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May 30, 2012

Long View Study No. 20 (Bernardo O’Higgins)

This recent cut-paper composition takes Chile’s General Bernardo O’Higgins Antarctic Base for its theme. The artwork is part of my series on Antarctic research stations operating on the continent and its nearby islands. With these posts I’ll be examining the bases’ fields of study, their differing implementations of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, and their associative architecture, infrastructure, and role in the context of a changing planet.


Bernardo O’Higgins base is a year-round research facility near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Named for the leader of the Chilean military forces that won independence from Spain, O’Higgins is administered by the Chilean Army which provides logistical support, maintains the infrastructure, and assists in scientific work at the station. The base conducts research into ultraviolet measurements, hydrology, oceanography, and human physiology as affected by periods of darkness and light. It also supports studies of the magnetosphere which envelops and shields the planet from the solar wind.

Prominent on the site (and in the center of my artwork) is the German Antarctic Receiving Station (GARS), a satellite ground station enabling reception of high-resolution remote sensing data on the south polar region. The nine-meter parabolic antenna is a joint venture between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Instituto Antarctico Chileno (INACH), Chile’s Antarctic research institute.

O’Higgins was established in 1948, making it one of the longest-running Antarctic bases of continuous operation. Interestingly it was built in the midst of a Gentoo penguin rookery which still exists. This perch, separated from the Antarctic continent by 50 meters of water at high tide, offers a unique opportunity to study the wildlife and ecology of the region. According to the most recently issued U.S. Antarctic Treaty Inspection Report: “The base keeps a log book documenting environmental impacts on a weekly basis. Penguin nests, eggs and chicks are monitored, as well as other birds in the vicinity of the base. All monitoring is visual; there is no tagging or touching of the birds.” The report however adds: “While base personnel said they attempt to maintain a distance from the nesting penguins to prevent any disturbance, many of the nests are on or near base facilities where people must pass during daily activities, and thus close human contact with these animals is unavoidable.”


O'Higgins and its surrounding penguins (click to enlarge).

O’Higgins Base made news this year when its seawaters were found to contain bacteria that are resistant to nearly all kinds of antibiotics. The research was led by Uppsala University‘s Björn Olsen and Jorge Hernández who detected higher concentrations of the superbugs nearer to the sewage outfalls of O’Higgins and two other Chilean bases. Linking the phenomenon to the quality of sewage treatment remains tenuous though, as Hernández noted that “Chile has provided its permanent bases with modern equipment for waste water treatment that is constantly improving.”

Scientists are now investigating wildlife for clues since the culprit bacteria were also found in gulls in France. Observations suggest that the bacteria may maintain their super-resilience long beyond their exposure to antibiotics, and that they may survive in the wild using animals as hosts.

That possibility is of concern at O’Higgins, situated as it is in a rookery. Penguins nearby have been checked and are deemed free of that bacteria which carry genes that make the ESBL enzyme capable of destroying penicillin, cephalosporins and related antibiotics. Other types of sea birds in proximity to the station are next to undergo testing. Whatever the outcome, the existence of these microorganisms in Antarctica indicates the troubling extent to which drug-resistant bacteria are proliferating on Earth.

May 15, 2010

First LV Print Edition Complete

The Long View Project’s first print edition, previewed in progress some posts ago, is now complete. It’s titled “21-Step Grey Water Treatment System,” issued as four pochoir stencil prints, each on a different color of paper.

As I mentioned back in the Dry Valleys, grey water is a term for waste water resulting
from washing, cooking, and similar activities. Grey water contains cooking fats, oils, and soap and detergent residues which Antarctic stations manage along with human waste (‘black water’) in accordance with the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (a.k.a. the Madrid Protocol) in efforts to minimize human impact on the environment. Releasing untreated waste water containing microorganisms into active ecosystems is particularly concerning since some pathogens can remain viable in low-temperature Antarctic conditions for extended periods, providing them the potential to occupy local habitats and infect native bird, mammal, and marine populations. You’ll find representations of this bacteria lurking in my artwork below.

While all of Antarctica’s 82 research stations (operated by 28 nations) presumably meet the Protocol’s minimum requirements for waste water management, their methods vary widely. Stations’ capabilities depend on their size, accessibility, longevity, and local weather and geography among other factors. Large coastal stations such as McMurdo are likely to have established plants using mechanical, biological, and disinfection processes, while most U.S. field camps’ sewage is removed from the continent altogether, while inland bases such as the U.S.’s Amundsen-Scott and Russia’s Vostok dispose of untreated human waste in deep ice pits.

This artwork imagines a future with advanced waste water treatment technology in place at all Antarctic research stations. The imagery is inspired by plant schematics and a 2005 Swedish survey of 71 stations to identify optimum grey water cleaning techniques in the context of Antarctica’s challenging conditions.


The “21-Step Grey Water Treatment System” edition was made by a hand-printed process called pochoir which employs stencils in creating imagery. I used gesso and matte acrylic as the medium, and Japanese ‘surikome bake’ rubbing brushes to apply the paint. Each of the four prints measure roughly 24″
x 18″ and are embellished with graphite line work.

Print #3, shown here, is currently on exhibit along with “The AA Five” in REFRAME: Making Sense of Waste at ARC Gallery, San Francisco through May 30.

From curator Hanna Regev’s press release:

“‘Reframe’ is a teachable moment and reflexive show that calls for individual responsibility, an examination of the waste around us, and questioning our consumption behaviors. While viewing the exhibit, we ask that you think of ways to harness the insatiable appetite for goods that drive the demand of ever-increasing products. As consumers and viewers, think of what you contribute to environmental degradation and your consumption habits.”

Featured artists are Michael Bartalos, David Broom, Alejandra Chaverri, Gregangelo Herrera, Wolfgang Ganter, Rebecca Goldfarb, James Goode, Beth Grossman, Avi Hoen, Judith Selby Lang, Richard Lang, Jose Ramon Lerma, Liz Mamorsky, and Noah Wilson. Music will be performed by James Goode on instruments created from recycled materials.

Filed under: Environment,Print Editions,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 10:27 pm

January 17, 2009

The South Pole, Part 3

Out towards the summer housing barracks, a profusion of tri-walls and stacked stuff dot the landscape. The South Pole Waste Department lies in that direction, and Paul and I set out for it.

I met Waste Management Specialist Clair Von Handorf who kindly showed me around the area and explained her department’s operations. Her team’s chief task is to process the station’s trash and ship it out as soon as possible. To facilitate this, she and her two techs (Wasties, as they’re affectionately called) have a number of jobs. One is briefing the station’s residents on how to correctly sort trash. Another is setting up, maintaining, and emptying various departments’ trash lines and recycling boxes. They also clean up hazardous waste spills, rearrange and consolidate berms (storage in snow banks), and coordinate with the Cargo Department to ship off both solid and haz waste.

They even set up solar toilets. And of course, regularly empty the toilets’ 55-gallon drums.

The many demands on the 3-person team are slightly eased by a community clean-up system unique to the Pole: each one of approximately 250 summer residents (and about 60 in winter) takes turns as a ‘House Mouse,’ performing routine duties for set periods. These include cleaning both work and living facilities, taking trash out from buildings to the tri-walls, and doing any additional sorting.

Tri-walls get banded up in the Waste Yard and put on palettes in the Cargo waste area. An important concern of Clair’s is compliance with the Antarctic Conservation Act, an international agreement requiring removal of all hazardous waste from the station within 15 months of being generated.

At the airstrip, waste is in Cargo’s hands. It all gets sent to McMurdo either by LC-130 Hercs or the South Pole Traverse, an overland convoy of loaders and sleds. This year over 100,000 pounds of solid waste left on the Traverse.

Despite the job’s challenges, Clair finds rewards in her work. She explains: “Most of the garbage is frozen, does not smell (usually) or rot, and there are no bugs or rodents to worry about. A big part of my job is to make sorting the trash as easy as possible for everyone else so that each department does it right the whole season. Almost 70% of the garbage is shipped back to California in February to be recycled or reused, and that’s something I am proud of. Considering how remote and limited our resources are, I am proud that the effort to lessen our impact on Antarctica, the last pristine continent we’ve got left, is being upheld.”

There’s another reward to working here: beholding Spoolhenge, a striking assemblage of gigantic wooden spools stacked in an inadvertently artistic manner, stretching on for a half mile or so. The collection is theoretically waiting removal, but I suspect its growing fame (and size) might render it an historic artifact instead. Or so I hope.

Thanks Clair for this visual treat and all the info, and to Paul for taking the time to show me around more places on station than I could fit in the blog.

One last thing: The station has two poles. One is the Geographical Pole which marks the GPS location of 90 Degrees South — or at least attempts to keep up with it as the glacier we’re on drifts towards the Wedell Sea at a rate of 10 meters a year. Hence the movable staff.

Then there’s the Ceremonial Pole, which never moves. The red-and-white prop is strictly for photo-ops. Yet it’s at this pole, strangely enough, that I had the profound sensation of standing at the very Bottom of the World. Perhaps you can tell.

Filed under: South Pole,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 11:29 pm

January 14, 2009

Lake Hoare: Day 2

The Dry Valleys are an ancient, unique, and fragile ecosystem. It remains largely pristine thanks to an Environmental Code of Conduct initiated by a nine-country panel in 1995. Its enforced Leave No Trace principle aims to minimalize impacts on the region’s biological and geological features and preserve them for study by future generations. The effort’s ultimate success though depends on continued group diligence and an effective waste management system. Here’s some of what’s involved…

Sorting one’s trash into categories is as much a way of life in field camps as it is in McMurdo. Full garbage bags are put in tri-wall boxes outdoors and then removed by helicopters with sling load nets, like the one seen around this tri-wall’s base. The boxes are stored at Marble Point over winter, then traversed over the frozen Sound to McMurdo in the fall.

Waste water must also be dealt with. Commonly referred to as grey water, it includes washing water, toothbrushing water, cooking water, any type of dirty water. Caught in buckets indoors, it’s then transfered into large drums for eventual transport back to McMurdo.

And then there’s human waste, which brings us to Lake Hoare’s famous “rocket toilet.” Not your ordinary outhouse, the toilet’s contents gets incinerated by a propane powered blast. Don’t worry, it won’t ignite while you’re seated. The burning takes place when the pit is two-thirds full, when the outhouse is empty (and marked ‘off-limits’ by a black flag), and under the camp manager’s supervision.

This is the rocket toilet’s backside. The contraption’s environmental friendliness is debated but it’s cleaner than sling-loading the waste out by helicopter given the fuel and emissions involved there. Another thing the rocket has going for it is the styrofoam seat. No cold toilet seats in the Antarctic!

The rocket toilet, incidentally, is the luxury bathroom in the field. Otherwise bottles, buckets, and bags are used (Leave No Trace here means no pee or poop on the ground) and yes, you’re expected to carry your “collection” around till you return to dump it in the collective receptacle. It’s a harsh continent.

I spent part of the afternoon hiking the hill alongside Canada Glacier’s northern edge. The path gradually rises to a height greater than the glacier itself, affording a view out over the ice. Its downward slope is positively dramatic, a feature unseen from below.

These rock formations are a common phenomenon here. What look like artfully stacked shrines by previous hikers are single rocks artfully split by Mother Nature.

Relaxing on a boulder on my way back to camp, I snapped a picture of a helicopter flying overhead…

…to find I’d been snapped back! The picture was taken by Chris Gardner, the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER Information Manager. He’s taken some beautiful photos of Antarctica during his four seasons here; I especially like the Abstract McMurdo set.

Farewell to Lake Hoare and the great people here. Hassan Basagic is a researcher collecting seasonal data for the LTER project. Love it or hate it, he’s a Night of the Hunter fan.

En route to McMurdo, a quick stop at Lake Fryxell field camp which, like Lake Hoare, uses
solar power.

A helicopter will eventually hoist Fryxell’s tri-walls to Marble Point for the winter along with all the other Dry Valleys camps’ boxes.

A reader recently asked where all the waste goes once it’s shipped off of Antarctica. The answer is Port Hueneme in Oxnard, California. From there the majority of the load goes to local mom & pop recyclers specializing in wood, metal, glass, aluminum. Hazardous waste (batteries, aerosols, fluorescent bulbs, medical and lab waste) goes to handlers in Washington State. Food waste and human waste is incinerated and the rest goes to landfill.

My last Dry Valleys sighting is Commonwealth Glacier squeezing between two peaks and spreading out like a fan, waving good-bye.

January 10, 2009

Trash Attack!

I returned to the Waste Barn today in the early afternoon at James’s suggestion. That’s
the time of day when trash is collected from the dorms and hauled up to the Barn for processing. It’s called Trash Attack.

Trash Attack starts with a large, loud loader entering and emptying the contents of its monster dumpster onto the Barn floor.

When the dumpster retreats, waste techs Ben, Alice, and Erin launch their assault.

They hurl the bags and boards into various corners of the Barn, depending on the bin or machine the material is destined for. In five minutes’ time, the central floor space is clear again.

Among the job’s perks is finding cool stuff in the trash. The Barn’s walls are testament to that, adorned with all sorts of objects made from reclaimed material. The most prominent is an Oscar the Grouch mask, the Waste Barn’s mascot, who comes off the back wall for special occasions such as McMurdo’s Icestock music festival where he’s used as the head of a parading Chinese dragon-like creature.

Next, the techs tend to their newly-formed piles. A plastic baling machine operates in one corner; an aluminum can compactor in another. I’d seen signs around town asking McMurdites not to crush their cans. That’s because stomped cans can’t be efficiently processed in the Waste Barn’s recycling compactor.

There’s a large box just for electrical wire and another for glass. In the picture above, a conveyor belt transports cardboard up to the baler near Oscar.

Trash Attack exemplifies the Waste Barn’s function at McMurdo. This is where the community’s sorting efforts are reviewed and fine tuned, mixed paper and plastics bins are inspected for contamination, glass is sorted by color, and refuse gets weighed, recorded, and packaged for removal from the continent. It’s a lot of work, made manageable only by people’s willingness to do their part in town.

Trash Attack is over and the doors close till the next dumpster arrives a few moments later. I ask Ben how he likes working here in the Barn. “It’s great,” he replies. “You sort stuff, and then you get to smash it!” Not a bad way to make a living. In Antarctica no less.

Filed under: McMurdo,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 11:00 pm

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 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

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