Water, Water Everywhere

Storm’s finally lifted. Sort of. On the way in this morning, snow was still blowing like crazy, but the the sun was cutting through to make shadows, and by noon, we could see blue sky above. Not that the wind had let up – it was still something like 25mph on the nose blowing from the station.

Decided I’d gotten up early enough to do a load of laundry, which is probably a good enough excuse to finally talk about the water situation here.

So – the water. I believe we’re drinking and washing in the purest and most expensive water on the planet: melted from 2000 year-old ice deep below the station at a cost of about $30/gallon [CORRECTION: our energy expert’s estimate is that water here costs us $0.60/gallon. Big difference]. There’s some experimentation with using solar thermal to help the process a little, but the water – like almost everything else on Station – is produced by burning jet fuel that’s been tankered in over a couple of thousand miles. It takes a lot of energy to turn -80C ice into warm liquid water.

I’ve not seen the water plant – apparently *nobody’s* allowed near it, but heard some vague descriptions that give me a sense of it (first hand accounts were good enough for Herodotus; who am I to be persnickety?). It’s called a “Rodwell”, and you can find more about them than you want at http://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/rodwell.html).

As I said, the water they’re pumping was last in liquid form about 2000 years ago, and aside from micrometeorite “sand” they have to scrape out of the filters, is supposed to be the purest natural water around. No minerals at at – in fact, Linda tells me that the water plant runs it through quartz or potash in order to get it to absorb *some* minerals so it won’t leach them out of our bodies when we drink it. Again, evoking Herodotus, I don’t know if that’s the truth, I’m just telling you what I’ve been told.

Short people wanted

So the water’s expensive, and we try to conserve it. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised at how mundane the various water use appliances were when I got here. I’d been expecting super high-tech space-station-style toilets, etc., but by and large, they’re entirely ordinary. Station has modern “waterless” urinals like you see in many office buildings these days, but toilets are entirely conventional low-water flush style. Central bathrooms at Summer Camp are even more conventional – just the traditional push-to-flush. Showers? Entirely conventional, if quaint and uh, diminutive stalls. I’m inferring that none of the folks who first inhabited the Jamesways were over 5’2″, and have found it minimizes my overall frustration with the process if I simply stand on my knees the whole time.

Ah yes – “the whole time”. We’re limited to two 2-minute showers each week. There’s no policing – it’s all honor system. I’ve heard the process called a “Navy shower”: blast on the hot water for 30 seconds to enjoy the sensation of getting soaked, and turn off the water. Lather up, turn the water on again, and rinse. Plenty of time, really, even for folks like me who have long hair that needs to be washed (the “2 minute” limit is 2 minutes of water – you spend as long as you want in the stalls).

Given the almost zero humidity here, you don’t tend to get sweaty and smelly, so as a cultural norm, two showers a week seems to be just fine. Not that people don’t anticipate, relish and bask in those two little interludes per week. It’s typical dinner conversation: “Oh yeah – it’s finally Wednesday; I am *so* psyched for my shower!” And the rest of the table coos, appreciatively. Heh. What anthropologist or psychologist could ever explain why dousing yourself in hot water spraying from a tube in the wall could be so primally satisfying?

Laundry at Summer Camp

Oh right – I was going to tell you about laundry. Again, entirely conventional. In the station, there’s a bit Laundromat-style laundry room where you just bring your stuff and wash it. No quarters necessary – like most things in the station, it’s free. But you *are* restricted to one load per week. Again, like the showers, there’s no policing; you’re just trusted to be a good Polie.

Summer Camp is the same flavor, with the expected rustic twist: four compact top-bottom washer-dryer combinations stashed in the common area of the bathroom building. I’ve been at Pole for a week now and figured it was time, so I dragged my laundry bag over and dumped it all in for a college load. Quarter cup of detergent, selected “permanent press” and let it have its head while I indulged in my second shower since arriving on station. Ahhhhhhh. Way too short, but I tell you, even with two minutes, you feel like a new person. And I’d have just enough time to take my (wet) clean clothes back to J7 to hang them on the network of clothesline I’d improvised in my wedge.

Laundry at Station

Finished the shaving, brushing, flossing thing and went to check on my clothes. Damn. You know how, with cheap, tiny capacity washers, you need to let the tub fill with water first, stir in the detergent, and only then add your clothes, carefully balancing them around the agitator? I’d forgotten all of that, and my week’s worth of laundry was a tangled wet mass smeared with gobs of half-dissolved detergent goo. Gack.

Scraped off the biggest gobs, started the machine on rinse again, and did a bit of manual scrubbing, but this machine was just not getting the detergent off. Did a little more rinsing in the sink, mentally counting off how many dollars of jet fuel and Jesus-era ice I burning through, before deciding that it was just going to have to be good enough. Felt just like that first week of college, in so many ways.

Speaking of the age of the ice: Bill, my manager tells me that they used to also get ice cores from the Rodwells, which they’d use in drinking water. I didn’t quite get the physics of the air dissolved in the ice, but it’s been under immense pressure for two millennia. Bill says that the ice was almost impossibly clear, and when you dropped a cube of it into your water, it popped and fizzled. Would love to see that.

Anyhow. That, as Garrison Keillor would say, is the news from Lake Wobegon. The dozer crew is going to try to groom the skiway (that’s what you call a runway for planes on skis) tonight, so hopefully, all those backed up Herc flights will be able to make it in with freshies and folks who are even newer to the Pole than I am.

One response to “Water, Water Everywhere

  1. Hi Pablo! I hope all is going well at the pole. Very interesting article.You mention how much energy it takes to make drinking water from -80°C ice. One interesting bit of physics is that warming ice doesn't take much energy; it's the melting that is difficult. It takes about half as much energy to heat ice from -80°C to 0°C as it does to melt the 0°C ice. (I learned a whole lot about ice recently from an interesting article about how ice cools drinks: http://www.cookingissues.com/2010/09/02/cocktail-science-in-general-part-1-of-2/ The most surprising thing to me was that 0°C ice will chill an alcoholic drink well below 0°C.)The Rodwell link above didn't work for me; try: http://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/rodwell/rodwell.html


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