Raising cabooses

Life in Antarctica is, by definition, strange. But in Halley this concept is brought to its extremes.

Yes, Antarctica is full of snow and we have to deal with it. Until here we have the same set of problems than any other antarctic scientific station in the continent or any country that has to deal a lot with this substance, like Canada, Norway or Russia.

But even in that Halley is different. Why? Because here snow doesn’t melt. This is, actually, a problem that many stations have to deal with around here. It is simply too cold for it during the whole year. Besides, around here we don’t have anything that can absorb that much sunlight, heat up in the process and melt some snow around the place. But here it is just too cold and the snow is simply to white for it.

Snow is an excellent solar reflector. Its albedo, that is, the percentage of direct sunlight that get reflected by the snow, is 0.95, which means that 95% of all light that hits the snow surface is reflected back into space.

This creates two consequences: for one, snow cannot absorb enough solar light to melt and walking over snow in a bright sunny day is double dangerous since we have to deal with the direct sunlight and the light that gets reflected by the surface and hits us too but in a different angle. While I was there I heard all sorts of crazy stories, such like people getting sun burned inside their nostrils or in their groins after walking a few minutes under the sun in shorts… in Antárctica. (Yes, it happens more than you might imagine)

If snow doesn’t get melted around here, than what happens to it during the year? Well, nothing… And that’s the problem. Snow doesn’t go anywhere here but it also doesn’t stop falling, even in Summer.

As such, we have to deal with a phenomenon that it is very rare in most of our planet: annual snow deposition.

In Halley this value is about 1,5 meters, that is, per year we “gain” meter and a half of snow… everywhere. Anything – modules, control cabins (cabooses), food, flags, igloos or ski-doos – that stays outside long enough without any action ends up buried under a meter and a half of snow. In fact, the maintenance run of my Lifetime of Halley sites is done mainly because of that. Nothing like getting at one of those sites a year later and find the snow almost at the same level as the solar panel or with the wind generator almost under the surface.

Most of the work in Summer focus exactly on that: raising every structure that compose the station and stays around functional during Winter a few meters to make sure that they don’t disappear during the upcoming months.

How do you identify a station that has to deal with snow deposition? A lot of skis around and most building are called “platforms” is normally a good indication.

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Raising each one of the modules is the main job normally. For that, each year there’s a Summer team specific for that. The hydraulic controls on each module are not easy to operate and to guarantee that the station remains functional (to avoid some moronic portuguese destroying the indoor plumbing while trying to raise its sleeping module just because “he couldn’t see the sunset right”), these are only worked by someone that knows what he’s doing.

But Halley is not just the 8 modules and there’s a whole myriad of containers, buildings and cabins that need to be raised before the end of February. A lot of them belong to my jurisdiction. Several of my projects, due to the sensible nature of their components and to avoid unnecessary interferences that may damage the data quality, are located outside of the modules. With my radars, for example, only the antenna and cable feeders remain outside. All remaining electronics stays protected inside of a shipping container adapted to the cause, which around here is called a “caboose”.

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A “caboose” is but a container (or several sometimes) adapted to Antarctica, that is, with ventilation, electricity, heating and communications, that houses and protects the sensible components of a project. In a normal world these containers would be simply left outside in a place were they wouldn’t be in anyone’s way but here we also have to guarantee that they remain accessible during the whole year. So, all of these cabooses are supported by “legs”, which are but four steel beams, attached to each corner, that keep the bottom of the caboose a few meters above the snow surface. The entrance in these cabooses is made through a set of metal stairs that go to a small access balcony.

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Inside we have food and shelter to survive for a whole month if needed (just in case) – in an emergency pack by the entry lobby, all cabooses have a sleeping bag, dehydrated food, a basic first aid kit and a small querosene stove to melt snow if we end up loosing power in the box (which can easily happen during a storm by the way). As with everything around here, after a year all of these cabooses need to be raised before Winter starts. The process has a few years but it is a proven one. In fact, that how it was done before Halley got its hydraulic modules. Halley V was very similar to a oil platform in that sense. Like the cabooses, Halley V was raised every year above the snow surface and sometimes it was needed to raise the legs.

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These cabooses are way lighter than the modules or other containers for that fact. Four people can raise one of these cabooses in a day. The process is incremental and somewhat simple: using steel podgers to keep the box in place and hydraulic jacks, like the ones that we use when changing a car’s tires, but a bit more powerful) to raise it, little by little.

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The access ladder is dug up too. After a year, only an hand full of steps are still visible.

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Finally, and only as a precautionary measure, all equipments inside the caboose are turned off during the procedure. But it is actually for the safety of the operating crew than for data interference. My radars are powerful enough to fry an adult men in a few minutes.

This is why space in Halley is so valuable. Any new scientific project or building has to have snow deposition into account before getting settled here, doesn’t matter if it is a small antenna on a aluminium pipe or an Olympic stadium.

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