by Frederike Berg
What is a stair tower doing in Antarctica?
Endless expanses, glistening white snow everywhere you look, temperatures around 46 degrees below freezing - and in the middle of it all, a Scafom-rux stair tower! That's right, since the end of 2021, the stair tower has been standing in a 10-metre deep trench in the middle of Antarctica. And this is on behalf of science. The stair tower is used for the safe descent to the drilling trench of the Kohnen Station of the Alfred Wegener Institute.
During the Arctic summer months from November to February, ice core drilling for research purposes has been carried out at the Kohnen Station for about 20 years now. Scientists can use the deeper ice layers to investigate climate conditions in the past. For example, the air trapped in the old ice layers provides information about their composition in times long past. People in the field therefore refer to the extracted ice cores as "climate archives". And that is of essential importance for modern climate research.
In addition to research, there should also be maintenance work on the drilling trench as well as on the station itself. And our stair tower in the middle of it all!
So what the stair tower is doing in Antarctica is now clear. But let’s start from the beginning. How do you get a stair tower together with all kinds of freight and equipment that close to the South Pole? After all, that's several containers weighing up to 35 tonnes that have to be transported over rough terrain. The classic transport by lorry is therefore logically out of the question. Instead, the 750km route to the inland ice should be covered with snow groomers. Experienced expedition participants refer to this transport of freight and provisions by snow groomer and sledge as a "traverse".
Good preparation is key
Especially when you are facing a 10-day journey through snow and ice in the middle of Antarctica, everything needs to be prepared down to the smallest detail. Especially the assembly of the stair tower on site should run smoothly. Help by a whole crew of scaffolders is rather hard to get in the middle of Antarctica. Therefore, the expedition's technician should take over this task. Our team trained him in the assembly and dismantling of the tower until all the steps were in place.
After the scaffolding material had been packed and loaded, the nine-member team led by station manager Holger Schubert could get started. At the end of 2021, the crew’s plane took off. Destination: Capetown, South Africa. From there, after a 14-day quarantine, the team continued to Neumayer Station III in Antarctica. After landing there, preparations began for the traverse to Kohnen Station, 750 km away. But although the team worked highly concentrated and the preparations progressed quickly, the departure date for the journey to the inland ice was delayed more and more. A strong low with snowstorms and winds of up to 130 km/h settled in the area of the Weddell Sea. The team remained at Neumayer III Station for a fortnight until a small weather window finally opened up. And this was to be used immediately.
Location of Kohnen station in Antarctica
How the team made their way through snow and ice with our stair tower in their luggage, you will read in part 2.
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