Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I know you're wondering

Where does our waste go? All of the regular waste like paper, plastic, glass, food, etc gets sorted into 20 different specific categories in the station, then dumped into the various triwall boxes outside. Everything will eventually get shipped back to the US for processing as recyclable material or put into a landfill. In the 2005-2006 season, 62% of the waste shipped back was indeed recycled.

Our sewage waste however stays here. We pump all of that stuff into the "Rodwell", a huge cavern in the ice shelf from which we've melted the ice and used it as our water supply. We're using the original Rodwell, after it lived out its normal life as our water supply and now our sewage gets pumped into the hole that's over 500 feet into the ice.

As Station Manager, Katie has the dubious honor of measuring the level of the sewer outfall each

She has a special pair of mittens just for the occasion too.
To get to the outfall, you have to go into the ice tunnels which are bored into the ice under and around the station and seem to go on for literally miles. It's a constant -57 degrees F and in the summertime, it seems frickin' cold in there, but during the winter, especially after we were out in -117 degree windchill, it seemed warm and pleasant.

Here's the opening to the sewer outfall. Lots of crystals and icicles form here from the moisture condensing out of the opening. It also forms lots of snow on the floor which has to be regularly shoveled out and removed. We're told that the ice that forms here is just water that condenses out from the waste stew and although it looks nice and white and fluffy and doesn't stink, I certainly wouldn't try to lick it.

Katie has the measuring tape wheel and has just let the weighted end start the long downward journey. It pays out close to 300 feet before coming to a stop on something kind of solid. Then she reels it back in, being careful not to let anything splash back on her. Sometimes the Station Manager job is not all glamour.

The ice tunnels have some of the coolest (no pun intended) crystals and icicles I've ever seen and everything is coated in a fragile fluffy frost.

There are no sewer rats down here but there is a dried up sturgeon somewhere and some bizarre little shrines with prayer candles and strings of popcorn. We didn't visit them on this trip but maybe I'll have to return and leave my own personal token of some sort since I won't be back this way for quite a while. Any suggestions?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Price of gas at the Polar Pump

We live in a surreal world down here where we don’t have to worry about paying for rent or utilities here, driving to work or gassing up the car. Gas prices have skyrocketed since we’ve been down here. The last time I filled up a tank, I think I paid something like $2.60 a gallon. It was a while ago. Actually I’ve been working down here for so long, I remember being outraged when I read that gas was going over $2 a gallon!

While we don’t have cars to gas up down here (except for a shuttle van during the summer), we do have heavy vehicles that require fuel and of course all of our power comes from generators running on gas. Pretty much everything uses AN8, a high grade jet fuel that we offload from the LC-130s then store in tanks. We typically use about 9000 gallons of fuel each week.

Emergency fuel tanks with snow drifts

Yesterday, Calee and I joined our Station Manager Katie for a trip to the edge of the world, or where the emergency fuel tanks reside. We have seven 5000 gallon tanks and four 10,000 gallon tanks stored about ¾ mile from station. These are in addition to our main storage of forty-five 10,000 gallon tanks in our Fuel Arch and another 5000 gallon tank just outside of the B1 wing.

Windward side of the 5000 gallon tanks

The amount of fuel in the tanks has to be estimated by a dipstick measurement every month. This is to get a reading on our usage and also to assure that the emergency tanks haven’t sprung leaks or fuel-hungry terrorists haven’t stolen our precious gas.

Katie on top of the tank

I’m kidding about the last part but indeed our fuel is a valuable commodity. It’s estimated that the cost to bring our existing fuel on station works out to about $30 per gallon. That’s the cost of buying it, shipping it on a tanker to McMurdo then flying it here on an LC-130 and pumping it out of their tanks into our storage tanks. Now that the cost of fuel has soared out of control in the past few months, it’s now estimated that it will cost more than $50 per gallon to bring in more fuel for the upcoming season.

Katie measuring the fuel levels

Photo by Calee

No wonder why the Antarctic Program is having budget cuts everywhere, from issuing only 2 pairs of socks to each crew member to no longer necessarily flying us all the way back home when we're done with our contracts. There will be a lot of changes in the upcoming season because fuel costs have eaten up budgets...smaller crews, shorter summer seasons and longer winter seasons, fewer flights. We'll be lucky if we get all of the medications and supplies that we've ordered for the next crew.

As much as I'm looking forward to living in the "real" world again, I'm apprehensive about just how much more expensive everything is going to be since the last time I had to buy milk or pay an electric bill. We haven't had any fresh fruit since May but I'm afraid that I won't be able to afford to buy it now from all of the news that I'm reading. And as far as gassing up the car (that I still have to buy when I get back), maybe I'll be lucky enough to find a job within biking distance of wherever we live.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Counting it down

I usually make it a rule to not count days around here but imagine this: since Feb 14, you have worked 151 days, had only 33 days off on weekends lasting exactly 1 day (occasionally 2 days), had no extra days off for federal holidays, had no vacation days or paid time off. The 1 day weekends that you have had, you've had to spend at your workplace - you don't get to take a road trip, no visits to the beach or mountains, no movies at the mall or walks in the park. You've eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same restaurant for months on end, although the food is quite good and the cooks can do amazing things with only frozen food.

It's been 26 weeks since station closing and right about now, people are getting sick of being here. We're all a bit "toasty"...irritable, cranky, sleep-deprived, fatigued, increasingly anti-social. It's Angry August at the South Pole. No one has completely gone off the deep end and there are no front-runners for passengers on the "plane of shame", or someone sent out on the very first flight, usually for hushed up reasons like they've gone bonkers and can't hack it here anymore.

But still there are plenty of people who do want to get out of here as soon as possible. After much uncertainty in station opening planning, we're being told now that the latest plan is to have the Basler, a smaller twin engine plane seating 18 people, start flying missions here on Oct 23 to bring in the new crew. Then the first LC-130 is due to arrive Nov 5 and that's when we can start flying out of here. That's later than previous seasons when we're had 130s here in late Oct but better than the recently talked about plan of delaying them until Nov 12. People were very grumpy over the idea of being stuck here until mid-November.

So that's about 81 days, weather permitting, that we have left to go here for our winter experience. We're in astronomical twilight right now where the sun is less than 18 degrees below our horizon. We can now see a very faint but unmistakable pink glow on the horizon, although it's still dark as night out. In three days, we'll enter nautical twilight and the sun will be only 12 degrees below the horizon. This morning we saw a partial luner eclipse and we'll still seeing vivid aurora displays but those will gradually dimish as the night sky gives way to the light.

And another number...I've now run 913 miles on the treadmill and elliptical machine since February as part of the Run to McMurdo event that I hold each winter. It's just a fun way to track your workouts and now that I've made it to McMurdo, I'm now somewhere over the Ross Sea heading to Christchurch, New Zealand.

Michael was just accepted into the Culinary Institute of America last week. He's going to be in the Advanced Career Experience course, a special program for experienced chefs that accepts only 18 students per year. We'll be moving to Hyde Park, NY in January and are looking forward to life on the East Coast and being so close to New York City. I'll start looking for PA jobs in the Hudson River Valley area soon. Boy, it's been a while since I've had to look for a job.

We still have a ways to go this winter and if people can just hold it together for a few more months, we'll soon be reliving the memories in Christchurch from the outdoor patio at Dux de Lux over pitchers of Blue Duck Amber.