- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jim Karcher can fly a plane, steer a boat and drive a fire engine, all useful — if not always immediately applicable — for his job as safety and health officer in the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation.

Such experiences help him understand key technical and engineering problems involved in helping people stay alive in conditions far from natural for most humans. He is responsible for the well-being of numerous scientists and auxiliary crews who work at the extreme ends of Earth — namely the north and south polar regions, two of the most challenging places in which to live, much less flourish.

Antarctica, which has no government and belongs to no single country, “hosts” 34 nations, the most active of which is the United States, doing chiefly scientific research at the South Pole. The NSF, the U.S. government’s sponsor of a wide range of complex scientific research missions all over the world, recently dedicated the impressive $153 million, two-story Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It’s a virtual city at the pole on Antarctica where NSF grantees and support staff can live in relative comfort.

Residents number 150 during the three-month summer, with no more than 60 the rest of the year. McMurdo and Palmer stations, two other NSF sites, are on the coast. Distances between them are vast; it can take three hours by plane to go between McMurdo, the principal base, and the pole.

Creation of the modular structure — which happened before Mr. Karcher was hired — required that 40,000 tons of building materials be delivered by ski-equipped cargo aircraft making more than 900 flights over a 12-year period. Elevated on hydraulic jack columns to discourage snow buildup, the facility sits on a glacier nearly two miles deep that annually slides 33 feet toward the sea. This is home for, among others, astronomers, biologists, climatologists and astrophysicists.

Whatever is not used on-site has to be carried or flown out. Dogs were banished long ago to observe the rule disallowing nonnative species — a far cry from the first U.S. Antarctic science expedition in 1830. The most recent NSF South Pole station was an elaborate geodesic dome from the 1970s that sheltered separate living and working quarters in buildings underneath.

The extremes are real. The world’s fifth-largest continent is also the coldest and driest. Normal summer temperatures average minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and can go to minus 100 in winter. (The North Pole, a slightly warmer place, is floating ice and hence has no permanent settlement.)

Mr. Karcher, a former Navy aviator who has handled safety protocols for the U.S. Coast Guard as well as the Department of Homeland Security, compares the dangers in Antarctica — especially in winter, when confinement at the station is mandatory and mounting an emergency rescue mission is extremely difficult — to what astronauts might deal with in space if life-support systems failed.

Someone in his position has to be well-versed in risk assessment and ever watchful of operations, even from afar. He visits NSF Antarctic bases just a few weeks each year. Arlington-based NSF contracts with Raytheon Polar Services Corp. to handle day-to-day logistics on-site.

“Learning is a matter of experience more than anything else,” says Rob Cavalier, Raytheon’s director of environment, health and safety. “It isn’t what you necessarily go to school for and you suddenly can work within these very difficult programs that employ very diverse processes.”

On his first trip, in November, Mr. Karcher says, he was “struck by how few people were doing so much.” Whatever their chores, all personnel going to the pole must pass a physical exam before each trip to forestall as many emergency medical problems as possible. People who winter over at the pole undergo a psychological exam as well.

“If someone gets hurt in winter, it’s a huge deal,” he notes.

No planes are available on-site in winter, and runways — really ski-ways — are covered over. Three physicians come in summer, and one stays at the pole for the year.

Standard-issue clothing includes six pairs of tube socks, two sets of polypropylene underwear, polar fleece shirt and pants, and a big red down parka. Survival-camp training is mandatory for field workers, who must learn how to make a snow dome and maintain body heat in a climate where staying out of doors more than 45 minutes even in summer can be arduous. Temperatures in the water under the ice at the coast are warmer than on the ground, as many of the scuba-diving marine biologists have discovered.

Mr. Karcher is not directly in charge but oversees those who monitor dive operations and the equipment divers use, and he performs similar duties for unusual missions undertaken by teams setting out above the ice.

“You have to anticipate every possibility,” even ice falling off glaciers and swamping the ships of a science crew at sea. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “If we were totally averse to risk, we wouldn’t be there. We tolerate some risk for the science.”

His objectives, he says, are “wanting the science to get done without unnecessary risks and not have anyone be injured.” The risks are dramatic enough because they also include the possibility and consequences of people on an overland traverse falling into a crevasse.

“We have ground-penetrating radar to detect where the crevasses are, but you have to think, ‘What is the probability it will break?’ You can mitigate that by having spare parts on hand, but you have to take measures to be sure radar operators stay as alert as possible. So you have to be sure there are enough rest breaks built into the schedule or rotate the people who have that job.”

Lately, he has had to plan ahead for the tractors that will take a month or more to traverse the ice and carry supplies for NSF work on Greenland, overland travel being a far less expensive method than flying. Huge farm tractors are employed, hauling behind them several sleds, one of them equipped with living quarters for the crew.

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