Brutal conditions to build

The South Pole is one of the world's harshest environments for doing any kind of work, especially outdoor construction.

To help National Science Foundation managers develop accurate construction time tables, they statistically analyzed work conditions. The result was a productivity factor of 2.16, which means that each hour of construction work will take 2.16 times longer at the South Pole than in normal conditions. The constraints contributing to this productivity factor include:

Altitude. The South Pole Station is 9,355 feet above sea level. On-site barometric pressure fluctuations can create an altitude equivalent between 10,600 and 11,235 feet. Workers can experience altitude sickness, shortness of breath, and severe headaches, which limit their ability to work efficiently.

Temperature. The average summer temperature at the South Pole is minus 56 degrees F. and the average winter temperature is minus 80 degrees F. The average wind speed is 12 knots and creates a wind-chill factor that can bring temperatures down to minus 70 degrees F. in summer and minus 100 degrees F. in winter. These extremes necessitate frequent work breaks to regulate body temperature and avert cold-related injuries. Clothing. Extreme temperatures require additional clothing, which reduces dexterity and work efficiency. The average weight of clothing worn by South Pole workers is 35 pounds, which includes insulated boots, heavy jackets, and pants. This clothing reduces free range of motion and speed needed to operate heavy machinery, equipment, and tools.

Clothing. Extreme temperatures require additional clothing, which reduces dexterity and work efficiency. The average weight of clothing worn by South Pole workers is 35 pounds, which includes insulated boots, heavy jackets, and pants. This clothing reduces free range of motion and speed needed to operate heavy machinery, equipment and tools.

Isolation and psychological impacts. The South Pole station covers less than one square mile and includes less than 89,000 square feet of living and work space. The nearest US research facility is McMurdo Station, 850 miles away. The remote location, confinement, limited opportunities to get away from the work environment, staggered work schedules, and long hours create fatigue and difficulties in concentration. Additional psychological factors include being away from home for extended periods of time, including holidays.

Living conditions. The lack of housing within the existing main station means the majority of the summer population lives in structures located a short distance away. Primary housing is in canvas-covered, US Army Korean War surplus structures called Jamesways. A typical Jamesway houses several 6-by-8-foot rooms with curved canvas walls. Interior furnishings include a bed, light fixture, bookshelf, and a bureau for clothing storage. Bathrooms are in a separate building, requiring personnel to venture outside to use these facilities.

Remoteness. The station is geographically remote and the landscape offers little relief - a flat white expanse that extends to the horizon. There are no natural elevations to interrupt this bleak landscape. Only the manmade structures of the station and storage berms provide a visual anomaly. Rigorous psychological profiling is done to screen winter-over workers, who must be prepared to endure an extended period in this restricted environment.

Jerry Marty is a manager at the National Science Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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