What Happens to Decades of Human Junk at the South Pole

Posted February 2nd, 2016 at 2:31 pm (UTC-5)
3 comments

A recently groomed road between two berms.  (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A recently groomed road between two berms. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The United States has had a permanent presence at the South Pole since 1959.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

Like anyone  who has lived in the same spot for the better half of a century, the Antarctic Program at Amundson-Scott Station has managed to accumulate a lot of stuff. There are stacks of old mattresses, piles of broken treadmills, a lumberyard’s worth of wooden dunnage, and boxes of bacon that some say date back to the Clinton administration.

An endless task. A volunteer shovels snow off of a berm. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

An endless task. A volunteer shovels snow off of a berm. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

So why do we hold onto so much junk?

The answer has two parts: (1) we are living in the most remote place on earth, so having our own personal scrap yard is a great resource for spare parts, and materials and (2) flying back planeloads of potentially useful things is expensive and eats up space for time-sensitive shipments on-board our aircraft.

Though Amundson-Scott station is massive, our inside storage space is limited. That’s why most of the station’s materials, including most of our food stuffs, are stored outside in a maze of snow structures known as The Berms.

Berms are large piles of snow built into long, narrow rectangular shapes, using snow plows. Most berms are only few feet tall by a few feet wide, but they can be many hundreds of feet long.

Everything we don’t know what to do with, but can’t bare to throw out or excess off continent, is loaded onto The Berms using fork trucks and heavy equipment. There is a berm for lumber, a berm for old kitchen equipment, a berm for boxes, and a berm for wooden spools.

All berms are built into the wind so that blowing snow only drifts in on one side. In theory, this is supposed to keep the materials we store on top of them exposed, which it does, sort of. The thing is, while the berms do a good job of preventing the build-up of major drifts, the fact they are uncovered, and open to the elements, means that falling snow still accumulates.

 Berming Man volunteers gather outside to enjoy an open fire, a rare sight at the South Pole. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Berming Man volunteers gather outside to enjoy an open fire, a rare sight at the South Pole. (Photo by Refael Klein)

At the South Pole, we see about 23 centimeters (9 inches) of precipitation each year. That’s snow that never melts, so it builds up, burying materials and making finding something in the berms, say a replacement window, about as difficult as playing eye-spy with a blindfold.

Berm maintenance hadn’t been addressed in a few years so, last Saturday, the Materials Department — the group in charge of storing and keeping track of all the station’s property — organized the first ever Berming Man Celebration, a combination community work day and music extravaganza similar to Nevada’s Burning Man Festival, just with more clothes and more manual labor.

Close to 50 people volunteered their time working on the berms, and more than 100 attended the festival. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Close to 50 people volunteered their time working on the berms, and more than 100 attended the festival. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Having always enjoyed shoveling driveways, I volunteered to join the crew digging out the lumber and gas cylinder berms. It was a minus 29 Celsius (minus 20 Fahrenheit) and windy, but the work was strenuous and kept me warm. I spent most of the day in a hooded wool sweatshirt with no jacket or gloves.

There is something ironic about shoveling snow on top of a 3.2 kilometer (two mile) thick ice cap. After four hours of it, we quit and hitched rides on snowmobiles back to the station for a warm meal.

Berning Man’s festivities began at 8 p.m.. Five bands were set to perform on a stage set up in a heated plywood outbuilding about a half-kilometer (quarter-mile) south of the station.

While guitars were tuned and amplifiers put in place, I stepped outside to where a small group of people gathered around the remains of an old charcoal barbecue that had been converted into a fire pit. The flames were well stoked. Billows of smoke swirled into the air.

I was mesmerized. I hadn’t smelled campfire smoke in many months. When the first power cord was struck, the walls of the building shook with the audience’s excitement. I didn’t hear anything but the occasional crackle and hiss of dry wood.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

3 responses to “What Happens to Decades of Human Junk at the South Pole”

  1. Marcus Aurelius II says:

    The solution to the trash problem is simple. Evacuate, incinerate it all with a nuclear blast, wait for the fallout to dissipate, and then start over again. Next, the North Pacific where all of the plastic in the ocean winds up. Finally, a valuable use for nuclear explosions besides digging canals. Trash incineration on a mega scale.

  2. Alan D says:

    Sounds like a good time! It must be amazing to be in a place that 99+% of the population will never see for themselves. Almost like an Everest summit. I’m hopeful that one day an opportunity to see it in person will reveal itself before my time on this blue marble is done. Maybe a Quark expedition at least. Sigh….thumbs up!

  3. DigitalPhone says:

    The sky. It is so blue.