Tuesday, February 3, 2015

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.