Usable Water in McMurdo Station: How does it get here, and where does it go?

Where does our water come from? It’s a simple question, but also one that many people do not spend enough time considering, or appreciating. We take for granted the times when we turn on our hot showers, wash our dishes, brush our teeth, and flush our toilets without regard to the source or final destination of our usage. Yesterday, I had the privilege to tour the water plant and water waste treatment center. It was enlightening.

Outside of the water plant

Outside of the water plant

In McMurdo, we pump our water from the ocean into pipes that contain incredibly small filters. To make the water fresh and available for drinking, reverse osmosis is employed by pumping the seawater through the pipes at 650 pounds per square inch. That’s a lot of pressure!! The fresh water is stored in tanks where it is treated with chlorine (only about 4 ounces of chlorine is used per every 60,000 gallons of water. Compare that to your average swimming pool, which can go through 12 oz to 16oz  for that same volume). The tanks hold 35,000 gallons of fresh water, and it is distributed through “town” by pipes that are above ground.  The average summer day in McMurdo requires about 50,000 gallons of water.

This is what the filter inside of the pipes looks like!

This is what the filter inside of the pipes looks like!

The current population is around 850, so each person effectively uses about 60 gallons a day. (water is used for cleaning dishes, preparing food,  washing lab equipment & making lab standards, flushing toilets, drinking,  washing hands, etc).  It’s extremely important that we conserve water, because it’s a precious (and also expensive) resource. In Columbus, I usually shower daily (and sometimes more if I have hockey practice) but here I only shower 2x a week. Also, all of our faucets in the dorms are automatic, which eliminates wasted water that happens when people brush their teeth or wash their hands absentmindedly and leave on the tap.

Storage tanks inside the water facility

Storage tanks inside the water facility

After touring the water plant we got to check out the less glamorous (but equally important) water waste treatment plant. We saw the “sludge” (as they affectionately call it….) come in and enter a series of trains that allow denser material to sink, leaving way for clear (not to be confused with clean) water to be processed and sent back out to the ocean. In addition to human and food waste, there are occasionally items that are flushed or washed down the sink that need to be removed from the slurry, such as plastic bags.

Incoming water is flushed here and heavier suspended material sinks to the bottom, where it is separated.

Incoming water is flushed here and heavier suspended material sinks to the bottom, where it is separated.

The sludge goes through a series of packing, which essentially reduces it down to human manure. I braced myself to enter the room where they store the finished product, but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. I was pleasantly surprised that the room smelled like a greenhouse, and there were even some seedlings in the manure.  It was just another example that in Antarctica, live really can thrive in the most unexpected places.

 

FInished product - it gets shipped to the US where it is burned or can be used as fertilizer.

FInished product – it gets shipped to the US where it is burned or can be used as fertilizer.

When we were down with the tour we had the awesome opportunity to look at the water from a microbrial level. The plant places microbes in the water to help break down the fecal matter. We saw pregnant tardigrades (water bears), rotifers, and other small free-swimming microorganisms on a plasma screen in real time. Sometimes it’s so easy to get lost in the science and mountains down here that I forget about all the hark work people do (and let’s not forget the tardigrades!) to sustain life in McMurdo.

Tardigrade with eggs!

Tardigrade with eggs!

 

Today marks the first day of February down here, and so the race to fit in as many sample analyses and hikes before I leave in two weeks begins!

 

Over and out,

Kelcium

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One response to “Usable Water in McMurdo Station: How does it get here, and where does it go?

  1. Thanks for posting this..I was definitely wondering where the freshwater supply came from! Nice to hear they are able to use reverse osmosis.

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