Technology Today

2011 Issue 2

Environmental Technology on "The Ice" Raytheon's Antarctic Support Role

Environmental Technology on 'The Ice' Raytheon's Antarctic Support Role

Antarctica has come to symbolize one of the last, great frontiers for science — a natural laboratory for oceanography, glaciology, biology, astrophysics and a host of other research endeavors.

Figure 1

Maintaining a pristine environment — unsullied from pollution and degradation from human activities — is one of the chief goals of the nations that operate in its biologically and geologically diverse areas, on its ice sheets and near its shores. While no one nation owns this massive continent, dozens cooperate through the Antarctic Treaty system to conduct research and manage environmental impacts. Environmental protection of Antarctica has been a cornerstone of international policy since the 1960s, and many areas of special interest to scientists and historians enjoy additional safeguards under various designations that dictate how national programs manage these sites.

Since 2000, Raytheon Polar Services has been the prime contractor to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Office of Polar Programs for the U.S. Antarctic Program. Among its many support responsibilities, Raytheon plays the important role of environmental steward, ensuring adherence to environmental protocols at each U.S. research station, at field camps and on the research vessels. In May of this year, Raytheon Polar Services received an award from the NSF for outstanding service and dedication to the United States Antarctic Program and for its role in protecting the Antarctic environment.

Leading the Way for Environmental Protection

Raytheon has done more than just ensure adherence to Antarctic Treaty requirements; we strive to lead the way in the area of environmental protection. For example, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a relatively ice-free area that is the site of a number of scientific studies, has a series of ice-covered lakes that contain endemic microorganisms. Some of these species occur in one lake but not in another, so scientists who study these ecosystems risk transporting a species from lake to lake. For this reason, Raytheon's management plans include additional provisions, such as requiring personnel to sanitize boots before working in each lake, to prevent non-native species or cross-species contamination of neighboring sites.

Other examples of Raytheon's leadership in support of environmental protection and conservation in Antarctica include:

  • Recycling and reuse. Participants in Antarctica sort their waste into about 14 categories. Even potato peelings are returned to the United States. We return 100 percent of waste for recycling, disposal or auction.
  • Waste-heat recovery. The McMurdo Station power plant was recently expanded and upgraded to be more efficient. The system is able to capture most of the waste heat, which is used to heat other structures.
  • Use of alternative energy. A new turbine farm was constructed on Ross Island, with logistical support from Raytheon. Solar power/thermal panels and small wind turbines are being tested and used for remote field camps and for temporary housing at the South Pole Station. Electric lightweight utility vehicles are being tested at McMurdo Station to learn how they hold up in the harsh conditions.
  • Energy conservation. Upgrades to more efficient lighting, plumbing fixtures, variable speed motors, etc., are routinely made at all stations.
  • Construction of the South Pole Traverse. A 1,000-mile compacted snow road in Antarctica links the United States' McMurdo Station on the coast to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (Figure 1). A "tractor train" travels this route each summer season to deliver fuel, cargo and equipment, traveling across a Texas-sized ice shelf and up a glacier that cuts through the Transantarctic Mountains. The traverse also brings trash back from the South Pole for shipment off the continent. It eliminates more than 30 flights by LC-130 aircraft that would otherwise be needed for fuel resupply, reducing the logistics carbon footprint.
  • Abandoned field site recoveries. Field camps and science equipment that are no longer used or have been abandoned are recovered every austral summer season. This has removed literally tons of material, including fuel, from the Antarctic environment.
  • Spill response. Raytheon fields a 24-hour, on-call spill team to respond to releases of petroleum-based products into the environment.
  • Environmental education. All participants in the U.S. Antarctic Program are trained about their environmental responsibilities under the Antarctic Conservation Act.

Arctic Fact Table

Drawing the Line: New Mapping Technology

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which entered into force in 1998, created the Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) designation to help manage activities to protect the fragile ecosystem and the integrity of scientifically and environmentally sensitive areas.

Figure 2

Part of the ASMA management strategy involves creating maps and distributing them to stakeholders like scientists and tourism companies to ensure activities within the designated area adhere to the plan. In the past, a science team planning work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys would receive a fairly simplistic map that outlined proposed tent sites intended to minimize human impact to the fragile ecosystem. General features, such as "large boulder," helped map users orient themselves at each site.

Today, 21st-century mapping technology has caught up with environmental management and protection of Antarctica. Raytheon has been working with a subcontractor, Environmental Research & Assessment in the U.K., and the NSF funded Polar Geospatial Center to produce high-resolution, highly accurate maps for improving management practices (Figure 2). The imagery is so detailed that one can identify individual boulders or huts at permanent field camps.

These new Dry Valleys maps also include special features that are geologically or biologically significant, such as Blood Falls (Figure 3), a waterfall-like glacial feature that flows into Lake Bonney, one of several ice-covered lakes in the Dry Valleys. The falls are red because they draw water from an iron-rich pool, where scientists have recently discovered a unique microbial community.

Figure 3

Environmental maps are also useful to researchers for managing and planning purposes because they contain all sorts of data, including historical information on scientific work at various locations. Other data includes information on locations where helicopters have landed, where fuel spills may have occurred in the past, where fuel is cached and where major pieces of equipment are located on the continent. This conserves resources, ensures that supplies and instruments are not abandoned and minimizes duplication of work.

The value of scientific research performed on "The Ice" must take into consideration potential environmental impacts and developing technologies. With a devotion to maintaining Antarctica's unique pristine environment, Raytheon has played a key role in cleaning up the past, and in testing and implementing methodology for the future.

Peter Rejcek

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