Penguin colonies, a subterranean ice chapel, and sea ice were not top-of-mind military-related topics for Private First Class Thomas L. Pavlak (CE ’60) as he was visiting his family in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood over the 1961 Christmas season. The frosty subjects became so, however, after he received a phone call informing him that his new duty orders had been changed from Texas to Antarctica. With his background in civil and structural engineering, Pavlak was selected to serve as a research program glaciologist with the United States Army Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory, Experimental Engineering Division, at the South Pole Station from 1962–63.
Nearly 60 years later Pavlak reflected on his major contribution to polar science in a phone conversation from his home in hot and sunny Las Vegas.
“At that time there were no permanent above-ground stations at the poles,” he explained, noting that, for example, Byrd Station, a former west Antarctic research station, was built entirely under the snow. Staff entered the station via snow hatches on the surface. A veritable village was below, complete with a nondenominational chapel, living quarters, and supply chambers.
Pavlak was assigned the task of determining how quickly the snow would inch forward or “creep,” and then close in on the tunnels and above-ground station structures temporarily built by crew members at three different stations in Antarctica and Greenland. He and colleague René O. Ramseier published their findings in the paper “Unconfined Creep of Polar Snow” in the Journal of Glaciology (vol. 5, no. 39, October 1964). The pair took core ice samples and analyzed creep as a function of density; all three sites showed three different mechanisms of densification. Their paper provided the groundwork for more studies that eventually allowed for surface stations to be constructed.
In 1967 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names honored Pavlak with the naming of Pavlak Glacier, located at 82 degrees 58 minutes south latitude, 163 degrees 12 minutes east longitude, south of the Nimrod Glacier in Antarctica. After his years in the service, Pavlak worked as chief structural engineer for Chicago Public Schools, before retiring in 1993.
“My years working on the polar project were a really exhilarating experience,” says Pavlak, “from sitting on the Ross Ice Shelf to flying back to the U.S. with my six tubes of snow samples keeping cold in the back of the plane.”