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Freezing in the South Pole Ice Tunnels

Snaking under the warm and inviting Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station lies a labrynth of subterranian ice tunnels – carved out of the Antarctic Polar Ice Cap, housing the stations utility and supply lines, and frozen at a constant -60 degrees F. The other day, Utility Technician Charles “Chuckles” Letourneau took me on a brief tour of this frozen other world.

The entrance to the ice tunnels is through the “Beer Can”, the large silver cylinder that connects the above ground main station to the below ground utility corridors and arches. The Beer Can houses a flight of stairs, an elevator, and all of the supply lines for the station. It’s un-heated, so there’s always a thick crust of ice on the inside. Here’s a pic of the bottom of the beer can, leading into the service corridors, just before the ice tunnels..

The Ice Tunnels are literally just that – tunnels made out of solid polar ice. They were carved by huge machines deep under the station, and act as utility corridors for sewage, water, power, and heat. The tunnels are somewhat spacious, and next to the water and sewage pipes, it’s possible to walk. Every few feet there’s an LED light bulb, as well as switches and emergency exits. Additionally, about halfway through the main tunnel, there’s an emergency warming hut, just in case the -60 degree temperature is too much. Red lights along the water lines indicate that the electric heaters which prevent the pipes from freezing are working.

In addition to utilities in the ice tunnels, there are also a number of “shrines” commemorating various groups and events here at the south pole. With the temperature always at -60, nothing rots or changes down here – including the weird things people leave as shrines.

Finally, in the ice caves, there are a couple strange blocked off areas. Nobody i’ve talked to has ever been behind this door, and based on discussions about it, seems to be a bit of a taboo topic. When I happened upon this door, I was also surprised I didn’t find the numbers etched anywhere, or a hatch…

Continue Reading PART 2

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