Friday, February 6, 2015

So Long to the Cold, Cold, Part of the Earth

Picture 1: View of our transport to the Pegasus Airfield.
I completed all of the lab activities I needed to in advance of my return trip just in the nick of time. I now have approximately 150 suspended sediments filtered, dried, weighed and packed for transport back to the US. The sediment samples are required to be shipped separately back to the US due to soil permitting issues and it will likely take anywhere from six to eight weeks to get the samples back to my lab. Once the samples arrive, I will work with Villanova undergraduate students to learn more about the chemistry, mineralogy, and relative age of the sediments.

Picture 5: View of our flight landing on the Pegasus airfield
ice runway.
Picture 3: Transition to the night sky on our return flight
One of my highlights of this past week was having the opportunity to talk with students of Villanova’s Environmental Science II course. A live conference call was organized where the students were able to ask questions regarding how McMurdo and field camps obtains their energy, waste disposal practices in Antarctica (this explains the delay for the past two posts), what my research entails and/or what it’s like to conduct research under challenging conditions. The call lasted approximately one hour and I was really impressed with the forethought put into their questions.

Picture 4: View of all the cold weather gear of our flight's
Early to mid-February marks the time when many other scientists’ research season is coming to an end which means there a lot of folks looking to leave McMurdo at same time. About three years ago they started flying late season chartered airbus flights back to New Zealand to help meet this need (As the temperature gets colder, the permanent sea ice strengthens and is therefore able to hold the extra weight of a large aircraft). About 50 of us were transported out to the Pegasus sea ice airfield in a specialized tram (Picture 1). The trip took a little over an hour and brought us to the airfield just in time to see our plane land (Picture 2). I have to admit it was a little strange seeing such a modern aircraft on an ice runway. We subsequently boarded our flight and before long we were on our way back to New Zealand. It was great to see the Dry Valleys one last time out the window and about 40 minutes later we were back over the open ocean.

Picture 5: Christchurch Botanical Gardens
About an hour and half into the flight the sky began to darken rather noticeably. Given we took off a little after midnight, I realized this would be the first time I would see the night sky in about six weeks as we made our way north of the Antarctic Circle. It was amazing watching this transition to dark and finally seeing the moon and stars illuminate the night sky (Picture 3). Once we landed we had to clear customs and then return all of our warm weather gear (Picture 4). Needless to say we were all pretty tired as it was now 9am. After saying goodbyes, we all went on our own ways.
Picture 6: View of the Christchurch Cathedral.
I have decided to spend a couple of days in the warmth of New Zealand before heading back to the states. My hotel is close the botanical gardens in Christchurch and the smells of plant life were quite overwhelming at first after being surrounded by snow and ice for so long (Picture 5). 

One last thing worth mentioning is the lasting impact the 2011 Christchurch earthquake has had on this town. I was last here in 2003 and the downtown area is almost unrecognizable. The M6.3 earthquake was followed by a sizable 360+ aftershocks; all of which had an incredibly damaging effect on the city’s buildings and infrastructure (over 80% of the city’s water and sewer lines were compromised). The earthquake was so damaging given its close proximity to the city center, its relatively shallow epicenter and the fact that much of the city is underlain by river silt given its location in a flood plain. This abundant silt can liquefy during an earthquake and cause extreme damage to foundations. While it was good to see so much new construction underway, I was quite surprised to see so many multi-story office/apartment buildings vacant and waiting to be torn down (Picture 6). On the plus side, some artists have made the most of the changing architecture to paint a rather timely and poignant wall mural (Picture 7).

Picture 7: Climate change focused mural in Christchurch.
If things go to plan, I will spend a little more time in Christchurch and hopefully visiting the coastal town of Oamuru and its famous penguin colonies before I leave. I’ll be signings off as this marks the end of the Antarctic portion of the journey. It’s been great to have so many folks following along and I hope you learned a little more about what it’s like to conduct Antarctic research along the way. If you have any question, please don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks again for reading!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mactown (Part II)

Picture 1: View of the galley.
In the last post, I focused on the functionality of the city so for this one I thought I’d focus a little more on daily life in the town.

Picture 2: View of the handwashing station.
I’ll start with food. There are typically three meals a day which are served in a common galley (Picture 1). Staff and scientists eat together for meals which are typical of what you might expect in a college cafeteria. Food is primarily shipped in once a year on the supply vessel, and only supplemented periodically, so fresh fruit and vegetables are not too common (When it does arrive, you definitely appreciate it).  Right outside of the galley is a hand washing station (Picture 2). While it’s not mandatory, all residents are strongly encouraged to use it before every meal.  Given everyone is working in such close quarters; it’s always a good idea to prevent the spread of germs whenever possible. I was pleased to see >90% of the residents use this station before each meal.

Picture 3: View of Chapel of the Snows.
To help with daily necessities there is a barbershop/hairstylist where one can get a haircut. Given the cost is only $10 (a bargain back home), I couldn’t say no. There is also a post office located in a nearby building where one can send and receive mail (several readers of this blog should be expecting a postcard in the not so distant future!). There is also a small chapel located along the waterfront (Picture 3).
Picture 4: Daily activity board located
outside of the galley.
Many of the scientists on base typically work every day, while the support staff in McMurdo only get one day off per week. With that being said, it’s nice to have some activities which can break up the routine of the daily life. Each morning outside of the galley, there is a dry erase board listing the variety of activities posted for that given day (Picture 4). These activities can be of the recreational variety (i.e., trivia nights, yoga, or sports) but there are also two science talks per week which are highly attended by both scientists and staff. The really neat thing about the latter is you can often here cutting edge science talks from those doing the research itself. In fact, I was able to catch a talk from the scientists associated with this research which recently made the round in the news:
Picture 5: View of the McMurdo coffee house

Finally, there are two lounges/bars that are open for a couple of hours some evenings as well as an all-night coffee house (Picture 5).  I particularly enjoyed the latter due to its movie lounge (Picutre 6). The base has accumulated a decent library of DVDs from its workers over the years, which are available to check out via a modified library system. The base also receives a small number of TV channels via the armed services network.

Picture 6: View of the movie lounge located inside
of the coffee house
While these amenities might not seem like much, I’ve been very impressed with the positive morale of all the residents. I think this outlook definitely helps when you’re missing some of the luxuries back home.

Mactown (Part I)

Picture 1 View of three of the dorms in McMurdo.
Now that I’m back working in the lab I’ve had plenty of time getting acquainted with McMurdo Station (aka Mactown). It’s hard to believe there is a functioning small city on this continent but there is and it’s actually quite interesting. Therefore, I thought I’d have a couple of post focusing on McMurdo itself.

Picture 2: View of the interior of a typical dorm room.
As I previously mentioned, the population of McMurdo swells in the summer months to ~1,100 from a couple of hundred during the winter months. While an influx of scientists is partially to explain for this population increase there is also a need for a much larger support staff (i.e, kitchen staff, facilities maintenance, helicopter plots, outfitters, lab technicians, clerical, etc.).

First, you need a place to put everyone. As of now, it’s a series of college style dormitories located in the northwestern part of the town (Picture 1). Due to space limitations all residents share a room with someone else and all dorms have shared bathrooms (Picture 2).

In order for all these residents to have drinking water, water for showering etc. you also need a source of freshwater. Unfortunately, there are no abundant reliable freshwater sources of water in the area therefore you need to obtain water from the ocean. Fortunately, there is a reverse-osmosis desalination water filtration plant in McMurdo. Water is pumped out of McMurdo Sound and through
Picture 3: View of the reverse osmosis filters located in the
interior of the drinking water plant.
Picture 4: Interior view of a reverse
osmosis filter. 
a series of fine membranes which keep allow water to pass through but not the salts (Pictures 3&4). The purified water is used for human consumption while the remaining brine water (water with a heavy concentration of salts is pumped back into McMurdo Sound. At peak capacity, the plant is capable of generating up to 70,000 gallons of drinking water per day. Although there are active reverse osmosis desalination plants back home in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California, this was the first time I was able to tour this type of facility. Needless to say, I was very excited.

Picture 5: Interior view of the McMurdo wastewater
 treatment plant.
It follows there should also be a wastewater treatment facility as well. Interestingly, McMurdo has one of the most advanced treatment systems on the continent (Picture 5). The system is designed to treat up to 40,000 gallons of water per day during the peak season. The treated wastewater is discharged along with the brine water from the drinking water plant, thus keeping the total wastewater stream near the salt concentration of seawater.

Picture 6: Panorama view of all the recycling bins located on
each floor of a dormitory.
I was also particularly with the way the town deals with its solid waste. On each floor of the dorms and in each building in town altogether there are a series of bins to separate your waste. Categories include the following: aluminum cans, mixed paper, glass cardboard, plastic, light metal, glass, non-recyclable materials, sanitary waste, and hazardous waste (batteries, etc.) (Picture 6).  Separating the waste is important as it will all be loaded on a vessel in separate cargo containers and shipped to California where most materials will be sold to recyclers. The food waste and hazardous waste will be disposed of properly once offloaded. It is also important to separate the food from other waste as the ship will pass through equatorial waters and the containers will warm substantially along the way. Therefore, the food waste containers are stored separately and refrigerated in order to prevent significant rot and more importantly bad odors for the crew.

Picture 7: View of one of the high efficiency diesel generators
located in the McMurdo energy plant.
 It’s also worth mentioning how the town receives its energy. McMurdo actually shares an energy grid with New Zealand’s nearby Scott Base. The main power source is a series of jet grade diesel power generators, which are some of the most efficient engines currently on the market (~75% efficient). As is the case with all fossil-fuel powered generators, waste energy is released as heat.  At the McMurdo energy plant, this waste heat is harnessed and transferred to a glycol loop which provides heating for a series of buildings at McMurdo. Finally, the base also receives supplemental energy from three wind turbines located nearby Installation of the windmills was completed in 2009 and on average they provide up to 15% of the electricity needs for McMurdo, and over 85% of the same for Scott Base. More importantly, these wind turbines save the need for ~120,000 gallon of diesel fuel annually. The base is currently looking for ways to expand its wind energy (and possibly solar) energy capacity to both lessen its environmental footprint and decrease its annual energy related expenditures.

In the next post, I’ll spend a little time talking about daily life in the town.