For researchers using delicate, one-of-a-kind equipment, the extreme conditions at the bottom of the planet pose special challenges.
A snowmobile towing sensitive equipment in Antarctica.Credit…Geoff Evatt/University of Manchester
- May 2, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
At the start of January, the same month the world marked the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica, scientists on snowmobiles were zipping across its diamantine ice, dragging a rig of metal detectors in their wake. Researchers were hoping to discover a hypothesized cache of iron-rich meteorites, the remnants of ancient asteroids and would-be planets, under the frozen wastes.
But the unexpected roughness of the ice caused the rig to shake itself to pieces. Components were being shorn off, and the electronic circuitry quickly became unstable, with multiple points of failure. On the 18th day in Antarctica’s Outer Recovery Ice Fields, the device collapsed. All the backup metal detectors had been used in earlier repairs. No more repair jobs could resuscitate the unit.
“It was death-by-vibration, but also death by a thousand cuts,” said Wouter van Verre, an electrical engineer from the University of Manchester in England who helped build the system.
This is no isolated tale. The history of the scientific exploration of Antarctica is riddled with tales of woe, most often loss of life for the continent’s earlier explorers. And while major technological advancements and vastly improved safety regulations mean that the risk to Antarctic adventurers has been greatly reduced, equipment malfunctions that freeze scientific discovery persist there, said Daniella McCahey, a historian of Antarctica at the University of Idaho.
When a vital piece of kit fails, the research often can only continue with MacGyveresque engineering solutions. Or projects end, leaving the prospects of additional discovery uncertain.
The Snow Cruiser was an early example of an ill-fated piece of equipment. Weighing 37 tons and built with pride in Chicago in 1939, it was designed to glide across the perilous Antarctic terrain with ease, allowing its crew to make scientific observations wherever they wished. But once it arrived in Antarctica, its massive and far-too-smooth tires were unable to power the wheeled beast across much of the ice. Eventually, after a particularly heavy storm, it was abandoned to a snowy grave.
But even far less complex technology can be vulnerable to Antarctica’s viciousness: During the 1957-1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the explorers’ wristwatches — vital for telling the time in a place with distinctly alien hours of light and darkness — simply didn’t work.
“It’s remarkably easier to keep the human machine working than the physical machines,” said James Lloyd, an astronomer at Cornell University who spent two years at the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole in the mid-1990s.
Preparation only gets you so far. You can test your technology as many times as you wish in the laboratory, or in Antarctic-like wildernesses. Those iron meteorite hunters did both, and even conducted a successful trial run on a sliver of Antarctica. But until you try it at your eventual research site, “you don’t know how it’s going to work,” Dr. McCahey said.
There are no heavy-duty supply stops outfitted with abundances of gear at the icy end of the world, so expeditions bring as many spare parts as they can fly out, and hope for the best. “It’s only a very short step from what you can resource people with in space,” said Liam Marsh, an electrical engineer from the University of Manchester who helped build the meteorite detection system.
Dr. Siegfried recalled a time he drove his snowmobile 45 miles from base to a remote GPS station, bringing along fuel canisters. When he stopped to refuel, he realized that the hand-pump pipe that fed gas to the snowmobile had vanished, forcing him to transmogrify other parts of his kit into a fairly messy — but ultimately effective — fuel transfer system.
This sort of ad hoc repair work is rarely enjoyable, Mr. van Verre said. You quickly miss the luxury of tables and chairs. Gloves are removed when fiddling with small components, leaving hands exposed to a painfully violent chill.
Such difficulty can result in moments of posterior-clenching horror. Nelia Dunbar, director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, remembers bringing a snowmobile back to camp after its drive chain snapped. Mid-repair, the snowmobile suddenly roared to life and reversed in full throttle, narrowly missing tearing up her team’s tents.
Even with perfectly functioning equipment, Antarctic malevolence can be remarkably inventive. Hank Statscewich, an oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, visited the continent in 2014 to study ocean currents near a biological hot spot. While there, an utter behemoth of an iceberg, pulverizing everything in its wake, improbably parked right on top of his small submerged scientific probe, severing its communication to the surface.
Remarkably, months later, the probe’s mangled remains were found floating listlessly about, its violent encounter with the iceberg dutifully chronicled by its scientific instrumentation. Mr. Statscewich’s experience epitomizes the surprising reality about scientific expeditions to Antarctica: many manage to recover from seemingly terminal technological tribulations.
This includes Manchester’s meteorite hunters, who managed to find more than 100 space rocks, including several iron-rich ones, on the surface during their Antarctic adventures. One meteorite was found while dragging the corpse of the detector rig back to camp. And, for 18 days, their bespoke rig gathered invaluable data. Like each troubled expedition before it, their quandaries serve as learning experiences that hopefully make the same setbacks less likely on future expeditions.
But if the past is any indication, it will be a long time before Antarctica’s wanton destruction of scientific equipment comes to a close.
“It’s a remorseless environment,” said Patrick Harkness, a space systems engineering expert at the University of Glasgow. “If you’ve made any mistakes in your preparation, it will find them out.”