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January 9, 2009

Waste Management Antarctica

A couple of posts ago I described how McMurdo residents sort their trash into at least a dozen different categories. This community effort allows the US Antarctic Program to recycle an impressive 65-68% of its trash annually. I decided to pay a visit to the Waste Management department to learn more, and found it operating out of, where else, but a recycled Quonset hut named the Waste Barn.

I was welcomed by James Van Matre, McMurdo’s Waste Management Supervisor, who kindly gave me a truck tour of the refuse yards and milvan lots around town. Milvans are military cargo vans — the large metal containers that everything gets shipped out in.

And ultimately, everything does get shipped out. As I mentioned in my introductory blog, the USAP’s policy is to remove nearly 100% of its refuse from the continent for proper disposal. “What comes in must eventually go out,” states the Program literature. That commitment and its potential to work as a model for managing waste in other environments is what sparked my project and interest in documenting the USAP system.

So, I wondered, given the Program’s diligence in shipping all its refuse out, why was there stuff everywhere? Simple, James explained. There’s but a single vessel per year that hauls the garbage off McMurdo, and it last visited 50 weeks ago. We’re surrounded by nearly a year’s worth of accumulated rubbish, and the next ship is due in a couple weeks.

It’ll be a big ship, relieving McMurdo of about 420 milvans full of waste (many filled to their 40,000 lb. capacity) plus about 30 more containing resale material. It’s not just McMurdo’s trash; all of South Pole Station’s refuse ends up here too, as well as that of the field camps supported by the stations.

Does that mean that McMurdo will be gloriously void of milvans in two weeks’ time? Not quite. This ship, in addition to serving as the annual garbage remover, also serves as the annual supply vessel loaded with containers full of provisions for McMurdo’s next 52 weeks. It’s an ongoing swap in the service of minimizing environmental impact on the continent.

James has invited me back to the Waste Barn tomorrow. Join me for the action inside and its role in Antarctica’s recycling system.

Filed under: McMurdo,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 11:28 pm

January 8, 2009

Happy Camping on the Ross Ice Shelf

Hello again, I’m back and online at McMurdo after having completed the Field Safety Training Program’s Snowcraft 1, popularly known as Happy Camper School. It’s a survival training course required for participants going to field camps or day trips, both of which I’m scheduled for next week. My 19 fellow campers and I are now officially prepared to work in the Antarctic environment and to deal (or so we hope) with the possibility of getting caught out in it. Here’s how it went…

We began Day 1 at the Science Support Center with an early morning lecture by our two instructors, Danny Uhlmann (above in red shirt) and Jennifer Erxleben. They covered cold weather survival basics including prevention of dehydration, trench foot, UV exposure, snow blindness, hypothermia, and frostbite. Grisly photos of gangrenous digits effectively drove the point home. Then out we went into the glorious weather, as beautiful as an Antarctic day could be, and piled into the passenger pod atop the Delta 2 for our big adventure.

January is McMurdo’s warmest month. Its average temperature is -2°C / 27°F, allowing folks to pass between buildings in t-shirts. Add some wind chill though and you might suddenly find it at -8°C / 18°F or lower, so we were advised to dress in layers and required to wear our ECW issue clothing for the excursion.

We were dropped off at Snow Mound City, an area named after the scattered heaps of snow left over from previous training sessions. Mt. Erebus dominated the scenery but the true giant was the Ross Ice Shelf beneath our feet. It is Antarctica’s largest ice mass, roughly the size of France. For the next two days, we trained in 8 meters (25 feet) of snow that lies on top of 80 meters (262 feet) of ice that floats over 550 meters (1,800 feet) of water. And all along, we were slowly, ever so imperceptibly sliding out to sea along with Williams Field in the distance, helped along by a neighboring glacier that fed the process. The drifting airfield in fact has had to be relocated three times since its original construction, most recently in 1985.

We learned to use and maintain WhisperLite camp stoves, set up tents and secure them with deadman-style anchors, build a quinzhee, dig snow trenches, and saw snow blocks to build structures with. Here Jen demonstrates how to tighten the Scott Polar tent’s guy lines using “slippery” knots that release easily when taking the tent back down.

Mountain tents aren’t as robust as Scott tents, so they need a snow wall to protect them from the southerly winds. The three layers of blocks went up quite fast owing to our assembly-line technique. It was my first time harvesting a snow quarry with a saw. It’s effortless at first but soon becomes a workout — an extremely fun one.

We also built a snow galley under Danny’s guidance. Here he explains how to best boil down snow to make drinking water and hydrate our freeze-dried dinner packets.

Afterwards, he and Jen retired to their Quonset hut a half-mile away, leaving us on our own overnight. As if on queue, snow clouds quickly rolled in to test our mettle.

It snowed throughout the night, heavily at times. Still, it didn’t deter the most industrious of our bunch from digging themselves all manners of snow trenches to sleep in.

I’d love to say I slept in my own snow shelter, but my heart was equally set on sleeping in the Scott Polar tent, the standard Antarctic exploration shelter for almost 80 years. It’s basically the same kind that Robert Falcon Scott himself used, a tent so sturdy that it remained standing throughout the winter long after he and his men perished on their trek back from the South Pole.

Perhaps it’s easy to say from a cozy Scott tent, but it was special experiencing snowfall in Antarctica, which gets so little precipitation. Even the coast, which receives the most snow of the continent, qualifies as a desert. Why so much snow on the ground then? Because unlike other deserts, there’s little evaporation, allowing hundreds and thousands of years’ worth of light snowfalls to accumulate into enormously thick ice sheets. It felt like somewhat of a privilege to witness a fraction of that build-up.

We’re on Day 2 now. Danny and Jen returned to find us alive and sleep-deprived. We broke camp and congregated at the Quonset hut for lunch, a de-briefing, risk-management lecture, and HF / VHF radio training, after which we went back out for our simulation exercises.

Danny led us in a plane crash scenario which called for putting all the skills we’d learned into practice and work as a team to survive in the field.

Jen hosted the final field program, the infamous buckethead exercise which simulates a total white-out situation — zero visibility — to conduct a search-and-rescue in. We failed to find the “lost” person, but as Jen later revealed, team-building, communication and planning were the most important aspects of this exercise. In which case, we did quite well.

Snowcraft wrapped up back at McMurdo with videos on helicopter safety and working in the Dry Valleys. Then we were free to go; exhilarated, exhausted, and primed for our upcoming trips within the continent. The course was the highlight of my stay so far, and an experience I’ll never forget. It’s very cool to have acquired these outdoor survival skills, and inadvertently an indoor one too: surviving 48 hours without internet access.


The full cast as photographed by fellow Happy Camper David Argento. Thanks Dave!

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:59 pm

January 4, 2009

The Art of Sorting in Antarctica

One of the first things you notice on arriving at McMurdo are the multitudinous recycling bins. They line the hallways. They greet you in entranceways. They lurk in stairways, corners, restrooms. They cover 20 different categories, and residents sort their trash accordingly. Thanks to general compliance, McMurdo’s recycling rate now stands at around 66% (up from 61% in ’98), considerably higher than any state in the U.S.

Environmental responsibility is the primary reason for recycling here, but another factor is cost. The USAP spends about $800,000 a year to ship and dispose of its waste from Antarctica. Recycling cuts waste managements expenses by $80,000, allocating much-needed funds to research and operations.

The USAP achieves these results through an environmental education program and station-wide campaign that continually emphasizes the importance of recycling. Participants are required to take a waste management course shortly upon arrival that explains the benefits of refuse separation and how the system works.

The program also owes its success to McMurdo’s structured lifestyle and a relatively small community whose well-being depends on shared responsibility and cooperation.

Here’s a typical recycling bay found in dorms and public buildings around town. Its 12 receptacles’ categories are fairly general in nature, whereas bins at Crary Lab, for example, might include “Lab Glass” and hazmat categories.

Not sure where to deposit something? Consult the Trash Matrix, a lengthy A to Z of what belongs where. Still, it won’t list everything. Tea bags, for example. That one threw me, since it’s part food, part paper. “If in doubt, leave it out!” reads a sign near the matrix. So I asked someone in the know. The answer: Tea bags go in the food waste bin.

You won’t hear from me for the next 2 or 3 days while I’m overnighting at Field Safety Training (Survival School) out at Snow Mound City. It’s an exercise which involves wearing a bucket over one’s head and building a snow shelter (though not at the same time, thankfully). Those who’ve seen the fabulous film Encounters at the End of the World will know what I’m talking about. In either case I’ll fully describe the experience when I get back.

Also on my return, we’ll meet Waste Supervisor James Van Matre to find out how waste management operates and how I’ll go about collecting material for my artwork. See you then.

Filed under: McMurdo,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 11:17 pm

January 3, 2009

Settling Into McMurdo

This was my first full day at McMurdo Station, here on the southern tip of Ross Island on the shore of McMurdo Sound. More of a town than a mere station, it’s been America’s primary Antarctic research and science center since 1957, now able to support up to 1,258 residents at any given time. The place may not be pretty, but it’s incredibly unique. Its very existence on this continent makes it so. And whatever the views of McMurdo, the views from it (the distant ones) are quite spectacular.

Here are some important buildings I got acquainted with today:

Building 155 is the station core facility. The dining hall, laundry, library, rec office, store, NSFA photo lab, gear issue, barber shop, and television and radio studios are here. It’s a busy place.

This is the Crary Science and Engineering Center. It has a library, an aquarium, and labs for biology, atmospheric science, and earth science research. My workspace is located here, amidst some amazing people and their fascinating projects. This building will get a blog post of its own in time.

The Chalet contains offices for senior NSF and contractor personnel. Our Science Inbrief was held in its central assembly room this morning and I’d have to say it’s the most inviting room in town so far. Very Alpine, as you might guess.

The foreground building is where I live. The 3-story dorm houses up to 134 persons. All the rooms are set up for double occupancy, but I haven’t been assigned a roommate yet.

And finally, the Antarctic Fire Department which doubles as the telephone exchange/ communications center. The notion of a fire station on an icy continent may sound strange, but it’s also the earth’s driest and windiest continent, with over 100 structures
in town.

Join me tomorrow for a look inside a couple of these buildings as I start investigating the renowned McMurdo recycling system.

Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:38 am

January 2, 2009

Greetings from Antarctica

Hello from McMurdo Station! We made it, and it’s wonderful to be here. The sheer elation, the surreal surroundings, and a touch of sleep deprivation all make it feel like a dream.

Here’s how the day unfolded…

Things weren’t looking up this morning in Christchurch. We reported to the airport at 6 A.M. only to perform the ritual ‘board the LC-130 to disembark’ routine. I felt a bit betrayed by Scott and Hillary. I’d left them a perfectly delicious sacrificial offering last evening. Weren’t they hanging out at Bailies anymore…?

After boarding the plane again later in the morning, we took off. That was only minimally consoling following yesterday’s boomerang. But optimism crept in as the hours passed.

The Lockheed LC-130 is pretty bare bones, but more comfortable than it looks. Despite the baggage and cargo down the middle of the fuselage, there’s still more leg room than commercial airlines offer. Using our down parkas as seat cushions and earplugs to filter the din (this is one loud aircraft), most of us got a fair amount of sleep on the flight.

And then, our first glimpse of the continent.

Spirits were high as we touched down on Williams Field. The plane came to a stop, and the rear cargo hatch opened to perfectly frame Mount Erebus fuming in the distance. Quite an inspiring welcome.

Our arrival here officially officially commences my project and a new chapter of this blog. I can’t wait to settle in, investigate the workings of McMurdo, discover the surrounding area, travel around, collect stuff, and tell you all I learn. It’ll be exciting.

Oh, and it’s confirmed: Scott and Hillary are accepting offerings at Bailies. Fish and chips preferred.

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:57 am

January 1, 2009


Between boardings of the LC-130.

Early this morning, we’re back at Christchurch airport. Our plane is the LC-130 ski-equipped aircraft shown above, operated by the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard. These cargo planes provide heavy-lift capability to all inland stations as well as Search and Rescue across Antarctica. They make the trip from Christchurch to McMurdo in about 7.5 hours.

By 9 A.M. we were suited up and checked in at the USAP departure terminal. After two days’ delay, everyone was anxious to get under way.

We taxied to the runway. The skies were sunny, the weather at McMurdo was fine, and then, the announcement: Excessive turbulence overhead. The plane turned around and deposited us back at the terminal.

By afternoon, we were back on the plane, and we lifted off. The skies were sunny, the weather at McMurdo was fine, no turbulence to speak of. Then, the announcement: Pressure valve issue. The plane turned around, landed, and deposited us back at the terminal.

Amongst themselves, some veterans questioned the reason for the boomerang; it was suggested that the crew was just too exhausted to fly after last night’s long flight up from McMurdo. In either case the flight cancellation seemed justified, and we were sent back to town to check into our respective hotels for the third time.

At this point, it was necessary to appeal to the gods. I strolled over to Warners Hotel where Captain Scott used to stay, and ordered a half pint with fish and chips at Bailies, the hotel pub where Sir Edmund Hillary dined.

Wall placards, memorabilia and photos attest to Bailies’ historic popularity with the polar crowd, and also as a place where Scott and Hillary might today look kindly on fellow travelers in need. I left a chip and assorted batter crumbs as a sacrificial plea to the dual deities, and left, hoping for the best.

Filed under: New Zealand — mbartalos @ 11:27 pm
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