Link-Belt Cranes Help Expand US Scientific Research Facility in Antarctica


The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) has conducted vital scientific research at the frigid bottom of the world since 1956.

Run by the National Science Foundation, the USAP has three permanent stations in Antarctica, plus several smaller field outposts.

The three permanent stations are McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and Palmer.

At these major locations and the several smaller outposts, USAP scientists study astronomy, astrophysics, geospace, meteorology, geomagnetism, seismology, glaciology, and tides, as well as sea animals, birds, and the microbiome on the continent and in the adjacent oceans.

For various reasons, Antarctica is the ideal location to study specialized aspects of those topics.

In some cases, it’s the only place on earth where a specialized research project can take place.

As just one example, deep samples of ancient layers of ice can help researchers track how the earth’s climate has changed over millions of years.

The largest of the USAP’s three major stations is McMurdo.

It currently consists of more than 85 buildings, including a small radio station, vehicle repair facilities, dormitories, administration buildings, gyms, a chapel, a firehouse, a power plant, a water-treatment plant, a wharf, stores, clubs, warehouses, and a lab, all linked by above-ground utilities including water, sewer, communications, and power lines.

Built atop volcanic rock on Ross Island, the farthest-south solid ground that can be reached by ship, McMurdo Station is the logistics hub for the USAP, complete with harbor, wharf, ice and snow runways to support fixed wing aircraft, and a helicopter pad.

Upgrading for the Future

McMurdo Station is now being updated and expanded to make sure it is ready to support researchers for the next 35 to 50 years.

The station is operated by the National Science Foundation who oversees the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) currently contracted to Leidos, which has hired Parsons as general contractor to perform design, engineering, and construction management for certain upgrades.

Those upgrades include building a dormitory, a vehicle-maintenance building, and one other facility, plus improvements that will help the station be more cost- and energy-efficient.

Construction on the project started in 2019, then was delayed for two years by COVID-19, before being restarted in 2022.

Because Antarctica is in the Southern Hemisphere, its seasons are the opposite of North America’s.

So the Antarctic construction season runs during its relatively milder summer months, October through March.

But even those “milder” months are pretty cold and windy.

At McMurdo Station, the mean annual temperature is 0° F and the average wind is 13.81 mph, but with gusts as high as 115.1 mph.

Average temperatures during the construction season range from a high of 7° F and a low of -7° F in October and March, to a high of 32° F and a low of 22° F in December and January.

Rugged Cranes

Working in those rugged conditions requires cranes that perform well in cold and wind.

Currently, four Link-Belt cranes support the operation, maintenance, and expansion of the USAP.

They include a TCC-1200 telescopic-boom crawler crane, a TCC-1400 telescopic-boom crawler crane, an RTC-80130 Series-II rough-terrain crane, and an RTC-80160 rough-terrain crane.

The TCC-1200 lifts up to 120 USt and has a 40'-150' boom. The TCC-1400 lifts up to 140 USt and has a 42.4'-195.4' boom. The RTC-80130 S2 lifts up to 130 USt and has a 41.4'-163' boom. And the RTC-80160 lifts up to 160 USt and has a 42.3'-195.3' boom.

On behalf of the NSF, Leidos bought all four of the cranes from Power Equipment Company (PECO), the Link-Belt Cranes dealer in Denver, Colorado.

Because COVID-19 put the McMurdo construction project on hold for 2020 and 2021, three of the Link-Belt cranes sat idle outside, pretty much frozen solid in Antarctica, for those two years.

When it was time to put them back to work, PECO’s technical training and support manager, Will Noll, flew from Denver to McMurdo Station to lead the process that prepared the cranes for service and to thoroughly inspect them before they went to work.

“The relative simplicity of Link-Belt cranes helps make them reliable and easy to maintain and troubleshoot if an issue comes up,” said Noll. “These cranes were stored outside where the average temperature is 0° F, and winter temperatures drop as low as -60° F, yet they were pretty easy to prepare and put to work even though they are a world away from anything.”

Noll noted that although the Link-Belt cranes at McMurdo have some cold-weather options, they aren’t much different from typical units. “They have heaters for the engine block, DEF tank, hydraulic tank, and battery compartment,” he said. “And they use Petro-Canada Hydrex Extreme hydraulic oil, but not a lot else is different.”

Noll added that the Teflon pucks in Link-Belt’s greaseless booms work well in the cold and eliminate the mess and maintenance headache of having to grease the booms.

Vital Work

During the summer, the Link-Belt cranes construct the station’s improvements, handle containers of vital supplies that come in by ship, and help maintain equipment like cargo planes from the New Zealand, Australian, Italian, and U.S. air forces that deliver people and supplies.

During the Antarctic winter, from April through September, harsh weather prevents ships and planes from reaching McMurdo Station.

The 300, or so, scientists and operations people at the three stations continue research and operations on a lower scale than during the summer, when McMurdo’s population swells to as many as 1,000 people.

The bulk of the equipment, material, food, medical supplies, fuel, and everything else that the McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations will need for the whole year arrives in one shipload during February after the U.S. Coast Guard breaks up the ice.

The cranes handle nearly all of it.

In addition, they help handle heavy components for equipment, such as propellers for the cargo planes that land on the ice shelf about nine miles from McMurdo.

And, of course, they help build the infrastructure improvements being made to McMurdo Station.

All of the building sections come as prefab components sent in shipping containers.

The cranes handle the containers, and then pick and set the prefab components for construction crews to connect and finish.

Among the heaviest pieces are precast footers that Noll estimates weigh about 35,000 lbs. and sit on top of the ground.

Strong Support

In addition to providing the cranes for this project, PECO is supplying Leidos with strong, expert support for their operation and maintenance.

To help keep the cranes operating at a high level, Noll has written best-practice recommendations for the crews that operate and maintain them in the Antarctic environment.

He also helps train the crane technicians and operators who travel to McMurdo Station.

In fact, to ensure that the first crane technicians slated to travel to Antarctica in 2019 were thoroughly prepared, Link-Belt Cranes provided hands-on factory training on a six-wheel rough-terrain crane and a teleboom crawler crane at Link-Belt’s training center in Lexington, Kentucky.

One of the cranes they trained on was the same RTC-80130 Series II they would be maintaining at McMurdo.

In addition to conducting the initial training, Noll, who is a certified master technician for Link-Belt cranes and both a master technician and certified trainer for Volvo construction equipment, is always available to offer expert advice by phone or internet, even though McMurdo Station is 20 hours ahead of his office in Denver.

Interview with an Antarctic Operator

“It’s a normal job in an exotic place.” That’s how veteran crane operator James Sharrah describes what it’s like to run a crane in Antarctica.

Sharrah is now in his second season of running cranes for Parsons at McMurdo Station.

He first worked on the project last construction season (October 2022 to March 2023), and he liked it so well that he went again this season (October 2023 to March 2024).

Sharrah says the three-story building he’s working on now has a steel framework and precast concrete floor slabs and walls.

He doesn’t remember the sizes and weights of the pieces exactly, but he estimates that the steel beams are about 18" deep, 24' to 50' long, and weigh up to 4,000 lbs.

The building’s concrete floor slabs are about 8' x 20' and weigh about 18,000 lbs.

The construction crew works nine hours per day, six days a week, from October through March.

Sharrah began working in construction in 1992, right after graduating from high school.

In 1993, inspired by his step-father, he began running cranes.

He started on a 30-USt capacity rough-terrain crane and worked his way up to a 440-USt lattice-boom crawler.

A Colorado native, Sharrah is no stranger to cold-weather crane operation. “The Link-Belt cranes perform very well in the cold,” he says. “You need to let them warm up well before you start making lifts, but once they’re up to temperature, everything is responsive and works at normal speed.”

He notes that the USAP sites, including McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and Palmer, are all U.S. operated, so all crane operators are certified and qualified for the cranes they run and the work they’re doing.

Sharrah says that each work day is handled the same way as at any top-notch construction project.

It starts with a meeting that makes sure the whole crew is on the same page about the work to be done and about safety, then kicks into gear to get the work done.

In the off hours, “It’s like dorm living,” Sharrah says. “Everyone from the construction crew to the scientists and the station manager eats together. You get to know some interesting people.” The station has gyms, weight rooms, entertainment areas, and plenty of other ways to enjoy yourself, he says.

This season, Sharrah also has had the bonus of sharing the experience with his wife, who is a nurse on the McMurdo medical staff. “When she heard about the great experience I had in Antarctica, she wanted to enjoy it, too,” he said.

Sharrah gives Power Equipment and Noll credit for helping make the experience excellent. “They have been first rate with parts and technical support,” he says.


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