What To Do With Poo When At The Bottom Of The World?
Now I know this isn't the nicest topic out there, but in Antarctica, human waste is a major talking point - especially once you're out in the field. Our group went over the arrangements before we left Christchurch, so we all knew what to expect - and as it's one of the things I keep getting asked about now that I'm home, I thought I'd share it with you. Aren't you lucky?
For those who read my earlier blog post on digging, you will know that when we arrived in the field we had to build our toilets using ice blocks. This meant (for my group anyway), that the toilet was not particularly private compared to what we're used to in our daily lives. We had a proper wall on one side (towards the tents), then decent side walls (towards other groups' toilets), then no wall at all facing the road. If this sounds somewhat dubious, remember that this is an Antarctic road, and I saw people on it less than once a day. Plus it meant we had a loo with a view!
You'll notice that there are two main receptacles in the photo, as well as a bottle. Unsurprisngly, the P barrel and funnel, is for pee. The bucket is for poo. That's right folks, you need to separate things out... The pee gets treated at Scott Base (more on that later), whilst the solids get shipped back to New Zealand, and then incinerated. There are standards set in the Antarctic Environmental Protocol, with a whole Annex devoted to waste disposal. New Zealand and many other countries exceed these standards, in an effort to protect the Antarctic environment from human contaminents. As for the bottle, you've probably guessed what it is for - essentially it's a portable P barrel . I managed to avoid using mine as I was a bit worried about spillage (if you know what I mean). But on day trips we all always had them handy, just in case.
Before I move onto the wastewater treatment plants, I'll quickly share an 'I am definitely in Antarctica' moment: I needed the loo in the middle of the night, and it seemed like it was OK weather outside the tent (didn't sound windy etc), so I thought it was worth getting up, rather than attempting to use the P bottle. I grabbed a jacket, shoved my feet into my boots, and backed out of the tent (the entrances are not super easy to use). What I forgot to do was grab sunglasses. That's right folks, I needed sunglasses at 2.30am. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I had; I was half asleep, I knew it was the middle of the night, and I had to get sunglasses so I could go to the loo. Very weird, and somewhat surreal.
Anyway, getting back on track... I also toured the wastewater treatment plants at both Scott Base and McMurdo Station, which are vastly different in scale. Scott Base has a maximum sleeping capacity of 80 people. McMurdo's is approximately 980 people. I've got some photos from both, but to be honest, they're not particularly lovely viewing. So, I'm just going to post the cool picture McMurdo had of their process. You'll see that they clean up and then discharge the liquid waste into McMurdo Sound. But, like New Zealand, they ship their solid waste out of Antarctica, and incinerate it.
As for what happens to our camp's waste? The red buckets' contents is taken to NZ for incineration, but the buckets themselves get disinfected and reused. The pee barrels get kept at Scott Base (ideally frozen, and therefore not smelly), and the staff who winter over will be slowly disposing of it into the wastewater system over winter. This is because, unfortunately for them, in summer the system doesn't have the capacity for the field camps' wastewater, whereas in winter, there's plenty of spare capacity, as there is so many less people living on base.
Hopefully I've now answered all the toilet-related questions you might have, but if not, let me know! If you'd particularly like to see wastewater treatment plant photos, just ask, and I'll put some up. Finally, a question - what other weird and wonderful toilet situations have you been in?