Home / COVER FEATURE / Rendezvous with Penguins: Seabee Construction of the South Pole Dome

Rendezvous with Penguins: Seabee Construction of the South Pole Dome

Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr., Historian, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Jan72_low

The timber footings and installation of the dome’s base ring, January 1972. The processed, milled snow foundation and trench for the timber footings can be seen. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The accomplishments of the Naval Construction Force (NCF) across the world often entail prevailing over environmental and climatological factors. Perhaps few places have tested the skills and fortitude of the Seabees like Antarctica, and specifically the South Pole. In the first half century of continuous human occupancy of the South Pole, the Seabees constructed and maintained the facilities of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Of all the structures at the bottom of the world, none became more iconic than the massive dome erected by Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 71 from 1971 to 1973. Enduring extreme cold and constant breakdowns of tools and machinery, these Seabees safely built the dome and additional structures thereby providing scientists with a modern research station that served more than three times its planned lifespan.

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On Feb. 3, 1972, construction of the dome ceased for the Operation DEEP FREEZE 1971-1972 season. The base ring is complete, and the first sections of the dome are seen in place. Failure of the Huck fastener hydraulic tools greatly delayed the assembly. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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On Nov. 18, 1972, snow accumulated on the dome since construction halted in February. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The geographical South Pole is a harsh, desert environment, practically devoid of even microbial life. With the nearest land a mere 1.7 miles beneath one’s feet, an elevation of 9,300 feet above sea level and an average winter temperature of -74°F, the pole is not for the faint of heart. Half of the year experiences continuous sunlight, and the other perpetual darkness. Winter blizzards with 40 to 50 mile per hour (mph) winds can easily bury the station in snow drifts. The people, equipment and facilities that winter-over must be strong enough to endure the worst. This holds particularly true when considering the limited windows of opportunity for airlifting in supplies or reaching the station by tracked vehicle from McMurdo Station, approximately 1,000 miles away. The Seabees first visited Antarctica in the immediate aftermath of World War II. As part of Operation HIGHJUMP from 1946 to 1947, a detachment of 166 Seabees accompanied Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s Task Force 68. As the primary mission of HIGHJUMP was to establish the research base Little America IV, the Navy called upon the Seabees to build new facilities, construct a temporary air strip and assist with the offloading of supplies. The extreme cold and dry, granular snow tested the mettle of the Seabees at the Ross Ice Shelf, but no major problems materialized and all tasks were accomplished on schedule.

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The Peter Snow Miller in operation working on foundations for structures at the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Dec. 12, 1972. The machine proved ornery with the high altitude and extreme polar cold. Nonetheless, it managed to process the snow foundation for the dome’s timber footings.  Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

While HIGHJUMP provided the Seabees with an exposure to Antarctica, American participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from July 1, 1957 to Dec. 31, 1958, took the Seabees to the inner expanses of the South Pole. In Operation DEEP FREEZE, Task Force 43 formed to support the global scientific effort by constructing a series of observation bases across the continent, including a post at the South Pole. In February 1955, a Mobile Construction Battalion (Special) was established at Davisville, R.I., for the Antarctic expedition. In a Bureau of Yards and Docks press release about the Seabee participation in DEEP FREEZE, the bureau proclaimed that, “There aren’t many global areas where the Seabees haven’t penetrated, so it is no surprise to hear that they have a rendezvous with the penguins.” The Navy tasked the battalion with establishing two new camps – an air operation facility in McMurdo Sound, and a station at the pole. The latter station closed a gap in IGY coverage, thereby permitting atmospheric, glaciological and seismological observations to be recorded simultaneously worldwide. The first men arrived in Antarctica in December 1955, and set to work on the facilities along the coast and at McMurdo Sound. On Oct. 31, 1957, a Navy R4D Skytrain landed at the South Pole, becoming the first aircraft and Americans to ever land at the pole. The Seabees arrived a few weeks later on Nov. 20, and began construction of the IGY station, the start of permanent human occupation of the pole. By late December, major construction was all but complete. On Jan. 23, 1958, Rear Adm. George J. Dufek commissioned the Amundsen-Scott IGY South Pole Station. Additional work over the ensuing months had the station fully manned and ready for the start of the IGY on July 1. Over the next 18 months, more than 70 scientific organizations participated in Antarctic IGY studies, gathering a wealth of data and innumerable discoveries.

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The dome’s lower section assembly progress as of Dec. 12, 1972. As seen, when the Huck fastener equipment functioned properly, work moved swiftly. Crates of additional components and skin panels can be seen in the background.  Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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To raise the upper section of the dome without the use of a crane or heavy machinery, Temcor, Inc., devised a system whereby a small tower together with pulleys and winches would suspend and raise the top sections until ready to be hoisted and fastened to the lower half of the dome. Here, NMCB 71 Seabees can be seen winching up the upper half, Dec. 28, 1972. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

With the station and its scientific research at the South Pole demonstrating considerable worth, in January 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the United States would continue its Antarctic program after the conclusion of the IGY. The relatively humble Amundsen-Scott Station thus continued to serve as the small home for researchers and military personnel, operated jointly by the Navy and the National Science Foundation (NSF). At the pole, however, the buildings began to trap drifting snow and bury the station. Snow stressed roofs and framing, and necessitated construction of connecting tunnels between buildings. This work and frequent repairs kept Seabees of Construction Battalion Unit 201 busy in subsequent DEEP FREEZE deployments. In 1960 and 1963, the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory (NCEL) at Port Hueneme, Calif., researched new station design concepts. In December 1967, NCEL and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) used this work to finalize plans for a replacement Amundsen-Scott station. The shape of the second station confronted the limiting factors of climate, geography and construction materials. All structures had to withstand heavy snow drifts, strong gale force winds, extreme cold temperatures, and yet be flexible enough to tolerate the shifting of the ice sheet. Building materials had to be light and compact enough to fit into LC-130 Hercules transport aircraft, shuttled to McMurdo Station and then flown to the pole. Lastly, the structures needed to be designed for assembly by personnel encumbered by bulky winter clothing and with limited heavy equipment. Once erected, the structures required life support systems of marked reliability for the six months of frigid darkness. The new research study drew from the earlier studies which focused on stations above, at and below grade. NAVFAC rejected above and below grade concepts due to cost and labor requirements. Officials therefore announced the at-grade concept for the next-generation station in November 1968, which featured Wonder Arch shelters and, most novel of all, a geodesic dome. Engineers considered use of a dome ideal for a variety of reasons. American architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller began popularizing the geodesic dome in the early 1950s. The structure’s integration of triangular elements distributes stress across the entire framework, while also providing a maximum of interior space for the amount of required material. In 1964, Fuller joined the board of directors of Temcor, Inc., of Torrance, Calif., which designed and marketed geodesic domes of strong, lightweight aluminum alloys, and to whom NAVFAC contracted to supply the dome. Once erected, Seabees would construct three two-story buildings inside the dome to house the station’s inhabitants and research work. To minimize any snowmelt and subsequent accumulation of heavy ice, the dome would not be heated and featured large ventilation holes installed at the crown to permit ventilation and circulation of ambient cold air. Tunnels from the dome connected with outlying Wonder Arch structures safeguarding life support and maintenance aspects of the station. Once construction was completed, NAVFAC anticipated a station lifespan of 10 to 15 years.

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By Dec. 28, 1972, the top half of the dome is almost ready to be hoisted aloft and fastened to the lower half. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

In October 1969, NCEL constructed a one-tenth scale model of the station half a mile from the first station to study snowdrift accumulation. The piling of snow around the model station simulated a decade’s worth of potential snow accumulation and allowed researchers to determine the best direction to position the dome and station to minimize accumulation. At 164 feet in diameter and 52 feet 7 inches high, the aluminum skin (only 0.05 inches thick) had to withstand 125 mph winds and snow loads of 120 lbs. per sq./ft. The “aluminum igloo” served as a figurative shield against the station’s buildings from being enveloped by deep snow drifts. NCEL’s model of the station performed satisfactorily in tests and deliveries of construction materials commenced in the 1970-1971 summer season. Responsibility for actual construction of the dome and accompanying buildings fell to the men of NMCB 71, based at Davisville. In mid-October 1971, approximately 200 officers and men of the battalion left the comparatively warm confines of Rhode Island and deployed to McMurdo Station, 11,000 miles away. While the bulk of personnel worked at McMurdo, the first team of 11 Seabees arrived at the South Pole on Nov. 9 to begin work preparing the dome and station foundations. The first priority rested with milling snow to produce a uniform, compacted snow foundation eight feet thick for timber footings upon which the dome’s base ring would be affixed. To accomplish this task the Seabees turned to the Peter Snow Miller (PSM), built by the Swiss firm of Konrad Peter A.G. While ideal for the Alps, the machine was highly problematic in Antarctica. Work commenced for the dome foundation on Nov. 15 by first getting the PSM operational, a complicated task that was not completed until Dec. 26. Actual processing of the dome pad began on Jan. 3, 1972, slowed by the PSM repeatedly breaking down. Undeterred, the equipment operators managed to coax the machine along, operating it 24 hours a day when functional to process a foundation pad 6 feet 8 inches in depth before work ended with yet another the breakdown of the PSM on Feb. 1, 1972.

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Despite its size, the dome’s outer skin panels measured 0.05 inches thick. Here, members of NMCB 71 begin installing the skin panels to the lower half of the dome, Dec. 28, 1972. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

With the snow base partially complete, Seabee builders and steelworkers began to construct the dome on Dec. 26, 1971. Critical to the safety and structural integrity of any dome is the base ring. The snow at the South Pole presented a major difficulty as the foundation could not be permanently anchored. Upon the compacted snow the Seabees placed 68 timber footings using a crane to emplace them in a trench cut by the PSM beginning on Jan. 20, 1972. The Seabees then began bolting the base ring components to the footings, but as the ring began to take shape the men noticed distortion. This necessitated the removal of all bolts and the repositioning of components to maintain the proper radius. Consulting with Temcor, who had assembled the dome in California to ensure everything fit correctly, the team at the pole learned the company did not complete and close the base ring in their tests. The company engineers thereby missed the accumulation of error in their measurements. Undaunted, the Seabees disassembled the ring, cut pieces where necessary and managed to complete the base ring without further delay. After much shimming and adjustment, the steelworkers began to attach the vertical members of the dome to the base ring. To fasten all aluminum components together, the Seabees used 3/8-inch stainless steel Huck fasteners, akin to a pop rivet. Assembly teams employed a system of hydraulic power units and guns to install the fasteners. Prior to deploying, a civilian technical representative assured the Seabees that reservoir heaters would permit the system to work in the polar environment. When the equipment arrived in Antarctica, however, the heaters were missing. In the extreme cold while bolting the dome components together, the guns’ trigger mechanisms and hydraulic seals failed, and typically after two hours of use the guns froze up. In the high altitude, the pressure settings on the hydraulics compounded the failure of the guns to cycle; when necessity warranted, the extreme cold caused hammers and wrenches to literally snap in half. With the Huck rigs inoperative and further work impaired, NMCB 71’s assembly of the dome ceased on Feb. 3, 1972, and they returned to Davisville to regroup for next season’s work. Returning to the South Pole in November 1972 to complete the dome, NMCB 71 came prepared with lessons learned from the previous season. With the base ring in place and problems with the Huck fastener system solved, albeit thanks to a healthy dose of preventive maintenance, the frame of aluminum members and gusset plates quickly rose aloft into the polar sky. While other teams of the 110-man detail worked to erect the Wonder Arch structures and a small Seabee camp, the dome crew made steady progress. By the start of December, the first three rows of triangles were installed on the base. Just after Christmas the Seabees commenced skinning the base triangles and assembling the top rings of the dome.

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On Jan. 8, 1973, the Seabees finished construction of the dome. Work then turned to finishing the Wonder Arch structures. Almost immediately after construction, the dome’s purpose of shielding internal structures can be seen by the appearance of snow on the outer shell, Feb. 1, 1973. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

On ladders, crews installed aluminum members to the base ring. This required erecting and positioning the dome’s upper section with a procedure utilizing neither a crane nor mechanized lifting equipment. Temcor’s solution involved positioning a 42-foot-tall framing tower in the center of the dome base, from which was suspended the 20-foot top center ring of the dome using pulleys and winches. As new triangle sections were assembled and added to the top ring, the Seabees could winch the top of the dome upwards to make room for additional sections. By the start of January 1973, the Seabees lifted the entire top of the dome to its apex and fastened it to the completed lower section, completing the frame on Jan. 4. The last few skin panels were installed, completing dome assembly on Jan. 8, 1973. When NMCB 71 wrapped up its work in February, the men looked back at an “aluminum igloo” of 1,550 aluminum members comprising 915 triangles held together by approximately 60,000 Huck fasteners. Without question, the dome immediately became the symbol of the station, and arguably the South Pole itself. With the dome complete, attention turned to completing the remaining station structures. Returning in November 1973, a 100-man NMCB 71 detail finished construction of all the Wonder Arch structures, four station buildings and two towers. On Feb. 7, 1974, with the station 85 percent complete, NMCB 71 turned over the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to Commander, Naval Support Force Antarctica. By Feb. 25, the battalion’s members had returned to Davisville, concluding the chapter on the Seabee South Pole construction. After 1974, the NSF contracted out all construction work at the South Pole. On Jan. 9, 1975, the NSF officially dedicated the new South Pole station, thereby replacing the original 1956-era station.

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By January 1974, almost all of the Wonder Arch structures were complete. The dome by now has started to block snow drifts in quantity. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

By 1988, the sliding of the Antarctic polar ice cap threatened the dome. Loud noises heard that year by station residents turned out to be cracked and broken beams along the base ring caused by ice movement. Although repaired, the dome’s luster was gone. Engineers and architects began designing a new station in 1992 and construction commenced in 1999, with the $150 million facility dedicated by the NSF on Jan. 12, 2008. Looming adjacent to the new facility stood the dome, partially buried by snowdrifts. Two years later, the dome was carefully dismantled, packed and shipped to Naval Base Ventura County, Calif. On July 14, 2011, the dome’s 600-pound crown rose once again, this time inside the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum as a centerpiece of an exhibit about the Antarctic Seabees. Fittingly, the American flag adorns the top of the dome inside the museum, just as it flew over the South Pole for 24 years. Considering engineers only expected the dome to last at most a decade, the Seabee stations proved capable in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

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The second version of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station as turned over to Commander, Naval Support Force Antarctica, Feb. 7, 1974. At this point the station was 85 percent complete. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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Entrance to the Wonder Arch structures leading from the airfield to the dome, February 1974. After NMCB 71 turned the station over to the Navy and the National Science Foundation, Seabee construction ended at the South Pole. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum


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