The Not-So-Simple Life

Everything from food to fuel must be brought to Antarctica

January 22, 2014

A cargo ship sits at McMurdo Station, with an icebreaker in the distance.

In Antarctica, you learn not to take anything for granted.  Not even things as basic as food, water, or energy. The reason? Everything people depend on has to be shipped or flown into the continent. Why? There are no farms in on the icy continent. The only plants are mosses and lichens. There are certainly no cows, pigs, or chickens. Whether your favorite food is pizza or burritos, all of the ingredients have to come from other continents. As for drinking water, special systems and a great deal of energy are needed to take to salt out of seawater to make it useable.

Then there is the matter of waste. The U.S. Antarctic Program is committed to reducing its impact—or footprint—on the Antarctic environment. That means that every bit of garbage a person might produce in a day has to be transported off the continent. That's true whether it's the wrapper from your candy bar or the green beans you didn't want to eat or the paper towels you used to wipe your hands.

Three wind turbines produce energy for the U.S.'s McMurdo Station and New Zealand's Scott Base.

Three wind turbines produce energy for the U.S.'s McMurdo Station and New Zealand's Scott Base.

McMurdo Station managers remind community members to adopt the values and habits of conservation. The station has put into place technology that helps it reduce its footprint. It starts with energy. The U.S. research base has partnered with its nearby neighbor, New Zealand's Scott Base, to share energy produced from three large wind turbines. Scott Base Kiwis—as the New Zealanders are called—get 100% of their power from wind, says power-plant manager Ron Blevins, while the American base gets about 35% of its energy from wind. The much larger U.S. base uses oil-fired generators to supply the rest of its energy needs. The waste heat produced by the generators is then used to warm many of its buildings.

Water-plant manager Paul Jones says it takes energy and special technology to remove the salt from seawater to produce drinking water. McMurdo uses about 45,000 gallons of water a day. People are encouraged to conserve water. At the South Pole Station, where snow and ice must be melted for drinking water, people are limited to two-minute showers twice a week!

The McMurdo base also has a wastewater treatment plant that takes care of sewage. Yubecca Bragg, who is an organic farmer in West Virginia during the Antarctic winter, manages the treatment plant. Bragg explains that sewage treatment depends on allowing microorganisms to break down the wastes until the liquid part of the waste can be safely released into the ocean. Between 150,000 and 180,000 pounds a year of the remaining solid waste, called sludge, is packed into containers and sent back to the U.S.

All garbage at McMurdo Station is collected at this waste barn to be shipped off the continent.

All garbage at McMurdo Station is collected at this waste barn to be shipped off the continent.

What’s on the Cargo Ships?

The people who live and work in McMurdo fly into and out of the continent along with their luggage and scientific equipment. But the food and fuel, machinery and supplies that keep the town running come in by cargo ships. There is one ship that brings fuel and another ship that brings cargo. The cargo ship takes back all of the waste, from construction materials to glass, paper, plastic, and metal that has been carefully recycled. Both ships will be arriving at McMurdo in the next two weeks.  It takes 10 days to unload and reload the cargo ship, and about 40 hours to unload the fuel. All fuel and supplies must be delivered during the short Antarctic summer. Nothing comes in or goes out during the long, dark Antarctic winter.

To live and work at the bottom of the world, whether you are there to study penguins or bake bread, requires very careful planning. And as visitors to Antarctica quickly discover, every plan always requires a backup plan—and a backup plan to the backup plan.

David Bjerklie is filing reports while traveling to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. Track his progress and learn all about the icy continent at TFK’s Antarctica Mini-Site.

To see a live web broadcast on January 23, teachers and parents can join the TFK community at All participants will receive printable worksheets with maps, time lines, and more.

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