Today’s a special day in the annals of Antarctic exploration, it’s been 100 years to the day since Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed by ice and finally sank after 307 days beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The disaster ended Shackleton’s hopes of leading the first team to cross the Antarctic continent, but set the stage for one of the most audacious maritime adventures of the era. You can read more about that in Frank Worsley’s excellent book Endurance, or in Shackleton’s own book South. Or you can take the easy way out and read the Wikipedia article here. To mark the occasion the Royal Geographical Society has released a new set of digitized images from the expedition. The images were digitized by scanning the photographic plates directly, the resulting resolution is extraordinary.
There are, not surprisingly, a lot of Antarctic history nerds in Antarctica, so we had a small celebration in honor of the Endurance today. It’s also a good day to reflect on modern Antarctic science and travel. Things have evolved a bit since 1915; the only open small boat journeys that we get to take are to our designated sample sites, and we don’t get to take them in anything approaching exciting conditions. We also have these actual research stations to operate from; for US researchers those are Palmer Station (where I’m writing from), McMurdo Station (less a research station than a logistics hub), and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (which I have not been to). You might be asking exactly who operates these stations and how. Where, for example, does the trash go? What about sewage? There are some key differences between the stations but they all follow the same operational logic (that’s a nice way of saying the operation isn’t always logical). By request here’s a quick look at the inner workings of Palmer Station.
First, the basics. Palmer Station was built by the Navy Seabees over a three year period starting in 1965. It was purpose-built for science and, unlike McMurdo Station, was never a military station*. Today the station is operated by something called the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) on behalf of the National Science Foundation. The ASC is an interesting construct and the relationship between scientists (the end-users of the stations), ASC itself, the individual ASC personnel on-site, and the National Science Foundation resembles a particularly intricate four-party dance that no one has mastered. A lot of toes get stepped on but, in the end, a lot of science gets done. The ASC operates as a subsidiary of a much larger logistical company and is subject to periodic rebidding. Currently the ASC is held by Lockheed Martin, before that it was held by Raytheon. The parent company changes but the internal structure and personnel of the ASC stay more or less the same.
The maximum capacity of Palmer Station is around 46 people, though a typical summertime population is probably closer to 40. Most of these are ASC personnel. At this exact moment there are 34 people at station, 24 of whom work for ASC. Debating the merits of more or fewer ASC personnel supporting fewer or more scientists would take a much longer blog. Suffice to say that toe’s a little bruised. One issue is that the station is old and it takes quite a few people to keep it running (and the personnel here do a great job of that). Another issue is that the station is set up for science groups to come in and out with a minimal time commitment. That’s convenient for scientists, but discourages coordination among science groups or long-term investment in the system by any one group (the Palmer LTER study is a major exception to this). Because of this two ASC personnel have full time jobs just supporting us in basic tasks; allocating space, procuring chemicals, supplies, fixing equipment, etc.
McMurdo Station has the feel of a South Dakota boom town (although I think all of those are de-booming at the moment) with a peak population around 1,200. As a result of the potential environmental impact of 1,200 people in a somewhat-pristine coastal environment there has been some investment in environmental protection at McMurdo. Sewage, for example, is treated in a top-of-the-line sewage treatment facility that is no different from what you’d find in any small municipality. Unfortunately no such investment has been made at Palmer Station. Our sewage and food waste gets a quick grind in a macerator before being released into Arthur Harbor. While this probably doesn’t have any catastrophic impact on the local ecosystem it certainly does have some impact. You can quickly identify the location of the sewage outfall from the gulls and penguins that congregate there (there was an elephant seal in there yesterday, Jacuzzi-like I suppose?). And while it is certainly a bigger problem at McMurdo, the input of artificial hormones and other pharmacological products into the local seawater is a bit disconcerting. This would be a perfect place to test new sewage treatment technology, I’m not sure why that isn’t done (oh right, $$).
Most of the other waste streams at Palmer are treated with a little more care. Food waste that can’t get macerated (e.g. chicken bones) get burned in a barrel (okay, not much care there), virtually everything else gets transported out by ship. Regular trash gets compressed, bundled, and disposed of in Chile. Laboratory waste, which may contain trace amounts of nasty things, gets transported to Chile, then by cargo vessel to the United States. Actual hazardous lab waste, broken down by type, goes out the same way every two years.
Fortunately, since we end up feeding a lot of it to the wildlife in Arthur Harbor, the quality of food at Palmer Station is very high. There are two chefs on staff and they take it seriously. They succeed in doing this without making it seem excessive; I recall being a bit offended that steak, lobster, and other luxury items are flown – at great expense – into McMurdo Station (yet getting scientific equipment flown in or samples out takes nearly an act of Congress). There’s no air traffic here, everything comes in by ship, and the cuisine leans more toward the good home cooking variety. I enjoy it with minimal guilt.
Station power comes from a surprisingly small diesel generator. This and the backup generator keep the diesel mechanic, who also doubles as a heavy equipment operator, pretty busy. McMurdo Station has experimented with diversifying its power sources with varying degrees of success. It has a small (and I understand underutilized) wind farm, and early on it had a small nuclear power plant. I’m not aware of any similar experiments at Palmer, and really, I’m not sure what else you could do. It’s very cloudy here and it snows a lot, so solar would be a bad choice. The station is far too small to justify nuclear, and that’s pretty unpopular these days anyway. Plenty windy here, but there are a ton of birds, and I hear that wind turbines and birds are a bad mix. So I think we’re stuck with diesel.
There’s one additional quirk that I think is unique to Palmer Station. Everyone, from the station manager to the station doctor to the scientists, pitches in with housework. Once a week you take your turn cleaning up after dinner, and every Saturday afternoon you draw an additional cleaning task out of a hat. It can be a bit annoying when you have to stop doing science to clean, but it’s worth it for the extra sense of community.
*McMurdo Station was originally Naval Air Facility McMurdo, although the purpose of McMurdo Station has always been (mostly) scientific.