Calm at the Cold Front

Working the World’s Most Remote Construction Site

By David Whitehouse

Not many of us would choose to live with our colleagues for six months at maximum temperatures of around zero degrees Celsius. Still fewer would be able to deliver a complex, time-sensitive project in such conditions.

Martha McGowan, a project manager at UK civil engineering contractor BAM Nuttall, has done both.

BAM Nuttall entered a seven-year partnership with the British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, in January 2017 for a £300 million, seven-year Antarctic infrastructure modernization program commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council, or NERC. McGowan was chosen as lead engineer for the removal of an old wharf and the construction of a steel-framed replacement for the Rothera research station. The new wharf will accommodate the UK’s polar research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough.

The Rothera station, which opened in 1975, is the largest British Antarctic facility. Rothera, 900 miles south of the tip of South America on Adelaide Island on the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, is one of the world’s most remote construction sites. The continent is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest on Earth. The island, which is 140 kilometers long, is mountainous and heavily glaciated.

McGowan spent six months there managing a team of 50 people before coming back to the UK in May 2019. She learned quickly about the time sensitivity of construction dictated by the short Antarctic construction season, and had to plan for wild-card risks such as stray icebergs and predatory mammals.

BAM Nuttall chose UK-based Trans Global Projects, or TGP, in a competitive tender in April 2018 for the project cargo moves. TGP was chosen as BAM was confident in its manpower, resources and attention to detail, McGowan said. Any missing equipment would have meant that the project would not work as planned.

Countering Biosecurity Threats

Antarctica has unique ecosystems that can be threatened by the incursion of non-native species of plants and animals. Therefore, the project had to comply with the British Antarctic Survey Biosecurity Handbook. These stringent requirements were to become the project’s biggest challenge, said Matt Jackson, group commercial director at TGP. He compared the problem to that faced when shipping cargoes to Australia, which has its own complex biosecurity rules.

All cleaning had to be done at origin. The entire berth area at the A.V. Dawson hub on Teesside of about 14,000 square meters had to be deep cleaned. The area was then fenced off and there were controlled biosecurity areas where the cargo was processed and stored. “The job site was the deck and holds of the ship,” he said.
TGP drew on its experience in Australia to deliver. Six months of work was needed before any cargo could be received in the UK, working to a comprehensive plan drawn up and approved by BAS and BAM. Experts were flown in from Australia to the UK, where they stayed for two-and-a-half months.

“Don’t enter into a biosecurity process lightly,” Jackson advised. Any infraction would have meant the vessel being rejected at its Antarctic destination and in a worst-case scenario returned to the UK for further decontamination and for reloading.

All cargo had to be inspected and washed with ultra-high-pressure water jets, and insecticides, pesticides and herbicides were sprayed in and around the facility. Parts of the cargo were also treated with residual insecticides. The containers and loading equipment had to be fumigated and the timber used for packing had to be compliant with International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures No. 15. The vessel itself also had to be decontaminated. As far as TGP is aware, this was the first time that such stringent export biosecurity procedures had been carried out at a UK port.

McGowan spent eight weeks at port at Teesside due to the sheer volume of equipment being assembled. She recalled that TGP and its experienced Australian professionals made meeting the complex biosecurity requirements “look very simple.”

Due to the absence of any construction equipment in Rothera, the construction team practiced full-scale assembly of the 30-ton steel rigs that formed the skeleton of the new wharf in Southampton to identify any unexpected needs. For the two months prior to the departure in November 2018, 40 to 50 people were working on the project at Teesport full time.

The complete lack of equipment at Rothera meant that everything had to be packed on the ship, the DS Wisconsin. A total of 13,000 cubic meters had to be loaded, including two 300-tonne crawler crane cabs. In addition, 85 containers were stowed on the decontaminated F-Type multipurpose ship. This stretched the capacity of the ship to its absolute maximum. Not a single additional container could have been added, TGP’s Jackson said.

“When you work in Antarctica, you have to account for every single nut and bolt,” said Bruce Wulff, project manager for Ramboll, who is BAS’s technical advisor in Antarctica. “There is no margin for error as the nearest supply store is a five-hour plane journey away.”

Perfect packing

The gear that would be needed to discharge the ship had to be packed and positioned so that it would be first off in Rothera. The perfect discharge sequence had to be planned in advance, which was made more challenging by the ship’s capacity limits. The crew was much larger than usual, as all the stevedores had to be brought along. There was not even room for the port captain, who had to fly. “The moment the hatches were closed, that was it,” Jackson said.

Everything was tagged once it had been checked. Some assembly of steel parts was done at the port: “The more that could be done in the UK, the better,” McGowan noted.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Bad weather encountered in the English Channel raised the possibility of delay and 18 months of work briefly hung in the balance.

A further tense moment, Jackson recalled, came when the ship had to rendezvous with the RSS Ernest Shackleton research ship in Antarctic waters. The Shackleton was needed to make a path for the ship through the ice. There was only a tight time window available for the rendezvous, without which the ship could not have reached Rothera.

Once in polar waters, the project also had to comply with The Polar Code, which came into effect at the start of 2017 and is designed to protect crews and shipowners in those regions. According to the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, polar shipping is forecast to grow in volume and diversity over the coming years, driven by reduced ice cover and increased resource extraction.

Employing Digital Techniques

At Rothera, BAM worked closely with TGP to lay down the order in which the equipment had to be unloaded. The mobile crane had to come out quickly to move other equipment, as well as tractors and trailers to keep the unloading area clear. The teams were working flat out on a 24-hour shift rotation, and unloading the ship still took a full 11 days and nights of around-the-clock work – the sun never sets in Antarctica at that time of year.

Pre-planning, Jackson underlined, was critical to the project. That, and a spirit of collaboration with the client. The planning, McGowan said, was the same as for any other project, with the operation being broken down into its component parts. The advance assessment was “close to what unfolded on the ground,” McGowan said.

Digital techniques were used to model the operation. BAM Nuttall uses software including Navisworks, which allows 3D review of architecture, engineering and construction. The software allows the import of schedules and cost items from external project management tools. Civil 3D, Revit and ProjectWise served as document control systems. As a solution to the lack of “cloud” access in the Antarctic, BAM adopted a tool from WorkMobile to record biosecurity inspections relating to the cargo.

A key challenge, McGowan said, was to strike the “balance between delivering the project and working and living together as a team.” There were some similarities, she said, between Antarctica and north Scotland, where BAM Nuttall has long been active, in terms of remoteness and harsh weather. The experience gathered there “had its part to play” in the harsher Antarctic environment, she said.

When the first construction season ended in May, David Seaton, senior infrastructure program manager at BAS, commended the work as being on time and carried out with excellent safety performance. “When construction resumes, we will be starting from a very good point,” he said. The new 74-meter wharf is due to be completed in April 2020.

TGP has continued to support the project with further smaller deliveries. The firm is already working on the plans for bringing equipment back: season two for Rothera mobilizes in November. McGowan will return to Rothera in November for another six months with most of the team.

The project could mark the start of a steady stream of Antarctic projects for all involved: BAS stations in Signy, South Orkney Islands, and King Edward Point, South Georgia are all due to be upgraded.  

David Whitehouse is a journalist who spent 18 years with Bloomberg, before turning to a career as a freelancer. He has written for The Financial Times, the World Economic Forum, Deutsche Bank, Germany Trade & Invest, and UBS Asset Management, among many others.

Image Credit: TGP