The Electrician at the End of the Earth: An Antarctic Adventure

July 2, 2019

    Local 3 journeyman wireman John Murphy temporarily traded New York City for Antarctica, where he worked on a three-month project powering NASA’s southernmost satellite tracking station.

    John Murphy’s work laying cable tray and putting cable over a 4,000-foot run upgraded the power infrastructure that allows NASA’s satellite tracking station to deliver research data to users around the world.

    A relaxed seal and playful penguins, a common sight as Local 3 journeyman wireman John Murphy hiked trails above Antarctica’s frozen shore.

    A 2015 National Science Foundation photo of McMurdo Station, the U.S. research center established in Antarctica in 1955.

    John Murphy’s ride out of Antarctica in February 2018, one of the Air Force C-17s that transport people and cargo to and from the continent.

    John Murphy and a sunbathing seal on the ice below McMurdo Station.

A globetrotter at heart, John Murphy was already adept at swapping his Queens apartment for digs in Europe, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

Then he had a lightbulb moment -- a way to see a part of the world few people ever do.

“I was watching a nature documentary about Antarctica and they made a passing mention of the McMurdo Station,” said Murphy, a New York City Local 3 journeyman wireman. “I starting Googling.”

He quickly realized that the gateway to the South Pole was more than a frigid outpost for a handful of lonely scientists. He saw assorted buildings, even stores and a post office -- a small town of sorts running on its own power grid.

Where there’s electricity, Murphy figured, there have to be electricians.

With a few more clicks, he landed on the website for the government contractor that supplies seasonal workers to McMurdo, the U.S. National Science Foundation research center on Antarctica’s Ross Island.

Murphy emailed his resume and got a swift response. The contractor – despite being nonunion – clearly understood the value of IBEW-trained electricians.

“It definitely gives you a leg up,” Murphy said. “It tells them that you meet a certain criteria, that you can do the job. That streamlined it for me.”

The logistics took longer -- interviews, medical checks, security clearances. Meanwhile he pursued his everyday adventures as a Local 3 electrician working at New York City landmarks such as Grand Central Station and the Empire State building.

Look toward the midtown Manhattan sky at night and you’ll see some of his handiwork. He was proud to work on the famous skyscraper, part of an IBEW team changing old inefficient flood lights to new computer-controlled LEDs “that allow them to do many more colors, effects and light shows,” he said.

Some 9,300 miles away, the landscape surrounding the South Pole couldn’t be more different. But it has its own sightseeing thrills – leaping pods of graceful orcas, massive mama seals and their babies emerging from cracks in the ice-covered waters, and, of course, the famous penguins waddling on the frozen shore.

“As cute as advertised,” Murphy confirms.

‘Like the Last Frontier’

The sheer vastness of it all struck Murphy when he got his first look at Antarctica in early November 2017. It was springtime.

“It’s intimidating, kind of like being on the last frontier,” Murphy said. “I remember studying the explorers and how they went places that only a few people had laid their eyes on. That’s what sunk in.”

In Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier that day, Murphy buckled himself into a jump seat on a U.S. Air Force C-17 for the five-hour flight to Antarctica.

He had lots of company -- scientists, trades workers and support staff heading to jobs for the Antarctic summer or longer stints. Getting people and cargo there before the polar summer is essential: when the ice runway starts to melt, planes can’t land safely.

Murphy’s contract was for three months, working six days a week, nine hours a day on a project running a high-voltage feed over tricky terrain to a NASA satellite tracking station.

He’d approached Local 3 leaders about his plans, ensuring that as long as he returned within six months and his dues were paid, there’d be no issues with his status or health insurance.

“They were incredibly supportive,” Murphy said, even inviting him to a board meeting when he got back to share his experiences and photos.

“Brother Murphy showed another continent what it means to be a Local 3 member and how IBEW’s unparalleled training gave him the skills to excel as a journeyman electrician anywhere in the world, whether it’s the South Pole or New York City,” said Business Manager Christopher Erikson, also chairman of the International Executive Council.

Erikson noted that as part of Electricians Without Borders North America, four Local 3 members went to Angola in June to power a hospital that isn’t on the national electric grid, despite serving a community of 300,000 people.

“Wherever our members travel for work– whether it’s for public service, an adventure like John’s or in the aftermath of a hurricane or other natural disaster – they make us proud,” Erikson said.

Raised in a union home in Queens, Murphy, 35, long understood the value of unions. But he took an unusual path to Local 3.

He was playing college hockey in upstate New York in the early 2000s when he hurt his knee and lost his scholarship. As his injury healed back home, he joined friends for league games, planning to return to school. Meanwhile, Local 3’s team needed a goalie. Word of mouth led to Murphy, who signed on to play and then – at his teammates’ urging – applied to be an apprentice.

“I am so lucky to have ended up where I am,” he said. “Sometimes you find the right path and sometimes the right path finds you.”

Summer in the South Pole

Murphy was among as many as 1,100 Americans at times, including a couple of other past and present IBEW members, populating McMurdo Station during the polar summer. They even had neighbors. A smaller New Zealand base with a popular bar and an “American night” on Thursdays was less than two miles away.

He bunked and ate meals in a dormitory, but spent as much time as possible outdoors in round-the-clock daylight where temperatures often weren’t as numbing as he’d expected. The thermostat hit the upper 20s some days and felt even warmer at times.

Still, an unusual amount of snow fell for the summer months and biting winds were beastly. “There were three different weather conditions,” he said. “A nice day was category 3. Winds and low visibility were category 2. Category 1 is ‘Don’t leave the building.’”

Working outdoors when the wind kicked up, he said, “you always have to be careful what you let go of, making sure everything is kind of weighted down.”

That was just one of the challenges as he navigated volcanic gravel and permafrost to replace the weather-beaten high-voltage lines serving the McMurdo Tracking and Data Relay Satellite Relay System. NASA calls the site the “perfect location for satellites that weave polar paths around the planet to communicate with the ground.”

Via the station, spacecraft connect with users around the world, NASA explains, providing vital communication links “as more missions collect greater data volumes and have urgent delivery needs, like weather and disaster-tracking satellites.”

Murphy upgraded the power infrastructure that makes all that possible. He worked with one partner most of the time, and another dozen or more when it came to pulling cable.

“It was mostly running three-inch conduit cable tray and also pulling the cable over a 4,000-foot run to the tracking station on a top of a hill overlooking McMurdo,” he said. “You definitely have to take it slow. It’s very rocky where we were working, a lot of loose rocks.”

The project was one of many badly needed improvements at McMurdo, which wasn’t intended to be a permanent station when the U.S. Navy’s “Operation Deep Freeze” established it in 1955. Upgrading the power grid – fed by diesel generators and three wind turbines owned by New Zealand -- is part of major construction and modernization work underway in early stages. In coming years, the station’s hodge-podge of 105 buildings, spread over 49 acres, will be consolidated into six state-of-the-art facilities.

Murphy and his team worked “pretty much within town,” getting around by pickup truck and foot instead of bulldozers – the workhorses of Antarctica that haul heavy equipment, move trailer-size structures, and carve roads out of the ice.

Bulldozers travel with radar sensors on a pole extending about 10 feet ahead to measure how sturdy the ground is, Murphy said. But there’s still a risk of falling through the ice, as one did during his stay. “Fortunately, the operator was OK, he was able to climb out, but they left the bulldozer down there. They didn’t want to risk anybody’s life trying to save it.”

In his spare time, he found McMurdo well equipped for recreation, with cross-country skis, bicycles and loads of activities -- chili cookoffs, foot races, softball games, and Sunday-night talks by scientists presenting their research. For letting loose, weekend bar nights and parties featured bands made up of talented workers. The biggest bash was New Year’s Eve, a blowout known as IceStock with live music under the midnight sun.

For Murphy, hiking was a favorite pastime, along with observing seals and penguins on the ice below. “I wanted to see as much as I could with my own eyes,” he said.

Most of the penguins there are of the petite Adélie variety, along with some emperors. He heeded warnings not to get too close, but watching them was still a rush.

“I saw three of them running around and they were talking, engaging with each other,” he said. “I was giggling like a school girl. It was pretty incredible to see.”

But “it’s not all penguins and parties,” he cautions. For IBEW brothers and sisters interested in following in his footsteps, he doesn’t want to paint too rosy a picture.

“It gets very boring at times and it’s tough work in tough conditions” he said. “And you’re away from your family at the holidays. You can feel very disconnected from the outside world.”

Travel Fever

Murphy flew back to New Zealand in February 2018, taking an extended layover to indulge his travel bug and explore Asia before heading home.

“After you finish your contract, you can postpone your flight home from New Zealand for a month and a half,” he said. “That was a big selling point for me.”

He flew to Tokyo, then South Korea, where he saw the USA hockey team play Russia in the Winter Olympics, then on to Vietnam, Singapore, the Maldives and Bali, capping off his journey with a quick stop in Sydney, Australia.

These days, back in the fold at Local 3, he’s doing electrical work on runways at JFK Airport as part of a $355 million reconstruction project.

The irony isn’t lost on him.

“I see the planes taking off all day,” he said. “My mind is thinking, ‘Where’s that one off to?’”