South Pole Marker in Antarctica

Solving The Toughest Technical Challenges On Ice

Ken Huston Antarctica
Ken H, AIMS Team Member

As a global solutions provider, our work takes us all around the globe. To solve the world’s toughest technical challenges, we’ve devoted ourselves to delivering the smartest solutions. I’ve had the privilege to work on one of Parsons most unique and exciting projects, the Antarctica Infrastructure and Modernization for Science (AIMS) initiative.

I’ve always wanted to be part of a mega build project after watching Mega Engineering episodes on the Discovery Channel. The design-build contract under the Antarctica Infrastructure and Modernization for Science (AIMS) program was awarded to Parsons in 2018 and I was fortunate enough to be able to join the team. The program’s goal was to replace aging infrastructure and construct multiple new buildings at McMurdo Station. This is one of the largest construction projects on the continent since the construction of the South Pole Station. In fact, we are using some of the same cranes and equipment that was used back in the early 2000’s to build the South Pole station.

Challenges On The Ice

There are obvious challenges that we face on the ice, from the cold temperatures to the remoteness of the job site. One of the major factors that affects our work are the high winds for any exterior construction. If the wind reaches a certain speed, we can’t perform crane operations and sometimes are restricted from going outside. The accessibility to the station is another issue we face as it means we need to have all materials and tools way ahead of time. Acquiring replacement parts can take two to six weeks. If it happens during the Antarctic winter, it could be up to two months.

Learning To Work As A Team

We must have a close and partnering relationship with our partners, or subcontractors. To succeed, we must help each other while on the ice or we will all fail. There are plenty of instances where we help each other on tasks or lend each other tools and equipment so we can keep the construction moving. It truly is a collaborative effort! If someone slows down, that slows everyone else down, and the winter deadline remains constant, so there is no time extension. After work, we all eat, sleep, and relax in the same location so there is a real community atmosphere that we get to experience.

The Parsons AIMS Team
The Parsons AIMS Team

Experiencing COVID-19 In Antarctica

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were working to finish the building exterior when we had to drop tools and head home. It’s always challenging when you stop mid-stream on a construction project, but the team did a stellar job in closing the job site and making it safe and stable before departing the continent. We did not return for 18 months and when we did, the building was in great shape. It’s a testament to the planning and execution of the team when thrown a curve ball.

Let’s Talk Logistics And Coordination

The challenge in tracking items from origin to destination is very interesting. If you get logistics wrong, you can’t build the project on schedule and budget. Logistics is integral for any project, from one in downtown Miami, Florida, to the bottom of the planet. It takes a lot of planning and coordination to do it right.

One of the most exciting aspects of this project is the vessel delivery that happens just once a year. The vessel sails from Los Angeles to McMurdo Station, so there are over 250 containers being delivered to multiple agencies and locations. Its critical to identity each of our containers, know what’s in each container, know where it is loaded on the ship, and determine its final destination at one of the five laydown areas at the station. Vessel offloading is very exciting as it’s a 24-7 operation of crane and truck activity; a coordinated effort to supply an entire city via World War II era tractor trailer trucks.

Ship and Shipping Containers
Offloading cargo from the MV Ocean Giant at McMurdo Station

We have a top-notch Parsons team at the port in Los Angeles that receives our material, scans it, packs it, and delivers over the ready line to our client. We built from the ground up an In-Transit Visibility (ITV) system that tracks items from planning to pricing and purchase, to delivery at the port, to loading, to the final delivery and installation at McMurdo. We tied our Construction Management software, scheduling software, and scan guns together to provide immediate online dashboard information. If I need to find where a specific structural steel member or even where the microwave oven is, I can look it up and find out in what container and where on the planet it is located. If material does not make it, we will have schedule delays or must make do with what we have. We work closely with the station on sharing materials and tools. If there is nothing on-ice that we can use, we must fly items in from New Zealand. There was an instance where our team had the wrong type of screws, so I had to drive around to every New Zealand Mitre 10 (the Kiwi’s version of a Home Depot or Lowes), find all the screws I could and get them on a transport plane.

Ocean in Antarctica
View from Hut Point after an Iceberg Storm

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing a key role in modernizing McMurdo Station, Antarctica and am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this project. To learn more about opportunities and to be a part of our team, please visit our careers page.

About The Author

Ken served as Parsons’ principal project manager for AIMS and was one of the first team members to kick off the project. His expertise in extreme project delivery reflects his enthusiasm for outdoor activities!

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