The Antarctic challenge: Wooden Boxes for terrains, temperatures and transportation

Every year since 2008 the Antarctic astronomy group at the University of New South Wales has been using containers from Silverwater Box (now merged with UBEECO Packing Solutions) to ship a tonne or two of equipment to and from Antarctica.

Antarctica PLATO-A Observatory

The journey is a long and hazardous one. It starts at the University of New South Wales in Sydney where the wooden boxes are loaded onto a truck for transport across Australia to Fremantle where they meet a Chinese icebreaker on its way from Shanghai to Antarctica.

The icebreaker braves the Southern Ocean and the roaring 40s, sometimes listing as far as 45° from the vertical due to the giant waves. Upon arrival in Antarctica a week later, the boxes are taken by helicopter a few tens of kilometres inland where they are loaded onto sleds for a two-week 1200 km tractor traverse to the highest point on the Antarctic Plateau: the Chinese Kunlun Station at Dome A. The tractor traverse is particularly punishing since the snow often consists of Sastrugi – icy ridges perhaps half a metre high which can shake everything to pieces.

Custom sleds for precious cargo

The cargo typically consists of astronomical experiments, electronics, computers, and five diesel engines. The engines are quite heavy (60kg) and awkward to manhandle, particularly in the conditions at Dome A where the pressure altitude is 4500 m and the summertime temperatures are between –30 and -40°C.

To make it easier for the people on site Silverwater Box helped the UNSW team make a custom sled for each engine. This way, a single person can readily slide the engines across the snow for installation in the astronomical observatory’s power module. The old engines are then sledded back to the timber shipping boxes and returned to Australia for servicing, following the same 1200 km tractor traverse, icebreaker trip across the Southern Ocean, and truck trip across Australia.

Prof. Michael Ashley with two of the Silverwater Box wooden sleds

Silverwater Box (now UBEECO Packaging Solutions) meets the challenge

Professor Michael Ashley at the University of New South Wales said:

“We have found Silverwater Box to be a very helpful and reliable partner over many years now. Their boxes easily survive the trip to and from Antarctica. Silverwater Box has always quickly delivered a very strong and sturdy product made from export certified timber and with millimetre precision on the box dimensions. This level of performance means there is one less thing to worry about in conducting our research in Antarctica.”