How does the sewage and electrical systems work at an established station in Antarctica?
December 8, 2008 1:32 AM   Subscribe

How does the sewage and electrical systems work at an established station in Antarctica?

Just finished watching Encounters at the End of the World, I'm curious how the sewage and electrical systems work at places like McMurdo Station. There's only so much googling I can do. So if someone knows about this stuff, better yet, has been to Antarctica, then please provide some free knowledge for myself and the readers.
posted by querty to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You may be able to find info at Big Dead Place. It is an "unofficial" website maintained by people working at McMurdo. They have a section called "Ask an Antarctican" that may contain your answer. If not, you can ask them.

Apparently, there are a lot of toilets there.
posted by chillmost at 2:26 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know they get a lot of electricity from diesel generators, but this link says they are starting to use renewable alternatives as well. Diesel is still a big chunk of it -- I've heard that you shouldn't go to Antarctica unless you love the smell of diesel fumes.
posted by sararah at 7:42 AM on December 8, 2008

This article indicates that McMurdo has a sewage treatment plant similar to that in a regular town. The link chillmost posted mentions U-barrels, which are big barrels that are filled up and them emptied.

I've never been to Antarctica, but in my experience in alpine camps where outhouses or composting toilets aren't options, there are two possible systems: outhouses that sit above barrels, which are filled, capped, and removed from the site (usually by helicopter), and burn-a-potties, which use propane to incinerate waste once their reservoirs are full (and, as you can imagine, smell truly horrifying).
posted by ssg at 8:23 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might contact Raytheon Polar Services Company, which provides support services at McMurdo and elsewhere for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). They have a toll-free number, which is 1 (800) 688-8606.
posted by Tufa at 8:29 AM on December 8, 2008

Reading through the Big Dead Place stories and interviews, I found some info in this interview towards the end, which is also funny as a bonus. Apparently there is now a treatment plant, but before it was there waste water was pumped into the sea.
posted by Lynx at 8:46 AM on December 8, 2008

I worked with a guy that did six months at Scott Base, basically being a general gopher (i.e. he more or less got stuck doing rubbish duty).

He told us that they burn everything, poo included. In fact, the incinerator was so hot, you had to throw stuffinto it from quite an impressive distance. Apparently you develop a good aim pretty quickly, especially when you're throwing bags of brown stuff.

Anything that won't burn, and the ashes of the stuff that already has, is put into drums & shipped off again.
posted by MatJ at 10:53 AM on December 8, 2008

Came across a post on Kevin Kelly's blog about someone doing an art project around recycling in Antarctica: The Art of Recycling in Antarctica: The Long View
posted by sub-culture at 11:40 AM on December 8, 2008

I've got a friend who just went down there. I've forwarded the question to her.
posted by paisley at 2:20 PM on December 10, 2008

Her response:

We have a wastewater treatment plant and also the electrical systems work similar to any remote field camp in Alaska and Yukon and Greenland. They are all Americanized systems as it began as a Navy base and has continued along the same track all these years later.
posted by paisley at 4:48 PM on December 16, 2008

Best answer: I imagine the answer varies from station to station.

Here at the south pole, all our electrical power comes from generators that run on JP-8 airplane fuel. (They use a single fuel for almost all equipment here, both for ease of storage and to allow for delivery in the wings of airplanes.) I'm told by the power plant operators that the generators themselves are pretty common commercial diesel machines. There are four approx 700 KW generators, one of which is running at any given time, as well as a smaller peaker to handle occasional periods of high demand, and a spare generator in the emergency pod in case of disaster.

Most of the station heating comes from the waste heat produced by the generators, supplemented by fuel powered boilers. Glycol lines, radiators, and air handlers distribute heat throughout the building. Out-buildings far from the station have either small fuel-burning boilers for heat, or else electrical heaters. They generally get their electricity from high voltage lines that come from station, although there are also some emergency generators distributed on site.

Our water comes from Rodriguez wells (Rod Wells.) In short, you continuously pump very hot water into a cavity in the ice, which melts ice from the walls of the chamber. You then pump out a larger volume of cooler water. You wind up with a growing cavity with a pool of water at the bottom. After 7-10 years, the cavity is hundreds of feet in diameter, and the process is significantly less efficient. You then have to start a new well.

And, at least if you're the South Pole Station, you then use the old one for waste water. Our raw sewage is pumped into an old Rod Well, where it freezes. It's not at all obvious to me that this sort of thing is allowed by the Antarctic Treaty; however, the usual answer given when the topic is brought up is that it's something the US will have to deal with only if we every decide to leave the site. (Jokes about the hundred-meter poopsickle which will calve off from the ice cap in the distant future are common.)

None of the off-station buildings here have running water or sewage connections. We lug tubs of drinking water out to the sites every so often. During the summer there are solar-heated outhouses scattered around the station. During the winter, most heated buildings have a 50 gallon drum for urine collection.

Solid waste is all segregated into various classes of recyclables and disposables: things which can be compressed, things which spoil, hazardous chemicals, medical and sanitary waste, and countless categories of recyclables. It is then transported by air to McMurdo station, where it's baled and compressed and then sent by ship to a port in Los Angeles, where a contractor deals with it. In the past a lot of material was burned, but I'm told that doesn't happen any longer.
posted by eotvos at 7:09 PM on July 2, 2009 [38 favorites]

A minor correction to the post above (with apologies for being a pedant): there are actually only three main generators on station. The fourth *is* the smaller peaker generator.
posted by eotvos at 9:38 PM on July 30, 2009

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