6 Feb 2007
From my duty at McMurdo Station, Antarctica in 2007
Not everyone who comes to McMurdo Station in Antarctica has the opportunity to travel to distant stations. Travel here is on a “need to go” basis. There are people working at McMurdo for years who have never been to the South Pole. Ed works here but his wife has spent the season at the South Pole. They will be reunited at the end of the season in New Zealand but they have not seen each other all summer. Ed has never been to the South Pole. I am among the privileged and will be able to fly to the South Pole on Wednesday.
Today is the beginning of a very special and busy time at McMurdo Station. The arrival of the annual cargo vessel occurred today. One might think that with sea access there are cargo ships coming and going all summer but this is not the case. There is one cargo vessel a year and it brings supplies for the entire year (not just the winter). The oil/fuel tanker likewise comes in only one time per year. The operation for off-loading fuel took about 2 days and 7 million gallons were pumped into waiting fuel tanks above McMurdo Station. The ship would have left two days ago but strong winds threatened to push the now lighter ship into ice or rocks in the narrow bay. No tugs are available here to maneuver such a large ship so under its own power there was fear that they would not have enough control to prevent an incident. The tanker finally backed out and proceeded through an ice channel kept open by the Coast Guard Cutter “Polar Sea.”
Cell phones? What are those? We do have pagers but must find a land-line phone if we receive a page. There are places on the base with wireless internet but I believe these areas are for the scientists. Thankfully we have a good internet connection (via satellite) with speed equivalent to DSL at home. We are asked to be prudent about the amount of bandwidth we use, however. I have sent pictures home but I reduce the size of the files first.
Everything here is recycled. There are waste cans for each type of material. When broken down into “Burnables, Plastics, Food Items, Bio Hazard, Aluminum, Tin-metal” it doesn’t seem to complicated. Everyone does it everyday. When you empty your waste can you separateout the different types of material and that is that. Where does it all go? There is no recycling station here but it all gets deposited in containers and loaded on a ship to be recycled at home. At the sewage plant water is thoroughly processed and the effluent is clean enough to drink. The only reason it is not used for drinking is peoples’ perceptions of the idea of drinking “treated” water. The more solid waste is actually packaged and shipped away for further processing to avoid contaminating the local environment. I find it interesting that even the seeds in food we eat are not substantially changed as they go on through the treatment process.
Crary Science Center
Yesterday I was privileged to have a tour of the Crary Science Center. Through this center the bulk of the scientific research is processed and distributed to the world. Most of the equipment and samples have been packed up as the scientist prepare to leave the ice for the season. Nevertheless, the center will be staffed was able to see a see spider and a creature that looked like a large cockroach. There were fish called “Borg” that contain in their cells chemicals that act as “antifreeze” and lessen their risk of being frozen into the ice pack.
Also we viewed a live webcam of the lava lake below the rim of mount Erebus. This 12,000 foot active volcano doesn’t spew large volumes of lava but has a stable lake that occasionally “burps” up lava “bombs.” There is only one other volcano in the world located in Africa has such a lake. This volcano is unlikely to explode, like a Mount St. Helens, because the lava lake demonstrates the stability of the pressures beneath.
I have been meeting very interesting people here. Everyone has an interesting story of how they got here. Some have always dreamed of doing research here. Others willingly took jobs such as dishwashing and janitorial service just to be here. It isn’t very glamorous for them but in time most people get to see interesting things. Here are a few of their stories:
James – works in recycling/waste management. He has been returning to Antarctica for 8 years. He came following his girl friend. She met another and was married. Later he met someone else and she now goes with him to Antarctica. He loves it here. “It gets me out of my cubicle in back home.” He has spent the winter in the past but prefers to return to home at the end of the season now.
Sherrie – Has been to McMurdo one other time. She is part of the 109th Medical Group and works as a med tech here. In her civilian life she is a nurse-practitioner with a pulmonary/critical care group. She will be leaving this week and is anxious to see her sons again.
Chris and Cindy – Chris flies helicopters and Cindy is involved in logistics here at McMurdo. She distributes equipment to the scientists who travel into less hospitable areas of Antarctica. The couples have a ranch in the US to which they will return when they are finished here in about 1 1/2 weeks. Chris has flown helicopters in the US and has worked in an operation in Angola. They love coming to the Antarctic and plan to keep returning as long as possible.
Bethany and Stephen – This couple met in college and Stephen learned about the Antarctic program while studying in Australia. He applied and was able to find work here two years ago as a journalist. After their recent marriage Bethany came along and works as the clinic janitor. They love their experience and will plan to return. They have rented a small house in an idyllic setting on a mountain in Vermont biding their time until they can return again next year.
“In Antarctica, science is a parking permit, and those who want to stand in the parking spaces must first be able to afford the permit to stand there.”
The Big Dead Placeby