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Shipping to Penguins: The Logistics of Delivering Cargo to Antarctica

Image via Flickr by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Occasionally, from the frozen tundra of Antarctica comes activity. Yes, there’s life on Antarctica – more than just penguins.  This continental ice sheet welcomes scientific researchers, explorers, and even tourists, all of whom need supplies and equipment to sustain their trip. And companies have to ship it.

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Delivery to Antarctica isn’t always easy. The continent’s landscape and shipping routes present challenges that most other locations simply don’t (re: ice – lots of it). Read on to learn the logistics of delivering cargo to Antarctica, from the complications to solutions.

Cargo Logistics

Image via Flickr by eliduke

All cargo shipments arrive at McMurdo Station – Antarctica’s main terminal and a hub for research and more. Once there, similar to other shipping procedures, the products are scanned for delivery. In the past, the below-freezing temperatures made it difficult to track items with scanners as the equipment would often malfunction. Today, heated, insulated bar code scanners exist to fight the cold.

Other unloading logistics include inspection, especially for non-native species. Suppliers, as well as personnel at McMurdo Station, must take extra care to ensure the delicate environment of Antarctica is not disrupted by foreign, invasive materials.

Breaking Ice

Since many deliveries are made by cargo ship, vessels are tasked with navigating the dense, icy waters. Ships must be equipped with a slew of icebreaker technologies in order to pass through the sometimes solid sea.

National Geographic notes that these icebreakers are complicated, as in they don’t just work on one section of the boat, and each type of icebreaker has a different function for safe passage: “There’s a whole spectrum of ice capability for ships. There are ships with some extra hull protection and some extra protection for propellers and rudders that can go through very light ice, and it goes all the way up to strong and powerful ships that can go through just about anything.”

Ship Fuel Consumption

Image via Flickr by eliduke

Massive cargo ships that move through slow waters heavily consume fuel. One only has to look at the amount spent on search and rescue for the University of NSW expedition – $2.4 million on fuel and supplies – to understand the costs involved with Antarctic delivery. So how do research organizations and suppliers combat the associated costs?

National Science Foundation (NSF) reports, “Buying commonly utilized equipment and materials in bulk in advance and sending them to McMurdo on the once-per-year cargo ship, instead of granting funds to investigators to buy them separately and fly them in, reduces costs dramatically.”


According to Time, “All fuel and supplies must be delivered during the short Antarctic summer. Nothing comes in or goes out during the long, dark Antarctic winter.” The Antarctic “summer” season isn’t exactly warm, but it features about six months of complete daylight, during which time it’s safer for ships to pass.

This leaves suppliers with a short window for delivery. And the loading and unloading process isn’t exactly a breeze, either. It can take up to 10 days to get goods off the truck and put waste and recyclables back on. Due to the strict timeline, there’s a strong culture of conservation on Antarctica. Scientists especially understand the importance of resources and work together to conserve supplies at McMurdo Station.

We want to hear from you. Does your company ship cargo to Antarctica? What challenges have you experienced? Share your stories in the comments below. [/show_to]


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