Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Life in McMurdo

Every now and then this message will unexpectedly come over the radio:
“Attention all stations, this is the firehouse with an emergency announcement. Power conservation has reached a critical state! Activate your power reduction plan immediately. Again, power conservation critical - activate your power reduction plan immediately. Time now xx:xx.”
Translation: turn off all your lights, radios, and TVs, or everything's going to go black!
Until recently McMurdo station ran on several large generators. Last year a massive power-plant replacement project began and we were cut back to 2 generators (+ an outdoor "cat-in-the-box" backup generator) producing 1400kw or so for the town. Occasionally usage will exceed production capacity and unless effective power reduction measures are taken immediately, the generator dumps a feeder and a third of the town or so will be blacked out for a good while. On Sept 3rd, we came within 7kw of shutdown. I'm not sure, but I think 7kw equates to about 4 of those little space heaters people like to run in their rooms when it's neg 80 outside. At the last moment enough people got word to shut off unneccesary electrical draws and we avoided a mess. Life on the edge!
Last year a catastrophic failure occurred in one of the main generators. It stretched into a long and interesting hazmat/MCI/fire coverage event as skeleton fire crews raced back and forth between covering incoming flights and mitigating a big hazmat spill. The SCBA compressor choose this moment to give up the ghost, further complicating an already sticky situation.
Since Mainbody things have been running pretty well on the 2 main gen.s and the cat in the box. We still have "momentaries", as they say in Maine, as feeders are endlessly switched back and forth to allow preventative maintenance of the machinery.
It's been very cool to watch the erection of three windmills above the town on Crater Hill (also home to T-site, the off-limits communications/antennae array for the station). They've been blasting footings and assembling the structures for a couple weeks now. So far one is spinning and looks operational, a second's fully assembled, and a third is up but on delay due to some key parts arriving broken. I'd like to look into the special challenges involved in building on permafrost on a volcano and keeping such machinery working through huge temperature extremes, months of unfiltered UV radiation, and some of the strongest winds on Earth. When the wind-power project is complete it should meet all the electric needs of Scott Base and power 25-30% of McMurdo!
Along with the new windmills, a re-vamped power plant is currently being outfitted with another Six generators of similar capacity to the current ones. There used to be more than 2 generators, but apparently they were dissasembled and shipped away. Why we were left with inadequate power supply, and why we will have such an excess supply in the future are questions that occupy many a McMurdo mind on long, cold nights. Personally, I suspect that oil has been discovered in McMurdo Sound and refining operations will begin as soon as the Antarctic Treaty expires.
At least building on Ross Island is simplified by the fact that, although we're sort of part of the Ring of Fire, Ross Island sits over a hot spot very similar to Hawaii. Mt Erebus is a huge shield volcano- broad and wide with thin, flowing lava that really doesn't create explosive eruptions. Antarctica in general is one of the least seismically active places on Earth, so buildings and other structures don't have to be engineered to withstand quakes. That said, infrastructure in McMurdo is pretty old on average... a couple of roofs on residential buildings failed to stand up to the winds and snow last winter! One of the town's structurally unsound central buildings has been condemned this year and FD volunteers have just finished gutting it out in preparation for demolition. Sadly, it used to hold a bowling alley, pottery kiln, and bouldering cave.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on your winter over position! I knew you'd make the cut!! :-)