Welders Around the World

Welding at the Bottom of the World

The entrance to the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

by: Mary Ruth Johnsen, sourced from the Welding Journal

Antarctica. The South Pole. The words summon images of a bleak, barren landscape, unimaginable cold and incredible human drama. Robert Scott and his men dragging their sledges across the ice to the South Pole in 1912, only to discover Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian flag already planted there. Then, on the dispirited journey back to base, perishing only 11 miles from the cache of supplies that could have saved them. Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance watching as ice crushes their ship, then making their way across ice floes to Elephant Island, where they were finally rescued two years later.

Welder Walter Fischel lived and worked at the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station from November 3, 1998, until October 30, 1999, making him one of only about 1200 people who have wintered at the South Pole. While there, he experienced firsthand another of the continent’s dramas when he became an integral part of the team caring for the research station’s only doctor as she struggled to survive breast cancer while stranded there during the long polar winter (see story page 60). Dr. Jerri Nielsen has described her ordeal and subsequent rescue in the recent bestseller, Ice Bound. Yet, despite her illness, both Nielsen and Fischel found Antarctica to be a place of beauty, camaraderie and meaningful work as well as adventure.

An aurora over the garage arch during winter 1999.

Getting There

“Antarctica is a beautiful, pristine environment that should be preserved,” Fischel said. “It is a harsh place – the highest, driest, windiest, darkest place on earth. It is like no other place on this planet. I did enjoy my time there. The work consumes much of your time and there was a good group of people there.”

The now 32-year-old Fischel, of Columbia, Md., near Baltimore, never planned on becoming a welder or making it his career. Instead, he learned the trade in order to pay for his education, studying first at a Maryland community college then at Colorado State University with the goal of becoming a geophysicist. He found he enjoyed welding, however, and eventually became qualified in the 3G position to do flat, horizontal and vertical welding from 1/8-in. to unlimited thickness plates.

His journey to the South Pole began when he answered an advertisement in the Washington Post for construction workers in Antarctica. The United States maintains three stations on the continent – McMurdo, Palmer and Amundsen-Scott South Pole. The South Pole station has been in continuous operation since 1956; it is supplied entirely by air from McMurdo. Housed in the dome since the early 1970s, South Pole station is in need of repair and modernization. A year-round construction project is under way with an expected completion date of 2005. Antarctic Support Associates (ASA), Englewood, Colo., a subcontractor to the National Science Foundation (NSF), held the contract for maintenance and construction of new facilities in Antarctica during Fischel’s time there. (Raytheon Polar Services, a division of Raytheon Co., currently holds the contract.) Fischel was hired by ASA to help build a new heavy equipment shop.

“I was selected and originally hired as an ironworker for a summer-only position at the South Pole,” Fischel explained. “The project involved a lot more welding than anticipated, so I was given the winter-over contract late in the summer.”

Approximately 200 people worked at the South Pole that summer. During the perpetual light of summer, they worked in three overlapping nine-hour shifts, six days a week; in winter, the hours and days are the same, but there is only one shift. “You get one day off a week, which is enough because there’s not a lot of activities going on,” Fischel recalled. “You can go for a hike, but sometimes the temperature’s down to -180°F with the wind chill. So you can’t stay out too long at those temperatures.”

In summer, most live in “summer camp,” where they sleep in Jamesways, which are heated canvas tents with wooden sides. Curtains partition the tents into small rooms. “It’s not bad,” Fischel recalled. “The tents get a little chilly at the floor level. It’s frozen basically. There’s snow under your bed. But then, about knee high, it’s warm enough, and about head level it’s quite comfortable. They have a heater blowing hot air that runs off of JP8 fuel (aircraft diesel fuel) all the time, 24 hours, and it’s cranking. In fact, you can make it too hot in there when it gets above -50°F.”

During winter, the dome’s population is normally about 27 people. The year Fischel was there, it had to shelter 41 because of the construction people who stayed to continue working on the heavy equipment garage.

Fischel off duty during summer 1998. “Notice there’s nothing there,” he said.

At Work

Fischel explained there is no way to prepare yourself for working under the harsh conditions of the South Pole, but he found once welding was under way, the metal responded as expected. Because of the equipment available to him, he primarily used the shielded metal arc welding process with 7018 low-hydrogen, 7024 and 6010 electrodes. He also did a large amount of oxyacetylene cutting, helped raise the structural steel and shared the household duties involved in communal living.

Given a choice, Fischel said he would have selected a wire feed process such as flux cored arc welding or gas metal arc welding to achieve higher deposition rates. Fischel believes his employer, Antarctic Support Associates, was geared more as a maintenance company than a construction company. As a result, it underestimated the amount of welding to be done and the number of welders needed to do it, as well as the best equipment and processes to get the job done. Therefore, Fischel spent the winter at the Pole.

“Because of the lack of humidity, preheating the steel was not needed,” he said. Postweld heat treatment was also unnecessary for the same reason. “The metal did react differently at first contact with the heat, which took a little getting used to. It seemed the metal was shocked at first contact with the heat. It was hard to get a nice vertical flow, but once the metal warmed up it went smoothly. My first vertical pass there was a mess.”

Those who work in Antarctica have found it takes up to ten times longer to complete a task than it does at normal temperatures. First, as Dr. Nielsen explains in her book, workers suffer from chronic hypoxia (not enough oxygen in the blood) because of the high altitude. The South Pole station sits at an elevation of 9300 ft above sea level on a huge plateau atop a nearly 9000-ft-thick bed of ice. Secondly, the multilayered protective clothing workers must wear restricts movement. Even with protective clothing, if the weather turns too severe no one can work outside for too long. And, since everything must be flown in, a great deal of time is spent working out the logistics for receiving supplies.

“My work for the summer was entirely outside the dome at temperatures from -20 to -65°F. During the winter, it was primarily inside the structure we had erected. Some (winter) work was outside, but only for brief periods because of the extreme cold – -50 to -105°F with no wind chill included. At those temperatures, everything freezes, even the welding cable pushing 250 A constant. There were also periods of no work outside because of whiteouts, where there was no distinction between land and sky at the horizon.” (During a whiteout, people can easily become disoriented and be unable to find their way to shelter.)

Fischel changes the flag atop the dome in spring 1999 after a long winter. The temperature was 85F with a windchill factor of -120F. The South Pole’s year includes only one day and one night, but with an extended dusk and dawn.

The winter isolation, when no planes fly in or out, begins in mid-February and lasts until the end of October or early November. The winter crew included scientific and support staff and 20 to 25 construction workers. Fischel’s main projects during this time were to hermetically seal the new garage’s floor and work on the catchment pans that were part of the drainage system. He also made repairs to the station’s equipment whenever necessary.

“In Antarctica, all the buildings have to be 100% sealed to prevent anything leaking onto the ice,” Fischel explained. He had to weld all the floor joints to prevent oil or other fluids from the heavy equipment that will be stored in the garage from contaminating the environment, part of the Antarctic Treaty requirements. The garage’s catchment pans were located between the floor beams. The beams had been cambered so lighter weight beams could be used to help save shipping expenses. However, the catchment pans were overlooked and not cambered to match the beams. Fischel had to cut relief holes in the pans, bend them to match the beams, then weld them so they were completely sealed.

Back in the ‘World’

Except for one three-week visit to see his family, Fischel traveled the world after leaving Antarctica, returning to the United States only recently. New Zealand is the jumping off point for the U.S. Antarctic stations. As part of Fischel’s contract, ASA was obligated to get him first to New Zealand and then back home. Fischel, like many other returning “Polies,” elected to upgrade to an around-the-world ticket, which allowed him 15 stops in a year’s time. The short list of countries he visited includes Australia, England, Norway, Sweden, Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

He ended up in Brazil, where he eventually met and became engaged to a young woman named Tatiana, who teaches English at a university there. He purchased a Yamaha 600 Tenere on-/off-road motorcycle with an extra-large fuel tank and, with Tatiana on the back, left February 1, 2001, to return home. The two did so, however, by first traveling to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America, then working their way along the opposite coast through Peru, Bolivia and Central America.

They reached Baltimore three months, twenty-four days and more than 15,000 miles later, whereupon Fischel immediately went back to work as a welder. They plan to return, with as many of Fischel’s friends and family as can make the trip, to Rio de Janeiro for their wedding in November.

As for the future, Fischel said he wants to eventually finish his degree, but does not know if he’ll switch careers. “I do enjoy (welding),” he said. “It’s pretty much an international trade, and it’s taken me a few places. I enjoy that. It’s not like you need to speak the language, [because] welding’s an international language. There’s a certain way to do it no matter where you are.”

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