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A personal water-energy nexus experience in Antarctica

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Over the summer period of 2010/2011 I was fortunate to visit Antarctica for field research. The trip comprised of 12-days field camping on the Ross Ice Shelf with visits to Cape Evans, Cape Royds and McMurdo Station along with overnight stays at New Zealand’s Scott Base.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

A personal water-energy nexus experience in Antarctica

Over the summer period of 2010/2011 I was fortunate to manage an Antarctica trip for field research. The trip comprised of 12-days field camping on the Ross Ice Shelf with visits to Cape Evans, Cape Royds and McMurdo Station along with overnight stays at New Zealand’s Scott Base.

Fashioning a home from ice

Arriving on the ice for the first time we had to pitch our tents in the ice, which first required clearing of rough patches. With our spades making loud bashing noises and making very little progress you soon realise how the beautiful white landscape is in fact hard as concrete at times. Once the tent was ready for the night the next task was at hand: Fashioning a kitchen out of the ice. We used saws to carve large blocks of ice out of the ground to form a table to prepare food on, then came a bench for the gas stove to sit on before a ‘sink’ was created to wash our utensils and finally came the ‘chairs’: Large blocks of ice stacked on top on one another then chiselled into a comfortable shape. With an ‘ice’ wall formed to protect us from the mighty cold winds from the South Pole we admired the view on a beautiful clear day of Mount Erebus. Catching our breath we needed water.

© Oceanwide Expeditions - View to Mount Erebus

The water-energy nexus

Antarctica is the driest continent on Earth and one of the most amazing things is that you can take a piece of ice from the ground, put it into your mouth to suck on and hardly a drop of water comes out. To ‘make’ enough water we took to the ice carving out giant ice blocks then chopping them up small enough to fit into the pot on the gas stove. Chunk after chunk of ice was melting into water but the amount of ice required to fill one bottle of water was enormous. It was a slow process to fill one bottle let alone two bottles per person for four people. Nonetheless the reward was pristine untouched water of the purest form. With large amounts of gas required to heat the water it was a first-hand lesson on the water-energy nexus policy-makers and scientists discuss: The large volumes of energy required to pump, treat and distribute water for drinking, industrial and agricultural use. And this process of ‘making’ water was a constant fixture of daily life: A cup of coffee, a cup of tea, washing dishes, filling a drinking bottle, preparing food all required water and that required energy and vast amounts of time.

Disposal of waste

The next issue to arise was waste disposal. Travelling to Antarctica and then setting up camp on the ice has an environmental impact with potential contamination of ice from human activities. One of the most important parts of the field camp was fashioning toilets in the ground. Digging steps down 1.5-2 metres into the ice to a toilet, at depth for privacy, there was no sewage system to connect to, no working taps to clean your hands. Instead in this waterless environment portable toilets were installed in the ice and alcohol wipes used to clean hands. With over 19 people on the ice a large amount of human waste is created. With the Antarctic needing to be kept pristine it meant the waste had to be stored nearby the campsite ready for disposal at Scott Base following our departure from the ice. For effective and safe disposal it meant that all waste had to be separated into solid and liquids. Not only was toilet waste separated (liquid and solid) but so was wastewater from cooking, brushing teeth and other daily activities. This meant that when water was used for cooking, washing utensils etc. sinks had to be fashioned out of ice to collect the used water from which it was piped into buckets nearby. Essentially the sewage systems we take for granted in cities had to be recreated on a small miniature scale so every drop of wastewater was collected, stored then disposed of without one drop impacting the contaminant-free ice.

Cleaning up with no water

If there was spillage of wastewater into the ice: A cup of hot soup knocked over onto the ice, soapy water spilling down the ‘kitchen bench’ onto the white ice then spades were at hand to clean up. Instead of mopping up the floor as we do at home the contaminated ice was scooped up to be placed into one of the waste disposal buckets. When it came to showering there was not running hot water, a steamy bathroom and towel rack nearby. Instead, lack of water meant that warms showers were replaced with boiled water and wet wipes. Meanwhile brushing of teeth was over a bucket to ensure the toothpaste did not contaminate the ice below. Without a shower washing of hair was next to impossible bar the use of water-free shampoo.

Cleaning up camp

After the 12-day field trip came to an end our footprints we created living on the ice had to be removed, returning the environment back to its pristine self. This meant the kitchen and lounges we had fashioned out of ice had to be knocked down, the toilet removed and the stairs to the toilet (1.5-2 metres in the ground) removed. Most importantly the waste we had created had to be now ready for removal. Large buckets contained solid, liquid and ‘grey’ waste (washing food, cleaning plates etc.) With buckets lined up in rows it is evident how much impact humans have on the environment. With the continent dry and very little decomposition of matter possible all waste had to be removed otherwise it would be preserved forever on the continent.

A new appreciation

After our field-trip expedition of tenting, hiking, conducting scientific experiments on the ice it was time to head ‘home’ to Scott Base. With the tents down and equipment loaded into the Hagglunds an extra trailer was now required with the waste we had created during our stay on the ice. Hundreds of kilograms of waste was now on its way back to Scott Base for disposal. Arriving at the base there was a mad rush to the showers. After 12 days the feeling of hot running water was refreshing, amazing yet alien at the same time. A tap of running water was now a precious luxury of life and even more impressive was that a tap of running water could fill a water bottle up in seconds! It certainly was a strange sensation to be away from ‘civilisation’ for 12-days and return suddenly back into the modern world appreciating what we take for granted in our everyday lives.

By Tas50 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Change in values stay forever

After 12 days of no showers, of no running water, or not being able to fill a drink bottle up nor wash plates with it, water itself becomes extremely precious. It is also eye-opening to see how much energy is required to for drinking water. It is these aspects of Antarctica that never crossed my mind pre-departure as you naturally assume that with abundance of ice comes abundance of water, but when you are there on the ice you quickly realise that it certainly is the driest continent on Earth and this quickly changes your values and perceptions towards the environment in general and Antarctica in particular forever.

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