How To Dig Up Cold War Espionage Technology, or: Boondoggles


When I first heard someone mention the word boondoggle in passing, I thought it must be some sort of rare Antarctic fish, or maybe a weather phenomenon that only happens down here.  But then, after a couple of months of working, I was asked if I wanted to go on a boondoggle, and I figured it out.  A boondoggle is when you get to do something else for a workday, and usually it’s pretty cool.  Perhaps you get to go dive-tending, where you go out with a dive team and help them slip into the ominous blue-black hole in the ice.  Or you might get to drive out to the Erebus glacier tongue with mountaineers to survey the ice caves.  It’s a way to have a break from windexing urinals and actually get out and remember why you’re here.

Kevin had an exciting boondoggle this week (keep reading to find out more), which meant we had two nights apart from each other.  Since our big cozy bed was now a big lonely bed, I decided to go on a boondoggle of my own, granted it was during my day off.  My mom had to bring Ivan the Terra Bus (one of the largest passenger vehicles in the world) out for a maintenance spin, so James and I went for a ride.  It felt special to be riding this beast which usually holds 56 people with just two others.  We stopped out at the transition, where land and ice shelf meet, and took in the infinite shades of blue glowing around the shining white Erebus.

We’ve been out and about on lots of these self-made mini boondoggles.  We walked to and from Scott Base, which is our New Zealand counterpart station 2 miles away.  Scott Base also happens to have some of the best chocolate on the shelves of their store which we obviously stocked up on.  We took a trip out to the Long Duration Balloon field camp where my stepdad Scott is the manager.  They launch balloons that pass 99% of the atmosphere where they help scientists study neutrinos, space, weather, etc.  These balloons are so big that a football field could fit inside of one.  We’ve also been out on  plenty of hikes: Ob Hill Loop which slowly undulates around the base of the McMurdo landmark, Armitage Loop which stretches across the sea ice, and Hut Pont Ridge which snakes up and over the peninsula.

Exciting things are happening as the season peaks in both population and activity.  Most of the science projects are well underway, DV’s (distinguished visitors) like the King of Malaysia are arriving, and field camps are opening up.  This year marks the centennial of Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole which involves a ceremony and even more DV’s.  As it turns out, it’s been decided that South Pole Station needs to be cleaned for this event, and somehow I have been fortunate enough to be chosen to fly there and do this.  Next Monday, me and another janitor will be flying to the absolute bottom of the earth, clean for two days, then fly back!  Some people work season upon season and never get out of town, so I feel incredibly fortunate for this opportunity.  Plus, Thanksgiving is this week, so we get an extra day off to boot!  Life is good down here.

New life on the island! Here is the infamous skua.

Kev and James on the Armitage Loop, taken from our window.

Frozen waves of the pressure ridges, where permanent ice shelf meets sea ice.

Flags marking the transition (so much blue!)

Payloads out at LDB (Long Duration Balloon), the field camp near town that my stepdad Scott manages. These buildings are the largest in the world on skis.

The cos-ray building which looks like a podunk shack on the side of the road to Scott Base.

James and Kevin frolicking with the wind turbines.


Twenty miles due East of McMurdo, beneath the Southern slopes of Mt. Erebus lies the Windless Bight. As the name would imply, this area draws much less wind than the surrounding environments. Soft drifting snow, unique in this dry and windy climate, collects here as the roaring winds give way to a deep and undisturbed silence.  Buried 10 feet below the surface of this landscape lies an array of eight infrasound microphones whose purpose is to alert the world to the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

As part of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CNTB), this array is a piece of a vast network of devices that listen to ultra low frequency sounds (below 1Hz) to monitor for large-scale, rapid changes in atmospheric pressure. The principle event being listened for is a nuclear detonation. These arrays are all over the world, and each country that takes part in the CNTB is responsible for maintaining a set of them. The atmospheric arrays (arrays that listen to the atmosphere rather than the ocean or the ground) maintained by the United States are managed by the University of Alaska. Although this project is paid for by the Department of Defense, the science teams that manage it are able to use the data they gather for other purposes. They have used these arrays to record the sound made by Auroras, and now they are trying to decipher what that noise is, and what causes it.

Every year a team has to come down and dig the devices up from beneath the winter snowdrift and recalibrate them for the next year of service. Their camp sits on the North side of the Windless Bight, cradled by the slopes of Mt Erebus to the North, Mt. Terra Nova and Mt. Terror to the East. It consists of a big orange box containing the power systems for the array, and two Rac-Tents in place while the array is being retrieved from the snow. One tent, light pink with roses painted on the sides, is the berthing tent. The other tent, a more modest blue, serves as the galley. The Vee Cliffs, several hundred feet tall and mostly covered in deep blue ice pushed forward by a glacier above, loom in the distance. Falling ice and avalanches from these cliffs, along with seismic activity from Erebus, often flood the array with an abundance of noise. Because of the high volume of snowdrift from this previous winter, a Waste Tech and myself were called out from town to assist for a few days in digging the ‘vaults’ from out of the snow.

The vaults were buried in about 10 feet of snow. Each vault is a 3’x3’x3’ cube, with 16 20’ hoses reaching out in all directions. First, after locating and flagging a buried vault, we would load up our snow machines with equipment, head to the site, and start digging. After several hours of digging, we would get down to the base of the vault. The next step was to carefully detach the hoses from the vault, trying to not break the frozen cam locks that had held the hoses in place under the snow for the last year. Once the hoses were free, we would strike them with a hammer until they become dislodged by around 1/8 of an inch. This would break the initial layer of ice holding the hose in place. Next, we would steadily push and pull the hose back and forth until we built up enough friction to break the ice enough to slide all 20 feet of the hose out from under the snow. Shoveling out the hole was a stroll in the park compared to getting those stupid hoses out. After the hoses were all removed, we hooked the vault to a chain hoist, and hoisted it as high as we could in order to replace all of the snow we had dug out from beneath them. After all of the vaults were above surface level, the system was reassembled and calibrated. Then, it’s left to listen for a far off bang that hopefully will never come, all the while being reburied by the winter snow that the months will surely bring.

Boondoggles not only get you out of the comforts and monotony of McMurdo, but they get you closer to science, the reason we’re all here. It is all too easy to forget what the hell this whole thing exists for when you spend most of your time cleaning floors and bathrooms, so a chance to get out and refresh your perspective (even if it does involve 36-hours of shoveling and pulling 20’ hoses out from under 10 feet of frozen snow) is a very welcome opportunity.

For more information about Infrasound Site 155US, please visit their website.

Infrasound Site 155US Windless Bight

Getting ready to leave camp for the dig sites. Mt. Erebus in the background.

Digging up a 'vault.'

Infrasound hoses.

A finished 'vault' dug out and reassembled.

Back at camp with a snow machine.

Visiting a neighbor's campsite. An electronics tent at a drill site.


3 thoughts on “How To Dig Up Cold War Espionage Technology, or: Boondoggles

  1. Those are awesome boondoggles! Liz, have fun at the South Pole! Kevin, now that you’ve shoveled all that snow, you’re ready to stick around for winter. 😉 Larry and I have one more day in Australia and then we’re heading to Hawaii. Hope you both have a wonderful Thanksgiving! 😀

  2. what a great post!
    liz have a great time at the south pole.
    i’m such a huge fan of amundsun and love the story of his and scott’s race to the pole. what brave men they and their expedition teams were.
    as always, your photographs are awesome!


  3. boondoggles sound (hilariously) awesome! liz, i feel as though i probably would have done a ‘kevin’ (from home alone) and run up and down the aisle of the terra bus with my arms in the air yelling, if i’d been in your place, haha. 🙂 i also love the idea of listening to the auroras…what a crazy, amazing idea! i hope they post what they sound like somewhere online…i’m pretty sure there’d be tonnes of geeks like me who are interested in knowing that. 🙂

    all of your shots look like promotional material for something (the job, maybe?) because they are so freaking beautiful! like, even when it’s a shack, it’s a shack surrounded by beautiful mountains of snow and ice, and a bright blue sky…who knew it could be so picturesque? 😀

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