December 5, 2009

December 5, 2009

We have over 1100 people here in town.  Over 55,000 gallons of water is used daily for drinking, cooking, laundry, dishwashing, showers, etc.   The site manager has asked everyone to conserve as much as possible, but I was curious – how do they provide us with so much water?

So, I recently took a tour of the water plant at McMurdo.  We get our water from the ocean right here in McMurdo Sound.   To make it drinkable the salt, along with other impurities must be removed.  I will try to describe the process.

The seawater comes into the plant at 28 degrees.  If the salt were removed at that temperature the water would freeze.  So, the first step is to heat the water to above freezing.  I think they do that with a heat exchanger.  The water (temperature around 36 degrees) then goes into an 18,000 gallon storage tank.

The first step in the filtering process is a multimedia (or sand) filter.  These are tanks with layers of anthracite coal, sand, garnet and gravel.  The water then passes through a series of filters, the last of which is 5 microns.  At this point, none of the salt has been removed, just the larger stuff.  To remove the salt the water has to be pumped through reverse osmosis filters under 850 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure.  After seeing and feeling the filters, it is easy to see why such a high pressure is needed to force the water through.  The filters are tubular, about 5 inches in diameter and 3 feet long.  Each molecule of water must pass through 24 separate membranes.  Surprisingly, the filters last about 5 years.  The “brine water” is returned to the ocean.

The “pure water” that remains is somewhat acidic.  So, they run it through a tank containing calcium carbonate crystals, which reduces the acidity.  The final step is to add small amounts of chlorine and soda ash to the water (to disinfect and re-adjust the ph level).   We were told that the water in McMurdo Sound is unusually clean and pure, so very little chlorine needs to be added.  A 5 gallon bucket of chlorine lasts them 3 months.  (Sometimes, it smells like the town of Berthoud goes through that much chlorine per hour).  The water is now safe for drinking and is stored in four 54,000 gallon tanks.

Writing this made me wonder:  How do they provide the South Pole with water?  The answer:  they have a special well, called a Rodriquez Well, that melts snow & ice with hot water.  The well is currently melting snow & ice from more than 400 feet below the surface, which has been there since around 500 A.D.  The residents on the South Pole are restricted to two minute showers, twice a week!  For an interesting article about the South Pole’s water situation go to the following article:

The light green tanks are the sand filters.

The white tubes contain the reverse osmosis filters – removing the salt.

One of four 54,000 gallon holding tanks. Mike & plant operator are on the left.


Airport Move

December 5, 2009

December 6, 2009

Ice Runway is closed and Pegasus Field is now open for business.  I have been working in the center and probably wont make it out to Pegasus for another week.

Below are a few pictures relating to Ice Runway and the move.

The above photo was taken from the tower at Ice Runway.  Some of the buildings you see:  firehouse, galley, bathrooms, offices, etc.

Where Ice Runway airport & buildings used to be.  This was taken a couple days ago.  Even less than this remains.

The control tower being towed across the ice shelf to Pegasus Field.  It was a bleak summer day.

This & That

November 30, 2009

November 30, 2009

In an earlier blog I had wondered how the 24 hours of daylight would affect me.  Recently, Erin (my daughter) asked me the same question.  Here is my response:

It is really easy to grow accustomed to the constant light.  I enjoy the 24 hours of sunlight.  The natural light is uplifting, both emotionally and mentally.  Even though it is cold and windy down here, the sunlight makes it easier to deal with. We can block the light out of our dorm room whenever we want to sleep.  The winters in Colorado are hard on me, because of the short days, not because of the cold temperatures. Now, if we could just do something about this incessant wind we are experiencing down here.

The kitchen staff put on quite a feast on Thanksgiving.  We celebrated on Saturday evening, so more people would be able to attend.  I will try to list the different dishes we had to choose from.  I’m sure that I’ll leave out a few:

Turkey, crab legs, steak, stuffed portabella mushrooms, mashed potatoes, yams, green bean casserole, Bing cherries, olives, red peppers, banana peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and stuffing (vegetarian or sausage).

For dessert:  Pumpkin pie, truffles, chocolate dipped strawberries, caramel apples, and chocolate mousse.

After the Thanksgiving feast Mike & I took a trip to the pressure ridges over by Scott Base (New Zealand’s Antarctic headquarters).

I will try to give you some idea of what pressure ridges are and how they are formed.  Some pictures follow.  The permanent ice on the Ross Ice Shelf is an extension of the glaciers coming down from the mountains.  As you know, glaciers are constantly moving.  It is the same with the ice shelf, it is moving away from the continent towards the sea.  Ross Island sits in the way of this movement. So, the buckling of the ice is caused by the moving ice shelf running into the immovable island.  This buckling occurs about 200 yards from the shore.  I’m not sure why.

As a side note:  30 years ago (on November, 28th 1979) an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 people on board.  They were on a sightseeing tour and were trying to get below a cloud deck.  The Kiwis held a memorial service today for the friends and family of the deceased.


November 27, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sorry it has been so long since my last blog.  I’ll try to do better.

It looks as though we will be switching to a different airport here in the next week or so.  The airport we have been using, Ice Runway, is built about a mile from McMurdo Station.  The close proximity to town makes commuting easy for everyone working at the airport.  Hauling cargo, people, and food back and forth is efficient.  The airport we will be moving to, Pegasus, is between seven and ten miles from town, depending on which road is available.  It typically takes 30 to 60 minutes of travel time to get from the airport to the town.  Varying road and weather conditions are the determining factors for the commute times (traffic jams aren’t a problem).  Providing utilities (power, heating, water, etc) also becomes more of a problem with the greater distance.

So, why move?  Ice Runway is constructed on non-permanent sea ice in McMurdo Sound.  Even though it has been years since open water has reached McMurdo, the ice typically becomes too unstable every year in early to mid December to support airport operations.  The thickness of the ice at Ice Runway has reduced from approximately 15 feet in mid October to approximately 6 feet at the present time.  Numerous cracks and depressions are starting to appear.  The C-17, which is the largest aircraft to land here, has been forced to reduce their cargo load in response to the deteriorating ice.  Pegasus is also built on the frozen sea, but it is on the permanent ice shelf.  I’ve heard that the thickness of the ice at Pegasus is between 500 and 1000 feet thick.

We are all hoping for the open sea to reach the town.  Numerous McMurdo veterans seem to think the conditions are ripe for that to happen.  The open water will bring lots of whales, among other wildlife, within viewing distance of town.  Wish for a storm from the north, which will bring warmer air and rough seas.  This will precipitate a weakening of the ice pack.  Follow that up with a windstorm from the south, which will, hopefully, blow out the ice from McMurdo Sound to the open sea.

Thanksgiving is celebrated on Saturday down here.  The aim is to get as many people as possible off for a two-day weekend.   I’ve heard the galley puts on a pretty good feast.  We will soon find out.


November 17, 2009

November 17, 2009

Long Duration Balloons:  Their volume can be equal to the Astrodomes volume.  295 Goodyear blimps could fit inside one.  They are made of polyethylene as thin as the plastic you wrap your sandwich in. They can carry a payload up to 8000 pounds for over 50 days at an altitude over 100,000 feet.  Don’t confuse long duration balloons with weather balloons.  Typical weather balloons are made of thin rubber, are much smaller and don’t fly as high.

A small division within NASA designs, builds, and tests these long duration balloons.  Scientists and researchers pay money to use them for data collection. Payloads (of up to 8000 pounds) carrying the scientist’s instruments are attached to the bottom of the balloons.  The distance from the bottom of the payload to the top of the balloon can be 1000’ feet.  When the mission is over the payload is released from the balloon by some kind of radio signal.  It floats to the ground with the help of a parachute.  The balloon is deflated and also floats to Earth.  The payload and balloon are then, hopefully, recovered.

Long Duration Balloons can provide many of the same opportunities and benefits to researchers as satellites, but at a cost that is 10 to 20 percent the cost.

Antarctica and the McMurdo area is one of the most popular places on Earth to launch these balloons.  I’m not sure why, but the small human population is one reason.  Another benefit is the 24 hours of sunlight per day.  The constant sunlight makes it easier to keep the balloons at a level elevation. (Perhaps, because it keeps the temperature and pressure more constant?)

The plan is to have 3 balloon launches while I’m down here.  I hope to get the opportunity to witness one.  You can get more information from the following website:






November 14, 2009

November 14, 2009

This is what Antarctica is all about.  A pair of low pressure systems in the area have brought a blizzard to McMurdo Station.  The storm is supposed to last 48 to 72 hours.  It is hard to say how much snow has fallen because the wind blows it all away.  The snow in the air is horizontal.  The wind has been blowing between 20 and 40 knots for about 24 hours now.  Some of the ground is bare but we do have lots of drifting snow.   The temperature is surprisingly warm at +28 degrees.  Visibility is about 1/2 mile.  It could be a lot worse.  At least I wont get lost between the dorm and the galley or work.

The airport is closed.  Maintenance issues with the aircraft and runways will most likely keep the airport closed for 24 hours after the storm ends.  I’m really glad that we are here at McMurdo Station and not camping out at one of the outlying research sites.  We still have all the modern conveniences – hot water, meals, shelter, even TV and internet services.  Having said that, I’m afraid it will be a long boring weekend.  We probably wont have to go to work and we can’t get out and explore.

PICT0829 PICT0831


November 8, 2009

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How much air traffic can there be in Antarctica?  I have been asked that question numerous times in the past six months.  I’ve asked the question myself.

All the aircraft that we are involved with are in Antarctica to support the scientists who work for the National Science Foundation (NSF).  These aircraft also support camps and scientists from other countries, but I’m not sure to what extent.

At this time, based here at McMurdo, we have five different kinds of aircraft:

1)  Bell 212 Helicopter (Huey)

2)  Aerospatiale Helicopter (A-Star)

3)  DHC-6 (Twin Otter)

4)  Bassler (DC-3 refitted with turboprops)

5)  LC-130 (Hercules)

Currently we have 2 Hueys, 2 A-Stars, 1 Twin Otter, 2 Basslers, and 4 Hercs.  I’m pretty sure another helicopter is coming down along with the possibility of four more Otters.  Eventually. 2 more Hercs might end up here.  If all those aircraft were here at the same time we would have 18 aircraft.  Additionally, a couple unmanned airborne vehicles  (UAV’s) will be flying around, running some experiments near the airport.   One of the UAV’s has a sixty-foot wingspan.

All the fixed wing planes based here have the ability to use skis as their landing gear.  The LC-130, being the largest of the locally based aircraft, has the largest skis.  The skis have slots to allow the wheels to drop down through them.  This way, the pilot can choose to land on wheels or skis, depending on the landing surface.

The main gear skis on the LC-130 weigh about 2100 pounds apiece.  The nose gear ski is small and lighter.  The larger skis each cost about $1.3 million with the nose gear going for about $450,000.

The Hercules that come to Antarctica every year are assigned to the New York Air National Guard.  They spend the summer in the northern hemisphere landing on the snow and ice of Greenland.

I hope the facts given above are correct.  People in the know gave them to me, but I didn’t inform them that they would be quoted.

PICT0822Above:  LC-130 Hercules

PICT0818Above:  Nose gear ski (front) and 2 main gear skis for the LC-130

PICT0819Above:  Bassler

PICT0821Above:  Twin Otter           Below:  Huey




November 5, 2009

November 5, 2009

Springtime is arriving to the ice.  I’m not feeling it, but I guess the wildlife is.  In the last few days I’ve seen a bird (skua) and a couple seals.  Mike saw a penguin out by the runway while working in the tower.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have a camera.

Yesterday evening Mike and I took a three and a half hour field trip to visit an ice cave.  It is located at the foot of the Mount Erebus glacier tongue as it enters the sea (or sea ice).

I don’t know much about how or why they are formed, so I will just attach some pictures.

The Sunday Evening Science lecture was about a remote control robotic underwater research tool.  Check out the following website:

From the website Alice found a link to a “very cool” video showing a diver playing guitar under water:



Classification of Weather Conditions

October 29, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

They classify the weather around McMurdo Station to inform the residents what activities are allowed.  The following is paraphrased from the McMurdo Station Guide:

CONDITION 1:  Winds less than 48 knots, wind chills warmer than –75 degrees F., and visibility greater than 1/4 mile.  This is considered normal weather.

CONDITION 2:  One or more of the following – Winds between 48-55 knots, wind chills of  -75 to –100, or visibility less than 1/4 mile.  Requires check in & out with the Firehouse by radio prior to leaving town.

CONDITION 3:  One or more of the following – Winds greater than 55 knots, wind chills colder than –100, or visibility less than 100 feet.  Only “mission critical” travel permitted.  Stay in the building you are currently in until weather improves.

The airport went to Condition 3 this morning.  Here in town,  Mike & I haven’t seen anything worse than Condition 2.

I saw some other stats you might find interesting.  There are a little over 1000 people here at McMurdo Station. 73% male and 27% female.

McMurdo Station sits on Ross Island, which is about 45 miles long and 45 miles wide.

Mike and I get to go on a boondoggle on Sunday, so hopefully I’ll have a good story and some new pics.


Above: McMurdo Station; Below: Glacier



October 27, 2009

October 27, 2009

The Sunday evening science lecture on October 25th explained some of the logistics behind the “South Pole Traverse.”   The South Pole Traverse is an attempt to save money and leave a smaller environmental footprint in providing supplies to the South Pole.  Traditionally, transporting the provisions to the South Pole has been accomplished by C-130 airplanes.  The C-130’s are equipped with skis for landing and takeoff.

The traverse uses tractors, towing the supplies on specially designed sleds, over 1000 miles from McMurdo Station to the South Pole.  On the return from the pole they haul out as much waste as possible.  Apparently, an overabundance of waste has accumulated at the pole throughout the years.  I tried to write down the following facts and statistics correctly, but don’t quote me:

The Traverse consists of:  8 tractors hauling sleds

1 radar vehicle (searches down, looking for hidden crevasses)

930,000 pounds of goods delivered

10   people

160,000 gallons of fuel (at the start)

They hope to average 33 miles per day on the way to the pole, and 47 miles per day on the way back.   Key dates:    November 6,  Leave McMurdo.

December 6.  Arrive at South Pole.

December 16.  Leave South Pole.

January 6.  Arrive McMurdo.

The traverse will save 36 trips to the South Pole by the C-130’s.  That will save 88,000 gallons of fuel and emit less pollution.

The hope is to start doing 2 traverses to the pole per year.  I’m not sure when that will commence.

As an attempt to make the trip more efficient they have developed new sleds and fuel tanks.  The sleds are made of extremely tough, slippery plastic.  The fuel tanks are long, thin, and tough bladders that rest on the sleds.  Both sleds and bladders are flexible to “roll” with the uneven terrain.   Compared to the old fuel tanks & sleds, the new ones are 1/10th the weight, 1/3rd the resistance, and 1/5th the cost.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures to share with you.