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The (South) Polar Express
For more information on this story contact:
Email:Marcia Goodrich

March 4, 2005--Two centuries ago, it took Lewis and Clark three years to wend their way across half of North America. It’s taking Russ Alger and his teammates only a little longer to blaze a trail to the South Pole.

Of course, Antarctica poses special challenges. Ninety-eight percent of the continent is buried under thousands of feet of ice. And it doesn’t help that Alger and his fellow pioneers can only work for a few weeks during the summer and have to start over again every year from the trailhead at McMurdo Station, on the coast.

For the fourth winter in a row, Alger, director of MTU’s Institute of Snow Research, has joined a National Science Foundation effort to build a thousand-mile overland supply route to the international research station at the South Pole. Currently, supplies can only be flown in, and with the weather at the bottom of the world as dicey as it is, even in the middle of the southern summer air travel can be a crap shoot.

Ground travel may be delayed but is rarely stopped by weather. It’s much cheaper. And you can haul far more gear overland than you can in the air, even using C-130 cargo planes. “With the plane, everything has to be downsized,” Alger said. “They sometimes have trouble getting enough fuel to the South Pole, so NSF decided over the years to do the trail.”

So, since 1992, the NSF team has forged south from McMurdo, traveling through un-tracked snow and working their way over and around lurking crevasses, which make for slow going. Nevertheless, all those years of driving over the same route are starting to pay off, Alger says. “This year, we noticed a great benefit; we were driving on something and not sinking all the time. With every passage, it should get better and better.”

Using a device developed at the Keweenaw Research Center called an automatic penetrometer, they also tested the strength of the surface at regular intervals.

“We wanted to see if snow conditions change as you go across ice shelf,” Alger said. “Now we have a profile of the whole trail we’ve done.”

“We are also doing measurements of towing resistance,” he added. “We are gaining lots of knowledge on mobility in snow that we’d never get otherwise.” This type of information will be especially useful once supply convoys start making regular treks to the South Pole.

As in past years, Alger was the point man on the traverse, traveling ahead of most of the convoy to watch for crevasses. The good news was that on the 500 miles of trail that had already been marked, only a handful of small new ones had formed.

A few miles past that point, Alger was air-lifted back to McMurdo. As the remaining team members began crossing new ground, however, their luck changed. “They had to worm their way through a lot of crevasses,” Alger said.

These ravines in the ice are doubly treacherous because they are usually invisible, covered with a layer of snow that likely as not will collapse with minimal provocation. The trick is to find them before they find you.

To do that, the team tests the surface with ground-penetrating radar, located on a boom attached to the front of the lead vehicle. When the radar detects a void, everyone stops.

“Depending on how deep the crevasse is, we either go around it--which is hard, because if there’s one crevasse there are usually lots of crevasses--or we dynamite it open and fill it in,” says Alger. “It’s actually kind of neat.”

Another danger in this country of no street signs is getting lost in bad weather. The lead trailblazer pokes a flag into the trail every quarter mile, while the other vehicles follow as much as several miles behind. “When a storm comes up, we stop. We don’t move unless you can see two flags ahead.

“It can be hard to find your way back.”

Once its finished, the trail to the South Pole will cross the Ross Ice Shelf, ascend the Leverett Glacer and traverse the Transantarctic Mountains. The last leg of the journey will be across the polar plateau.

The team was in sight of the mountains when Alger left. “Then they made it up to the polar plateau, a big feat,” he said. Everyone wanted to make one last push to the pole, “but the bummer was that if they’d kept going, they wouldn’t have had enough fuel to get back. So NSF made the decision not to continue.”

The team expects to cross the final 200 miles next year. But as satisfying as that will be, this is a job that truly will never be done. The Ross Ice Shelf drifts northward toward the ocean at a rate of about a meter a day, so in a sense the trail will always be under construction.

Why go to all this trouble? Apparently there’s no science like South Pole science.

The South Pole has an up-close view of the infamous hole in the ozone layer. Its air is as immaculate as air can be in an industrial age, so clean samples are easy for atmospheric scientists to collect. Once the sun dips below the horizon and winter sets in, there is absolutely no background light, so stargazing is a snap for astronomers. Plus, astrophysicists are also using the polar shelf like a massive catcher’s mitt for subatomic particles. High-energy neutrinos from deep space leave tracks as they zip through the snow, and scientists can study them using a special telescope buried deep in the ice cap.

“And they look back in time with ice cores,” Alger says. They hope to determine if global warming is a blip in centuries-long climate cycles that will reverse itself naturally, or if greenhouse emissions are warping the world’s weather for the long haul.

Even though the team has nearly accomplished its mission, Alger ruminates on ways to build a better trail. He hopes to test his SnowPaver groomer this summer in Greenland, with an eye toward packing it south next December. “There’s a great benefit to making a trail strong, but it’s also important to make it smooth,” he notes.

Smooth would be nice, since there is precious little comfort for the trail builders. All eight live in a trailer about the size of a freight car. “On either end are bunks, and in the center is the kitchen. The table is just big enough for eight,” Alger notes. “You learn to step out of the way when you see people coming, and it’s obvious when someone is having a bad day.”

Privacy would seem to be a concern, and Alger anticipates the question. “You do number one outside, and women can pee in a bucket,” he says. “There’s an incinerator toilet, and you do number two in that.”

So what’s the attraction, other than following in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen? “The main reason I go is that I can stand in the sunshine,” Alger admits. When the Keweenaw is shadowed in clouds and darkness, Antarctica is ablaze in day-and-night light.

“I sure hope I can go again next year.”

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