Antarctica 2013--2014 Part 8: Ice Tunneling

Photo of Ice Tunnels

A few weeks ago I went on a tour of the South Pole ice tunnels. These run underneath the station, connecting it to the power plant, food storage, water treatment plant, and water supply. Probably the most interesting part was understanding how the water supply works. Fresh water comes from a Rodrigues well ("rodwell"), a hole in the ice we slowly expand by melting and pumping water out of it. To do so, we have to pump in hot water. Part of the heat is excess from the power plant, but the water needs to be heated again to 120 F immediately before being pumped into the rodwell. When it comes out after melting ice the temperature has dropped to 40 F. Even with heat from the power plant, all the water pipes have to be heated to prevent freezing. The pipes look huge (1 foot in diameter), but that is almost all insulation from the -60 F temperature in the ice tunnels. The pipes and pumps have frozen before; usually this ends up requiring installation of new ones because they're almost impossible to recover once they freeze.

Speaking of temperature it was very cold down there. We wore full ECW, and it was still pretty unpleasant. We all had frozen hair, eyelashes, beards (okay only the guys had frozen breards), etc. I had to keep my hands in my pockets for pretty much the whole second half of the tour. My camera felt the cold too. The battery died after fewer than 10 pictures. (Most batteries aren't designed to work at -60 F.)

Also unpleasant was the smell of human waste. Although almost all waste is shipped back to McMurdo for processing, waste water is disposed in the previous rodwell. Once a rodwell has been pumped for a certain amount of water (I don't remember what determines the recoverable amount), we abandon it for a new one, and the old rodwell becomes the waste water disposal. The possibility of confusing the two is an age-old joke in the ice tunnels.

This will probably be my last Antarctica blog for this season. Yesterday I flew from Pole back to McMurdo. Today is Sunday so there are no flights, but tomorrow I am scheduled to fly to Christchurch.

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