heating mechanic/emergency communications operator. You can reach her at email@example.com. The United States Antarctic Program is managed by the National Science Foundation. To learn more, visit: www.usap.gov.
SIDEBAR: Antarctica Fun Facts
Stats. Nearly twice the size of Australia, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent in the world — and the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth. An ice sheet covers approximately 98% of Antarctica’s 5 million square miles. At its thickest point, the ice sheet is 3 miles deep. This ice makes up approximately 90% of all of the world’s ice (by volume) and accounts for 70% of all the world’s fresh water. The area of sea ice around Antarctica varies from 1 million sq miles (4 million sq km) in summer to 7.7 million sq miles (20 million sq km) in winter.
Climate conditions. The coldest temperature recorded in the interior is -129°F, yet on the coast in the summer season, temperatures can reach into the 50s. The mean annual temperature at South Pole Station is -56°F. During the austral summer, temperatures at McMurdo Station may reach as high as 50°F, while at South Pole Station the summer temperature may reach 0°F. Palmer Station has a milder climate, with summer temperatures reaching as high as 55°F. Winds have been recorded as high as 199 mph in Antarctica, though much of the time they are moderate. While the continent is known for ferocious storms, there is little snowfall. Annual coastal precipitation is 8 inches, and the interior gets even less. The average elevation of Antarctica is 1.5 miles above sea level.
Daylight and darkness. Much of the area below 66.5° south enjoys one long day and one long night each year, with weeks of sunrise and sunset in between. There are spectacular displays of aurora australis (southern lights) during the winter darkness.
Ownership. No nation owns Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 45 countries, reserves the area south of 60° south as a zone for the peaceful conduct of research. Treaty nations coordinate and cooperate to maximize research results and minimize logistics requirements.
Science. Antarctica provides excellent conditions for scientific research on such topics as global warming, ozone changes, climatology, earth sciences, glaciology, astronomy, UV radiation, oceanic circulation, marine ecosystems, and meteorite studies. Although many penguins and abundant sea life thrive along the coast, there is little life on the continent. There are no indigenous peoples.
History. The existence of Antarctica was only hypothesis, until it is was first sighted in 1820-21. No one set foot on the continent until 1895. The South Pole was first reached in 1911 and established as a year-round research station in 1956. Antarctica’s history is packed full of extraordinary stories of heroism and survival.
SIDEBAR: Survival Guide to Electrical Work in Antarctica
Following are some tips from electricians in the field at McMurdo Station.
- Double or even triple check circuits before working on them. Many are old and may not have been installed to today’s standards.
- Stay warm. Use a vehicle — if you’re lucky enough to have one — and its heat to your advantage. Use your truck cab like your work bench.
- Frostbite can happen before you know it, so keep your nose and ears covered.
- Learn to work with your gloves on.
- Stretch often. You are not as flexible in the cold as you are in warm weather.
- Beware of sunburn. Even though the temperature is low, the sun is intense — whether from its reflection off the ice or the fact that in summer it shines around the clock.
- Watch out for rocks hiding under the snow to avoid a twisted ankle. Some parts of Antarctica are dry ground, which exposes rock debris.
- Wear the right clothes, and don’t get wet — wind chill can be deadly.
- Weather can change very fast with a temperature drop, wind, and loss of visibility from blowing snow or fog.
- Surprisingly, fire is the greatest danger in Antarctica. If you are in a vehicle outside the station, it’s your shelter. If it burns, there’s nowhere else to go.
- You are in charge of your own safety, so remember that serious medical help is far away.
SIDEBAR: Parts Predicament
Besides the weather, a never-ending challenge when working in Antarctica is getting parts — sometimes even the most basic components or devices. There is no parts supplier down the street. In fact, the supply ship arrives just once a year — in February, after the icebreaker ship creates a passage through the frozen ocean. Under these extreme circumstances, for a part to be on the ship, it has to be ordered a year or more in advance. After someone places it on the requisition list, a purchaser must order the part. Then, the supplier ships the part to California, where it is warehoused, awaiting the loading of the annual ship. The vessel must make the long trip, the last part of which is through icy, stormy seas. Once the ship arrives, often covered with ice, the entire station devotes itself to “offload activities” for days.
“When parts are unavailable, we get creative,” says Roxann Hoganson, electrician. “One year we ran out of ¾-inch locknuts, so we removed them from defective fixtures that were on the way to recycling. Other times, the work is put off for another year.”