Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Visiting our Antarctic neighbours

A much clearer day than we’d had for a while presented itself this morning. There was no doubt that the Hercules that I need to board tomorrow, was going to be arriving. This was good news for all the science parties wanting to head out into the field. Unfortunately, I left base very early this morning and didn’t get the chance to say good-bye and wish them all the best. I trust I will probably cross paths with a lot of them again in future.

Today Renee and I walked over to McMurdo Station to meet with the environmental team of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). There was a lot of concern from the American side that we had elected to walk the four kilometers between bases. Admittedly, there is a bit of a hill, but the exercise is good, it keeps you warm and you hardly sweat in Antarctica. I have been told more than once during my time in Antarctica, ‘you kiwis are tough’. We have quite the reputation down here.

McMurdo Station is so incredibly different from Scott Base. You do feel like you enter a different country somewhere along that four kilometre track. MacTown consists of a whole lot of stand-alone buildings, with empty streets and only the dust blowing about. Most buildings just have a number and are without signage. Although there is ‘Hotel California’ (an accommodation block), ‘Trash Barn’ (for recyclable sorting) and ‘Chapel of the Snows’. We were to meet our hosts at ‘192’, which is the environmental block. We discovered the numbering isn’t chronological, but we found each other. This sterility of MacTown is only superficial however; inside these buildings are bustling with people and culture. For example, walk into ‘Trash Barn' and you’ll find a larger than life model of Oscar the Grouch overlooking the whole operation, a cowboy’s hat was tossed in the corner, I’m sure I saw an American flag (or two) and some American rock was playing. The population of MacTown averages ~1200 people making it the largest ‘town’ in Antarctica. During peak season there are up to 2000 people and 200 people over winter. As a comparison, at Scott Base, we usually only have ~20 personnel over winter.

Renee and I had a great tour of the base. The whole of McMurdo seems to be very well tailored, or well used, to visits. Everyone was very accommodating and knowledgeable, not about only their job, but also the history of the Station, Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty, and how their job fits into that. People were very enthusiastic about the role they played in keeping McMurdo alive.

Our tour included the food hall, the gym (where they offer volleyball, basketball, basketball, soccer and yoga), the communications office, the meteorological office, the power plant (diesel generators), the RO plant (desalinates sea water so that it is suitable for consumption) and even the waste water treatment plant. Yes, this is the kind of water treatment plant you are thinking of. Our guide of the plant was very offended we had initially asked for a tour of the power plant and RO plant, but not his waste water treatment plant. Here all MacTown’s ‘grey water' (which is brown) is treated through a biological process so that it is then suitable to be released into the ocean without doing harm to the environment. I can vouch for the fact that they do a really good job, and the water coming out of the process is very clear.

Because of the sheer population size of McMurdo, there is a lot of waste water to be treated and accordingly there is a much larger treatment plant than at Scott Base. To help ease pressure on the water treatment system at Scott Base, our policy is that all showers must be under three minutes. There are no complaints and the system works well. It is a good habit to become mindful of water usage in Antarctica anyway. In the field camps, often your water source is restricted to what ever you can safely get from the closest bank of clean snow, glacier or glacial river. Any ‘grey water’ created must be brought back to Scott Base to be treated correctly in the waste water plant. This includes urine (stored in big yellow ‘P’ bottles) which is separated from the poo (which goes in bright orange poo buckets). You are forced not to be too precious about such things down here!

Amongst all the hustle and bustle of the biggest Antarctic town, I did find a couple of sanctuaries. The ‘Chapel of the Snows’ is very warm and inviting, it has a great vantage point right on the shore, tea and coffee making facilities and a kiwi Minister who assures me all denominations and all sorts are welcome. A slightly better vantage point can be found on top of the Creary Lab in the library. There are also tea and coffee making facilities here and many interesting books to complement and educate you about the view.

Being a biologist, the highlight of my tour to McMurdo Station was definitely the Creary Lab. It is an amazing complex. It is huge and has the space, facilities and equipment for all sorts of science (the mind wanders with possibilities…). The lab accommodates ~500 scientists every year and has ~25 staff dedicated to running it. There was a 'touch pool' set up with the latest collection of strange Antarctic sea creatures collected by divers in the bay. There were isopods (sea lice) three inches long, starfish, fish, urchins, anemones, sponges and giant sea spiders similar in form to the long legged house spiders we see in New Zealand (only bigger and creepier).

Around McMurdo Station, there definitely wasn’t any talk of the rugby, not started by the Americans anyhow. There was talk of other upcoming events however. Prince Albert of Monaco is visiting both Scott Base and McMurdo Station from Thursday. The other news was that tomorrow is 'Mexican Day' and most importantly 'Cookie day'. If I am still around tomorrow, it would be a sin to miss the Wednesday tradition!

Despite the Herc arriving today, there is a chance I may be delayed until Friday in fact. Sadly, there has been a medical emergency and an American individual needs to get to Christchurch hospital as soon as possible. There may be no space on the plane for me. I’m trying to psyche myself into either scenario, but I still feel like I would be pretty happy to stay for a bit… even if it was a really long bit!

A comic artist at McMurdo Station produced this following the rugby match. 'Daisy picking' at MacTown is a communal rubbish collection day (equivalent to our communtiy beach clean up days in New Zealand)

Inside 'Trash Barn'

Just as 'Chapel of the Snows' has a name and a number, there is also a bell and a megaphone side by side

The ice breaker viewed from the coast in front of McMurdo Station

Some numbered buildings that are surplus to requirement at the moment. Notice they are all on skis

Sea spiders sitting on a sponge. These spider crabs are about the size of my palm. You can see the back end of the isopod to the left of the sponge too. Sleep well!

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