McMurdo prepares for summer season all winter long
By Cathy Morrell, McMurdo correspondent
Posted August 15, 2008
In Antarctica, the short summer season from October to February takes advantage of those long summer days of eternal sunshine by accomplishing as much work as possible. However, after the sun goes down for winter and McMurdo Station grows quiet, the work does not cease.
Dropping from the summer’s high population of about 1,200 people to a mere 125, the small crew must work steadily throughout the longer winter season, both to maintain a station normally run by many, and to plan and prepare for the next summer season as it rapidly approaches.
Many responsibilities on station do not change regardless of the population, and there is much we need to do to maintain facilities over the long winter. The power plant continues to run 24/7, and the water plant must continue water production. Staff in the wastewater treatment plant, as well as the solid and hazardous waste departments, carry on cleaning up after us, packaging and discarding solid waste for shipment off the continent.
While not all the buildings at McMurdo remain up and running, the staff of the Facilities, Engineering, Maintenance and Construction (FEMC) department keep busy maintaining all facilities — from plumbing and construction issues, to the upkeep of furnaces, boilers and other equipment necessary to keep the station humming.
Roads must remain clear for vehicles to pass, and those in fleet operations face the never-ending task of removing snow and maintaining roadways that would otherwise disappear during winter storms. The mechanics must keep the active vehicles on the roads while also running full diagnostic checks on every vehicle for the upcoming summer field season.
Of course, nothing would probably get done on an empty stomach. The seven-member team in the kitchen provides three meals a day, seven days a week for the rest of us. Providing a variety of meals that are both healthy and appealing is no easy task, especially with limited supplies and ingredients, and a now depleted ration of fresh produce.
However, one man works throughout the winter to help in this situation. Jason Solis, the winter greenhouse technician, manages to keep freshies in the kitchen and on the plates of the winter-over crew. Working with a hydroponic system requiring no dirt, Jason manages to cultivate a large variety of fresh vegetables and herbs, which keep people from going into total withdrawal.
The greenhouse currently produces about 275 pounds of harvested produce each month. This allows for salad, consisting primarily of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, to be served two to three times a week, as well as the occasional lettuce and tomato offerings in the deli line. The chefs freshen up soups and other dishes using the remaining harvest, mostly herbs such as basil, dill, cilantro, parsley and chives. This is one support service that is invaluable to the smooth operation of the station during the winter.
Our other major focus is the endless prep work required to hit the ground running for the summer field season. Staff in all departments work to clean and organize work centers, repair and replace equipment, and tackle other tasks that cannot be undertaken when the station is going at the hectic summertime pace.
In Science Support, a small crew works tirelessly to repair and organize all materials used for field camps, science research and laboratory work. This includes inspecting every tent, sleeping bag and camp stove by hand, and making necessary repairs to these items for re-issue to science groups at the start of summer. Laboratory equipment undergoes a similar process, along with snowmobiles, portable heaters, drills and generators.
The Supply team dedicates the winter to receiving and inventorying the vast amount of materials that the annual resupply vessel delivers at the end of summer, restocking shelves and placing items in storage for future use. And, throughout the winter, one lone woman, Talie Morrison, undertook the daunting task of laundering every sheet, blanket, pillowcase and sleeping bag on station, getting everything ready for issue to a soon-to-be-expanding staff.
The summer season will soon be here, with a week of early flights scheduled to begin Sept. 4, before the main body of personnel and scientists start arriving in early October. The approaching flights require us to prepare the ice runway and airfield for traffic. The pace will quicken as the station moves into a flurry of action, battling against the short summer months to try to accomplish as much research as possible.
As these fresh crews take on their summer tasking, most of the winter staff will move on, leaving McMurdo for home, family and travels to warm and sunny places.
However, as the tide of the seasons shifts, it should be remembered that the work and research of the many during the summer were made possible by the ceaseless efforts of we few during the winter.