Logistics in extreme conditions

Extreme cold, raging storms and a long polar night. Antarctica is both a dangerous and a fascinating place. Without the right equipment, no-one would survive this desert of ice. It is a logistical challenge to bring the material for research and basic supplies for the researchers to this remote region. After all, Antarctica is almost 14,000 kilometres away from Germany. Needless to say, it is above all the cold and the ice that make logistics difficult. Materials and vehicles have to be able to deal with extreme temperatures which average at minus 30 degrees Celsius and can drop to less than minus 50 degrees Celsius. The largely unpredictable winds with speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour are also problematic. They make it more difficult to keep one’s bearings and render working outside almost impossible. Unlike in moderate climates, there is no infrastructure, such as roads, making the long supply routes over the Antarctic ice challenging. The necessary supplies are generally transported  to the region on ice-breakers.

Cargo transport by ship

As there are no ports, cargo for the research stations is unloaded at the ice edge from the ship on to custom-made transport sledges the size of containers. These are then pulled by tracked vehicles, Pistenbullys, often seen in ski resorts, to the research stations. The construction of the Neumayer Station III operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, which is on the northern edge of the Weddell Sea in east Antarctica and opened in 2009, demonstrates how difficult such transport issues can be. The station weighs 2300 tonnes and is made up of 180 containers used as labs and accommodation. These were transported some 16 kilometres from the edge of the ice to the construction site. What makes this station special is that is not built on the ground but on shelf ice which is moving slowly towards the sea. It has hydraulic stilts which can be used to raise it up to avoid it gradually sinking into the snow. It is to be in service until at least 2035.

In the case of the Gondwana Station operated by the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), 16 large containers with equipment had to be brought to Terra Nova Bay in the Antarctic’s Ross Sea. The components were then assembled on rock.

Large aircraft such as a Boeing 757 have also been used in Antarctica. However, they cannot land everywhere. In addition, the runway, usually on ice, has to be meticulously prepared for landing. Air logistics are thus mainly performed by smaller aircraft and used for personnel transport rather than cargo. Unlike in conventional logistics chains, materials can only be transported to Antarctica in the southern Summer, so between November and March, when there is less sea ice. Only then can the German research ship Polarstern and the ice-breakers belonging to other Parties make their way into the waters near the stations. There can be no doubt that the Polarstern is the most important instrument in Germany’s polar research. Since it first set sail on 9 December 1982, the ice-breaker has chalked up more than 1.7 million nautical miles or some 3.3 million kilometres. On average, the Polarstern is in service 310 days a year. It normally sails across Antarctica between November and March, both for research projects and also to bring supplies to the researchers on the ground.

Research all year round

Despite all these hurdles, research can nowadays be performed in Antarctica all year round. The Neumayer Station III for example also provides accommodation for researchers in the southern winter, however no supplies can be brought at this time. Together with the Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) maintains a station in Antarctica which is also operational all year round: the radar station GARS O’Higgins at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.