19 December 2017 Beneath the Station

50 feet below the South Pole station begins a series of tunnels leading to Rod wells that house fresh drinking water. A 'Rod well' is created by hot water drilling into the ice until water is reached. As more hot water is added, the ice continues to melt, creating a bowl that contains freshly melted ice, or drinking water. This water is pumped back to the station through a series of pipes in the underground tunnel. As the Rod well gets too large and depletes the drinking water, it gets converted into a sewage dump and a new Rod well is drilled.

Pipes in the tunnelThe water and sewage pipes that run through the tunnels below the station.

Sayer Houseal, a carpenter who has spent several seasons at Pole, is spending his summer down in the tunnels below the station. His job involves widening the narrow tunnels so that the pipes can be more easily serviced. He is also helping to create emergency exits throughout the tunnel in case of any unexpected caving.

Sayer took us down into the tunnels to give us a quick tour. We were accompanied by JD Harmon, a crane operator who has spent time at both the South Pole and McMurdo stations. The minute we stepped down the small ramp into the tunnel, it felt colder. The air is stil inside the tunnel and it is dark aside from small miner lamps hanging from the pipes. There is no need to wear goggles but this meant frozen icicles on our eyelashes. The temperature in the tunnel is a constant -60F but there is no windchill in the tunnels so it feels about the same as the air outside when there is a breeze.

Tunnel thermometerThe thermometer consistently reads -60F inside the tunnels.

Icicle eyelashesThe ice tunnels are so cold that icicles began to form on my eyelashes.

About 3 meters inside the tunnel on the right is the first shrine. Over the years, South Pole tradition has allowed ridiculous shrines to be placed inside the tunnels dedicated to an inside joke from that season. The first shrine we came to was the tub containing the last of the vanilla ice cream in 2012. And this was not even the most absurd.

Vanilla ice creamThe last tub of vanilla ice cream in 2012.

There were shrines to a sturgeon that was a gift from Russia in 1992, an ice sculpture of Amundsen's bust, and even a tribute to Buzz Aldren's visit last year – his water cup and a used tissue. The shrines are mostly found in the first 500 feet of the tunnel, but we walked to the end of the 2000 foot system to see where the farthest Rod wells are located in relation to the station.

Sturgeon in the tunnelThe Russian sturgeon that made it's way into the tunnel shrines. Amundsen's bust in the tunnelAmundsen's bust in the tunnel. Buzz Aldren tunnelBuzz Aldren's recent shrine consisting of a water cup and used tissue from his time at the South Pole last year.

There is a mysterious experiment set up at about 500 feet into the tunnels. A sign is hung outside of a wooden panel in the tunnels that says "South Pole Gravity Station – Do Not Enter". I've asked a number of Polies who have been here for multiple seasons and I can't seem to find an answer about what goes on behind that panel. Some people claim to see dark figures moving or hiding at the ends of the tunnels. Urban legends run rampant in Antarctica, so there is a good chance this has become an example of one of those stories.

South Pole Gravity SignThe South Pole Gravity Station that doesn't appear to be collecting any data currently.

At the end of the tunnel, we were greeted by Dennis Calhoun, the power plant manager and operator who keeps the station running. He showed us a quick tour of the engine room where we were asked to wear ear protection since the power plant was so loud! It was amazing to see all the working components of the underground station.

Comments

Bill Spindler
Guest's picture
The South Pole Gravity Station

I'm surprised that no one knows what is going on there. During my 2008 winter I decided to reveal the deep dark secret...after consulting with the friend and research associate who was responsible for the gravity and seismic projects, we obtained approval for us to have a look. Spoiler alert, it is a bit of a disappointment...but be sure to check out the link at the bottom of this page about Sir Charles Wright. He's the answer to the great trivia question: "What member of Sir Robert Falcon Scott's tragic 1910-13 Terra Nova South Pole expedition reached the South Pole and returned to tell the tale? Here's my coverage. http://southpolestation.com/trivia/00s/gravityvault.html

Tanayah
Guest's picture
Gravity station and cold

Mr. Spindler and Ms. Anderson,
That is interesting but disappointing to hear what's really in that chamber. The kids in our class were all hoping that it was something really awesome like a wormhole to another dimension or maybe the Tardis or even an alien settlement...bummer!
Fun fact is that according to the USA.gov South Pole station web site it is colder here in Pittsburgh (-10F) than it is there this morning. We know of course that this is extremely cold here and rather warm for there...but still. Your windchill is much worse than ours though. Thanks for the information mr. S. we were really curious.

Hi Bill, thanks so much for

Hi Bill, thanks so much for sharing! What an interesting read!

Larry Hurst
Guest's picture
-60F temp in snow/ice tunnel

Please explain why the temp. in the tunnel 50 feet below the South Pole station is a constant -60F. Why isn't it a constant 32F, like a snow cave up here in the north? Is it -60F two feet below the surface? 100 ft. below the surface? Just curious!

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