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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


  1. Hi Mike, this is cool! Great views from the airplane. Good luck on your trip down there. I’ll keep following your blog updates. Edel

    Comment by edel rodriguez — January 4, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  2. The air is incredibly clear there — great color for photos! What’re the day and night temperatures?

    Comment by Malcolm Wong — January 5, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  3. Hi Malcolm, The weather is erratic but at the moment it’s a balmy 3°C / 37°F. Day and night doesn’t play into it as much since the sun never sets this time of year. I’ll be writing more about the weather in my upcoming post. Cheers, Mike

    Comment by mbartalos — January 8, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  4. Hi Mike, I’m guessing the sun is pretty strong through the clear air for people to be going around in t-shirts, but I’m reminded of one of Dustin’s Swedish classmates that went around in a tank top all winter long in Tokyo. Some people are just built for the cold…

    Comment by Malcolm — January 9, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

  5. Mike,
    Why can’t the dry air and very low temperatures be used to desicate or evaporate human waste and thus reduce its mass?

    Comment by Mark Williams — February 1, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  6. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your question. It’s a good one that I don’t quite feel qualified to answer myself, so I put it to Steve Kupecz, our Waste Management Data Specialist here in Antarctica. He kindly came through with the reply below. First though, a handy glossary of acronyms in order of appearance: WM=Waste Management; UG=Urine & Greywater; HF=Human Feces; MCM=McMurdo; WWTP=Waste Water Treatment Plant.

    Steve’s reply:

    “A variant of this idea has been implemented successfully on a small scale (the grey water evaporator at Marble Point), but the volumes that are handled make large-scale implementation problematic.  Conducting on-site treatment at remote sites requires additional equipment beyond a drum or bags-buckets, so on-site collection is hard to get around.  Once it arrives at McMurdo it is almost  always frozen solid.  Thawing of very large pee blocks requires a warm facility and lots of time, both of which are hard to come by.  Doing something similar with poo would be even more problemmatic, as once it thaws, there are unpleasant odors.  And then there are the skuas.  Additionally, there are health-related concerns.  Twice, thawing on a large scale has been tried, with heat wraps even being used around the drums, and the same problems listed above were encountered, now with additional energy and labor costs.  In addition, there are legitimate health concerns every time you have someone using a drum “stinger” to pump out bacteria laden goo.  And who wants to come to Antarctica to do that job anyway?  So, reduction or elimination at the source is the key, and we at one time looked into purchasing composting toilets, incino-lets, and things of that sort.  I’m not sure what happened on those fronts, but I think it didn’t go far, as costs were increased, logisitics were made more complex (how many to buy?  for how many people, how long?  what type of waste results?  how will the residue be captured?  how will the crapper be cleaned?  and if we still have to send human waste out, why not just pee or poop in a drum, and be done with it?).  On the WM end of things (no pun intended), all waste is transported to California on the cargo vessel, which goes back regardless of how much trash is aboard, so that leg of the journey is paid for already.  Once it gets to CA, then we pay to transport it to various facilities — UG goes to a local wastewater treatment plant, where drums are pumped (they arrive thawed, after being super-heated upon crossing the equator), and frozen HF boxes or plastic barrels get land-disposed in a landfill in AZ (I know, not a pleasant thought).  So, presently the costs are: containers, on-ice labor to transport/store/track, domestic transportation, and disposal.  Sustainable?  Not really, but without stepping up to either permanent infrastructure investments (like has been done with MCM’s WWTP; not feasible at small camps), or purchase of porta-potties of some kind, that’s where we’re at.”

    Comment by mbartalos — February 2, 2009 @ 1:52 am

  7. […] Will it remain relatively undisturbed or will it see increased settlement and population? McMurdo Station has certainly grown in activity and density since its establishment in 1956. A town of sorts, it […]

    Pingback by The Long View | California Academy of Sciences — September 15, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

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