One thing that surprised me when I arrived in Antarctica was the scale of McMurdo, the largest US base on the continent. With a current population of 761, McMurdo has to provide a lot of services: running drinkable water, electricity, health care, emergency response, food services, and entertainment – just to name a few. There’s a chapel, a fire station (and fire trucks), a store – everything to make it seem like a real town.
In McMurdo, just like at home, it’s easy to turn on the light and forget about the cost of electricity. It’s easy to turn on the faucet and forget where the water comes from, or throw a napkin away and not think about where it will end up. While this is problematic anywhere, it is especially concerning in McMurdo, where every drop of water or flash of light requires a long chain of steps, each one requiring both energy and time.
Every drop of fresh water we drink in McMurdo begins as seawater. It first goes through an energy-intensive Reverse Osmosis system that removes the salt, making fresh water. However, since Reverse Osmosis removes everything in the water, even the beneficial minerals, the water department in McMurdo then has to add these components back to the water before we can pour a cup.
Trash is another good example of our energy impact here in McMurdo. The napkin I just threw away will be one of the best-travelled napkins by the time it ends up in a landfill. Clearly, it started its life somewhere off continent (last I checked, there weren’t any napkin factories in Antarctica). No trash is allowed to remain on the Antarctic continent (there are very strict conservation laws governing our behavior here), so the napkin, along with all other waste produced here (even human waste!) will eventually travel back to the United States and end up in a landfill there. That’s a journey most people will never even get to experience!
Since the cost of water, electricity, and waste is so great, there are many ways we try to conserve. Trash and recycling sorting is incredibly important and complicated here so that as much energy as possible can be saved in the process. McMurdo residents are asked to take short, infrequent showers. Field camps run on renewable energy as much as possible. And yet, there are certain things that can’t be given up: all 761 residents need to be well hydrated (and it’s a very dry continent, so dehydration is a real health risk), we all need to wash our hands, and the science we do here also requires a lot of energy and water use. So although we can try to reduce our impact, the cost of running a town in Antarctica is very high.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could conduct important science in Antarctica while minimizing our energy footprint? Here’s my challenge to you: What can we do to reduce our impact here in McMurdo? How can we conserve energy? If you were in Antarctica, what would you be willing to do to reduce the cost?
And finally, since this is my first blog of 2014, I have to show one picture of Icestock, McMurdo’s musical New Year’s Eve celebration. Holidays are definitely not something that we conserve energy for in Antarctica!