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Norwegian-American Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica

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Plateau Station

In March of 1964, the U.S. National Science Foundation and U.S. military engineering corps jointly proposed building a new base and airfield in the central Antarctic Plateau, both as a meteorological observation station, and as a logistical support base for the South Pole-Queen Maud Land Traverses.

(Text by Ted Scambos)

By December 13, 1965, the first construction team of 6 persons was landed at the site (see Figure 1), and on January 13 th, 1966, the new base building was enclosed and declared ready to receive the approaching SPQML II party. Located at 79.25 deg S, 40.5 deg E, and at an altitude of 3624 m, the station was expected to be a site of interest for meteorological, upper atmosphere, and geophysical study, and there was great anticipation that the coldest temperatures ever recorded would be reached during the winter seasons. Plateau was 150m higher than the Soviet base at Vostok, and remained the highest-altitude Antarctic station occupied through winter until the opening of Dome Fuji Station (at 3810 m) in 1995. Eight-person crews occupied the base through the winter seasons, comprised of four navy personnel and four scientists. The base commander was usually a Navy doctor. The base operated continuously until January 1969.

Plateau Station 1
Figure 1: Unloading building supplies and equipment at the first landing at Plateau Station, December 13, 1965.
U.S. Navy photograph.

Plateau Station 2
Figure 2: Pre-fabricated vans for Plateau Station were designed to exactly fit in the C-130 cargo hold. U.S. Navy photograph.

The station was assembled rapidly from 5 pre-fabricated vans -- each designed to exactly fit into a ski-equipped C-130 aircraft (Figure 2) -- four of which were combined into a single main building of 8 by 25 meters, plus an additional van and an emergency shelter Jamesway building some distance away (see Figure 3 and 4). A 3500 meter long skiway (12,000 ft) was marked off in the relatively smooth snow surface.

Plateau Station 3

Figure 3: Plan diagram of the main building at Plateau Station, from Kaufman and Webber, 1966.
Plateau Station 4
Figure 4: Layout of the building and runway at Plateau Station, from Radok and Lile, 1978.

A meteorological tower, 32 meters high, was erected and equipped with the most sophisticated meteorological and radiation-measuring sensors of the day (Figure 5). The tower supported a number of studies of the persistent thermal air inversion layer that hugs the snow surface to a height of a few tens of meters of the surface across the high snow plain of the Antarctic. The entire base was completed in just 5 weeks, and major construction ended on January 22, 1966 (Figure 6).

Plateau Station 5
Figure 5: The 32-meter meteorlogical tower at Plateau, showing the series of instruments at various levels. Photo courtesy James B. Pranke.
Plateau Station 6
Figure 6: Plateau Station's main building on January 30, 1966. Photo courtesy Dr. Olav Orheim.

The station was carefully planned from the beginning, as both the NSF and U.S. Navy were aware of the very difficult conditions the site presented. The need to assemble the base rapidly and with a small crew led naturally to a pre-fabrication design. Energy design for the station was remarkably efficient, and presaged in some ways today's more 'green-conscious' energy conservation schemes. The waste heat from the generators (two 75 kW diesel generators, 'supercharged' to maintain better efficiency at altitude) was used to heat the main building, as well as pre-warm the fuel and melt the station's water from snow. Our Norway-USA traverse vehicles melt water using a similar 'waste heat' approach by circulating steel tubes carrying hot engine coolant through a snow-melter.

The camp's thoughtful design, and the inclusion of an 'emergency van' 300 meters away, proved to be essential during the first winter of operation. In July, 1966, during scheduled maintenance of one generator, the remaining generator broke down, leaving the camp without heat or power. The emergency was raised to a higher level when it was realized that without the heat from the generators to warm the fuel, the diesel could gel in the terrific cold, making it very difficult to restart the generators at all during the winter. The emergency shelter contained a third generator, which was used to warm fuel drums and keep one of the main generator and fuel bladder heating system going. Gaskets were improvised from spare fuel bladder material. The main generator room, packed with the extra pumps, fans, switches, heat exchangers, tanks, and other equipment to implement the advanced energy design, required the lone repair engineer to effect repairs in an extremely cramped area, at one point requiring 'gymnastic' contortions to return the station to power. Power continued to be a problem for the station throughout its occupation, repeatedly failing or surging and wreaking havoc on the scientific gear for auroral and upper atmosphere studies. In the final winter of occupation (1968), a power surge and failure in late February rendered much of the scientific gear useless for the rest of the year.

Plateau Station 9

Figure 7: Plateau Station as it appeared from the top of the tower in January 1966. Photo courtesy Dr. Olav Orheim.

Plateau Station 10

Figure 8: The same view as seen in December 2007. Of the main building only the little observation dome on the rooftop is visible, and can be seen just beyond the left part of the track loop. (Photo: Stein Tronstad)

One of the main functions of Plateau Station was to serve as site for re-supply and refurbishing of the South Pole - Queen Maud Land Traverse vehicles, and as an airfield for bringing the traverse party back to South Pole. The SPQML II traverse arrived at the base on January 29, 1966, but the vehicles were later flown back to South Pole. The SPQML III traverse did not depart the following year (1966-1967 season) but instead began after a year's delay, departing on December 5, 1967. Two other expeditions, both Japanese traverses, visited Plateau while it was in operation. These traverses departed from Syowa Station, on the coast almost due north of Plateau, and on December 14, 1967 the first traverse arrived for a 5-day visit before returning to Syowa. On November 10 of the following year, the Japanese traverse team again arrived from Syowa, en route to South Pole.

An initial research goal was solar observations, taking advantage of the high altitude, extremely clear and dry air, and the shorter distance between the Earth and Sun during austral summer. But the focus moved quickly to an extensive meteorological observation program and the observation of unique atmospheric phenomena. Plateau Station's climate is representative of a huge ridge-like area at the crest of the Antarctic Plateau; thin air, light winds, bitter cold winters, and brief summers. Cold air layers and inversions create unique patterns of halos and columns around the sun and moon, and make for highly distorted, but magnificent, sunrises and sunsets (Figure 7; note the 'green flash').

Plateau Station 7
Figure 9: Sunrise at Plateau Station, August 1967. Photo courtesy of Dr.
Michael Kuhn (Kuhn, 1978).
Plateau Station 8
Figure 10: Typical snow layering at Plateau Station. Photo by R. M. Koerner.

In addition to atmospheric observations, numerous attempts were made to examine and sample the layers of snow and ice below the remote station (FIgure 8). These met with mixed success, again owing to the difficult conditions and unique snow of Plateau. In the 1966-1967 season, a thermal drill managed to retrieve an ice core from 71 meters; but the upper portions of this core were melted away, and at the base, the coring tool froze in, requiring weeks to free and retrieve.

Despite the relentless cold, like much of the Antarctic Plateau, Plateau Station has a large winter-summer range of temperature, spanning 60 C. This repeated cycling strongly affects the snow, leading to some startling events. On the morning of October 29, 1966, the entire camp awoke to a severe snowquake, 'sounding like an explosion' and lasting four or five seconds. The entire camp for 300 meters around the main building dropped about a centimeter, in a wave that progressed from southeast to northwest. Vapor transport of the snow forming a layer of progressively more delicate 'hoar frost' crystals at depth probably caused the collapse. These processes are common on the Antarctic Plateau.

Mean snow temperatures at Plateau in the calendar year 1967 were just below -60C, a record low for snow thermometry, and just over 2.5 cm (one inch) of moisture fell in the year. The majority of the precipitation (60 to 80 percent) is as clear-sky 'diamond dust' crystals, a unique weather feature of the Antarctic. Winds were comparatively light, because of the position along the high ice ridge; in such areas, the intense polar fronts of the Southern Ocean can rarely penetrate. The highest wind ever recorded at Plateau was 48 knots on November 13, 1967.
In the three years of occupation, the station saw temperatures range from -18.5 C to -86.2 C, never quite surpassing the record low temperature of Vostok (at the time this was -88.2C, but that has since been surpassed by one degree). Plateau was consistently colder on average than Vostok, which the US Navy weather staff at the station noted with pride.

Medical and psychological studies of the small group of men, isolated and exposed to the worst extremes of weather the Earth has to offer, were planned from the very beginning; but careful selection of the crew members meant that few problems occurred. The medical officer's final report noted that the crew was 'remarkable for being so un-remarkable' in both physiological and mental state through the winters. White blood cell counts dropped in some team members because of the sterile conditions outside -- there was no stimulation to the immune system. The one consistent observation was a greater lung capacity and chest girth in the men as their bodies adapted to the very high altitude. While Plateau is at a respectable elevation (3625 meters or ~11,500 feet) the polar circulation vortex reduces the air pressure at all altitudes on the Antarctic continent, making Plateau 'feel' as though it is over 4000 meters (13,500 feet) above sea level.

On January 29, 1969, Plateau Station was closed, but left in place for potential future use. However, the difficulties in operating the station, and a series of problems with power and cold that plagued the scientific equipment, were noted in the final assessment of the success of the base by the NSF program manager.

Blackburn, A. B., 1968, Medical research at Plateau Station. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., v.3, n.6, p.237-239.

Kauffman, S., and A. Weber, 1966. Design for survival: the story of Plateau Station. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., v1, n4, p.156-160.

Kuhn, M., 1978. Optical phenomena in the Antarctic atmosphere, in Meteorological Studies at Plateau Station, Antarctic Research Series vol. 25, American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C., p. 129-144.

Radok, U., and R. Lile, 1978. A year of snow accumulation at Plateau Station, in Meteorological Studies at Plateau Station, Antarctic Research Series vol. 25, American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C., p. 17-26.

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