Keeping the lights on

Essentially no other life exists for over a thousand kilometers from where we are. The severe cold, lack of nutrients, and no light for six months for photosynthesis all preclude any other habitats evolving to sustain life. Man’s ability to technologically innovate allows us to reside in one of the most hostile places within the earths bounds. Fruit and bread don’t go mouldy as there is not even fungal spores to inoculate old food with. There are no flies buzzing around, no mice to worry about if you don’t close the bread drawer, and no birds soaring overhead. The lack of the sounds of life that are ubiquitous across the vast majority of the planet result in their own unique form of sensory deprivation. The barks of dogs, hum of insects, tweet of birds and rustle of leaves are instead replaced by the distant drum of generators and air reticulators, the flap of flags marking routes around the station, and crunch of icy crust underfoot.
A couple of months back, during the long night, I was walking out to one of the outlying science buildings in the Dark sector, when suddenly behind me I heard the high pitched squark of a bird. What is normally a everyday sound of life seemed so foreign down here, prompting me to lurch around towards the source. I peered into the darkness, trying to see what the sound had originated for, and made my way towards the source of the sound. After a while, a gust of wind picked up, whistling through the split bamboo of a marker flag, letting out a high pitched squeal. There was of course no bird, just the reed-like effect of the bamboo causing my deprived mind to imagine life when the barren landscape wound not permit it.

Man’s desire to live in such an environment is only possible due to our invention and the resilience of the machines we create, to facilitate life as we know it. Probably the most important job on station is keeping the lights on and heaters warm. ‘Rosey’, Robert and Bill, the power plant team, keep at least one of four hungry Cat generators turning over at all times to generate the power required for the station. Historically located in an arch like building above ground, the intervening decades have resulted in the progressive sub-terranean burying of the power plant. Within the plant, these gennies also generate a lot of surplus heat which is utilised elsewhere in the station. The heat is reticulated around the station using ethylene glycol as the liquid conduit. It runs to the heaters that ward off the cold, to dry our clothes in dryers in the laundry, and to heat the water used to melt ice that provides us water to drink. Without the power plant being operational, the station would rapidly turn into a dark tomb ready to chill us to the state of death. We have an emergency power plant built into the main station, in case the primary plant has a catastrophic failure.
Whilst prolonged power loss would be inconvenient due to the aforementioned factors of causing us to gradually freeze to death, it would also ruin the multimillion dollar science that the station hosts. The 300 million USD ice cube neutrino array would likely permanently lose the function of its vast network of sensors buried in the ice, and the telescopes studying the cosmic microwave background would gradually warm from their temperatures which are kept around absolute zero, destroying coolant systems. Coupled with that would be every pipe with water based substance in it freezing and rupturing.

So keeping the lights on is kind of important…
A bank of Cat generators constantly on the go require plenty of cat food and trips to the vet. They are cycled through to allow 500, 1000, 2000, and 5000 hour services, replacing filters, measuring wear in the cylinders, changing oil and making sure they remain in tip top shape.
Over the season, the chew their way through ~1,300,000 litres of JP-8 (a cold weather variant of jet fuel). This life blood of the station is hauled in from the coast each summer in large bladders towed behind tractors. Three of these traverses brings in a full complement of fuel each year, replacing the historic need for it all to be flown in. The South Pole Overland traverse (SPOT) was first shown as a proof of concept around 15 years ago, mainly as a cost saving measure to prevent the 20 odd LC-130 Herc flights that previously had to fly in a years worth of fuel. Whilst SPOT 1-3 are massive logistical efforts in their own right, the three week trip each way across the continent massively reduced the cost per gallon that it cost to get the fuel here when compared to flying it all in. The fuel is then transferred to the fuel arch, where 45 x 10,000 gallon tanks store it, ready for use in the power plant. The traverse then trundles its way back to McMurdo. Whilst the trip up over the glaciers from the Ross Ice Shelf, through the Trans-Antarctic mountains and onto the Polar plateau would be dramatic, half of the slog here is just driving in a straight line over featureless ice for days on end. I thought the drive from Dunedin to Christchurch was bad enough.

This season, the fuel tanks had to cleaned out, to rid them of accumulated anti-freezing residue that had accumulated in the last twenty years, and ready them for inspection for clearance for continued use. In some of the more hostile work conditions around, John, Forrest and Barry worked to clean up the tanks. As they are in an unheated arch, they sit at a constant -50C, which is the temperature of the surrounding ice. Each day, the crew would gear up in full waterproof kit, with respirators to prevent fumes, and pump then bail out the residual fuel in each tank, before mopping up the residue and cleaning them out. The fuel remains liquid, but at a super chilled temperature, any splash on skin would result in frostbite. A unique safety procedure was devised, to allow the crew to climb into the cavernous tanks and do the work. Gradually over the season, they ticked them off and with the final tank, they gladly moved on to less austere projects.

Living at a station with a principle scientific goal of measuring effects of climate change, yet burning a vast amount of jet fuel to sustain everything from flushing the toilet, to powering the tele, to keeping warm the climate monitoring systems that measure the creeping CO2 is a awkward paradox. Man’s resilience of fossil fuels is largely due to their reliability, storability and transportability. With six months without sun, and six months of sun with a low incident angle, solar is unlikely to yield a good alternative. The constant plateau wind is more conducive to being a viable alternative, but unlike the more temperate edge of the continent where wind provides a good chunk of Scott Base and McMurdo’s power, the hostile temps of the antarctic plateau do not do wonders for wearing gears and generators, making steel is prone to fracturing and other components brittle.
Although bigger strides can hopefully be made in the future, keeping the lights on in a place like this is unlikely to embrace the alternative energy revolution that the rest of the planet is hopefully going to accelerate into.

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