Q&A Time!!

Since I first started this blog, I’ve gotten some questions now and again relating to life on the Ice so I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer them and invite more! Honestly, some of them give me a great excuse to go poking around the station!

*Caveat: because there’s such a delay in posting, I’ve been able to add some questions that I received after the 28th of December when I started this post – I promise this is the only time I’ve dabbled with the timeline in such a way. And actually that’s a good place to start:

“Why are your blog posts so far behind??”

There are a couple reasons there have been gaps in posting and why I’ve chosen to post retroactively. The long gaps of time in between postings are due to the fact that it takes time and effort to find a way to link my computer up to the internet – there is no wireless access for support staff during the summer because there are just so many of us and it would kill the bandwidth for the researchers who rely on the wireless to communicate with their projects, their collaborators in other places, etc. So I can go down to the second floor lounge in my dorm where there are only two LAN cables, there are about five LAN cables in the Coffee House, there are two more in the computer kiosk in Bldg 155, and there are two in the library, which is on the first floor of my dorm but only open during certain hours. That’s pretty much it for support staff like me who don’t work in an office and there are a bunch of us, so it’s kind of hit and miss whether you’ll go to one of those locations and there will be an available cable. Then, the process of actually uploading pictures is a bit slow and painful since the connection is quite slow. All of this means that it can take me up to 4 or 5 hours to post a couple entries that I’ve already written. That’s pretty much all the time I have between when I get off work and when I need to get ready for bed so if I have other plans that night, posting will probably get put off until another night.

I’ve chosen to post retroactively because I have been good about keeping a private journal every day or so while I’ve been here – really more a dumping ground for thoughts and events; it’s not organized in any way and often contains things that I don’t wish to share. My blog posts are pulled from this journal, compiled, organized, and edited for public consumption in a Word document, and then transplanted into the blog when I manage to find time and an available LAN cable. So that’s why I’m so behind with blogging and I do apologize but hopefully you’ll understand now.

“Do the electronics (especially researchers’ laptops in the field) have battery trouble operating out in the cold?”

Yes, the batteries in our electronics very much dislike the cold – when I go on longer hikes, or when it was Con 2 during Sea Ice Training, I usually keep a hand warmer in the pocket where my camera is just to prolong the life. People in cold climates, take note! This works extremely well.


In the field, researchers usually have a fuel-powered generator powering their laptops so they don’t have to worry about it. For the electronics on the payloads flown by the Long Duration Balloon Facility, the engineers use solar panels since there’s always an abundance of sunshine, especially at those altitudes.

“Where the hell did all those penguins come from?”

This relates to my snowmobiling trip with B-174 where I encountered a flock of penguins. While it’s difficult for me to know exactly where I was because I’m not familiar with the “roads”, particularly as they’re very quickly ceasing to exist, I believe I was about 5 miles from Cape Royds where there is a penguin rookery. The little lads that showed up were likely teenagers doing the penguin equivalent of “hanging out” in a mall…just strolling around in a pack, looking to see how far they could get from home before they’d get in trouble, etc. At least that’s what Marty said. It does seem kind of random because all you can see, particularly with our snowy windy weather that day, is white. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere come all these little shapes. You would almost think you were hallucinating.

“How do you obtain fresh drinking water?”

Our drinking water is obtained through a process called reverse osmosis, which is pretty commonly used in turning sea water into drinking water. This is possible because we’re on a volcanic island in the middle of the sea. So we draw up sea water – which is a solution, meaning water with molecules and ions and such dissolved in it – and run it through a very large machine that applies pressure to the solution when it is on one side of a selective membrane.

water treatment plant

RO setup

The result is that the solutes (all the stuff dissolved in the water) stay on the pressurized side while the pure water passes through to the other side. Here at McMurdo, we have three 40,000 gallon/day reverse osmosis processors and three 50,000 gallon fresh water storage tanks.


It’s a bit different – and more expensive – down at the South Pole, which doesn’t have access to sea water. They have to use a Rod well about 250 feet beneath the surface, where they melt ice – glacier ice, so it’s fresh water – and pump it up to the station for use. These wells only have a lifespan of about 7 years, though, because the continuous melting of ice means the well gets deeper and deeper and once it reaches 500 feet, it takes too much energy to pump the water up to the station. So although there’s still an emphasis on water conservation here at McMurdo, we can at least take showers pretty much every day; at the South Pole, they have to limit themselves to two 2-minute showers per week.

** There was actually another comment along with the question about fresh water about how unexpected it was to see the station shown on black dirt. I wanted to address this really quickly: we don’t have dirt – dirt requires organic material and trust me, we’ve got nothing growing down here. The island is volcanic rock – which does get broken down into teeny tiny bits of gravel and dust and it can get DUSTY in the middle of the summer.

“Do you get any tourists buying their way to the Pole? Are they treated with friendship and tolerance or scorn and contempt?”

I haven’t heard of any tourists this year but last year, on the 100th anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition, there were supposedly a few. Generally people kind of scoff at that kind of extravagance but as long as they don’t exert any additional tax on our resources, no one is going to say anything. There’s a cruise line out of Australia, I believe, that will have a cruise coming through McMurdo in February sometime but other than a quick walking tour of the station, they don’t really interact with us at all. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I don’t have to feed them…

“How does money work down there?”

McMurdo has two Wells-Fargo ATMs, only one of which is functional at a time. For the most part, the cash down here just circulates through the store, the bars, and the ATM on station – all of which operate in US dollars.



Our finance controllers work to keep everything balanced so that only very occasionally do we need to have cash flown down. Apparently it can get a little hairy during seasonal transitions, when lots of people are taking out cash prior to starting their traveling Off Ice, but that’s usually balanced by the appearance of lots of people arriving for their time On Ice with cash left over from their travels here. There’s a rumor they’re thinking of going cashless eventually – switching all to cards or even just pin numbers linked to a sort of “station account”, not unlike how your parents used to put money in your “account” at camp so you could buy stuff at the camp store during free time. Only instead of your parents, it’d be your employer, and the money would be coming from your paycheck and you could choose how much you want diverted from your bank account to your “station account”. But that’s really just a big rumor so who knows if it’ll ever happen.

“Are you outdoors much?”

Well, hopefully some of my other posts have answered this but yes, I get outside as often as I can! Options are somewhat limited based on what you’re allowed to do alone and what requires you to file a travel plan with the Fire Department, take a buddy, and carry a radio (this is all pretty easy to do except for finding a buddy, since you have to find someone who has the same day off as you). That said, I love the trails around us and with the weather warming up, the landscape is changing every day. Since my post at Christmas, my friend Justin and I have done the Hut Point Ridge Loop together – stopping for an impromptu picnic of chocolate and whiskey…


…as well as to add a rock to a cairn built in memory of a researcher’s beloved pet.


The next day, Roger and I did the Observation Hill Loop, which is probably the easiest hike you can do – 3 miles around the base of the hill, very little change in elevation, and some pretty fantastic views, especially as it gets quite close to the water/sea ice.



All of these hikes are pretty easy to do after work, so I do try to get one of them in every other day or so. Other than that, we’re pretty much only outdoors to move from building to building, which is why I will occasionally take a little extra time during work when I take out the garbage to just sit on the back of the loading dock and enjoy whatever weather we’re having and, trust me, sometimes that’s involved snowdrifts and icicles.

So that’s it for the questions so far but please don’t hesitate to send them in if you have them – either in a comment on the blog, on Facebook (if we’re friends), to my personal email (if you have it), or to my work email at Jessica.Barder.Contractor@usap.gov.


One response to “Q&A Time!!

  1. Thanks! Great information about the drinking water, and so interesting to learn that it is different at the South Pole. I wonder if that will be your next trip – don’t they need cooks there as well?

    >>> Cooking On Ice 1/24/2013 9:43 PM >>>
    jbarder posted: “Since I first started this blog, I’ve gotten some questions now and again relating to life on the Ice so I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer them and invite more! Honestly, some of them give me a great excuse to go poking around the station! *”

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